Lech lecha mei-artz’cha – Go forth from your native land, from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you. (Genesis 12.1-3)
Thus begins our Torah portion for this week, and thus begins the unfolding of our destiny as a people, which continues to unfold to this day, and will continue on, we pray, for all time.
On this particular day, the 7th of Cheshvan, there is a celebration among our people that may go completely unnoticed by many of us. It is called “Diaspora-Israel Day,” and grows out of the “Domim-aLike Project,” a relatively new joint initiative of the Reform Movement and the Israeli Government. Its aim is to express and celebrate the unique, ongoing, and complex relationship between Jewish people wherever we live: in Israel, in the United States and Canada, in Europe, in South America, everywhere. The word domim itself means alike. Wherever our people have lived throughout our long and amazing history, we have maintained a bond with each other that, despite a number of intense strains, remains intact to this day. We often hear the term “Jewish Peoplehood.” The term generally refers to the sense of belonging that we share with Jews around the world. Of course, it has taken many forms throughout our history, and on a certain level is an intangible; yet it remains one of the dominant components of Jewish identity and culture.
Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh – all Jews are responsible for one another. This principle has been a driving force of our connection as a people, and our working to maintain our ties throughout history. It has been a primary motivator to help our people wherever they live, whether in times of trouble, or in times of great celebration. If you should have the occasion to visit the headquarters of UJA-Federation in New York City, you will see this principle emblazoned starkly upon the walls throughout the building. It is a short, yet powerful statement of the organization’s reason for being.
For us in Brownstone Brooklyn, one of the most wonderful developments of this bond is the Sh’lichut Program—the program of emissaries from Israel. One of the initiatives of this program is to bring young shinshinim to our area to become a part of our community each year. The term shinshin is an acronym for sh’nat sheirut—a year of service. When Israeli students graduate high school, they generally begin their mandatory service in the Army. Many, however, choose to delay their service by a year, and embark upon a voluntary year of community service. Many of the programs are structured within Israel.This particular program, however, funded by UJA-Federation, brings a small group of these wonderful young people to different areas within the US and Canada, both to learn about the vibrancy of North American Jewry, and to teach our students about the vibrancy of Israel. This is now Union Temple’s fourth year of participation in this program. Our kids, and we as well, have been blessed by Ido, Paz, Naomi, and now Aviv, in this extraordinary demonstration of domim—a learning experience to teach us that even though we are different in some ways, in many fundamental ways, we are alike.
Ayelet Zioni and Gili Liber formed a band in Israel in 1997 called Gaya. A Song for Love is perhaps their best-known song, and has become an unofficial anthem representing Jewish hope and connection.
A song for love
Together, heart to heart
We’ll open up and see the light in the sky
Together, heart to heart
We’ll open up with hope for love.
As the heart opens up
It embraces the world
And with a great shout
To sing for love.
Say everything’s possible
It’s not too late
The dawn has already broken
It’s time for love.
And only if we believe
Without any mucking around
In the road rising up
It’s a song for love.
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.
As we arrive at the concluding chapters of the Book of Numbers, we read an accounting of all the places the Children of Israel have traveled through from the time they left Egypt until this point, as they arrive at the bank of the Jordan River. Over forty locations are mentioned in this list, where the Israelites stopped and camped on their journey. Now they wait with Moses, who has led them to this point. But it is Joshua who ultimately will take them across the Jordan to a new land, where they will make a new life as a free people.
This week Steve and I traveled up to the city of Akko for a few days. Akko is is one of the northernmost cities in Israel on the Mediterranean Sea. A port city, it served as an entry point to the Holy Land for the Crusaders, who constructed magnificent fortresses and tunnels there. It also has a rich Jewish history, and an Islamic history as well. During the Mandatory Period, the British used the main citadel as a prison, primarily for Jewish freedom fighters. A number of members of the Irgun, Lechi, and the Stern Gang were executed there by the British. Today, the old city of Akko is primarily an Arab city. The new city is primarily Jewish. It is a fascinating city to visit, and hosts some of the finest restaurants in Northern Israel.
As we left Akko, we traveled a bit more around the area. One of our stops was a kibbutz just north of Akko called Kibbutz Lohamei HaGhetta-ot, the Ghetto Fighters Kibbutz. We had been there a long time ago, but the museum has been greatly expanded since then. The founders of the kibbutz survived the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe. A few managed to escape from the Warsaw Ghetto after the Jewish resistance was finally quashed. A number of others had survived and escaped other Jewish uprisings in Nazi ghettos throughout Europe. Some had been prisoners in concentration camps. Some had joined the Partisans and ultimately escaped through the forests of Europe. Some escaped to the USSR and then gradually traveled southward. Some escaped to Spain and traveled through the Pyrenees. All of their journeys were circuitous and fraught with danger. For every soul, there is another saga. But somehow, all these people eventually managed to make their way to the Western Galilee of Israel, just north of Akko. In August of 1949, they founded a Kibbutz there, and named it after themselves—The Ghetto Fighters Kibbutz. In all, 159 adults and 21 children were counted among the founders. And then, they built a museum, to record the truth of what they had lived through.
Many of us, no doubt, have visited other Holocaust memorials: the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and indeed, memorials and museums all over the world. But the museum that was built at Lohamei HaGhetta-ot was the first of all of these. For this alone it would be an important place. But it also tells the story of resistance, and the will to survive, in a way that is just a bit different from the others. For instance, there is a full wing devoted to the Jewish community of The Netherlands. Some 80% of Dutch Jewry was slaughtered during the Holocaust; more proportionately than any other country in Europe. While many in the Dutch population were complicit in this persecution, there were many Christian rescuers among the Dutch people as well. There are additional wings which tell the stories of the ghetto uprisings throughout Europe, and of unbelievable heroism.
One of the most astonishing artifacts in the museum is the very glass booth in which Adolf Eichmann, yimach shemo, sat during his trial in Jerusalem in 1961-62. The attention of Israel and much of the world was riveted on this rather diminutive figure, who was the principal architect of the “Final Solution.” Practically speaking, it was the first time that the world really began to come to terms with what happened. Several years ago at the Hartman Institute, Dr. Rachel Korazim led us in study through the opening statement of the principal prosecutor, Justice Gideon Hausner, who was the Attorney General of Israel at the time.
“In rising to present the case against the accused, I am not alone. I am accompanied and surrounded by 6,000,000 prosecutors, who, alas, cannot stand and point their finger of accusation against the man in the dock declaring ‘I Accuse.’ Their ashes are either at Auschwitz or Treblinka, or in graves scattered all over Europe. Their blood cries out but their voices are silent and unheard. It is in their name that I present this terrible, awesome indictment.” And he continued: “There was only one man in the satanic structure of Nazism who was almost entirely concerned with the Jews, and whose business was their destruction. This was Adolf Eichmann, who for years saw his destiny and calling—to which he was devoted with enthusiasm and zeal—the extermination of the Jews.”
The statement continued, and Hausner listed in specific and brutal detail the atrocities visited upon the Jews by the Nazis, at the behest and direction of the man in the glass booth. It was one of the most profound and earth shattering statements of modern jurisprudence.
Adolf Eichmann was put to death by hanging at the prison in Ramla on the night of May 31, 1962. But the impact of the trial, and the consciousness of the world as to the reality of what Eichmann and his cohorts had perpetrated, were only just beginning.
I encourage you to access the website of the Ghetto Fighters Museum, and explore it a bit for yourselves. And, if you should travel to Israel and find yourself in the north, try to visit this place. It is an important and profound chapter in the ongoing history and life of our people. www.gfh.org.il/Eng/.
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.
Our Torah portion focuses on Korach, a member of the tribe of Levi. In fact the portion itself bears his name. Korach foments rebellion among the people, because he resents Moses’s leadership, which of course, was assigned by God. Korach is the paradigmatic troublemaker, because he deliberately tries to break the unity of the Children of Israel. His reward, along with the 250 who joined him in his rebellion, is to be swallowed up within the earth, and die in ignominy.
As the Jewish People has evolved throughout history, we have come to understand that unity does not mean uniformity. History has taught us that our people can maintain our ties with one another, even across continents, while at the same time, tolerating and even embracing our differences with one another. This holds true with regard to theological perspectives, ethnic expressions, political positions, and diversity of all kinds. The modern description for this embrace of difference is pluralism: one people, different approaches.
This coming Monday, Steve and I are heading to Israel for our regular study at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Last year was a highlight for us, as I became a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Institute. After the intensity of the three-year program, I will rejoin the wider Rabbinic gathering for a shorter, but still quite intense program. For two weeks every summer, some 170 rabbis of all denominations gather in the Beit Midrash – the study hall – of the Hartman Institute, literally elbow-to-elbow, to study from morning to night with the finest scholars in Israel, and with each other as well. The Hartman Institute is devoted to promoting pluralism within unity as the ideal for the Jewish State, and indeed, for the Jewish People around the world.
We at Union Temple have studied with some of the Hartman scholars through the iEngage series. We also have met and heard from a few of them in person at the Brownstone Brooklyn synagogues, including our own. Those of us who traveled together to Israel in 2015 visited the Hartman Institute and spent a remarkable hour with Tal Becker, one of the luminaries of the Hartman faculty. Learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute.
Before any trip we make to Israel, I remember the beautiful poetry of Psalm 122 as it resounds in my mind and in my heart. It is a prayer for those going up to Jerusalem, and for the city of Jerusalem itself. So, as we prepare for our journey this summer, I offer the words of Psalm 122 – “A Song of Ascents.”
א שִׁיר הַֽמַּֽעֲלוֹת לְדָוִד שׂמַחְתִּי בְּאֹמְרִים לִי בֵּית יְהֹוָה נֵלֵֽךְ: ב עֹמְדוֹת הָיוּ רַגְלֵינוּ בִּשְׁעָרַיִךְ יְרֽוּשָׁלָֽם: ג יְרֽוּשָׁלַם הַבְּנוּיָה כְּעִיר שֶׁחֻבְּרָה־לָּהּ יַחְדָּֽו: ד שֶׁשָּׁם עָלוּ שְׁבָטִים שִׁבְטֵי־יָהּ עֵדוּת לְיִשְׂרָאֵל לְהֹדוֹת לְשֵׁם יְהֹוָֽה: ה כִּי שָׁמָּה ׀ יָשְׁבוּ כִסְאוֹת לְמִשְׁפָּט כִּסְאוֹת לְבֵית דָּוִֽד: ו שַֽׁאֲלוּ שְׁלוֹם יְרֽוּשָׁלָם יִשְׁלָיוּ אֹֽהֲבָֽיִךְ: ז יְהִֽי־שָׁלוֹם בְּחֵילֵךְ שַׁלְוָה בְּאַרְמְנוֹתָֽיִךְ: ח לְמַֽעַן־אַחַי וְרֵעָי אֲדַבְּרָה־נָּא שָׁלוֹם בָּֽךְ: ט לְמַעַן בֵּֽית־יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֲבַקְשָׁה טוֹב לָֽךְ:
A Song of Ascents. Of David.
I rejoiced when they said to me, “We are going to the House of the LORD.” Our feet stood inside your gates, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem built up, a city knit together, to which tribes would make pilgrimage, the tribes of the LORD, as was enjoined upon Israel – to praise the name of the LORD. There the thrones of judgment stood, thrones of the house of David. Pray for the peace of well-being of Jerusalem; “May those who love you be at peace. May there be well-being within your ramparts, peace in your citadels.” For the sake of my kin and friends, I pray for your well-being; for the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I seek your good.
Our Torah portion this week contains the commandment concerning the wearing of tzitzit—fringes.
Numbers Chapter 15:
37) The Eternal said to Moses, as follows: 38) Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. 39) That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Eternal and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. 40) Thus, you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and be holy to your God. 41) I the Eternal am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the Eternal your God.
These verses are included in the traditional recitation of the Shema at services. (In the Reform Prayer Book we omit verses 37-39.) The tzitzit are the fringes on the bottom of a tallit, and practically speaking, the tallit is the very garment that enables the wearing of the tzitzit. The purpose of the tzitzit is to remind us of the mitzvot—commandments—when we look upon them. For this reason, the tallit is generally only worn at morning synagogue services because the light of the morning enables us to see them. The exception is Kol Nidre, when it is customary to wear a tallit even though it is at night. However, it is also customary for the rabbi, cantor, or leader of prayer to wear a tallit at all services to distinguish him/herself as the Sheliach/Shelichat Tzibbur, the Leader of Prayer. That is why you see the cantor and myself wearing tallitot at all services that we are conducting, both morning and evening.
Virtually from its inception, and then for many years to come, the Reform Movement rejected the wearing of the tallit. Aside from a dismissal of the custom as “fetishism,” the early Reformers believed that one should not need outward reminders of spirituality and one’s loyalty to Jewish teaching. But within the past 40 years or so, the wearing of the tallit, though still optional in most Reform congregations, nevertheless has become fairly standard across the Movement.
And perhaps more significant even than the wearing of tallitot by Reform Jewish men, is the adoption of this custom by Reform Jewish women, and subsequently, Conservative and Reconstructionist women as well. Initially the mitzvah of wearing the fringes was restricted to men. But in the expansion of the tradition, and the equalization of roles within the liberal movements of Judaism, the tallit became standard for women as well. The same holds true for tefillin—phylacteries—though this is far less common within the Reform Movement.
My family belonged to a Modern Orthodox shul across the street from Stuyvesant Town, where I grew up. One of the things I wished in my heart all the time I was growing up was to be able to wear a tallit, and extend it to kiss the Torah as it came around. I could not do either of those, of course, because women and girls had to sit upstairs, and played no part in the service at all, except to sit and talk to each other; and occasionally, to pray as well. Thankfully, halfway through college, I found my way to the Reform Movement, which by that time had embraced women’s equality head on. Nevertheless, when I first entered Rabbinic School, and went through the year in Israel with my class, I was reticent about putting on a tallit. It wasn’t particularly about being a woman, but more that I was conflicted about taking on some of the traditionalism I had intentionally left behind when I became a Reform Jew. I felt as though I had progressed too far, and putting on a tallit just didn’t feel right. In fact during my entire five years of study at HUC, I was one of the few “holdouts” in my class who never wore a tallit. Only on the day of my ordination did I wear an atarah—a tapered tallit—over my ordination robe. My mom had bought it for me, and I still wear it from time to time when I wear a robe. In fact I wore it just last week at an interfaith Pride service at a local church. All the time I have been at Union Temple, however, I have been completely comfortable with wrapping myself in the fringes, and by extension, in Jewish tradition. As my connection with Jewish women around the world, particularly in Israel, has broadened, I have come to love it. And as you probably have noticed, I am lucky enough to have built up an array of tallitot, all different, but all beautiful and meaningful in their own ways.
This of course brings us to what we might call the politics of the tallit. As you know, I am a member of Nashot Hakotel, Women of the Wall—women of all denominations, feminists of all backgrounds, who assemble each month on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the Hebrew month, to pray together at the Kotel—the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Aside from women’s voices raised in prayer and in the reading of the Torah, perhaps the most identifying marker of Nashot Hakotel is the tallit. Women’s tallitot are generally smaller, and shaped a bit differently from men’s—for obvious reasons. And, they have taken on the broad array of colors of the spectrum, just as women can celebrate being different from one another, even as we come together in unity. There are several “official” tallitot of Nashot Hakotel, two of which I own and wear frequently during services.
In this spirit, I would remind the women of our congregation—and men as well—that the wearing of a tallit is a privilege for which we have had to fight for a very long time. I would never try to force it on anyone. Remember, as I said, I went all through Rabbinic School without one, even as most of my classmates donned them. But if you are at morning services at temple, every so often, try one on. It is a symbol of the embrace of our tradition. I have grown to love it. Perhaps you will as well.
Israeli artist Michal Gavrieli made this for me last summer in Israel. (See photo.) It was a gift from Steve upon my graduation as a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.