On Rosh Hashanah, sermonizing peace

Some years ago, the story has it, the Dalai Lama was looking for some advice on how his Tibetan people, … Continued

Some years ago, the story has it, the Dalai Lama was looking for some advice on how his Tibetan people, scattered abroad, might best survive in what clearly was not going to be a short exile. He turned to the record holders on how to live as a dispersed minority, the Jews.

Assembling a group of noted rabbis, he asked: having been scattered for 2,000 years, how do you Jews withstand the pressures and temptations of assimilation and remain a distinct people? A rabbi replied, “Your Holiness, before we begin to answer, you need to know that we Jews never agree about anything.” Immediately, a colleague objected “That’s not true!”

 We Jews have the self-image of being quarrelsome. Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, famously quipped “Two Jews, three opinions.” But Ben Gurion was not entirely correct. Sometimes (not often, mind you) we do agree on some things. I learned this startling truth recently when I was asked to edit a resource guide for rabbis to help them prepare for the High Holidays. It was published this month by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and distributed electronically to rabbis of all denominations.

“Seeking Peace: A Resource Guide” is intended as a New Year gift to the world’s rabbis and by extension, the whole Jewish people. It is intended to help Jewish clergy grabble with the most obvious and likely sermon topics, the ongoing, painful debate over how to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinian people.


 I had editorial freedom, and there is an appropriate disclaimer that the guide does not represent Israeli government policy. But the many opinions expressed in it are a reflection of Israel’s own lively democracy.  “Seeking Peace” contains sample sermons by Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis, from Israel and abroad, men and women, political conservatives and liberals and (rare among us) those who don’t articulate a political opinion. It has a section with classic rabbinic sources on the themes of negotiations and compromise, love of the land, and peace. Like us, the ancient rabbis loved to debate, but–like us–they agreed that these things were precious.

 The weeks before the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a nerve-wracking time for rabbis as we prepare to deliver multiple sermons to vastly expanded congregations. There is no better time to reach so many people. The New Year is an opportunity to reflect on what happened since last Rosh Hashanah and expectations for the next year. The sermons are often a rabbinic “State of the Union.”

 The State of our Union is strong. We rabbis have a rare consensus. We favor a Palestinian state, but we oppose a unilateral declaration of independence. We want direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, without preconditions. All oppose terrorism. All want an end to incitement. All believe in the inherent right of all people everywhere to govern themselves in peace and security.

The rabbis all affirm that to road to peace in the region will only be found in the region itself and not in New York.

 And all understand the need for compromise.

 When the State of Palestine is created, we hope Israel will be the first nation to grant it recognition and to welcome it into the family of nations.

 Ben Gurion would smile: two peoples, but only one opinion.

Rabbi Ken Cohen lives in Bethesda, Md. Follow him on Twitter (@RabbiKenCohen) or read more from him on his Web site.

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