It was Rosh Hashana at The New Shul, the ceremonial beginning to a new year. Aware of the utter absence of the art of listening in our present political culture, and inspired by the Talmud’s treatment of argumentation in the tales of Hillel and Shammai, two first century sages, who though almost always in opposition, knew, somehow, that each could be right without the other being wrong, we decided to devote this new year to the cultivation of the art of listening. How might we live like Hillel, we asked ourselves, a teacher who always cited the view of his opponent before he expressed his own?
So at mid-service on Rosh Hashana, mellowed by music, words and silence, I heard Rabbi Zach ask me, “Do you and I have any major disagreements?” “No.” I answered. “Oh good -- let’s argue about Israel.” “OK.” “You go first,” he suggested.
Thinking we’d stage a mock debate that would illustrate how one might listen receptively to an objectionable opinion voiced passionately by a friend or colleague, I decided to give Zach a run for his money.
“The State of Israel,” I began, “represents the return of the Jewish people to history and mediates to the world the living meaning of Judaism.” Then zapped by the dark implications of what I’d just said, namely that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank might reveal the real role of “Love your neighbor as yourself,” in living Judaism, I swerved and stopped.
But suddenly, with even greater authority, I asserted, “The Jewish people is the very incarnation of God in the world and it is therefore a religious obligation to work for the survival of the Jews.” “State policy notwithstanding,” I went on, “if there are no Jews there will be no Judaism, and if no Judaism, no God.”
Stunned by the passion of my performance and its wild coherence, we looked at each other, Zach and I. “I do love you,” I said, and we embraced.
My feelings for the State of Israel run deeper than I know. For it was in Jerusalem in 1969, as a rabbinical student, that I convinced Elana to marry me—no mean task. Four years later she and I returned to Israel, lived on an educational campus not far from Tel Aviv and taught in an American high school program where, with our students, we lived through the Yom Kippur War.
In 1974 I first heard Rabbi David Hartman teach at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Captured by his passion and intellect, I stayed with him as student and colleague for the next seven years during which time Elana gave birth to three of our children, ran a day care center, sent me off to serve in the IDF, and lived close to our community of fellow immigrants, friends who’d become family, most of whom still live in Israel.
Put simply, we love the country and loathe its politics. “Now you know how we feel,” many of our dear Israeli friends said to us after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The clash between state and people is deep, a foundational agony that has shaped our lives both as Americans and Israelis.
Elana and I have received many gifts because of the State of Israel, none more precious than the friends of our youth who remain among our closest, and also the ability we achieved there to speak, read and write Hebrew. That there is today a living Jewish vernacular, spoken by millions, at once rooted in the Torah yet there for you to use when you change diapers, buy a book, order a pizza, or have an argument with a friend—has enabled romantics like us, to feel the presence of God in every aspect of ordinary life. No doubt it helps that we are now visitors to Israel, no longer residents, freed from the drone of day-to-day responsibilities that so easily deafen one to the subtleties of language and the mysteries of life.
Still, even at a distance, the weight of responsibility we carry for the ongoing oppression of the Palestinians—those whom we dispossessed that we, after suffering near annihilation, might repossess our ancient homeland—is unbearable and inescapable. It would be tempting merely to say and believe, “What can you do? It is the way of the world. Suck it up.” But that would entail denying that love and generosity are at the heart of what it is to be Jewish. It would mean living as if friendship and benevolence were to be directed only at fellow Jews, and as if the rules of godless realpolitick apply to Jews as they do to all other players, namely, winner take all.
We simply refuse to go that way. Survival is a necessary condition, not a task. The task of being Jewish is to make gratitude real by living it, to make love real by listening.
But how do we live true to this vision without erasing the opposing view, the one that insists Judaism is a family affair, a religion that requires first and foremost that we attend to the needs of our brothers and sisters, listen to the summons of our martyred ancestors, and join the defense against our common enemies? Are we Jews here for the sake of the world (“For through you will all the families of the world will find blessing,” God says to Abraham.)? Or are we here to be a nation apart, loyal to our ritual laws and customs, waiting for God to save the world?
According to the Talmud it took a voice from heaven to show the way to live inside this dilemma. “Both views are the words of the living God,” the voice said, “But the law goes according to Hillel.” Hillel once summed it up like this: “What is hateful to you do not do to your friend. All the rest is commentary.”
Would that Hillel’s was the final word. But one still must ask, “Who is my friend?” and “Who is my neighbor?” Won’t we always answer these questions differently?
Elana and I feel graced by the opportunity you’ve given us, fellow New Shulers, to begin and live this new year with you as friends.
With Big Love, Shabbat Shalom, Shannah Tovah!
James (and Elana) Ponet
Rabbi in Residence (and his Rabbi)