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Disillusionment and Hope

We all know the story. Moses comes down from the mountain with the Tablets of the Law. But as he approaches the ground he hears the raucousness and sees the revelry. In a fit of anger he hurls the tablets to the ground and smashes them upon the Israelites. The Israelites had become disillusioned with Moses, and he in turn becomes disillusioned with them. They have given up on each other.

Rabbi-Kinneret-Shiryon1This week I am in Jerusalem for the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Each year we meet in a different American city, but every seventh year we convene in Israel. This is our year. There are more than 300 Reform rabbis here: from the United States, Canada, and Israel, the U.K., France, Germany, Russia, and Australia. I will tell you more on a different occasion. For now, I particularly want to share with you the remarkable afternoon I spent today at YOZMA, the Reform congregation in the city of Modi’in, where my good friend Rabbi Kinneret Shiryon is the Rabbi. In addition to Rabbi Shiryon, Rabbi Miri Gold from Kehilat Birkat Shalom at Kibbutz Gezer, also a good friend of mine, and also Student Rabbi Yael Karrie from Kibbutz Nahal Oz in Sha’ar Hanegev, where Steve and I will be spending Shabbat, led the discussion. The discussion focused on the efforts of these remarkable women and their congregants to effect partnerships with Arab and Christian Israelis. We sat listening to several groups of women who get together regularly to form partnerships of mutual support and friendship. They made it clear: all they want to do is live together in peace as human beings. In addition, the group in particular from Sha’ar Hanegev includes both men and women. As we sat and listened to these lovely people, it became clear that except for the obvious ethnic differences, they are the same as us; the same as anyone; they are ordinary people, with families and aspirations, who simply want to live in security and peace, and in friendship with their neighbors, who share this land with them.

The utopian dream that motivated the early Zionists has been shattered by war and occupation. The tablets have been smashed, and disillusionment has set in almost universally. But remember the rest of the story in our Sidra. After Moses has broken the tablets, God commands him to carve two new ones, and to bring them back up to Mount Sinai to be re-inscribed. It is understandable that many people, both Israelis and those around the world, may feel great anger and frustration at the ongoing stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians, and all the manifold complications of that conflict. Nevertheless, today I saw living proof that the disappointment of unattainable perfection does not have to condemn us to endless anger and hate-mongering. We can re-carve the tablets and rewrite the narrative. My colleagues and I spent this afternoon with people in Israel who are determined not to sacrifice their lives to disillusionment and hopelessness. While global problems remain, they have taken their personal lives and their own emotional wellbeing into their own hands, by extending their hands to those different from themselves in some ways, and in some ways, exactly the same. There are some in this world who would choose to cast each other out as enemies. These women and men have chosen instead to embrace one another as friends. Lu yihi – may it be.

Justice, Justice

Constitution_of_the_United_States_page_1-c-eOur Torah portion this week, Tetzaveh, deals with the construction and decoration of the Mishkan – the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, and the clothing and responsibilities of the Kohanim – the Priests – as divine intermediaries in the sacrificial rites.

This being said, I ask for a bit of indulgence for this particular week in referencing a completely different section of the Torah, because it has been echoing rather loudly since the extraordinary events of this past weekend. That is the portion in Deuteronomy known as Shofetim – Judges – which we usually read in its schedule at the end of the summer, as we are anticipating the Days of Awe.

Deut 16: (18) You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Eternal your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. (19) You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. (20) Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your God is giving you.

On Saturday afternoon, before the Last Rites of the Church were even administered to the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, z”l, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a public statement saying that the Senate should not confirm a replacement for Justice Scalia until after the 2016 election. This was an act of direct defiance and rejection of President Obama’s authority as President, and in fact, his responsibility according to the Constitution that he swore to “protect, preserve and defend.” It was also a direct rebuke of the prescribed practice of giving serious consideration to each nominee on his or her individual merits.

The section in Deuteronomy that I quoted focuses on the establishment of government and domains of authority. The primary function of the civil government is adjudication. The Torah sets forth basic rules of adjudication, with the goal of achieving justice in the society. There are rules of judicial procedure, bringing evidence, capital punishment and lesser forms of punishment, the establishment of an appellate system, and provisions for each succeeding generation’s ability to interpret and reinterpret Torah law.

While United States law is not governed by Torah law, of course, nevertheless we can see forerunners of certain fundamentals of American governmental organization in the Torah, set forth with the goal of establishing justice in society. The Torah actually divides the civil sphere into three domains of governance, called ketarim – crowns. These were: Keter Torah – the Crown of Torah, Keter Kehunah – the Crown of Priesthood, and Keter Malkhut, the Crown of Kingship. As I said, they are not the same as our American notion of separation of powers into the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Nevertheless, the intent in Ancient Israel was to prevent any one entity from overtaking the entire society through the concentration and abuse of power.

While this is far from a comprehensive study of either Torah law or American law, it is clear that both systems were designed with the intent of preventing the concentration of power into a single human authority through the separation of powers structure. A number of legal scholars and public figures have repeated numerous times in the past few days that the United States Constitution clearly and undeniably states that when a vacancy occurs on the Supreme Court, the President is obligated to put forth a nominee to the Congress, and the Congress is obligated to vet that nominee to the ultimate end of either accepting or rejecting him/her. We all understand what is at stake in the quagmire that Senator McConnell and his colleagues are seeking to create. We also know that this is contrary to the very American system of justice that our Constitution aspires to establish. Every effort should be made to block this quagmire so that we as a society can get on with the business of pursuing justice in our society.

Images of Israel

Goodman_KotelWhen I joined you for this past Shabbat I had just returned from some two weeks in Israel. (Yes, I made sure to bring along the inevitable halva from The Halva King in the Machane Yehuda Shuk in Jerusalem!) This particular trip was a mission sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York, for the rabbis of Brownstone Brooklyn. There were twelve of us in all: seven rabbis, two lay directors of the Kings Bay “Y,” two lay directors of the Hannah Senesh Day School, and Orly Nitzan, the director of the Brownstone Brooklyn Shlichut program. We spent four remarkable days together.

My own stay in Israel continued, however, for an extra week, for my annual Winter Study Retreat at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. This is the third and final year of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative at Hartman, in which I have been privileged to participate. It has been an intensive course of summer and winter onsite study, bi-weekly webinar learning, and weekly hevruta study (paired study with colleagues). My hevruta partner is a rabbi is St. Louis. (What did we do before Skype?!) This summer, as this intensive program concludes, my 26 colleagues and I will become Senior Fellows at the Hartman Institute, which is a singular honor for all of us, and we are all grateful for having been afforded this opportunity.

The primary purpose of the UJA Mission was to help us as religious leaders of Brownstone Brooklyn to engage each other in a deeper and more candid and meaningful dialogue about conflicts in Israel, so that we can more effectively address these issues as a group and as individuals with our congregants and the wider community.

In this endeavor, which will be ongoing, UJA-Federation is sponsoring a collaborative series of three lectures , beginning next week, emanating from the Hartman Institute. I can’t say enough to encourage you to attend the Images of Israel lectures at CBE, Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, and Union Temple, all of which begin at 8:00PM.  They are free of charge for members of the various Brownstone congregations, but UJA-Federation and Hartman need to track the attendance. I know you understand that a robust attendance will encourage them to fund future lectures of this caliber. I hope you attend as many as possible. Universal agreement on content is not the intent; engagement is. Use the code UT16 when registering.

A word about the speakers:

Dr. Ruth Calderon (at CBE on Wednesday, February 17) is a former Member of Knesset in the Yesh Atid party, where she was Deputy Speaker. She earned a Ph.D. in Talmud from Hebrew University. A teacher and novelist, she is the founder and director of ALMA, a pluralistic, egalitarian yeshiva in the heart of Tel Aviv, and is also a faculty member at the Hartman Institute.

Dr. Tal Becker (at Brooklyn Heights Synagogue on Wednesday, March 16) holds a Ph.D. in International Law from Columbia University. He is a Senior Fellow at the Hartman Institute, and one of the driving forces of the iEngage program, now in its third segment. Tal has been a key member of Israel’s negotiating team since the Oslo Accords.

Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer (at Union Temple on Wednesday, April 13) is President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies from Harvard University and along with Tal Becker, is one of the architects of the iEngage program

Eilu v’Eilu

Detail of the Knesset Menorah, Jerusalem: Hillel the Elder teaching a man the meaning of the whole Torah while he stands on one foot. Photo: Deror Avi

Detail of the Knesset Menorah, Jerusalem: Hillel the Elder teaching a man the meaning of the whole Torah while he stands on one foot. Photo: Deror Avi

I am in Israel this week, as of today (Thursday) safely ensconced with my colleagues at the Shalom Hartman Institute. But I spent the first part of the week with seven of my rabbinic colleagues from Brownstone Brooklyn, and five Jewish professionals as well. We came on a mission with UJA-Federation to explore issues of pluralism here, but also to look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a number of different vantage points. The rabbis among us took turns offering brief teachings relevant to our discussions. This is the teaching I offered this morning. It is the locus classicus, if you will, in Talmudic teaching, regarding not only the validity of different opinions, but our obligation to HONOR them as well.

Rabbi Abba said in the name of Shmuel: For three years there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, the one school asserting, “The Halakha (law) is according to our views!” The other school asserting, “The Halakha is according to our views!” Then the Bat Kol (Divine Voice) came forth and said: “Eilu v’Eilu divrei Elohim Chayim – These and these are the words of the Living God, and the Halakha is according to Beit Hillel.”

Since both are the words of the Living God, what entitled Beit Hillel to have the Halakha fixed according to their rulings? Because they were kind and humble, and they taught both their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai. And even more, they taught the rulings of Beit Shammai before their own.

Developing the ability to tolerate, and yes, even honor divergent perspectives is a lifelong process for all of us. I do believe that in many situations, there comes a point at which we absolutely must articulate our position and stand by it. Remember that ultimately the community did accept the rulings of the School of Hillel. Nevertheless, the process of deliberative and open discussion, and acknowledgement of the validity of other opinions, became part and parcel of Jewish tradition. Perhaps the point of greatest agreement on our mission this week has been our willingness to respectfully disagree. It has brought us closer as colleagues and as friends.

Breaking News: The Kotel Belongs to Everyone!

The buzz within Israel is very loud today, particularly as it has reverberated throughout the Reform and Conservative Movements, and those in the Orthodox community as well (like the leaders and faculty of the Hartman Institute). The following is the text of the announcement released today by Women of the Wall.

This is a victory for all of us, and when I see you this Shabbat, God willing, I will offer up a full-throated Shehecheyanu.

Revolution for Women and Jewish Pluralism in Israel

Government approves Mendelblit Plan for a third, pluralist prayer section at the Western Wall.

In approving this plan, the state acknowledges women’s full equality at the Kotel and the imperative of freedom of choice in Judaism in Israel.

The creation of a third section of the Kotel sets a strong precedent in women’s status in Israel: women as administrators of a holy site, women as leaders, women as influential force not to be ignore or silenced.|

We have struggled for 27 years for women’s equality and in this agreement have achieved much more than that. The vision of the new section of the Kotel is a physical and conceptual space open to all forms of Jewish prayer. Instead of splitting up the existing
pie into ever more divided, smaller pieces, we are making the pie much larger and sharing the space. Unlike the northern Kotel prayer sections, where ultra-Orthodox social norms and traditions are forced on all who visit there, the southern section of the Kotel welcomes all visitors to pray according to their own traditions.

The last two years of negotiations with the government yielded revolutionary, historic fruit:

  • A strong coalition between Women of the Wall, the Reform Movement, the Conservative/Masorti Movement, the Jewish Federations of North America, and the Jewish Agency headed by Natan Sharansky. This coalition has given voice to those who have been silenced and ignored in Israel until now.
  • There will be one main entrance for three prayer sections, which will be transformed to allow full visibility of the new section.
  • The de-criminalization of women’s prayer at the Kotel, including the women’s section even after the finalization of the third section. Removing criminal sanctions for non-compliance with Kotel “local custom” as defined by ultra-Orthodox rabbinic authority.
  • The liberation of the Western Wall upper plaza. The plaza of the Western Wall, the shared space above the three prayer sections, will be established as a national plaza for state ceremonies, free of discrimination based on gender and denomination.
  • The allocation of holy space and state budget to women and non-Orthodox Jewish factions is groundbreaking. In this agreement the state and the office of the Administrator of the Western Wall and Holy places formally recognize and accept pluralist Jewish denominations and movements for the very first time. This achievement in and of itself will open the floodgates to Jewish pluralism in Israel.
  • Women’s prayer groups, like Women of the Women, that wish to read Torah will have full access to Torah scrolls and a space set aside from mixed prayer to do so at the Kotel.
  • The new section will be managed not by ultra-Orthodox hegemony but by a council of representatives who are committed to pluralism and inclusion in Jewish ritual life: the Jewish Agency, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Reform Movement, the Conservative/Masorti Movements and Women of the Wall. Once built, the new section will welcome school groups, birthright trips, ceremonies, mass prayers and visiting dignitaries regularly and with open arms.

Are we leaving the women’s section?

No, Not yet. The plan approved today is just that, a plan. Until its implementation, we continue to pray in the women’s section.

If and when the Mendelblit plan is fully implemented and the third section has been constructed as a prayer space in accordance with this agreement, Women of the Wall will relocate our monthly Rosh Hodesh prayers to the new space.

If and when this transition is complete, the new section will make way for great change: women will pray at the Kotel, as equals, as active participants and leaders in rituals, ceremonies and of course in reading from the Torah.

Until we move to the new section of the Kotel, we will continue to pray according to our tradition in the women’s section as part of the “local custom,” as defined in the 2013 District Court Decision by Judge Sobell.

Women of the Wall’s conditions for moving to the new section include:

  • The transformation of the entrance to the Kotel plaza, including moving the “Shoken” security gate to create a majestic, ceremonious and visible path to the third section.
  • The fully functional and operational third section including construction completed, infrastructure built and staff hired, prayer books, tallitot, Torah scrolls, etc. available in the prayer space.
  • Removal of all obstacles of visibility of the new section.
  • Certification for the legality and safety of all of the platforms of the plaza.

Until Women of the Wall’s executive board is satisfied with the full (not partial) implementation of this agreement, we will continue to pray in the women’s section and to struggle for full rights there. Women of the Wall will not stop fighting for women’s free access to the Torah. Until a pluralist third section is available and suitable for such prayer, our place remains in the women’s section.

Women of the Wall vision- then and now

Women of the Wall’s goal has always been women’s freedom and empowerment in prayer at the Kotel. Now, all Kotel visitors will see a range of choices in front of them: the ultra-Orthodox prayer sections as well as a spacious, open, welcoming pluralist prayer section for families and groups of all kinds. School children who visit the Kotel on mandatory educational trips will see all of the Jewish possibilities before them and most importantly, Israeli girls will see that women need not be excluded, marginalized and silenced by Judaism. Families who wish to celebrate Jewish life cycle events no longer have to sneak in a Torah for women, stand on plastic chairs to catch a glimpse of their bar mitzvah (currently there is no current option of an official bat mitzvah ceremony at the Kotel), or face harassment.

It is our belief that once it is completed, all visitors, worshippers, soldiers, immigrants, families, groups and individuals of all kinds will all find their place in the new section. It stands to reason that a public prayer space at the Kotel created with great care to reflect the diverse identities of the Jewish people will attract just that- am yisrael.

These negotiations and this agreement which, if implemented, will change the way Jews experience the holiest place in Israel for future generations, would never have come to be were it not for the dedicated, determined struggle, feminist activism and prayer of Women of the Wall for over 27 years.

The real heroes are the women and men who came to the Kotel with Women of the Wall each month and those who stood in solidarity with us all over the world. It was their influence and their determination that forced the government of Israel to negotiate a solution that dignifies all Jews.