Torah Achat - One Law
Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad!
On Rosh Hashana I spoke to you about our relationship with our planet
and how we humans are becoming one with our world. I suggested that
accepting our role as custodians of the planet can give us 1a way to
approach the coming challenges of climate challenge with strength.
We are one with the planet.
On Rosh Hashana morning, I spoke about the gift of truth, the unifying
and liberating power of having a shared truth, one truth. How we affirm
the divine attribute of truth as the foundation of memory, introspection
We become “one” through truth.
Last night, I spoke about practicing non-judgement as a way of peace and
a pathway to Interfaith and Intra-faith unity.
We become one through judging each other and ourselves favorably.
We conclude all our services with the Aleinu. The final idea of the
Aleinu is that one day, ביום ההוא יהיה יהוה אחד, ושמו אחד, God will be
one and God’s name will be one. The Adonai echad of the Shema is not
complete. There is more. We pray for the day when God’s oneness is known
in the world. The Torah teaches the way to that oneness of God’s name.
Today, my teaching in the final High Holyday sermon is: Torah Achat, the
One Law which is the expression of Adonai echad, the One God. As God
instructs Moses: “Torah achat yihyeh lachem….there shall be one law for
you and for the stranger in your midst”. Equality under the law. Torah
God becomes one through humanity coming together.
We become one through Torah achat, one law.
Why did God need to tell Moses to treat the stranger the same as the
member of the tribe?
You can learn a lot about people’s lives just by looking at their rules.
“Don’t stick your head out of the window.”
“Don’t text and drive.”
“Don’t feed the alligators.”
“Don’t tease your kid brother.”
You know the principle behind making rules. You don’t make rules where
they are not needed. You only make a rule where something would
otherwise be missing.
What can we learn from the Torah’s insistence on Torah Achat?
It’s human nature to look out for one’s own or for those who look like
us. It always has been so. It always will be. Left to our habitual,
primate ways we would have one set of rules for “our people” and another
set of rules for everybody else.
The Torah and our Constitution offers a pathway to a more enlightened
way of living. Torah achat. One law for all. Equality under the law.
With liberty and justice for all
One law, Torah achat, is a powerful inspiration.
Equality under the law is what motivated abolitionists in the 19th
century. One law for the White man and the Black man.
Equality under the law is what fuelled the suffragette movement at the
beginning of the 20th century. One law for women and men.
And it is a foundational principle of the Torah. “Torah achat”. “There
shall be one law to you and to the stranger who lives with you.” Whether
as American citizens or as Jews this is our foundational principle.
There shall be one law for Whites and Blacks, Anglos and Latinos, men
and women, and yes, Jews and Palestinians.
One law. Torah Achat. One set of laws. For us in the US as for the Jews
and Palestinians in the State of Israel.
That is why so many American Jewish national leaders spoke out in the
immediate aftermath of a crucial Israeli Knesset vote. On July 19, at 5
am Israel time, in the last hour of the Israeli legislature’s summer
session, the Knesset passed the Nation-State Law.
The vote sent shock waves throughout the Jewish world and beyond. The JCRC, ADL, Reform Movement and many more. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the leader
of the largest U.S. Jewish religious group, the Reform Movement, spoke
for many when he declared: “this is a sad day.” He “passionately” opposes the law, reporting that “The Nation-State law has led to a wave
of calls to reconsider this ill-founded new law, along with statements
of opposition by Jewish organizations and communities throughout the
world.” The wall of objections come not from Israel’s detractors but
from its staunchers, despite - and because - of their identification
with the State of Israel.
What does the Israeli Nation-State law say?
It has two main provisions:
The Nation-State law revokes Arabic’s special status as an official
language of the State of Israel.
Until the establishment of the State of Israel, Arabic was the language
of over 90% of the peoples of the Holy Land, Muslims, Christians and
most of the Jewish minority. With the establishment of Israel much of
Arab intellectual life was suppressed, Arab cities and hundreds of Arab
villages were physically destroyed.
For decades now, Palestinian-Israelis have been clamoring for an
Arab-language University along the lines of my alma mater, Jerusalem’s
Hebrew University. 20% of Israeli citizens are ethnically Palestinian.
Palestinian-Israeli intellectuals and professionals often speak and
write in Hebrew better than in their native Arabic.
The Nation-State law paves the way for the disappearance of Arabic from
2. The second critical provision of the Nation-State law proclaims
Jewish settlement as a national objective of the State of Israel.
Israel has long had policies favoring jewish settlement and
"judaization" of areas with non-jewish majorities - at the expense of
the most basic housing and infrastructure needs of the non-jewish
population. But stating it as a foundational guiding principle of state
policy in a basic law is another nail in the coffin of equality and
This is the learning part of the service not the praying part. As
always, I speak for no one but myself. I encourage critical thinking and
welcome respectful dialog. I am sure I will be told by some of you that
I am wrong. And that’s ok. I look forward to learning and growing with
you. Although I do ask that you reserve your critiques until you have
had some quiet time to reflect. I ask that you allow me to greet as many
of you as I can following the services. Mostly, I hope this sermon will
start respectful and fruitful conversations among yourselves and with
me, whether you agree or not. I particularly hope I will give you food
First, I’ll offer the story of how the State of Israel sees itself as a
Then, I’ll give some history on where this came from.
Finally, I will share my views which are guided by the principle of Torah
achat, one law as a religious commitment and a core Jewish value.
Your first thought might be: As Americans, we stand by the principle of
“with justice and liberty for all.” Other Western democracies have
similar formulations. How, therefore can the laws of a modern state
explicitly favor one ethnic group over another? How can that be
The State of Israel’s legal system was pieced together from the regimes
that previously ruled Palestine. The British Mandatory system that was
in place for the 30 years before the establishment of the State of
Israel which, in turn was constructed on the foundations of the
centuries-old Ottoman system. Title deeds that were registered in 19th
century Ottoman Turkey are still legal documents in the State of Israel.
Israeli judges, including the Arabs ones, have the discretion to weave
in Talmudic principles of law dating back 1,500 years. In Israel, there
are parallel religious courts run by Rabbis and Muslim Qadis that
enforce Sharia and Halacha in certain matters. Over in the Occupied
Territories, Israeli law governs the Jewish settlers; the Palestinians are ruled by the military judge general. It’s a hodge-podge of legal systems with no one governing system or guiding sensibility. There is no constitution.
The closest Israel got to expressing its core value in its body of
constitutional laws was the 1985 Basic Law in which it declared the
State to be “Jewish and democratic.”
It wasn’t enough for Israel to be just democratic like secular Western
democracies. That didn’t guarantee safety for Jews.
It wasn’t enough for Israel to be just Jewish. Israel wanted to be
welcomed into the family of democratic nations.
So the country put forward a hybrid formula “Jewish and democratic”.
“Jewish and democratic” is backed by many American Jews. Practically every American synagogue and Jewish organization expresses the “Jewish
and democratic” message in their Israel programming or mission statements.
Sadly for Palestinian-Israelis this internal Jewish working out of
“Jewish and democratic” has left them out of the conversation. For years
the elected representatives of Israel’s 20% Palestinians have pointed to
a disturbing pattern. Whenever “Jewish” runs up against “Democratic”
inevitably the “Jewish” trumps “the Democratic”. According to the
Jewish-Arab political party, over the last two years 26 laws have been
passed in the Knesset that benefit Jewish-Israelis at the expense of
Palestinian-Israelis. Palestinian-Israelis have learned that being a
law-abiding Israeli citizen isn’t enough. To belong in the Jewish State
you have to be Jewish too.
Last month, the inbuilt contradiction between “Jewish” and “Democratic”
was finally put to rest with the passing of Israel’s new Nation-State
Basic Law. The law in its various forms received deep backing across the
Israeli-Jewish spectrum. There is broad support in the Israeli-Jewish
public for defining Israel as a State just for the Jews, not all
Israelis. Yes to privileging investing the state’s resources in Jewish
areas not Arab, no to Arabic as an official language.
This is why the legacy American Jewish organizations roundly denounced
the law. Rabbi Jacobs decries the enormous damage done to the values of
the State of Israel as a “democratic—and Jewish—nation.”
This isn’t Jewish as we practice Judaism. “Torah achat”
I’m glad these American Jewish leaders spoke out fearlessly and clearly.
How did we get here?
Once upon time and for hundreds and hundreds of years most Jews were
focused almost entirely on the welfare - spiritual and otherwise - of
their fellow Jews. This was the result of external forces - what we now
call anti-Semitism - and internal forces, the self-definition of a
community of believers with common ancestral roots going back millennia.
So long as the external exclusion was in full force, the internal focus
made sense. When nobody else cared, caring for your own is not only
permitted, it is the moral choice. As recently as the middle of the last
century, this attitude was essential. I have a personal stake in this.
On the eve of WWII and the Holocaust, the Jewish community in the
United Kingdom made it its priority to save the lives of Jews in Europe.
In those crucial last months before war tore Europe apart, if Britain’s
Jews had not had a single-minded focus on German-speaking Jews like my
mother and her sisters, I wouldn’t be here today.
This is the emotional heart of the “Jewish” part of “Jewish and democratic”
More broadly, at the end of the 19th century, a distinguished officer in
the French army was framed for a crime he did not commit. Capt. Dreyfus
was publicly humiliated, demoted, given a dishonorable discharge and
imprisoned and exiled - all on account of being a Jew. And everyone knew
this was solely about his being a Jew. It took Captain Dreyfus years to
clear his name of the malicious, false charges.
And it wasn’t just France. At the same time, Vienna, the capital of the
Austro-Hungarian empire that ruled much of Central and Eastern Europe
elected a mayor whose political movement was animated by anti-Semitism.
And everyone knew it. All this was half a century before the Holocaust
and was completely separate from those later, horrific events.
Some Jews lost faith in Europe, at least so far as Jews go. They said:
“democratic” has to defer to “Jewish”. Europe is not safe. Europe cannot
be trusted. Democratic Europe is no different to the shtetl. They said
- and continue to say - the world didn’t really change and that
affirming democracy at all costs is too idealistic and therefore
For those who took this approach the Holocaust was the final proof if
proof was needed. Jews are not safe in the world. We have to take care
of our own first. So, while we affirm democracy and separation of church
and state here in the U.S., there has to be one place in the world where
Jewish concerns come before democracy and where Judaism is interwoven
into matters of state. That place is the State of Israel.
“Jewish and democratic” Jewish first, democratic second.
I hope that I gave fair expression to a point of view that, frankly, I
do not share. I do so because we are a welcoming synagogue on the
subject of Israel-Palestine. I want you to know that I appreciate the
feelings that lie behind the range of views our congregation
collectively holds. I want to hear the personal history and value
systems that are expressed through these views. Makom Shalom is an
inclusive community. It is important for me to respectfully try to
understand views of others whom I’m in community with.
Most American Jews who back the “Jewish and democratic” vision for
Israel do not give Israel a carte blanche. That is clear from their
periodic statements in opposition to specific Israeli steps. They did
give Israel a mandate to work it out but kept an eye out one how this
would play out. They agreed to be discomforted by the inherent
contradiction in a bifurcated system so long as things were moving in
the right direction.
At the same time, this double-barreled vision of “Jewish and
democratic” created an opening for those for others of our faith whom
there is no contradiction. The Jewish fundamentalists and
ultra-nationalists in Israel who drafted this Basic Law along with
their backers here, Jewish and of other faiths, don’t share the qualms
of Rabbi Jacobs and other national Jewish leaders. In the first case,
they would rather do away with “Jewish and democratic”. Their reading of
“Jewish and democratic” is “democratic within the framework of Jewish.”
Jewish first; democratic second. Jews are the priority. If you are not
Jewish, democratic rules do not apply equally. Or, as
Palestinian-Israeli leaders have quipped about their experience with the
Israeli State: Jewish and democratic means: Democratic for the Jews;
Jewish for the Palestinians.
To my mind, this is the very antithesis of Torah achat. Not one law
for you and for the stranger among your midst but two separate systems
preferring you, the Jew, over the Palestinian stranger.
The State of Israel’s new Basic Law makes this view the official
position of the State of Israel.
This is why the American Jewish communal leadership spoke so forcefully
against this law.
And the narrow, ethnic nationalism expressed in this law is not just bad
for the Palestinians, it’s bad for Jews around the world too. Not In the
sense of engendering negative views of Jews but in the Israeli
government’s favoring of anti-Semitic support for the State of Israel
over safeguarding the wellbeing of Jews.
The noted Israeli public intellectual Eva Iluz writes in Sunday’s
Haaretz that the State of Israel now espouses a politics that not only
harms non-Jews in Israel but is dangerous to Jews across the world. In
seeking international support, the government of the State of Israel has
made common cause with anti-Semitic governments in countries such as
Hungary and Poland. Almost incomprehensibly, Israel has publicly sided
with those countries’ anti-Semitic positions against the fierce
condemnation of the Jews of those countries and of our own. Prof. Iluz
calls this “the State of Israel vs. The Jews” . She calls this
mind-blowing upheaval “a historic earthquake.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
I love the Jewishness of Israel. Israel has done so well with Jewish
culture. As a rabbi I regularly consult online databases housed and
created in Israel. For the High Holyday liturgy class I gave at the
seminary over the summer I drew on a wealth of resources collected from
the diasporas of Jewish civilizations from around the world who have
centers in Israel. I read an Israeli newspaper daily. I revel in the
multi-layered Hebrew of creative Hebrew writers. It’s a delight to see
a 2,000 year old Rabbinic turn of phrase or a piece of Biblical poetry
embedded in an op-ed written in modern Israeli Hebrew about a current
And when I moved here 20 years ago and then became a U.S. citizen, I put
my faith in a democratic United States, not in a “Jewish and democratic”
I feel safer here as a Jew than I did in Israel today.
I feel more hopeful about the future of Judaism here than in a country
with constitutional laws such as the Nation-State Law.
There is no such thing as Jewish and democratic. The Nation-State Law
is the formal declaration of a reality that has been long in the making.
The law serves as a timely reminder that you have to choose: Jewish OR
I agree with my colleagues and the large Jewish organizations for
chastising Israel for its two tier legal system and the eradication of
Unlike many of them I do not yearn for a return to “Jewish and democratic.”
The Jewish community has kicked that can down the road for 70+ years. I
believe it’s time to step back and say we tried “Jewish and democratic”
and we got neither the Jewishness we know and love here, and certainly
not the democratic values we cherish.
“Jewish and democratic” sells short both “Jewish” and “democratic.”
I believe we need to turn from “Jewish and democratic” to Torah achat,
a single system that sees citizens, Israelis, not ethnic and religious
groups, Jews and Palestinians, e pluribus unum of you like,
And we need to break the identification of Jews with Israelis. As
Jewish-Israeli Prof. Iluz illustrates, it’s not good for the Jews. As
Palestinian-Israelis tell us, it isn’t good for the Israelis either.
Torah Achat one law to make Adonai echad, sh’mo echad, to bring about
God’s oneness in the world
For those who hope to being Israel back to “Jewish and democratic” I
would ask two questions:
1. How do you reconcile the double-barreled “Jewish and democratic” with
torah achat, one law?.
2. I understand the Jewish need for safety. As a child of Holocaust
survivors I get it. With all my training and my life lived in the north
of England, Israel and the U.S., I get it. Knowing my grandparents
history, I get the deep Jewish need for safety.
So, my second question goes to the emotional needs underpinning the
“Jewish and democratic” position:
How much safety is enough safety for Jews?
I pray for the day when Jewish-Israelis and Palestinian-Israelis can
just be Israeli and belong fully as citizens regardless of ethnicity or
I pray for the day when being Jewish will be just about being Jewish,
not about Israel. Not only at Makom Shalom but throughout the world.
“Oseh Shalom bimromav hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol Yisrael v’al kol
yosh’vei tevel, v’imru Amen”