Picking Sides from the Pulpit

We attended a Bat Mitzvah the weekend before the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was announced in Gaza. The service was held at a reform Jewish temple, a thoroughly modern place of worship where men and women are permitted to sit together, where the cantor accompanies himself on a djembe drum.

The ceremony was part celebration and part reflection, with much singing and much English. The Bat Mitzvah girl was showered with encouragement and kindness from a loving audience. It was an altogether uplifting experience — except for one thing.

During the sermon portion, the Rabbi delivered a commentary on the then-developing situation in Gaza. A partial transcript:

O God, who is the creator of all children, hear our prayer this day.  Bless our brothers and sisters in the state of Israel.  Protect them from all trouble and anxiety.  May you bring all the soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces home in peace and in health.  Have mercy on them and help carry them from darkness to light.

At both the Friday night service and the Saturday afternoon service, he referenced the troubles in the Middle East and asked the congregation for prayers — for their brothers and sisters in Israel, for the Israeli leadership, for the Jewish residents near Gaza, and for the brave members of the Israeli Defense Forces who were about to go on offense. He did not ask the congregation to pray for their brothers and sisters in Palestine, their Arab brothers and sisters, particularly the hundreds and thousands of civilians whose lives have been (and would be) devastated — if not ended — by the latest bout of senseless retaliatory violence.

We were reminded again that our religious leaders have the power to encourage healing and fraternal fellowship. But we were also reminded that religious leaders have the power to encourage an Us vs Them mentality, a spiritual choosing of sides, and that rather than value all lives and all human beings equally many religious leaders place a premium on souls from their own “team,” subtly denigrating the lives of “the enemy.” We see this constantly from the hate-spewing Imams of Islam, and when we do we condemn them.

The papers carried a photo of a Palestinian father, a civilian, clinging to the dead bodies of his daughters. His home, his family, and all his earthly possessions had been destroyed by an Israeli bomb. Our impulse was not to blame him for the political folly of his leaders; our impulse was to pray for him — just as rabbis would like their congregation to pray for the Children of Israel.

Jews may brand themselves as God’s Chosen People. But in our reckoning God does not play favorites. His love is meant for all of us. Even Palestinians.

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