Blasphemers No More: Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)
My sister just touched down in Israel. I can feel her elation way over here in California. Time stood still; there was silence. The land and the woman were one. She had returned home.
My sister made aliyah 22 years ago, with her then-husband and 1-year-old daughter. After building a life and birthing three more kids, they followed his dream and returned to America.
Fast forward 10 years, and after healing from the divorce and the bittersweet return of her two older children to Israel, my sister has returned to the Holy Land, if only for an extended Pesach pilgrimage.
In moments, my sister felt it again. She e-mailed: “… this so feels like home and I haven’t even arrived in my Israeli hometown of Karmiel. The smells of the bakeries, the sea, the air, the oranges. The taste of the food and coffee. Speaking Hebrew — it’s flowing well already. And soon, hugs of my dearest friends. I’ve made a life for myself on America’s East Coast … but it will never feel like home the way that Israel does.”
What is it about Israel that makes us feel so connected? Might it be a special spice or something in the air? Perhaps walking the stone pathways that our biblical ancestors traversed or witnessing the renewal of a once-lost nation? Or sensing the Holy One in the Holy Land. Or the way that kodesh v’chol (holy and regular), historical and contemporary, coexist everywhere.
This week, my sister enjoys Israel yom-yomi (day-to-day). Next week, Pesach. By the time you read this, she will be back in the States, connecting from afar with the land we love so much. Like the rest of us, she will wrestle with simplistic black-and-white portrayals of Israel in the press and in the Jewish world, and grapple with the urge to both kvell (praise) and kvetch (complain) about our beloved homeland.
Conveniently, America hosts a variety of organizations, each speaking about Israel, its status as an American ally and its place within the Jewish heart. Still, any oheiv Yisrael (lover of Israel) must tread carefully, because American Jews are a vociferous bunch, quick to declare this or that opinion to be kosher or, heaven forbid, to be anti-Zionist or worse, chillul HaShem, a blasphemy before God.
Once, arguments about how to relate to the Land were machloket l’shem shamayim, an argument for the sake of heaven. Today, in America, many have forgotten that eilu v’eilu divray Elohim chayim — this and that opinion are both the words of the living God. The self-appointed arbiters of Jewish truth condemn opinions about Israel that diverge from their own. They implicitly reference this week’s parasha, Emor: “Take the blasphemer outside the camp, and all who heard [his blasphemy] shall lean their hands on his head. And the entire community shall stone him” (Leviticus 24:14). Then they act dumbfounded when a Jew picks up a gun to kill the prime minister, or they remain silent when an Arab picks up a gun and kills a Jewish family just over the Green Line.
It is high time we American Jews take a “chill pill” and, while remaining unwaveringly committed to Israel’s security and safety, become very slow to invoke Torah’s condemnation of “blasphemer.” Israeli newspapers host a robust debate about everything imaginable. Israeli journalists and bloggers — not to mention Yosi Yisraeli on the Midrachov, Jerusalem’s outdoor pedestrian mall — argue vociferously, offering opinions that are quickly reviled here.
Our Israel is beautiful, precious and perfectly imperfect. It exists in a dangerous neighborhood. But we need to remember that most American Jews are cross-addicted to Israel. Some are AIPAC supporters out of a desire to ensure Israel’s close relations with our government even as they donate to the New Israel Fund to help Israel remain true to her Jewish and democratic ideals. Others invest heavily in Israeli technology while supporting J Street, one of the few places that openly and honestly talks about the plight of the Palestinians. Some enjoy Shabbat at the Kotel, davening with the various minyanim, while also finding inspiration in Israel’s 85+ Progressive and Masorti communities. Let us become more like most Israelis, accepting that an oheiv Yisrael can disagree profoundly without being among Emor’s blasphemers.
Remember, the love of Israel easily inflames our hearts and souls. My sister wrote: “We ate at a restaurant right on the beach. Mushroom and green olive pizza for my son; grilled cheese on a bagel for the youngest. I enjoyed the most delicious hummus I’ve had in a long time. That stuff from Whole Foods may be healthy, and Sabra hummus is closer, but nothing compares to the smooth, almost white creaminess of Israeli hummus with whole chickpeas, tehina, olive oil, lemon, and parsley on thick warm pita. That and a café hafuch, and I was one happy woman.”
May our love for Israel entice us to put away our sticks and stones, to kvell more, kvetch with compassion, and to treat both the kvellers and kvetchers with kavod (honor).
Rabbi Paul Kipnes is spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas. He is co-editor of a CCAR Journal issue on “New Visions of Jewish Community.” He blogs regularly at rabbipaul.blogspot.com and tweets @RabbiKip.