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.
Honor your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that Eternal your God is assigning to you. (Exodus 20.12)
A conceptual observation and a personal reflection, if I may, both of which you have probably heard from me before. But I would ask your indulgence, as both seem to be quite apt at this moment in history.
The Hebrew the word for “parent” and the word for “teacher” derive from the same root, y-r-h (י-ר-ה), which means “to point.” It derives from a reference to an arrowhead – an object that clearly comes to a point, and generally is aimed in a specific direction. And indeed, is this not one of the most fundamental roles of any parent, and any teacher? To point the way; to guide our children in the right direction, whether our students or our own kids. Ultimately their decisions must be their own, and they need the leeway to possibly make mistakes as they navigate their own paths. Of course, allowing leeway sometimes can be agonizing, and as a parent, I can testify to that. But at least we try our best to set them on the right path, so that they will figure out how to live a good life when they’re on their own.
Today I am marking the 20th yahrzeit of my mom, Jeanette Henry, z”l. From the time she was a little girl, Jeanette wanted to be a schoolteacher. She would line up her dolls in her room, and “teach school.” When she became an adult, and a teacher for real, she did not line up her students. In fact, they often flocked around her in what some may have interpreted as an occasionally chaotic atmosphere in her classroom, at PS 64, on 9th Street/Ave. B in Manhattan. But I assure you that it was expertly controlled chaos. My mom had studied the art of teaching. Throughout her life, even as she was lauded as being at the top of her profession, she continued to take courses and workshops, to continue to grow and expand her skills. Yes, teaching is an art. Not everyone can do it, nor should they.
Some of you with whom I am connected on Facebook have likely read a comment I posted in response to the Senate confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. While it may be a bit presumptuous to speak on behalf of someone who is not here to speak for herself, I strongly suspect that my mom would have been utterly scandalized by this decision. From very early on in the American Jewish experience, our community has been in the forefront of embracing, supporting, and fostering public education. It’s no accident that three of the past four presidents of the American Federation of Teachers have been Jews: Albert Shanker, z”l, Sandra Feldman, z”l, and Randi Weingarten. All three were advocates for children’s education both here and around the world, and as well, advocates in all areas of social justice. Even from the Talmudic period, Jewish leaders have been proponents of public education. We learn from the Talmud that technically the responsibility for educating one’s child rested with the father. But suppose a child had no father, or had a father that was simply not equipped to teach his children? Thus, even the earliest Jewish communities of the Common Era supported systems of public education, for the benefit of all children. Modern Jews inherited this deeply held tradition, and have been committed to high quality public education. Of course, the dynamics of contemporary society have changed significantly, and many Jews, liberal Jews included, have chosen to send their children to Hebrew day schools, or, in the case of Orthodox Jews, yeshivot. A number of Orthodox Jews see the voucher system as a way for them to help pay for their children’s yeshiva attendance. But the contention of the community for the most part is that private education, whether religiously based or not, should not be the responsibility of the community. Rather, our community should be laser focused on improving the quality of public education for all the children in our country. And this commitment remains an important Jewish American value.
As American Jews, it will be even more critical in the next few years for us to stand up for quality public education. We will have to do this in the spirit of all we have learned about our responsibilities as parents and teachers, which, as we have seen, are really one and the same.
One additional word derives from the root y-r-h (י-ר-ה), “to point.” That is “Torah.” Ultimately our Torah teaches us the values of justice, fairness, and educating our children. If we do this, hopefully they will understand the implications of the fifth commandment, so that they “will long endure upon the earth.”
This past Tuesday morning, a swastika was spray-painted on a sign at the entrance of the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College. Here is the notice that was sent to the HUC-JIR community by President Aaron Panken. A photo of the sign, as it appeared on the Facebook page of a colleague of mine who serves a congregation in Cincinnati, appears below Rabbi Panken’s message.
This morning, the Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) was vandalized. The sign at the entrance to our Cincinnati Campus was defaced with a swastika. The paint was easily removed and the sign quickly repaired. The incident is under investigation by local police.
For more than 140 years, HUC-JIR has been devoted to the values of pluralism, open dialogue, and the pursuit of knowledge. We pride ourselves on being a vital and engaged part of the Cincinnati community. Our academic institution of Jewish higher education lives, teaches, and brings the values of diversity and tolerance to the community, the nation, and the larger world. Our faculty, students, staff, and alumni, proudly representing all faiths and backgrounds, work together to build a just and humane world.
We will not let this act of hate alter our important work. We are indebted to the people of Cincinnati who have stood by us for generations and who have offered their support again today. Tomorrow, a new day will dawn and the values we hold dear will continue to light the way.
Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D.
It is not known at this point who perpetrated this act of hateful vandalism. I’m not accusing our incoming president of instigating or condoning this particular act. Nevertheless, the reality is that hateful sentiments were stirred up during the many months of the U.S. Presidential campaign, and those inclined to express personal bigotry were emboldened by a good deal of the rhetoric and mayhem that occurred. It’s as though the social norms of decency that tried to drown out the echoes of racism and intolerance were stripped away with total impunity.
We New Yorkers are accustomed to living in a highly pluralistic atmosphere, with HUC-JIR as one of numerous Jewish institutions in our midst. For those of us, however, who may not be familiar with the Cincinnati community, I can say that HUC-JIR occupies a position of great prominence in the history and contemporary life of the community, and has occupied a significant place in the acculturation of the Jewish community in that city from the beginning. Hebrew Union College was founded in Cincinnati in 1875 by Rabbi Dr. Isaac Mayer Wise, the “father” of American Reform Judaism. The Jewish Institute of Religion was founded in New York in 1922 by Rabbi Dr. Stephen Samuel Wise – no relation to Isaac Mayer Wise. HUC merged with JIR in 1950. HUC-JIR is the professional training ground for the rabbis, cantors, educators, and communal service workers of the Reform Movement. In addition to the campuses in Cincinnati and New York, there are campuses in Los Angeles and Jerusalem. This brazen act on Tuesday is particularly shocking and insulting, not only to HUC-JIR, but also to the entire Cincinnati community, which has accorded great friendship and respect to the institution, and to the Jewish community, from the very beginning.
Those of us who are alumni and supporters of HUC-JIR are outraged and saddened by this act. Union Temple has had an ongoing relationship with the College-Institute through the rabbis, cantors and educators who have served, and are serving the congregation, and also through the support of our Sisterhood, by way of the Women of Reform Judaism, and Brotherhood, through the Men of Reform Judaism. In addition, our former Rabbi Emeritus, Dr. A. Stanley Dreyfus, z”l, served on the HUC-JIR faculty in New York for a number of years. We echo President Panken’s assertion of “the values of diversity and tolerance,” which we will continue to promote, now, and in the years to come. It is clear that America is entering a new reality. But the values we espouse as American Jews are very old, and are as strong now as they were in the beginning. The responsibility for their perpetuation now rests squarely on our shoulders.
The conflict. . . . For the past four years, we at Union Temple have been presented with what I have called a “conflict of positive values.” There is profound meaning and good will informing each of these values, though together they present us with something of a conflict. By way of explanation, I will take the liberty of borrowing from my own words, which I originally wrote for a Bulletin article in October of 2012.
As the Brooklyn Jewish community has come together for Selichot services for the past five years, so too have we joined together in celebration of Simchat Torah, under the Arch at Grand Army Plaza. These have been wonderful events that we have shared with hundreds of our fellow Jews in the community. This year the celebration is Monday, October 24. So what’s the problem? The problem, or shall I say, the “conflict of positive values,” exists in the fact that for the Reform Movement, the celebration of Simchat Torah is SUNDAY night, October 23, not Monday night.
Here’s the story. . . . In the days of the Sanhedrin – the High Court in Jerusalem – Festivals and New Moons were officially declared by the Sanhedrin itself. The Court would base its declaration upon the testimony of two witnesses each month that they had observed the new moon. The declaration would be communicated by a series of torch signals beginning on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, proceeding to Mount Sartaba in Jericho, and on through the Jewish world. The chain would continue until the entire Diaspora; particularly the Jews of Babylonia, received notification. Eventually the system broke down because of mischief caused by the Samaritans, who began to wave torches on hilltops at the wrong times. The Sanhedrin sought to remedy the situation by instituting an additional day of observance for the Festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. In the ancient mindset, if the Festivals weren’t observed on the correct day, supplications to God wouldn’t work.
In the middle of the 4th Century of the Common Era, the Jewish calendar was fixed on the basis of astronomical calculations, and thus everyone was able to determine the exact days of New Moons and Festivals without being dependent upon the Sanhedrin. But many in the Diaspora communities maintained the practice of celebrating these extra days in deference to the previous custom, and in its own self-perception as being in galut – exile, outside of Eretz Yisrael. The custom remained this way until the 19th Century, when the early Reformers cast aside this practice, not only because of the reality of the calendar, but also in rejection of the notion that Diaspora communities are in “galut.”
Contemporary practice. . . . In our time, the Jewish world observes along the following lines. All Jews in Israel – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and what-have-you – observe these Festival days for one day. These include: The first day of Sukkot, the eighth day of Sukkot (Shemini Atzeret), the first day of Passover, the seventh day of Passover, and Shavuot. Reform Jews outside of Israel also observe one day. Conservative and Orthodox, and other non-Reform Jews outside of Israel still observe that extra day of the Festivals. For the Sukkot Festival, it works out in the following way. Israeli Jews and Reform Jews both in and out of Israel celebrate the first day of Sukkot (15 Tishrei) as a holy day. Sukkot is celebrated for seven days. We also celebrate the eighth day after as a holy day. This eighth day is called Shemini Atzeret, on 22 Tishrei. Eventually an additional holiday which is not technically part of Sukkot was been added to this day. This is Simchat Torah, Rejoicing in the Torah. It is characterized by circuits (hakafot) with the Torahs, and much dancing and rejoicing. The end of the Torah is read, and immediately the beginning as well, to begin the yearly cycle of studying the Torah. For Israelis and all Reform Jews, these two are conflated into one day of celebration: Shemini Atzeret Simchat Torah. For non-Reform Jews outside of Israel, Simchat Torah is celebrated on an additional ninth day (23 Tishrei).
Specific values in conflict. . . . For us at Union Temple, as a Reform congregation, our custom, as with the vast majority of other Reform congregations, has always been to celebrate Shemini Atzeret Simchat Torah on the 22nd of Tishrei (this year, Sunday night/Monday, October 23/24). However, many of our friends in the community will celebrate Shemini Atzeret on Sunday night/Monday, and then Simchat Torah on Monday night/Tuesday, October 24/25. That has always been the case. But these past few years, there have been public gatherings of Jews in our neighborhood at Grand Army Plaza to celebrate Simchat Torah, this year on Monday night, October 24. For us, the two values we considered were (1) remaining steadfast in our convictions as Reform Jews, and (2) K’lal Yisrael – participating in the larger Jewish community and pursuing solidarity with our Jewish friends and neighbors.
Our decision. . . . After deliberating this “conflict of positive values” with our Board of Trustees, we at Union Temple will go ahead and celebrate Shemini Atzeret Simchat Torah on Sunday night, October 23, with 7:00PM reception and 7:30PM service, including the Hakafot with the Torahs – circuits and dancing. Monday morning we will hold our Festival Morning service as usual, including the recitation of Yizkor. And then, on Monday evening at about 8:00, we will join our friends for additional dancing out at the Grand Army Plaza. We hope that you will attend BOTH these celebrations, as there can never be enough rejoicing in the Torah!
Please note that in keeping with our policy of inclusion, there will be chairs around Grand Army Plaza for those who prefer to sit down during the hoopla.
Sunday, October 23
7:00PM: Reception in our Sukkah
7:30PM: Festival Evening Service with Hakafot
Monday, October 24
10:30AM: Festival Morning Service, Yizkor
7:00-11:00PM: Hakafot with the Community at Grand Army Plaza. (Union Temple’s Hakafah will be approximately at 8:15PM.)
By the way, weather permitting, please feel free to come by between now and Tuesday to visit our beautiful new sukkah, put up by our Brotherhood, with members of our Sisterhood participating. It is just adjoining our building. In keeping with the commandment, bring a bite to eat in there too. And, our Friday evening after our Shabbat service, join us for the Oneg in there as well.
Union Temple Food Drive: Each Yom Kippur we at Union Temple conduct a Food Drive. We ask you to bring unopened cann
In our Torah portion for this week, Bylam, a popular magic man known throughout the Ancient Near East, was summoned by the Moabite King Balak to throw a curse upon the Israelites, who were camped on the Steppes of Moab. Though the Israelites meant him no harm and were just passing through on their way to Eretz Yisrael, Balak feared them and wanted them gone. Bylam ascends to the heights of Moab with Balak, and casts his gaze upon the Children of Israel. But when he opens his mouth to curse them, out comes a blessing instead: Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael – How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.
With great pride indeed, earlier today Steve and I marched in the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem. Though some 10,000 marchers were expected, twice the number of last year’s parade, the number of marchers actually numbered in the tens of thousands. Security was extremely tight, of course, particularly in light of the tragic and brutal murder at last year’s parade of 16-year-old Shira Banki, z”l. This year Shira’s parents came to the parade to honor the memory of their beautiful daughter, and to express solidarity with the LGBTQ community, and with all those who participated in the parade this year. One of the photos I have provided is of a huge poster at the very spot where Shira was killed last year, Washington Street and Keren Hayesod. The quote next to Shira’s picture is from Spinoza: “It is better to teach goodness than condemn evil.”
Last week Steve and I joined several of our colleagues from Hartman for a day of education to familiarize ourselves a bit better with the services provided for the LGBTQ community in Jerusalem. Everyone knows that Tel Aviv is one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world. Not so in Jerusalem. Because of the heavy religious presence here, not only in the Jewish community, but in all religious communities, the LGBTQ community has a much harder time of it regarding freedom of movement and expression, obtaining benefits and medical care, and the like, than the community in Tel Aviv. In fact at today’s parade, though some Members of Knesset were there, Isaac (Bougie) Herzog and Rachel Azaria among them, Mayor Nir Barkat was not, in order not to inflame the Orthodox community, as he explained it. While in a number of ways Mayor Barkat has been good for this city, I believe that this was a bad call. In an effort not to irritate a community that will never really be satisfied, he snubbed tens of thousands of the citizens of his city, and further rubbed salt into already festering wounds.
One of the places we visited last Monday was the main center of LGBTQ activism in Jerusalem, “Habayit Hapatuach,” “Open House for Pride and Tolerance.” Open House was the principal organizer of today’s event, but many other organizations cosponsored, the Reform Movement and the Israel Religious Action Center among them. Open House provides psychological support, education, free medical care, HIV/AIDS counseling and testing, and numerous other services. Particularly noteworthy is its outreach to LGBTQ youth in the Orthodox and Palestinian communities – young people who are particularly at risk, as we can imagine.
Open House is not a well-known entity. Nevertheless it is very much a locus of reality in the day-to-day life of Jerusalem, and LGBTQ life in particular. We are grateful to the Hartman Institute for arranging our visit there last week.
Unfortunately there are people in this world; in Jerusalem, in the United States, in Arab countries, virtually everywhere, who look upon the LGBTQ community and see it as a threat; a scourge that must be wiped off the earth; people whom God has cursed. But if they were to really look closely, and speak with people, and get to know this community, up close and personal, as it is said, they would see that in fact it is a community that God has blessed.
As Jews one of the first and most important precepts of our Torah is Genesis 2.27-28: And God created the man in God’s image; male and female God created them. And God blessed them. When Bylam looked down upon the Children of Israel, camped there upon the Steppes of Moab, he saw and understood that these were children of the Living God, and that he could not curse those whom God had blessed. We open every single one of our morning services with this phrase, to remind us to bless other people, and not curse them. “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.”