“A New Zionsim”: Think Globally, Thrive Locally
Yom Kippur 5772
Rabbi Rick Brody
Congregation Kol Halev
So far, my sermons this season have focused on very personal themes—about our responsibilities for improving our own lives, understanding our spiritual potential and purpose, and taking action to fulfill that potential. My aim last night was to start moving the conversation towards a more communal focus, getting us to think about ourselves as part of an angelic chorus or a system of orbiting planets — in other words, a community. We do this work of repentance and atonement together, as a collective.
Today, I want to expand our consciousness of community more specifically. I want us to think about our connection to Israel — our ancient homeland and the modern Jewish state. But I’m not interested in giving political opinions about ending conflict, about Palestinian statehood, or about the changes and challenges arising from the “Arab Spring.”
Yes, these issues loom large for those who care about Israel — and the Jewish community here and elsewhere ought to be engaged in important conversations around these topics. But why? And to what end?
I spoke last night about the morning prayer, Yotzer, which ends with the hope that the Eternal will shine a new light upon Zion, and that we may all speedily merit its light. I have a more specific prayer — and that is for an enlightened or illuminated Zionism, an outlook that sees our connection to, our love for, and our support for the land and state of Israel as a way of bringing more light into the world and into our own communities. I want us to claim Zionism as our own.
As I said, this talk about Zionism will not be political. It will also avoid what many people associate with a classical Zionist perspective—the dismissal of hope for any future in the Diaspora, the urging of everyone to make aliyah, the insistence that active support for Israel must always trump any other activity or cause within our own Jewish community; what it will do is try to steer our focus on Israel back to us, to the wonderful things we are accomplishing here at Kol Halev.
In terms of veering from “classical Zionism,” it’s worth sharing the words of Professors Arnold Eisen and Michael Rosenak. In citing a 1955 book, A New Zionism, by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist Movemement, they describe what they say “should perhaps be called the credo of American Zionism, namely that the Jewish State exists in order to help the Jewish people become”—and here they quote Kaplan—“‘a fit instrument of this-worldly salvation for every Jew, wherever he resides.’” This perspective encompasses the views of Cultural Zionism, which emphasized using the Land of Israel as the global center for revitalizing Judaism—through Hebrew language, Jewish ideas, ethics, spiritual life, the arts, and other aspects of Jewish culture. This approach ought to resonate comfortably and pleasingly to most members of Kol Halev. My sense of who we are — and I’ll be talking more about that shortly — is very much in line with this outlook.
Now, originally, Cultural Zionism still affirmed that the most authentic expression of Jewish culture would be that which flourished inside the Land of Israel. For Solomon Schechter, another major figure in earlier American Jewish history, the flourishing center would enable Jews to live full religious lives throughout the Diaspora. Kaplan’s view—shared by other great American Jews such as Louis Brandeis—goes even further, emphasizing the fundamental importance of strong Diaspora communities in dialogue and ongoing mutual support with the Jewish communities of Israel. A symbiotic relationship is the model at work here. Kaplan’s original logo for his vision of a reconstructed approach to Judaism actually consisted of a wheel, in which Israel was the hub, and the Diaspora communities branched out as the spokes. Israel is thus a unifying force—a dynamic and primary means—helping to meet the ends of a revived Judaism. For many, especially those for whom spiritual or theological language doesn’t work, it’s an answer to the question from last night about what is your center. For some, everything revolves around Israel. For others, like in Kaplan’s vision, Israel was indeed at the center of the wheel, but the point was that the wheel itself — Jewish civilization — needs to keep moving; and to do so it requires strong spokes.
Now, as a Zionist, I do believe that there is nothing better for affecting one’s emotional or spiritual attitude towards Israel — or a more comprehensive embrace of Judaism as a whole — than an actual visit to the land itself. I lived in Israel for 2 years, but I haven’t been there at all for over 10 years now. My life seems to go on just fine, but when I think about the ways my soul is nourished and invigorated when I am there, I remember that I am missing something. I know that many of us have never been to Israel, and some might not get there. But even if we don’t, there’s a lovely vision I remember learning in Jerusalem from my teacher Rabbi Arieh Strikovsky, based on some Talmudic passages we were studying. He said that whenever we in the Diaspora walk into a synagogue, it is as if we have stepped into an embassy of Eretz Yisrael, an extension of Israeli soil itself.
To put it more vividly, the synagogue serves as a portal that transports us instantaneously back to the place where it all began, where our people first experienced that sense of comfort, unity, closeness with God. From the synagogue extends an imaginary spoke that leads us back to our original geographic hub. … So, as we are gathered here today on Yom Kippur in our prayer space, on this thriving campus filled with Jewish life, learning, and culture — we have also stepped into Tziyon, into the big tent of Zionism that has Jerusalem and the Land of Israel at its center but that stretches out to include all of us as well.
This leads me to reflect on the potential of our congregation to thrive and the connection back to Zionism: I believe that when we strengthen our own Jewish community, we participate in the larger Zionist goal—of strengthening world Jewry and our ever-evolving Jewish civilization in all its manifestations. I believe we should talk explicitly about our relationship to the land and the society that exists there, but even when we focus more provincially, we are advancing the general Zionist cause.
One way to phrase this would be to adapt the common slogan, “Think globally. / Act locally.” “Think about global Jewish excellence—see yourself as part of something greater in terms of the Jewish people. / Help bring that excellence about by making your local Jewish community thrive.” “Think Globally, Thrive Locally.” Yes, support Israel. But—and I believe this is what Kaplan was getting at—just as we don’t want to ignore Israel and focus only on our own issues, so too, if we abandon our efforts at local success—for a dynamic synagogue that provides meaningful and memorable Jewish experiences for all ages; that helps advance Jewish spirituality, education, and acts of kindness; that provides to all those seeking it the wisdom, comfort, stimulation, and feeling of belonging that are the hallmarks of our heritage—if we abandon our efforts at this kind of excellence here, then any vocal or passionate support for Israel is empty. And when we do engage in these efforts with passionate conviction, then we are living out our Zionism; we are fulfilling the same goal towards which support of Israel is directed; we’re responding to our concerns for Jewish survival—in the Land of Israel or anywhere; we are launching rockets of creative, transformative Jewish action into the social, cultural, and spiritual atmosphere—one of the most productive and lasting responses to Hamas or Hezbollah or anyone who wishes the destruction of the Jewish State. Our rockets are infinitely more powerful than theirs — for while theirs stem from hate and are launched to destroy, our stem from love and are launched to build. We are building our own little mini-Zion right here.
The original “Tziyon,” Hebrew for Zion, appears in the Book of Samuel as a fortress of the Jebusites, captured by David and renamed the City of David. The word suggests “designated spot,” or “marked place”—something a fortress certainly would be. The root letters—Tzaddi-Yud-Nun—are related to the word Tzeenah, a large shield. A fortress is a shield that people inhabit, and would almost always be elevated—on a hill or mountain—to provide the best protection for its inhabitants. Although I haven’t found any direct historical link, we can easily see a connection between the Shield of David, the magen david or Jewish star, as symbolic of Zion, the fortress-shield. The Israeli flag certainly celebrates this connection.
The more accurate root meaning of Tzaddi-Yud-Nun (the root letters of Tziyon) is “to mark.” L’tzayen is to mark or grade someone’s work or performance. A tziyun is the score or grade one receives. M’tzuyan means excellent—marked with distinction or greatness, standing out above the rest—as if high up on a hill, easily noticeable but not so easy to reach or conquer. Basically the best tziyun (grade) to hope for. Tziyon, then, Zion, is a sign or mark of greatness, of excellent achievement. A symbol. A logo. A specific place, but more than that as well. The story of Tziyon goes so much deeper than that Jebusite fortress. It became the place designated by God where the Divine Presence would dwell—the chosen or marked location that would serve as the center for all Jewish life—ritual, spiritual, political, and social. It stood for a profound encounter with holiness and the unifying of our people— no encounter being more profound, sacred, or unifying than what took place on this very day, Yom Kippur, on the Temple Mount, when the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies, utter the Divine Name, and achieve atonement for the entire nation.
Tziyon was even as a microcosm of the entire world. Midrash, Rabbinic legend, celebrates this chosen spot as an alternate paradise or Eden, specifically as the literal center of the earth, the very point from which the rest of the world grew, the navel. It was like God’s seed—holding, in its nucleus, all the genetic information for everything that would follow. This branching out from a shared center, like Kaplan’s hub and spokes, is seen throughout the Bible, where Tziyon is used as a symbolic word for a series of concentric circles of holiness. Depending on the context, Tziyon was the Holy of Holies—the location for concentrated, tangible holiness inside the Temple; it was the Temple, radiating a creative and transforming energy atop its mountain; it was the entire Temple Mount, an impenetrable source of safety and security, available to all those who earn distinction, who—according to Jeremiah—thoroughly amend their ways, who thoroughly do justice between a person and his neighbor; it was Jerusalem, the Holy City; eventually, especially after the various exiles our people, it was the entire “Promised” Land of Israel, the Holy Land. Zion even became a short-hand for the People of Israel, all the Jewish People.
Into modern times, whether through the visual of the shield or just through the name itself, our people has used the shorthand Tziyon to encapsulate our story, our hopes, our values, our enduring strength, and our unity. Special references to Zion appear throughout our High Holiday prayers. … Zion is our logo: In one word, we affirm that we are a distinctive or distinguished people that has maintained a deep connection to a distinguished locale, where distinct religious experiences occurred and divine encounters were believed to have taken place. This is our legacy as Tziyon.
M’tzuyan, excellent, is the grade we strive for here at Kol Halev. … The heart, or center, of our entire people is the geographic Zion. But here is also a heart, a mini-center. And from it goes forth a kol, a sound, like from a shofar, or a beautiful melody or voice — the same way that, as we learn from Isaiah, Torah goes forth from Zion, the word of the Eternal from Jerusalem. Kol Halev is a miniature Zion. … And we are making a name for ourselves. We are starting to highlight what we do here so that folks will take note of us—recognizing us as a place of serious and relevant learning, meaningful celebration, exciting community-building and partnership, and redemptive kindness. Our setting—this esteemed, well-protected campus (for which we ought to be extremely grateful, never taking our safety for granted)—is marked as a place of Torah, a place of holiness.
We are blessed to have many partners with us throughout the community in this sacred endeavor of manifesting Torah in Austin. But we have our own unique kol, our own distinctive voice of Torah that flows forth from our lev, from our heart. And I’m eager to work with all of you and a growing congregation filled with enthusiastic doers and learners to increase our activities, both in number but also is depth of content. I dream of Kol Halev programming that enhances the relationship between an embrace of classical Jewish ideas, sources, and practices on the one hand, with—on the other hand—a meaningful and relevant engagement with the real-life concerns of our time, with the overarching goal of healing, of personal and communal well-being and flourishing.
How do we encapsulate this Torah that is vigorously going forth from our mini-Zion? We have a fabulous logo of our own, an image that incorporates the ancient shield that is reminiscent of Zion. The shield surrounds a dove, a symbol of peace, that has inside of it a heart, a symbol of passionate, loving, caring, thoughtful engagement with others.
All these themes ought to guide us in the ongoing rebuilding of our congregation. The theme of rebuilding itself is a powerful one, as we remind ourselves that, like the never-ending dream of Zion, hope can always rise up out of the ashes of uncertainty. Hal reported last week that in recent months our membership has grown by 20%. Let’s keep that going. Spread the news of the Torah we’re sharing here at Kol Halev. Help us find those members of our larger community with whom our unique, soulful sound will resonate — so that they too can have a mini-Zion to be a part of.
Let me know what Torah you want to learn so that we can offer some exciting classes for adults seeking deeper engagement with Jewish ideas and knowledge.
If you’re free on Thursday mornings, consider enrolling in my class through the JCAA on New Frontiers in Jewish Theology. Have a chance to study some fascinating topics with me and other devoted seekers in an intimate setting to get a sense of what future Kol Halev classes can look and feel like.
Help us find young families who might want to enroll their children in a brand new religious school enterprise shaped by them.
Our s’lichot gathering involved the screening of a film followed by a discussion. There’s no reason we can’t create an ongoing series in which we explore movies around a variety of themes.
Be in touch with our board members and me with other ideas for social gatherings; let us know about or help us plan activities to address matters of injustice locally or globally, to offer acts of loving kindness to those in need, and of course to learn about and support Israel.
All these efforts will ensure our continued success, our score — tziyun — of excellent — m’tzuyan.
As we pray for a new light to shine upon the original Zion of our history, we also pray for it to illuminate the new Zion we create here as our contribution to a world-wide Jewish renaissance. May the strength in all the centers and all the spokes lead us into a new year of excellence. May that excellen begin with the atonement we achieve today in all synagogues, in all embassies that connect us back to the High Priest of long ago, uniting that most intimate Zion with all the miniature Zions, including Kol Halev. And may we achieve a chatimah tovah, a good seal.