Periodically, here at the United Synagogue of Hoboken, we like to play a game we could call “Stump the Rabbi.” The rules are simple: people in the community pose questions to me, and I do my best to answer them. And not infrequently, I admit that I am stumped (and then I try to look up the answer).
As we approach Yom Ha-Atzma'ut, Israel's Independence Day, I would like to tell you about one of the earliest games of "Stump the Rabbi" ever recorded.
Travel back in time with me, to more than 1000 years ago. You are a Jew in Spain, and you hear a fascinating story about how there's a powerful kingdom in central Asia where the entire kingdom converted to Judaism! At first you think it's just a set-up for a bad joke, but then you hear the whole story: that the king of this nation, called the Khazars, in the Caucuses (in the region of contemporary Georgia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan), had had a dream in which God appeared to him and told him that his tribal religion was all wrong. The Khazar king invited a priest, an imam, and a rabbi to come to visit him and tell him about their religions so he could choose one.
And now you hear the 'priest, imam, and rabbi' part, and now you’re SURE this is a set-up for a bad joke. But in fact, the King of the Khazars thought the rabbi had the best answers, so he and his entire kingdom converted to Judaism. Hearing this fills you with pride and excitement. It is certainly a different perspective on Judaism than you are likely to encounter in Spain.
About one hundred years after this story begins to circulate, a Jewish poet and philosopher named Judah haLevi decided to use this story as a premise for one of the greatest Jewish literary and philosophical works, called the Kuzari. Written in dialogue, it is his dramatization of the conversation between the Khazar king and the rabbi. (The priest and the imam also make an appearance, but they are each dismissed within the first few pages.) The Khazar king keeps on asking questions to the rabbi, and the rabbi always gives such wise and perceptive answers. Of course, the “rabbi’s answers” are really Judah HaLevi's answers to the major questions of the Jewish people of his age.
But here's the surprising part. There are two questions that the Khazar King asks of the Rabbi and the Rabbi is stumped. He admits he doesn't have a good answer. This rhetorical device appears to indicate that there were two important Jewish questions in Judah ha-Levi’s own day to which he was aware that he lacked good answers.
What’s the first “stumper” question? The Rabbi is talking about the Land of Israel, and the special bond between Jews and that land: how there are so many commandments in the torah that can ONLY be fulfilled in Israel; how Israel is the home of the Jewish people, to which the Jewish people will return at the end of time; how Jews face the direction of Israel when they pray; how many sages request that after death, their bodies be transported for burial in the land of Israel.
And the Khazar King asks: Rabbi, isn’t it surprising that there is such a powerful bond between Jews and Israel, and yet you have never been there?! I would think that you would want to live in the Land of Israel, not only after your death, but also during your lifetime!
And for the first time, the rabbi concedes: “You have a good point, O king of the Khazars.” (He goes on to say that it's difficult to live there or even to visit there, it's expensive, some people feel it's not safe, it's far away - but he concedes that none of these are paritcularly good excuses.)
Similarly, for many American Jews, Israel occupies a key place in our sense of who we are as Jews, whether as a refuge for Jews in need throughout the world, or a spiritual center for the Jewish people, or a place where relatives and friends live, or the place where Jews are all "from" if we trace our genealogy back far enough, or a place where Jews are simply “at home” in a way they cannot be elsewhere in the world. This of course prompts the question: If Israel is that important to us, one would think it would be important to us not just in theory but in practice.
Travel to Israel is difficult and expensive, but it is more possible for us today than it has ever been in Jewish history. (And we are looking in to a congregational trip to Israel in the near future and hope you will contact us if you might be interested!) Making the decision to live in Israel is an even greater statement of tremendous commitment. It is extraordinary and exciting that several people from this Jewish community have made the decision to make aliyah and to move to Israel within the last several years.
And then there is the second “stumper question.” The Rabbi is speaking about one major advantage of Judaism over Christianity and Islam. He says: Look at Christianity and Islam and how they function in the world -- what violence they wreak, how they oppress other nations, how they demand the conversion of other nations to their religion, and how so often they act in complete contradiction to the principles of modesty and gentleness espoused by their founders, Jesus and Muhammad. And he adds: In contrast, Jews have never done this, and Jews WOULD never do this.
The king of the Khazars looks the Rabbi straight in the eye and says, in effect, “Yes, Jews have a better human rights record than the Christians and the Muslims, but perhaps that's because Jews don’t have any power. Perhaps, if you HAD power, you would act just like the other nations.”
To this, the rabbi concedes: “You raise a valid challenge, O King of the Khazars!”
For so many centuries, Jews developed an extraordinary talent at critiquing whoever was in power over them. For centuries, Jews tended to say,"If we were in charge, we would do this differently. We would wield power much more justly than our oppressors.” But never did Jews have enough power to attempt to show just HOW we would do it differently..... until the creation of the modern State of Israel.
Since 1948, the Jewish people has had a significantly greater responsibility than at any time in our recent history. Now the Jewish people faces a test: can it wield political and military power, in accordance with the teachings of Jewish ethics and values? Throw into the mix a large number of angry neighbors, a generally dangerous neighborhood, and a number of nations around the world that have not fully exorcised the demon of anti-Semitism from their midst. Having heard the Jews’ critiques when they were away from home, let’s see what kind of society Jews create when they are at home.
Perhaps it was an unrealistic challenge. Perhaps no people, no matter how ethically developed, could have managed to wield power as justly as Jewish tradition would demand under the circumstances. Perhaps, considering the challenges it has faced, Israel has done better than it could possibly have been expected to do. Its record is admirable - in many areas, even exemplary - and yet flawed and imperfect. For many of us who love Israel, we sometimes focus disproportionately on those imperfections because we yearn to help Israel become ever stronger and ever more just.
One of Israel’s greatest challenges today, at age 64, may be how to balance its desire to be a moral exemplar and an exemplar of Jewish values, and how to ensure its own survival. And if you think that’s an easy balancing act - then I invite you to learn more about Israel.
At the very end of the Kuzari, the rabbi makes the surprising declaration that he is leaving - he has decided to move to the Land of Israel. While the Kuzari does not state this, it seems to me that he has essentially found a way to respond to both “stumper” questions in that one action. He affirms that Israel is truly his home and central to his Jewish life -- and he affirms that there he can play a role to help Israel to become the exemplary society of which we dream.
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