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Sermons and Thoughts

Kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh

16 September 2021
Rabbi Lea Mühlstein
Sermon Yom Kippur Morning

You can watch a recording of this sermon on our YouTube channel.

When I was in primary school, many of my friends were preparing for their holy communion. An important part of the required preparations was going to weekly confession. But let’s be realistic, how many wrongdoings can nine-year-olds commit in a single week? My friends, clearly not the naughtiest bunch, felt that it was not appropriate to turn up each week admitting to the same wrongdoings as in the previous week and so they resorted to setting up a marketplace for confessions during break time: an opportunity to trade each other’s wrongdoings and so that each week, they could confess to something new even if they hadn’t really done it.

Each year I am reminded of our playground confessional marketplace, when reciting the confessional liturgy during the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe. If you paid attention earlier, you will have noticed that the main confessional prayers are phrased in the first-person plural. Rabbi David A. Teutsch, the director of the Center for Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, asks: “If the confession is the individual’s effort to re-turn to God, why does it repeatedly say “we” rather than “I”?”[1]

He offers several answers, which are not mutually exclusive:

“One answer is that if the confession used “I,” most people could not in honesty recite most of it. Indeed, it would encourage avoidance rather than facing our conduct. A related answer is that reciting the confession as part of the “we” of the community allows us to consider the transgressions before dismissing them. […] A more traditional rationale for using the plural holds that every member of a community is culpable for the transgressions of every other member.”

This last explanation is based on the Talmudic statement (Sh’vuot 39a) that Kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh, “All Israel are responsible for each other.”

I have thought a lot about this short Talmudic statement during the last year. So many of you have reached out to us to tell us that the synagogue has been a lifeline for you during the difficult months of the lockdown. What a blessing it is that when things were hard, we could be there for each other, not just us rabbis, our synagogue staff and lay leadership but our many, many members who embraced the responsibility to be there for each other not as an obligation but because this is what community is truly about.

But I was also forced to think about the ugly side to Kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh. The Community Security Trust (CST) recorded 351 antisemitic incidents between 8 and 31 May of this year, more than for any single month since records began in 1986. The previous highest number of antisemitic incidents, 314, was recorded in July 2014. What do May 2021 and July 2014 have in common? An escalation of violence between Israel and Gaza.

And what these numbers don’t even capture are the hundreds if not thousands of cases where Jews in Britain were made to feel that they are somehow responsible for what is happening in Israel.

It is not new but the wave of antisemitism accompanying this year’s Gaza conflict felt more imminent to many of us, especially the young people in our congregation, as social media platforms exploded with Free Palestine posts full of antisemitic stereotypes reaching even into the safety of our own homes.

I am not suggesting that all Free Palestine posts are antisemitic in nature but during those long three weeks in May, even the posts that didn’t cross the line were accompanied by an implied demand to choose the “right” side.

Quite apart from the fact that this demand requires of us to forget the humanity of people on both sides, even the suggestion that we as Jews must care about what is happening in Israel is problematic.

As David Baddiel puts it in his book Jews Don’t Count: “To assume that I [as a British Jew] have to have a strong position either way on Israel is racist.”[2]

And Baddiel goes further saying: “I am not responsible for those actions and expecting that I should feel so is racist. If a non-Israeli Jew does feel responsible, it is internalised racism.”

There is much in Baddiel’s book that strongly resonated with me, and I would recommend it wholeheartedly as an important, even if somewhat depressing read but I am not sure that in this point he is right. Of course, none of us are responsible for the actions of the Israeli military nor for problematic laws passed by Israel’s Knesset. But then the reality is most of Israel’s citizens are not directly responsible for those things either. Can you really hold a life-long Meretz voter responsible for the policies of a Netanyahu government?

But part of the notion of Kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh is that we can’t just pretend that what happens in Israel has nothing to do with us. Unless we want to completely sever all our ties with the almost 7 mio Jews living in Israel, we must embrace some responsibility.

Rabbi Teutsch warns that “The culture of a group shapes its members’ values and behavior. Some group cultures do little to inculcate good values or regulate moral behavior. In such a group, everyone is responsible for the resulting transgressions unless they have been fighting to change the culture.”

I believe as Jews we have a responsibility to be part of the conversation about the values and behaviours of the Jewish State.

David Baddiel might think “Israel? Meh.” but research conducted in 2015 found that 93% of British Jews said that Israel plays a part in their Jewish identity, with almost three-quarters saying it is important or central. My British-born, now Israeli, colleague Rabbi Haim Shalom challenges why rabbis outside Israel would speak about Israel in their sermons during the High Holy Days. Aren’t there more urgent, local concerns for Jews around the world to think about? The answer is, of course, “yes, and.”

Were I only to talk about Israel, I would certainly be negligent. But if I don’t ever speak about Israel, am I not ignoring the fact that our sacred scriptures teach us that Judaism is supposed to be more than a religion?

That at the heart of Judaism is a deep commitment to Jewish peoplehood, Kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh, and also a connection to a geographic place. That the Jewish people’s yearning for Zion is as ancient as Judaism itself, long predating the modern Zionist movement and the founding of the State of Israel.

Psalm 137 famously declares: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” Or, in the words of the medieval poet and philosopher Yehudah Halevy, who lived most of his life in Toledo, Spain: “My heart is in the East and I’m furthest West.”

Kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh does not mandate that we must all agree on the values and behaviours that should characterise our conduct. But accepting responsibility for each other means being part of the conversation – also when it comes to Israel. Anat Hoffman, the Director of the Israel Religious Action Center puts it beautifully: “Zionism is not a spectator sport. It’s participatory. Israel is too important to be left to Israelis.”

So, embracing the notion of Kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh certainly does not imply that we should be unquestioning supporters of the policies of the State of Israel. Quite the opposite – it is our responsibility to speak up, to engage, to support Israeli individuals and organisations in working to bring about change.

But does that mean all criticism of Israel is automatically acceptable? Well, contained within the concept of Kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh – All Israel are responsible for each other – is also another important concept. The idea of Ahavat Israel – the love for the Jewish people.

There is a famous letter exchange between two of the 20th century’s leading German-born Jewish thinkers Gershom Scholem and Hannah Arendt, following the publication of Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem. Having read the book, Scholem, then living in Israel, writes to Arendt who had returned by then to the US: “There is something in the Jewish language that is completely indefinable, yet fully concrete — what the Jews call ahavath Israel, or love for the Jewish people. With you, my dear Hannah, […] there is no trace of it.”[3]

In her response Arendt agrees that she lacks ahavath Israel. She writes:

“How right you are that I have no such love, and for two reasons: first, I have never in my life “loved” some nation or collective. […] The fact is that I love only my friends and am quite incapable of any other sort of love. Second, this kind love for the Jews would seem suspect to me, since I am Jewish myself. I don’t love myself or anything I know that belongs to the substance of my being.”[4]

Now, I have a great deal more respect for Arendt’s intellectual thought than for Baddiel’s but I am going to disagree with her statement as I disagreed with Baddiel’s. Firstly, I believe Judaism mandates that we love ourselves. Didn’t Hillel teach (Pirkei Avot 1:14): “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” and as I tried to argue throughout this sermon, I believe Judaism also mandates that we love our fellow Jews, the Jewish people – even at times when they are not particularly loveable!

Just like the love for oneself should not be egotistical, our love for our people should not be blind patriotism or nationalism. But neither should our rebuke be free from that love.

The love that I am speaking of is a love that recognises that none of us are fully righteous. It is a love that recognises that we need Yom Kippur – we need an annual reminder to be together as a people and confess our sins as a collective. For we as individuals have sinned and as a people we have sinned.

There isn’t much that we as Jews can do about the ugly side of Kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh but we can commit to the good side. So, on this most sacred day of the year, let us commit to the idea that we are responsible for each other, that we must show up for each other and that we must hold each other to account. And let us do so always from a place of Ahavat Israel. May the confessions that we utter together today be more than a confessional marketplace. May they allow us to join hands in re-turning to God.

Ken yehi ratzon – May this be God’s will.

[1] Teutsch, D. A. “Our Sins? They’re not all mine“ in Hoffman, L. A.. We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism—Ashamnu and Al Chet. Jewish Lights Publishing

[2] Baddiel, D. Jews Don’t Count. HarperCollins Publishers. 2021

[3] Letter 132 From Scholem 23 June 1963 in The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem, University of Chicago Press

[4] Letter 133 From Arendt 20 July 1963 in The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem, University of Chicago Press