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.
Here is a video podcast of the sermon I delivered this past Shabbat on religious extremism.
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.
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.
There is a country where a woman can be arrested for holding a Torah scroll. Where the government limits, and sometimes outright prohibits, Jews’ ability to engage in basic religious rituals like conversion and marriage. That country – believe it or not – is Israel. And today was not a good day for the battle for religious pluralism in the Jewish state.
This morning, Anat Hoffman, Director of the Israel Religious Action Center (a wing of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism) and a leader of Women of the Wall, was arrested for carrying a Torah scroll on the women’s side of the Western Wall. According to Haaretz:
Anat Hoffman, the women’s prayer group leader, was arrested and taken in for questioning after she was caught holding a Torah scroll in violation of a High Court ruling prohibiting women from reading the Torah at the Western Wall.
This comes only 8 months after a member of the group was arrested for wearing a tallit at Kotel, and only 2 months after a woman was assaulted for wearing tefillin in Beer Sheva. In a show of solidarity, our congregation’s young adults group, NextDor, will be hosting a women’s tallit-making program tomorrow evening. The program was planned months ago, but it now takes on an increased sense of importance and urgency.
Clearly, it is ludicrous for the Jewish state to have laws that prohibit women from engaging in Jewish ritual. And as much as this is about gender equality, it is really about who controls the definition of Judaism in the Jewish state. Israel has created a status quo in which Haredi rabbis get to determine what “Jewish” means for all the rest of the Jews, and it is a status quo to which the rabbinate is clinging, and which it is trying to cement.
In fact, at the same time that Anat Hoffman was being arrested, the Knesset approved the first reading of a conversion bill that will go a long way toward cementing that control. The Rotem bill, as it is called, gives the Israeli Chief Rabbinate (which is invariably Orthodox, and growing more “Ultra” with each passing year) control over all conversion in Israel. This would invalidate years of work and hard-fought victories by the liberal movements, which are trying to increase their legitimacy in the courts and in society.
Simply put, it is unacceptable for the Jewish state to give Orthodoxy total control over conversion. It is a move that would drive a wedge between the Israeli and Diaspora Jewish communities, which would further alienate Reform and Conservative Jews (whose connection to Israel is already suffering, especially among younger people), and – most importantly – which would do irreparable damage to K’lal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people.
Judaism is, and has always been, built on pluralism – on dialectic and machloket (disagreement). There have always been multiple ways to be Jewish, and Judaism has been stronger and more vibrant in periods when those multiple expressions were allowed to flourish. The Israeli Knesset should withdraw or defeat this bill – not only because it is the politically expedient thing to do (i.e. because they don’t want to alienate half of the Jewish world), but because it is the Jewish thing to do.
Click Here to write an email to Prime Minister Netanyahu about the Rotem Bill. You might utilize the following text, which was composed by the Israel Religious Action Center, a wing of the Israel Reform Movement:
The Honorable Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister of Israel
Office of the Prime Minister
Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu,
We write to request your immediate intervention to prevent passage of the legislation being brought forward by MK David Rotem.
We are deeply concerned about the intention to grant the Chief Rabbinate sole control over conversion in Israel. Such legislation would be an open attack on the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Jewry, which composes the majority of world Jewry.
While we are supportive of efforts to create greater accessibility to conversion courts in Israel, the overall impact of the Rotem Bill will set back these efforts. Should this bill be enacted, it will exacerbate a widening gap between Diaspora and Israel communities, which we are working very hard to avoid.
Therefore, we believe it is imperative that you, as leader of Israel, and as one who cares deeply about the well-being of Klal Yisrael, intervene and urge immediate withdrawal of this bill.
JTA reported this incident before Shabbat:
May 13, 2010
JERUSALEM (JTA) — A Jewish woman was attacked in Beersheba reportedly for having the imprints of tefillin lines visible on her arms. Noa Raz was physically assaulted Tuesday morning by an ultra-Orthodox man in Beersheba’s Central Bus Station, where she was waiting for a bus to her job in Tel Aviv, according to a news release issued Wednesday by the Israel Religious Action Center.
According to the release, the man asked Raz twice if the imprints were from tefillin. When she told him they were, he began to kick and strangle her while screaming “women are an abomination.” Raz, who practices Conservative Judaism, reportedly broke free from the man and boarded her bus.
Perhaps what is most disturbing about this incident is that it is not surprising. Parts of Israel’s haredi population have been so polarized against liberal Judaism – and particularly against women who would take on traditionally male roles such as tefillin and tallit – that it has now become OK to attack defenseless women at bus stops. We have progressed from rocks thrown at cars on Shabbat, to attacks on Reform synagogues, to assaults on women reading Torah in public places, and now to this. Noa Raz’s sin was to practice Judaism in the privacy of her own home.
As a Reform Jew, I know that Orthodoxy is uncomfortable with some of the changes we make. Egalitarianism and personal autonomy over ritual are ideas that go against centuries of “the way it has always been.” (Actually, there were women in history who wore tefillin, read Torah, and were viewed as scholars. Legend has it that Rashi’s daughters wore tefillin. And Rabbeinu Tam ruled in the Tosafot that women should recite a blessing when performing rituals for which they are not obligated – evidence that he was aware of and tacitly approved of women performing such rituals. But these examples are by no means the norm.) We liberal Jews have to recognize that we are the ones who have changed the rules of the game, and therefore we cannot necessarily ask for the Orthodox to accept our practices as authoritative and normative. What we can expect, however, is respect for human life and dignity. It is OK to argue over whether certain practices are acceptable; it is not OK to burn synagogues or throw chairs at women. The Orthodox and Haredi rabbinate should immediately and unequivocally condemn this incident and all others like it, and the perpetrator should be prosecuted and punished.
Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center (who spoke in Charlotte last year), said that this incident:
“should not be seen as an isolated incident but as taking place within an atmosphere of growing violence toward and intimidation of women who seek to pray freely and equally. Too often these acts of violence are tolerated. The fact that this man thought it acceptable to attack a woman for performing a religious act in private is an example of the escalation of violence targeted against women and against religious pluralists in Israel.”
Hoffman is right that there is a growing climate of hate in the Israeli Haredi community, which asserts that anyone who practices Judaism differently is deserving of physical punishment. Would-be criminals such as this man are only emboldened when leaders fail to speak out. It is up to the rabbis to stem the tide. If they do not, they are also guilty.