Our Torah portion this week opens with the death of the Matriarch of our People, Sarah. She derived great joy from the birth of her son Isaac. But throughout most of her life, she encountered great difficulty and pain, much of which came about from the secondary position to which she was relegated within her marriage, and the society at large, as a woman with no power or resources of her own.
As the children of Sarah, we have created a new world of possibilities and challenges for Jewish women. We in the Reform Movement in particular have expanded the role of women in our community to include all avenues of leadership and participation. Happily, our friends in the Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Renewal Movements have followed suit as well, by and large.
It is thus with great dismay that we read this week of the Rabbinical Council of America’s (RCA) rejection of any ordination or rabbinical validation of women within mainstream Orthodoxy. Morally courageous rabbis like Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabbi Daniel Sperber, among others, have parted company with the RCA in recent years, in support of Orthodox women who choose to pursue rabbinical studies and ordination. My good friend Rabba Sara Hurwitz, ordained by Rabbi Weiss, now serves as Dean of Yeshivat Maharat, the yeshiva dedicated to the training of Orthodox women for the Rabbinate.
It is in light of the RCA’s reiteration of its rejection of progress this week that the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Women’s Rabbinic Network has published the following Official Joint Statement, dated and released Tuesday, November 3, 2015.
“At the spring assembly of the Rabbinical Council of America’s (RCA) 51st Annual Convention held in Scarsdale, NY on April 26, 2010 a unanimous resolution passed amongst rabbinic leadership, stating that women cannot be ordained and be considered rabbis or any other name that designates rabbinic status. This past week, that resolution was formally adopted by a direct vote of the RCA membership. Despite the fact that this resolution had already been publicized in 2010 and reasserted in 2013, the RCA now found it necessary to restate and adopt, once again, a resolution as of October 30, 2015 that bans half the population of its constituency to perform the sacred tasks of spiritual leadership.
“Using the phrase “a violation of our mesorah (tradition),” leaders of the RCA have condemned any persons or institutions granting ordination to women and proclaimed that they will under no circumstances be recognized. We note, with dismay, that the RCA leadership, comprised only of men, is once again determining what Jewish tradition and law proscribe for women.
“As such, we, the Women’s Rabbinic Network and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, hereby stand with unequivocal support of ANY woman, who after appropriate, rigorous study and counsel through a recognized rabbinical seminary is ordained by said institution. We applaud these women and their commitment to the study of Jewish law, history and culture for the sake of transmitting our sacred tradition to future generations. We also commend the rabbis and lay leaders who have taken the bold step of teaching, supporting and hiring these newly ordained women as clergy. We stand together with our new Orthodox colleagues who, together with us, work to ensure that Judaism is alive and thriving for all Jewish people who wish to be included in our sacred community.”
As we approach the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, z”l, on November 4th, a tangible and trustworthy peace between Israelis and Palestinians seems, still, a pipe dream at best. Yet we remember that peace accords between Israel and parts of the Arab world have indeed been achieved, and continue to hold.
The Camp David Accords of September, 1978, sealed the agreement of a land-for-peace deal between Israel and Egypt, in which Israel returned the entire Sinai Peninsula, which it had conquered in its victory over Egypt during the Six Day War. The iconic image of the 3-way handshake between US President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin, was seared into our memories as a triumph of the human aspiration for peace over the all too familiar instinct for war. And while there have been tensions between Israel and Egypt, to be sure, the fact is that since that handshake in 1978, not a single shot has been fired between these two nations.
Likewise, just this week, October 26, marked the 21st anniversary of the signing of the Israel-Jordan Peace Agreement, at the Arava Crossing between the two countries, which was renamed “The Yitzhak Rabin Crossing,” connecting Eilat and Aqaba. There too, we remember the table that was set up, in the expanse of the Arava Desert, with the big books containing the texts of the agreement, being signed simultaneously by Prime Minister Rabin, Jordan’s King Hussein, and President Bill Clinton in the middle. This peace has brought both a cessation of fighting and economic advantages, especially to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Tensions? Occasionally. Fighting? None.
This is a portion of the account of the night that Rabin was shot, written by Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute, North America. Yehuda had spent a number of years living in Israel when he was younger, during the time that his father Daniel served as US Ambassador there, and also to study. I learned of the murder when I was 18 years old, as I rode a bus back from Ra’anana to Jerusalem after a weekend spent with dozens of other kids under the auspices of the Religious Zionist youth movement, Bnei Akiva. Strangely enough, that Shabbat we had read the Torah portion Lech Lecha. Genesis 12 marks the first promise of land to the Jewish people, a promise which, translated from opportunity to idolatry, led to the tragedy of biblical proportions that came to pass that Saturday night.
Of all the chaos and confusion of that memorable bus ride, one incident stands out. A few kids on the bus — Americans in Israel, with strong opinions about the Jewish state’s political situation but little understanding or empathy for its people — cheered and celebrated the news that Rabin had been shot. The climate was so toxic; I suppose it was reasonable for them to believe such news would have been welcome in the country. This account is particularly poignant for me because of my husband Stephen’s personal recollections of the day that President Kennedy was murdered. In his junior high school in Columbus, GA – his then legally segregated junior high school – when the announcement came over the school’s intercoms, while some students were shocked, others did indeed send up cheers and clapping. John F. Kennedy was utterly despised by many in the South, primarily because of his support of the Civil Rights Movement, and his efforts at desegregation. So the news of Kennedy’s assassination came as cause for celebration to some segments of the population in our great nation, America. Nevertheless, eventually the South was desegregated, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were passed, and the South became a very different place. On the other hand, the past year especially has reminded us that racism and social pressures are still very much with us, and as a nation, we still have much work and soul-searching to do.
September 13, 1993 was another one of those extraordinary days in history. PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat stood on the left of President Bill Clinton, and Prime Minister Rabin stood on his right, there in the gleaming sunlight on the White House Lawn. Another iconic image – a gentle nudge from the President, and perhaps a reluctant, yet determined handshake between the two leaders whose peoples had lived with so much hatred and pain. Peace was so close….
On Motza’ei Shabbat, Saturday night, November 4, 1995, PM Yitzhak Rabin stood with his colleagues on a podium as Israelis from all ethnicities and walks of life filled Kings Square (now Rabin Square) in Tel Aviv, with waving arms, glowing flashlights, and songs of peace. Moments later, he was shot at point blank range by a 25-year-old Jewish extremist, who believed that he was protecting Israel from Rabin, who, in his understanding, was going to “give Israel to the Arabs.”
Dr. Kurtzer: Here we are now 20 years on. While we learned from the assassination about the existence of fundamentalism in our midst, and while those kids on the bus (hopefully) learned that such treasonous violence is not to be celebrated, not much else has changed. Jewish militant fundamentalism is as strong and self-confident today as it has been since the end of the Bar Kochba revolt. And though its outbursts of violence still remain largely isolated incidents, and though we know collectively to condemn and mourn those incidents, the assassination of Rabin did virtually nothing to damage — much less dismantle — the ideologies that would give birth to such behavior. . .
But the biggest obstacle to Rabin’s memory is that many Jews very reasonably have little appetite right now for the self-flagellation involved with a commemoration of Rabin. As Israel’s citizens are under attack, many of the country’s supporters feel that Israel’s primary enemies are from without and not from within. They argue that empathy with a society under attack dictates solidarity with the people rather than the bitter surfacing of a memory that signaled that society’s failure. If remembering Rabin is about signaling that we can be our own worst enemies, I am not sure that message can be heard today. . . .
Kurtzer’s thoughts of Rabin’s ultimate legacy:
I see Rabin’s primary legacy in the character of his leadership, in his relentless pursuit of a revision of the status quo (in spite of his own personal reservations about the very process in which he was engaged), and in the belief that such a process was ultimately vital to Israel’s long-term safety, security and stability. Rabin — in deed, if not in temperament — was heroically hopeful. In retrospect, he occupied a place very few Israeli politicians have been able to inhabit — a place located between Shimon Peres’ ultimately unrealistic utopian universalism and much of the cynical pragmatism that has characterized the Israeli political leadership of the right for the last generation.
Last May the group of us who traveled to Israel together spent a morning at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem with Dr. Tal Becker, a Senior Fellow at the Institute, and a member of the Israeli negotiating team since the time of Oslo. Tal explained the quagmire that seems to have stalled any realistic hopes for a peace agreement just at this moment. Nevertheless, he reminded us that this cannot let us off the hook from the aspiration for peace, and for creating a just society for both of the parties involved. That is the essence of the Jewish vision, in his view, and the current stalemate need not, and indeed, cannot, paralyze us from continuing to move forward. Perhaps that is the most important observation at this 20-year mark since the death of Rabin.
This week we read Parashat Vayera. We are reminded that just as Isaac and Ishmael, the sons of Abraham, are brothers, so too are we, their descendants. Ultimately, after great trauma and separation, Isaac and Ishmael reconcile, as in next week’s parashah, they will bury their father together. Yitzhak Rabin was a man of war. Yet he was able to embrace a vision of peace, and took brave and significant steps to achieve it, particularly with those who are our brothers and sisters. We can and must find a way, eventually, to do the same.
Our Torah portion explains that the mabul – the flood – that God sent to destroy the world was as a result of the hamas that had filled the earth. In Biblical translation, this word hamas is usually translated as “violence.” Rabbinic commentaries further explain this “violence” as “economic corruption.”
But violence in the raw, physical sense, is very much with us to this day in our world, particularly with our people in Israel, as the current wave of attacks has risen in recent days, especially in Jerusalem, but elsewhere as well.
A little earlier today (Thursday) I participated in a conference call cosponsored by the New York Board of Rabbis and the Jewish Federations of North America, with Nir Barkat, Mayor of Jerusalem. He said that one of the most helpful things for us to do at this moment is to communicate information to our communities. In keeping with that request, here are some of the salient points of his conversation with us.
1) Members of the Palestinian Authority and Arab leadership in Israel are lying to their people with regard to Israel’s intentions on the Temple Mount. Though it is a holy site both for Jews and Muslims, the fact is that Israel has no intention of changing the status of the Temple Mount that would weaken Muslim control over the area in general, and particularly over the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosques. This is a lie that has been spread by those who are interested in inciting violence, and has no basis in fact.
2) Israel’s government, and particularly the Municipality of Jerusalem and its police force, are committed to tightening security for the people of Jerusalem, whether Jewish or Muslim, and will not tolerate a spread of this violence. Those who attempt to perpetrate acts of violence are warned that in all probability they will not return home.
3) Mr. Barkat himself has personally conferred with school principals, particularly high school principals, in the Arab sectors of East Jerusalem, to discuss measures of quelling the current wave of violence, since the majority of perpetrators seem to be teenagers. One intention that the principals have is to lengthen the school day for the high schools to at least 5:00 in the afternoon. Whether it is through programs in sports, or computers, or other areas of concentration, they are going to do what they can to lengthen the school day of this age group.
4) In addition, the principals made a request of the mayor, which he will honor. They asked him to please move the policemen away from the schools a bit at the beginning and end of school days, in order to reduce a bit of the tension. But also, the principals requested that police come into the schools to talk with the kids, and bring materials to show the kids that there is another side of the story. Help them to help the kids, in other words, as they attempt to speak the kids’ language so that the kids can understand that violence is not the answer.
5) While Mr. Barkat does not like restricting the points of access to Jerusalem, this is a measure that he is forced to take until the current wave of terror has ceased.
6) There are, indeed, moderate members of the Arab community, both among the police and the school authorities, who are seeking to work together with the Jewish community to end this wave of violence. They feel that they are often overpowered by those determined to incite violence and enmity, but Mr. Barkat and other members of the Jewish community are in close touch with these moderate leaders, in order to put an end to the current violence. No one wants to see Jewish kids, OR Arab kids getting hurt, and potentially killed. The leaders know they must work together to accomplish that goal.
7) While there is admittedly tension in the streets of Jerusalem at this particular moment, life does go on. People go to work, kids go to school, and the Mayor’s Office has not canceled any events in the city. “If terrorists succeed in stopping us from doing what we want to do,” Mr. Barkat observed, “then they have succeeded.” To Jerusalemites as well as to visitors from other countries, Mr. Barkat says unequivocally, “Continue your plans. Help to fight terrorism by not being terrorized.”[Read Mayor Barkat’s full message here.]
During this Shabbat – October 16/17 – the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations of North America has called for a show of solidarity with Israel and a call for an end to the violence. Those who have committed to this Solidarity Shabbat include: the Union for Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the Rabbinical Council of America, the National Council of Young Israel and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities.
In keeping with this Solidarity Shabbat, we will include prayers during our services for peace in Israel, and between Arabs and Jews.
שאלו שלום ירושלים ישליו אהביך – Sha’alu sh’lom Yerushalayim; yishlayu ohavaych. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; may those who love you prosper. (Psalm 122.6)
This week we begin again our yearly cycle of Torah study. The Torah portions of this week and next week concentrate on primordial history: the creation of the world and human beings, and the nature of human beings and their potential to do both good and bad (the yetzer hatov – the good inclination, and the yetzer harah – the evil inclination). These parashiyot (Torah portions) also attempt to provide an etiology for why things are the way they are. For instance: Why do snakes crawl around on their bellies, and seem so repulsive and dangerous to most humans? According to our text, the snake originally stood upright. But it manipulated the first man and woman (Adam and Eve) to give into the temptation of eating the forbidden fruit, and thus its punishment was that it was condemned to crawl around on its belly throughout all time to come. Whatever the real evolutionary reason, this is a satisfying story nevertheless, and teaches us an important moral lesson.
Along with the punishment of the snake is the punishment of the humans for giving into temptation. The Torah appears to ask: Why is it that we have to work the earth for our nourishment in this life, and why is it that women experience pain in childbirth?
The Torah’s response:
Genesis, Chapter 4
16) And to the woman, [God] said, “I am doubling and redoubling your pains of pregnancy; with pain shall you bear children, yet your craving shall be for your man, and he shall govern you.” 17) Now to the man, [God] said, “Because you hearkened to your wife and ate of the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘Do not eat of it,’ the soil is now cursed on your account: Only through pain shall you eat of it, as long as you live. . . 19) By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread, till you return to the earth – the earth you were taken from. . .’ (and then one of the most well-known statements of the Torah) ‘for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.'”
I am always fascinated by this section of our text, because it could be construed, and has indeed been throughout much of history, as a justification for the subordination and condemnation of women, particularly with regard to their reproductive lives. But it is particularly painful to read now at this time, in light of the recently ramped-up battle against Planned Parenthood. During the Congressional hearing last week, featuring the intense grilling of PP President Cecile Richards, the baggage of centuries upon centuries of misogyny was fired at Richards during the entire day, by mostly male members of Congress. The age-old specter growing out of this Biblical tale as it has found its way into the human psyche, which portrays the woman as the “evil temptress,” who must bear the burden of her ability to reproduce, reared its ugly head during this hearing in a way that I can only characterize as openly hostile and outrageous. Richards said in an interview after the hearing: “In this coming presidential election, Roe v Wade is on the ballot. The battle lines were drawn last week. This isn’t about Planned Parenthood or fetal tissue. . . . it’s about whether abortion is going to be legal any more in this country.”
While there is a great deal more to say on this subject, I offer this brief commentary as food for thought during this rather painful time in American politics.