NOTE: This essay was cross posted at Kol Ami.
In the Passover seder, we are commanded to tell our story of freedom beginning with the words: “Arami Oveid Avi – My father was a wandering/escaped Aramean.” There are differences of opinion regarding whether this line refers to Abraham or to Jacob. But either way, its meaning is clear. Our people got their start as escapees from the land of Aram, which is now in northern Syria. We begin our Jewish story as Syrian refugees.
In fact, the Jewish experience is one of being the stranger and welcoming the stranger. Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews, were known for keeping their tent open on all four sides, so that they might rush out and bring passersby into their home. It’s known as Hachnasat Orchim – Welcoming the guest. Later, as our people emerged from slavery, we were commanded “V’ahavtem et Hageir – You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And only 8 decades ago, our people once again were the strangers and the refugees, trying to escape the dangers around them in Europe, and often labeled as security threats or subversives.
As Jews, that’s the religious and historical experience that we bring to the current refugee crisis. As Canadians, we also bring a deep respect for pluralism and for the immigration mentality that has made this country what it is. Aware of the security risks, aware of the challenges that immigration can bring with it, we approach the world with a desire to uphold Tzelem Elohim – to uphold the image of God in each human being.
May this season of freedom be a harbinger of freedom for all people, in all corners of the world. Someday may there be a time when no one will every have to say “Arami oveid avi – My father was a refugee.”
In the movie The Ten Commandments, Moses comes down the mountain with two tablets, containing the 10 laws that the Israelites are to follow.
I love that movie. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Jewish tradition tells says what happened at Sinai was far bigger than any 10 Commandments. It was even bigger then the entire Torah, with its 613 commandments. What was given to us at Sinai with the entirety of Judaism – the written and oral traditions, the ethics and morals and stories and laws.
This week’s Torah portion is part of that. It’s called Mishpatim, which means “laws.” And boy, does it have laws. This portion contains everything from the laws of slavery to the different kinds of sacrifice, from how to keep kosher to the prohibition against accepting bribes.
The point is that this is also Sinai. Last week, we received the 10 Commandments. This week, still standing at Sinai, we receive the laws of how to be a good society.
It says in the Mechilta of Bar Yochai, “Rules of the just society have the same divine origin as the Decalogue.”
This is an important principle in Judaism. As a religious way of life, Torah doesn’t only govern how we pray and how we perform rituals. In Jewish space, how we relate to our fellow human beings is just as important as how we relate to God.
And this week, we have seen a watershed moment in terms of how we relate to our fellow human beings in Jewish space.
This week, we learned that for the first time, the Israeli government agreed to create a true egalitarian section at the Western Wall.
This announcement is the result of a long negotiation that involves the Jewish Agency, the Reform and Conservative movements, Women of the Wall, and the government of Israel.
It provides, essentially, that the two year old “mixed gender prayer space” that is to the south of the Western Wall will be refurbished, expanded, and made equal to the existing, gender segregated space. And after that’s done, Women of the Wall will move their prayer services to that space, and the liberal movements will essentially govern a Kotel, just like the Orthodox.
This is an extraordinary shift. Rabbi Denise Eger, president of the Central Conference of American rabbis, writes:
For the first time, the Israeli government recognized the authentic ritual and religious needs of those of us who believe in egalitarian prayer and women’s equality.
Let’s not minimize that fact. The Israeli government has, begrudgingly, begun to recognize some liberal rabbis, pay a few salaries, and provide some prayer spaces. But this is the first time in history that space has been made for non-orthodox prayer at a communal Jewish holy site. That is a very big deal.
But the compromise is not perfect. Not by any stretch. There are three basic critiques of this deal I’ve seen tossed around the airwaves for the last few days. I’d like to address each one briefly, and think about what responsibilities they give us.
The first critique is the one that says “this isn’t really the Kotel.”
Take a look at the picture of the Kotel/Robinson’s Arch area. What we’re talking about here is the more “off the beaten track” area to the south of the current Kotel Plaza. The two are separated by the Mughrabi bridge that leads to the Dome of the Rock. This is actually part of an archaeological excavation, and it’s only been over the course of the last 30 to 40 years. Which means, that it’s correct to say that for the last 2000 years this wasn’t part of the Kotel. However, it IS part of the western retaining wall of the ancient temple. As Rabbi Elyse Goldstein has pointed out, it has the same holiness and the same historicity.
And as Yair Ettinger writes in Haaretz:
The Southern Wall is a site no less sacred than the northern plaza, and in many senses is a more dignified, quieter and more beautiful site, and Jewish history is strongly present due to important archaeological finds scattered there.
In other words, this really IS the Kotel. It’s just the less famous part. It’s kind of like moving into a new house – it’s no less your house, it’s just not the one you’ve been living in.
Our challenge, then, is to make it our house. To build new memories and new associations with this extraordinarily holy spot. Think of the opportunity this presents – to create a holy space – a kotel – that reflects the kind of Judaism that we believe in. It’s exciting, and it’s challenging.
Which brings me to the second critique – the charge that this compromise divides the Jewish people.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein writes:
The resistance of the heterodox movements to the mechitzah in the Kotel plaza means that they have erected an even larger, more ominous one between millions of Jews.
A Mechitzah is a dividing wall. And there’s no question that this creation of a parallel Kotel divides the Jews.
I’m of two minds about this one. On the one hand, I believe deeply in the value of K’lal Yisrael – Jewish unity. I think we have to choose carefully when it comes to pitting ourselves against fellow Jews. The Talmud teaches that it wasn’t actually the Romans, rather causeless hatred between Jews, that brought down the very second temple that we’re fighting about right now. That’s an important lesson for all of us.
But at the same time, my Jewish values teach me that I can’t let injustice stand. This isn’t simply a case of different ritual practices. This is about the basic moral issue of men’s and women’s equality. The basic question of whether Jewish sites should be available to all Jews. That’s why our movement made this decision.
And this isn’t the first time that we liberal movements have chosen to deprioritize Jewish unity because of some moral issue. We did the same thing when we were gained women rabbis, when we begin to perform same-sex marriages. And each time we’ve done so, we’ve seen that eventually, the Jewish world follows us. My hope and prayer is that this new liberal Kotel will be an opportunity for that to happen again.
It’s worth noting in all this that with the creation of a liberal Kotel to the parallel the Ultra Orthodox Kotel, there is one group being left behind. And that is the third critique of the compromise.
In the new setup, the Liberal section will be governed according to the laws of liberal Judaism – women and men may pray together, women’s prayer groups may read from the Torah and wear t’fillin. But that will still not be the case for the women’s section on the Orthodox side. And, as Yair Ettinger writes, that leaves “no room for Liberal orthodox.”
The big losers in this deal are the Orthodox women who wish to be able to sing, worship, and pray together as orthodox women. There will be space set aside for them in the mixed section to do so, but that’s not really what they’re looking for.
It’s a reminder to us that we still have much work to do. That this is a marathon and not a sprint. That we are still deeply engaged in fighting for the religious rights of all Jews – liberal AND Orthodox – in the Jewish state.
Eleh hamispatim asher tasim. These are the laws you shall establish.
Law is an expression of values. As we rejoice in this moment, may we recognize the ways that these new laws express an evolution in the values of the Jewish state.
At the same time, may we recognize our responsibility to continue that work.
And may Ahavat Yisrael – our love for the people and land of Israel – always be our guiding light.
 Etz Hayim 477, note 3.
We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community.
For three years there were disputes between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. Beit Shammai claimed “The law agrees with us,” and Beit Hillel claimed “The law agrees with us.” Then, a voice came from heaven and said: “Both are the words of the living God, but the law agrees with Beit Hillel.
My two older sons recently did something very strange and surprising: they started reading a lot! The reason is that they found a book – or actually a series of books – that they really like. It’s called Diary of a Wimpy Kid. It’s a fictional, first-person account of something most of us would rather forget: Middle School. And it comes complete with little gems like this one:
Let me just say … I think middle school is the dumbest idea ever invented. You got kids like me who haven’t hit their growth spurt yet mixed in with these gorillas who need to shave twice a day.
Just like being 12, this book is sometimes funny, and sometimes not so funny. And as I’ve been reading it with my kids, it’s become very clear that even at their young age, they and their classmates can relate to a lot of what’s described in the books, including things like peer pressure and bullying. Even at age 6 or 7, kids, know what it’s like to be picked on by someone who is stronger or bigger. It’s just a reality of life for them.
So much so that the Ontario provincial government recently introduced anti-bullying legislation which – among other things – allows schools to expel bullies, and which gives strong support for student anti-racism groups, gender equality groups, and Gay-Straight Alliances. All in an effort to build the support system for kids who may be perceived, or who may perceive themselves, as weak or vulnerable or different.
Of course, being weak and vulnerable is nothing new to our people. It’s pretty much the story of Jewish history. And in this week’s Torah portion, we read about our escape from a bully of Biblical proportions. And that, of course, is Pharaoh. The Torah tells that after Ten plagues and 430 years of oppression, Pharaoh finally said:
“קומו צאו מתוך עמי – Get up and depart from among my people. Take your flocks and your herds, and begone!” (Ex 12:31-32)
And our people did as they were told: they beed gone.
Of course, it’s not that simple. Next week, we’ll read about Pharaoh’s change of heart and the parting of the sea. But the end is the same: our people are leaving Egypt and going out into the desert. And there, in the desert, something very important happens. A group of slaves will become a people. The mixed multitude of vulnerable groups will become Am Yisrael.
Our tradition teaches that there is safety in numbers. It teaches that we need each other, and that we build community based on the things that we have in common. Our vulnerability turns to strength when we find those types of supportive communities.
Some rabbis have objected to the current legislation because of the support for Gay-Straight Alliances. And while I wouldn’t take a position on the legislation from the bima, I do feel I have an obligation as a Rabbi to point out that there is another Jewish take on that issue. Yes, an Orthodox Jew may object to homosexuality on religious grounds. But you can’t use religious grounds to object to people forming a safe and supportive community with others who are like them. That’s exactly what our people did when we fled Egypt. And it’s something that we all need: whether it be a Gay-Straight Alliance, a single-parent support group, or a Temple Youth group, we need to be surrounded by people like us; people who share our beliefs and our struggles. That’s how the vulnerable become less vulnerable.
That’s what Judaism teaches: that all people are created in God’s image, that all people deserve to feel worthwhile and respected. That no person should harass or isolate or harm another because they are different.
And the sad irony of that statement is that, that’s exactly what’s going on right now within one segment of our own people.
Last week, a 27 year old woman in Beit Shemesh was attacked by several Ultra-Orthodox men. According to Haaretz, “They surrounded her car and pelted it with stones… and punctured her tires. One stone struck [her] on the head…”
And this is the latest in a long line of such attacks. All of these incidents lately have surrounded the issue of tzniyut – modesty. These women are being attacked because the men in that particular neighbourhood don’t feel that they are dressed modestly enough, or believe that they are behaving in ways that are at odds with their ultra-Conservative Jewish values. And none of this is new. For years, women riding through Haredi neighbourhoods have been forced to the back of buses. Ink has been thrown at women praying at the Kotel. 2 years ago a woman was assaulted at a bus stop because she has T’fillin marks on arms. And all of this has become more and more public, more and more audacious, as the ultra-Orthodox community grows larger and more radicalized.
And it all came to a head last month in Beit Shemesh when a little girl – a little 8-year-old Orthodox girl, dressed in a long skirt and long sleeves – was spat and called prostitute on by Ultra-Orthodox men – because her path to school happened to take her through their neighbourhood, and because – according to the New York Times, “her modest dress did not adhere exactly to their more rigorous dress code.”
It goes without saying that this is beyond wrong. I’m only preaching to the choir here, but it’s important that our voice be heard, that we stand up and say in no uncertain terms that our Jewish values and our way of life are being twisted into something ugly, hateful, and decidedly un-Jewish. Anyone who would choose to harass and bully women and girls, to attack weaker people, is not practicing Judaism. Those people are much closer to Pharaoh than they are to Moses.
Thankfully, Israeli society is beginning to speak up. In the last month, there have been rallies and protests in Beit Shemesh calling for an end to this madness. There was a women’s flash-mob – you can see it on You Tube – to send the message that women have the right to express themselves. Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke out, saying : “This is a phenomenon that contradicts Jewish tradition and the spirit of the Bible, with one of the most central [ideas] being: Love your neighbour as yourself.” Even an ultra Orthodox rabbi, Yitzchok Adlerstein, wrote that we must “condemn with passion, conviction and without qualification” these acts.
It is time for the Jewish world to speak up about the Pharaohs in our midst – the bullies who believe that it is their God-given right to oppress the weak and vulnerable who are different than they are. It is time for Israel to take a deep look at its political system which gives these people power and money. And it is time for us as Diaspora Jews to make clear that that is what we expect of the Jewish state at this moment in its history.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is right. At the center of the central chapter of the central book of the Torah stand the words “V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha – Love your neighbour as yourself.” The Rabbis of the Mishnah debate whether loving God or loving your neighbour is the most important value in Judaism, and they determine that the two must flow from each other. We show our love for God by showing love for our fellow human beings. We show our love for God by standing up for the rights of the weak – in our neighbourhoods, in our kids’ schools, and across the world.
Because we Jewish people have been the “wimpy kid.” We’ve been the oppressed before. And that gives us a special obligation to do what’s right.
Here is an interesting article opposing the Conversion Bill from an Orthodox perspective. He essentially makes the same argument that the Reform and Conservative movements have been making: that the bill places a disproportionate amount of power into the hands of the Haredi rabbinate. His beef is that it doesn’t include Modern Orthodox/Religious Zionist rabbis in the conversion solution. Obviously. I don’t agree with the assertion that conversion should be broadened only as far as Modern Orthodoxy, but it is interesting to see just how similar this M.O. perspective is to our own.
Much of this is temporarily moot, since the news out of Israel today is that Netanyahu now opposes the Conversion Bill and it will not be brought for a vote before the end of summer. (Apparently the enormous amounts of pressure from world Jewry didn’t fall on deaf ears after all.) But this issue is far from over. The bill will likely be brought for a vote sometime after the Holidays in the Fall, and the larger issue of Jewish pluralism in Israel is far from settled.
Where we differ even from modern Orthodoxy is our assertion that pluralism and decentralization of Jewish expression are a good thing – that having multiple options is good for the Jews. I have long held that due to their understanding of the role of Torah and halacha, we cannot expect that the Orthodox accept our way of life as authoritative Judaism and recognize our rabbis; but what we can expect is a place at the table, equal funding, and for our rabbis to be addressed as “Rabbi.” You don’t have to agree with us – you just have to admit that we exist and that we are an accepted expression of Jewish tradition.
For those who haven’t seen it yet, here is the video of Anat Hoffman’s arrest at the Kotel for carrying a Torah scroll. Looks eerily like images of the 1960s Civil Rights movement. Notice some of the women (including Anat) wearing thair tallitot wrapped around them like a scarf. This is because some women have been arrested for wearing a tallit openly at the Kotel.
This will be the great struggle for Israel’s soul: will the Jewish state recognize the beauty and vitality of Jewish pluralism, or will it allow Judaism to sink into ruin by recognizing only the most backward and misogynistic form?
Can we, Diaspora Jews/liberal Jews, fix our relationship with Israel? Read my recent thoughts.
The Central Conference of American Rabbis (the body of Reform rabbis in America) released this statement regarding the arrest of Anat Hoffman at the Kotel yesterday:
CCAR STATEMENT ON THE ARREST OF ANAT HOFFMAN
July 12, 2010
The Central Conference of American Rabbis, the world’s oldest and largest rabbinic association, looks with shock and revulsion at today’s arrest of Anat Hoffman of “Women of the Wall” for the purported “crime” of holding a sefer Torah in the women’s section of the Western Wall during a Rosh Hodesh celebration. We view her arrest, interrogation, and subsequent ban from visiting the Western Wall for a month as acts of “hillul hashem,” a desecration of God’s name, for they bring public shame and ridicule down upon those responsible for her arrest and upon the Judaism they purport to defend.
After 62 years of statehood, Israel stands at a moral crossroads. Will the Jewish state continue to bar women from equal access to Torah in our most sacred places, or will it foster the free and equal expression of Judaism for men and women alike? Will Jewish life in Israel breathe the free air of religious freedom, or will it continue to be stifled in the choking air of an anachronistic and state-empowered rabbinic fundamentalism? Will Israel’s greatest strength, that of being a modern democracy, be undercut by an increasingly ubiquitous medieval theocracy? At a time when the eyes of the world are focused on Israel, will the face Israel presents be tolerant and egalitarian, or intolerant and sexist?
Israel is at a crossroads. Religious pluralism will be one of the great questions for the future of the Jewish state. You can write a letter to Israel’s Prime Minister to let him know that you disapprove of the Rotem conversion bill currently being considered in the Knesset, which would give control over conversion in Israel to the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Click here for an email address and a template to use in your letter.