Our Torah portion recounts the birth of Isaac and Rebecca’s twin sons, Jacob and Esau.
Genesis, Chapter 25
25 The first one emerged red, like a hairy mantle all over; so they named him Esau. 26 Then his brother emerged, holding on to the heel of Esau; so they named him Jacob. . . 27 When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man, who stayed in camp. 28 Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game; but Rebecca favored Jacob. 29 Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. 30 And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished”— which is why he was named Edom. 31 Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” 32And Esau said, “I am at the point of death, so of what use is by birthright to me?” 33 But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; and he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright.
Though these two are twins, albeit fraternal, ostensibly, they are different as night and day—polar opposites. We always have tended to see these two as extremes of the human personality—one smart and calculating, thinking of the future; the other, impulsive and crude, thinking only of immediate gratification for his own physical needs.
I have addressed the plague of sexual harassment and improper behavior before, and we will be addressing it again, no doubt. What I would prefer to look at for this particular moment is the more global issue of human nature. On the High Holy Days, we remind ourselves that we are created with two y’tzirot—two inclinations: the yeitzer tov and the yeitzer ra—the good inclination and the evil inclination. No one is inherently all good, or all evil. We all have the capacity for both. But the Holidays also remind us that we are created with the ability to control the yeitzer ra and steer ourselves in the direction of the yeitzer tov. Self-control: that seems to be the operative issue here.
For too long, there has been an assumption in our society that “boys will be boys,” and later on, “men will be men,” as it were. And thus, the sexual drive of men is beyond their control, and improper behavior—and that includes verbal behavior—is just part of their nature. Baloney! This is precisely the mentality that led to separation of men and women in synagogues, on buses, at the Western Wall, and so on. And as a liberal Jewish community, we flatly rejected that thinking. I know too many wonderful, accomplished men who are fully in control of their impulses, and do have the ability to control themselves, and behave appropriately around women: whether in the workplace, or in synagogue, or in social settings, or what-have-you. But as a society, for way too long, we have winked and nodded, as it were, in the full knowledge that there are men who have transgressed boundaries, from a little, to a lot. As a teenager, a college student, a graduate student, and a professional in two different professional worlds, I have seen it; and without any doubt in my mind, virtually every woman I know can say the same thing. But I believe that we, as a society, have allowed it. We have not adequately insisted that men, and yes, a small minority of women as well, must be held to the standard of self-control of which we are capable as human beings. That is what our tradition teaches us, and if our religious affiliation demands nothing else of us, it demands this.
As I said, this conversation will have to continue; but for now, I wish us all a little peace on this Shabbat.
This is our second week into the final soliloquy of Moses at the end of the 40-year journey through the Wilderness. The Book of Deuteronomy features a recapitulation, and in some cases, a reinterpretation of the events leading up to this moment, as the Children of Israel stand at the Jordan, preparing to cross into the Promised Land.
Within this week’s parashah is an admonition that we are compelled to look at with complete honesty:
And now, O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am instructing you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Eternal, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of the Eternal your God that I enjoin upon you. (Deuteronomy 4.1-2)
As we study the development of Jewish belief and practice since this text was written over 2-1/2 millennia ago, we certainly see that the commandment not to add or take away has been taken with a grain of salt by every generation. Many Orthodox Jews see this process as an interpretative one, with each generation deepening its understanding of the original intent of the text, and honoring that intent while responding to the ever-changing world around us all. On a certain level, Reform Jews respond much in the same way, but also forthrightly stating our desire to embrace the “spirit of the law,” even if at times we cannot, or will not, embrace the “letter of the law,” whether it be on practical or ideological grounds.
Yesterday (Thursday) the Gay Pride Parade took place in Jerusalem. The sign in rainbow colors was the official sign of the Israel Reform Movement. It bears one of the most fundamental precepts of the Torah: You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19.18). We read it on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.
A cantor friend of mine posted a photo on his Facebook page of the black and white sign that he saw at the parade. The block print is the verse above from Leviticus. The written addition in Hebrew script across it that someone thought to insert into this precept reads: “even if he is not.” The entire statement in a workable translation is: Love your neighbor—even if he or she is not exactly like you. It is an eloquent expression of the need to “add” to the text from the perspective of our own time and understanding.
It has taken us a long time as a society to evolve to a better understanding and embrace of LGBTQ life. The transformation of the Reform Movement in this regard really only began in the 1980’s. That’s just shy of 40 years ago. 40 years is the amount of time that Moses and the Israelites wandered in the desert. Now in our text, they stand at the Jordan River, preparing to cross over into the Promised Land. While this Pride Parade took place in Jerusalem yesterday, it is safe to say that the LGBTQ community has not yet fully arrived in the Promised Land. But the fact that almost 25,000 people marched in the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem yesterday represents a giant step in that direction.
This past Sunday evening, Steve and I attended a most enjoyable concert at the Jerusalem YMCA— known to Jerusalemites as “Imka.” It was a joint concert of the YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus, and the Yale University Whiffenpoofs. Of course we already knew the music of the Whiffenpoofs. This was the first a cappella all male college choir, founded at Yale in 1909. Steve played violin in the Yale Symphony while he was a student there, and also played trumpet in the Yale Precision Marching Band. But he never sang with the Whiffenpoofs, even though he has always loved them. The members of the Whiffenpoofs take a full year off from their studies in the senior year, and devote all their attention and time to the group. They travel all throughout the United States and the world. This week they were in Israel. In September, they will resume their studies and look forward to their graduation next June.
The YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus is made up of about 25 high school kids, both Jewish and Palestinian. They also are an a cappella choir, though occasionally they are accompanied by keyboard and/or drum. They sing in Hebrew, Arabic, English and French. Whereas the Whiffenpoofs all wear white ties and tails, the kids—girls and boys—dress more informally, in shirts and pants. At this concert they made it a point to all wear different colored shirts, I suspect to stress their individuality within the remarkable ensemble that they have. The group is conducted by Micah Hendler, who himself was a member of the Whiffenpoofs six years ago.
This is the stated mission of the YMCA Youth Chorus:
“The YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus is a choral and dialogue program for Israeli and Palestinian high school students in Jerusalem. Our mission is to provide a space for these young people from East and West Jerusalem to grow together in song and dialogue. Through the co-creation of music and the sharing of stories, the chorus seeks to empower youth in Jerusalem to become leaders in their communities and inspire singers and listeners around the world to work for peace.”
I have to tell you that the sound that these kids produce together is one of the most beautiful I have ever heard. It is a pure sound, the pitch is spot on, and the kids themselves are clearly delighted to be there, singing and making music with one another. Their singing was so beautiful that at one point Steve and I both were moved to tears.
This is harmony at its finest.
Sunday night and Monday were also Rosh Chodesh Av—the first day of the month of Av. As happens on every Rosh Chodesh except for Tishrei (which is Rosh Hashanah), Nashot Hakotel—Women of the Wall—gather at 7:00 in the morning in the women’s section of the Kotel to pray the Rosh Chodesh Morning Service. This Monday was no exception. Steve and I got up early and joined them, both with our Women of the Wall Talitot. (Yes, Steve has one too, which he wears frequently.) Incidentally, you might be happy to know that we were joined by Cantor Lauren Phillips, who was there with her husband Dan Fogelman on vacation.
This was the first Rosh Chodesh since Prime Minister Netanyahu nullified the agreement that took some 5 years to hammer out regarding a new egalitarian platform along the Wall that would be designated specifically for liberal, egalitarian prayer. The case itself, of course, has been dragging on for 28 years. But, as I wrote earlier this month, even after reaching a carefully negotiated agreement, Mr. Netanyahu caved in to pressure by the ultra-Orthodox power mongers, and reneged. So not only are the women of Nashot Hakotel subjected to the taunts and terrible noise of the Haredim, we are now segregated even further behind an additional barricade within the women’s section, mostly for our own protection.
While it’s not unusual for cat calls, whistles, and obscenities to be hurled at the women who gather together by the Haredim, both men and women on their respective sides of the mechitza, this particular Rosh Chodesh seemed particularly loud. And, at one point, the Sheliach Tzibbur in the men’s section got hold of a microphone that is only legal to use during public commemorative events. But no one made any attempt to take the microphone from him. As he chanted the service in the men’s section, his voice bellowed over the loudspeakers, in an effort to drown us out. The one positive effect this did have is that the whistles and cat calls stopped for awhile, because they did not want to drown out the sound from the men’s section. As though only the prayers of men may be heard on high.
This was discord at its most irritating.
Rosh Chodesh Av ushers in a 9-day period leading up to Tish’ah B’av, the 9th of Av, which commemorates the destructions of the Temples in Jerusalem. The huge stones of the Roman destruction some 2,000 years ago, still lie in the rocks and concrete, as they tumbled randomly and violently to the ground. Tish’ah B’av is known to Jews as the saddest day of the year. This is not only because of the destructions and additional calamities themselves which befell us on this day. It is because of the discord and infighting that accompanied these catastrophes. Sinat Chinam is the term—
hatred without cause.
Within a 12-hour period we experienced the melodious sounds of harmony and the distressing cacophony of discord. The harmony, from a group of high school kids, Jews and Palestinians, seeking to create understanding and a better world for themselves and their peers. The discord, from a plaza full of Jews, some of whom are so rigid and closed-minded that they are unable to tolerate differences among us.
Our Torah portion contains one of a number of census lists of the Children of Israel, particularly compiled for the purpose of counting up the number of men from each tribe able to bear arms, with each tribe recording its own number.The total of this census between all the tribes came to 601,730 men of eligibility to bear arms in a potential conflict. While they camped according to their tribes, together they formed a united front. Such was the list of the Children of Israel as they camped in Shittim in the Jordan Valley.
This past week a different list has come out of Israel, produced by a different sort of conflict; this one, not in the interest of Jewish unity, but one which threatens to further tear us apart.
No doubt many of you have seen the infamous “blacklist” circulating in the Jewish community this week. This is a list of 160 rabbis—Reform, Conservative and Orthodox—whose names have been published by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel for the purpose of invalidating their testimony on the authenticity of people’s Jewish status.
As you know, rabbis preside over conversions, and typically provide certificates of conversion with their signatures, and the signatures of two additional rabbis who served on the Beit Din— Jewish “court”—that questioned the convert and placed his/her stamp of approval upon the validity of the conversion. During my 32 years in the Rabbinate, I have issued a great many such certificates, as you can imagine, and presided over a great many conversions. When I work with someone for conversion, I have to inform him/her that his/her conversion most likely will not be accepted by the Orthodox community. But in Israel, this is also true of people who converted under Orthodox auspices, if there is something about the particular Orthodox rabbi’s policies that irritates the Rabbanut. Some of these “irritating” policies might include: their willingness to form alliances with non-Orthodox rabbis; their religious outlook as “Modern Orthodox” rabbis, fully participating in secular society, at the same time as they live committed, halakhic lives; advocating rabbinic education or the equivalent for women, and the like. In general, my conversion students are committed to liberal Judaism, and choose to convert under Reform auspices, the most authentic route for them. As an aside, about 30 years ago, after bowing to international pressure, the Misrad HaP’nim (Ministry of Interior) made the decision to recognize conversions presided over by Reform and Conservative rabbis outside of Israel. This, however, was for the purpose of Aliyah, and not with regard to Halakhic status.
In addition to conversion, rabbis are sometimes asked to provide letters attesting to the Jewish status of an individual, particularly for the purpose of facilitating Aliyah—going to live in Israel. I have also written several letters like this over the years.The imprimaturs of these 160 rabbis will longer be accepted in Israel for the purpose of Aliyah.
With great pride I can tell you that my husband Stephen’s name appears on this list of 160. I regret to say that mine does not. In fact there are no women on the list. That, of course, is because we do not even come close to being taken seriously as rabbis, and thus it’s not worth the Rabbanut’s trouble to even mention our names on such a blacklist! But for the 160 men, some of whom we have spoken with this week, being on this blacklist is now a badge of pride. In fact, there are colleagues of ours who are upset because their names are not on the list, and there is a whole group of rabbis from California who now are trying to be included on the list! You may access the list here: www.haaretz.com/Israel-news/1.800651
So of course, this whole thing is so absurd that if you hadn’t read it in the newspaper this week, you’d think that I had made it all up and I was pulling your leg. In fact even as I sit here and write it, I myself can hardly believe that this lunacy has reached the level that it has. However, sometimes it would seem that conflicts have to reach levels of great absurdity indeed, before the need for sane resolution becomes clear. Amid all the mishugas that is going on here now between the extremist Haredi power bloc and the liberal voices of reason, this blacklist is yet one more level of destructiveness that hopefully will help to bring these conflicts to a head. I don’t know when that will happen, but I hope and pray that it will happen soon. To try to hasten that time, however, people like my friend and colleague Rabbi Uri Regev are continuing to work to break the stranglehold of the Haredim over people’s lives in Israel, and in the Diaspora as well. Rabbi Regev has come to Union Temple to talk about his organization HIDDUSH – Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel. Thus I have placed my name on another list, this one compiled by Rabbi Regev. As of this hour, there are some 400 names, and counting. I encourage you to place your name on this list as well. Here is the link. rrfei.org/hiddush-refer-unity-statement/
Meanwhile, in the spirit of liberalism, and in the commitment to diversity within unity, I will wish you a Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem—in our highest aspiration, the city of peace.
About two weeks ago, there was a news report in New York that a man in his 60’s was bitten by a poisonous snake in his apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. He was taken to Jacobi Hospital, and then was well enough to be released. So, how does a poisonous snake come to an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen? Apparently, this man had been keeping it there as a pet. I think there may be an eviction notice in his future. . . Perhaps he would do well with some psychotherapy as well!
As it happens, poisonous snakes are among the topics in our Torah portion this very week. Virtually all through our reading of the Book of Numbers we hear nothing but bitter complaining from our ancestors in the Wilderness. They have no faith in God’s power to save them, and rebel against the leadership of Moses, as God’s appointee. To punish them, here in Parashat Chukat, God sends poisonous serpents to bite them, and many of them die. But then, Moses offers them a lifeline: not a real serpent (nachash), but a serpent made of copper (n’choshet). Moses was to mount this copper serpent (nachash han’choshet) on a pole, and raise it above the people. If those who had been bitten raised their eyes and looked upon it, they would be cured and they would live.
Really? Looking at a piece of copper on pole—a cure for snake bite? Sounds just about as ridiculous as keeping a poisonous snake as a pet in an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen in New York! But according to our sidra, it worked, and the people were cured.
Of course, the whole thing smacks of idolatry, forbidden to the People of Israel. Yet snake-like figures were found throughout Israel at what had been idolatrous Canaanite shrines, and also, early Israelite shrines. There was even a god-like figure called N’chushtan, taking the idolatry of the copper serpent to its logical, though idolatrous conclusion. King Hezekiah campaigned against these figures, and did his best to abolish them from Israelite practice.
The Rabbis understood the problem here, and, as always, tried to put a more favorable spin on this strange story in the Torah. An interpretation in the Talmud posits that the people actually looked past the nachash han’choshet, and upward toward God: “When the Jewish people turned their eyes upward, and subjected their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they were healed; but if not, they rotted from their snakebites.” (Rosh Hashanah 29a)
In its beginnings, Reform Judaism bent over backwards not to assign magical powers to objects and amulets, or to make ritual items in our tradition objects of idolatry. A perfect example is the Torah Scroll. As you know, it is customary before our Reading of the Torah, to march through the congregation holding the Torah—a ritual known as the hakafah—and for people to extend a tallit, a book, or simply their hand, and kiss the Torah. The early Reformers eschewed this ritual, because, in their eyes, it smacked of idolatry, and risked making our sacred Scripture an object of magical power. Nevertheless, during the past generation or so, the Reform Movement has taken back the ritual of the hakafah. It has proven to evoke an emotional connection between the people and our sacred Scripture, particularly as we reach out to kiss the scroll. The hope is that through making an emotional connection during this ritual, we will be inspired to study the contents of the Torah, and perform the mitzvot—the commandments—that will help us to live out and practice the values of Jewish tradition.
As thoughtful, modern Jews, we are constantly re-thinking and re-evaluating our relationship with and practice of the array of rituals within our tradition. The aim is to promote our knowledge and practice of the values of our tradition, as the rituals enhance our affective experience of Jewish life.
I wrote the D’var Torah above before we left for Israel on Monday. But as we sat in Kennedy Airport waiting for our flight, we tried to absorb the impact of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to abrogate the agreement regarding the Egalitarian Platform at the Kotel, the Western Wall. After some five years in the making, the agreement was finally reached, or so we thought, in February of 2016, with plans underway for the construction of a beautiful area designated for egalitarian, pluralistic prayer. One of the primary brokers of this deal was Natan Scharansky, head of the Jewish Agency. Now, in an obvious move to kowtow to the ultra-Orthodox parties in Israel, Mr. Netanyahu has double-crossed Mr. Scharansky, and non-Orthodox Jews all over Israel and all over the world, in nullifying this agreement.
From the moment our feet hit the ground on Tuesday, our e-mail server was bombarded with statements of protest from virtually every fair-minded person and organization we know, protesting this cowardly move on the part of the Prime Minister. I would encourage you to access the statements of ARZA, the WUPJ, Women of the Wall, and Natan Scharansky. But since we are preparing to begin our studies next week at the Shalom Hartman Institute, I will insert this particular link for responses by Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, President of the Hartman Institute, and Hartman faculty member and journalist, Yossi Klein Halevi.