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Me Too

For those of us on Facebook, the past week has been both startling and sobering. In the wake of the revelations concerning movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, women on Facebook have been encouraged to bear witness to their own experiences with some form of sexual harassment, with the simple phrase, “Me too.” During this entire week, one, after the other, after the other, women of all ages, some of whom I personally know well, have begun their posts with what now has become a haunting refrain: “Me too.” And then, the personal narratives unfold.

I was reminded on CNN during this week that perhaps the earliest and most public case of sexual harassment in this generation was brought by Anita Hill, now Professor of Law, Social Policy, and Women’s Studies at Brandeis University, against Judge Clarence Thomas, during his confirmation hearings for appointment as an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court.

As we know, Hill’s allegations were deemed unfounded, and Thomas was appointed to the bench.  It is not my intention to offer a personal assessment of the veracity of Professor Hill’s allegations. What I will say, however, is that all over America, there were women of all colors, ages, and stations in life, who watched those hearings with rapt attention, and had no trouble whatsoever believing that it was at least plausible that such encounters could have occurred within a work environment such as the one in which Hill found herself at the time.  Again, I would state that this is not a commentary on Justice Thomas. It is, however, an observation that the type of abusive encounters such as those described in Hill’s allegations happen. They happen all the time. And, lest we forget, just about a year ago, the Republican candidate for President was heard on tape boasting about taking advantage of women professionally, and physically assaulting them in the process. And then, our fellow Americans elected him President anyway.

Our Torah portion begins with the story of the Flood, which wiped out the Earth and all its inhabitants, save for a righteous man named Noah, and his family, and two of every type of creature. Why?  The Torah tells us that God had reached the end of the line with humanity, because “the earth was filled with hamas.”  The term hamas is generally translated as violence, which the Rabbis tend to interpret as economic corruption.  But in light of this dreadful week of revelations about a powerful and wealthy man, who continuously used his position to violate and humiliate women, I would offer as an alternative interpretation and manifestation of hamas, harassment and violence against women, in all its many forms.

In the coming weeks, we will be reading stories in the Genesis narratives that involve blatant violation and oppression of women. Sarah is taken against her will into the harems of Pharaoh and Avimelech, and forced to have sex with them. Hagar is brought into a subservient position to Abraham and Sarah, and used both for sex and procreation, only to be cast out into the wilderness with her son. Rachel and Leah are sisters are pitted against each other for the affections of Jacob, and are locked in a painful competition to bear children. Dina is taken against her will by Shechem. Tamar is brutally raped by Amnon. And this is just in the Book of Genesis!

On the one hand, we can understand these stories as reflections of the ancient world, in which women were generally treated as chattel. On the other, they provide important instructional value for us in our own time. While the structure of our society has changed dramatically, of course, the fact that women often find themselves on the losing end of sexual harassment and abuse is a reality that we can no longer afford to sweep under the rug. In this respect, it might be safe to say that Harvey Weinstein has done us all a big favor.  (Though of course, it’s the women he abused and intimidated who finally found the courage to step forward, who really have done us the favor!) It’s not as though revelations of personal immorality and abuse of power are new to us. But there’s something about this particular case that has finally struck a nerve, to the point at which women are willing to “come out of the closet,” so to speak, and declare “Me too.”

What all of us would do well to consider in light of the Weinstein scandal is how it could happen in the first place. Harvey Weinstein has been one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, putting his money and support behind a number of important and successful, often ground-breaking movies. He also has donated untold amounts of money to liberal causes and candidates.  (An interesting aside:  In Oscar acceptance speeches, the most “thanked” individual has been Steven Spielberg, with 54 mentions. Next on the list, second only to Spielberg, is a tie with 34 mentions. The tie is between Harvey Weinstein – and God.)  What happens to turn the mind of such an individual to convince him that he can do the things he is accused of doing, with utter impunity, and with no fear of consequences? It would seem that relegating it to a “power trip” is too facile. Of course it’s a power trip! A manifestation of sexual perversion? Perhaps. But I would suggest that a Harvey Weinstein, and all those like him, are created, and shaped, and encouraged, by the society that has objectified women since the days of Noah—the society that all of us have inherited.

Harvey Weinstein has been expelled from the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences. But the Academy has a long way to go to make adequate teshuva, as it were.  But the Academy is just the tip of the iceberg, and we all know it. This is a much longer conversation that has to continue. For now, I offer my thanks and support to every “me too” who has written this week, and all those as well who have not.

To Wrap Ourselves in Fringes

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—commandmentswhen 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—phylacteriesthough 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 Wallwomen 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’sfor 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 congregationand men as wellthat 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.

Health Care and Core Jewish Values

Planned Parenthood website screenshotWe are reading this week the “Holiness Code,” in the Book of Leviticus. It is the same portion that we in the Reform Movement read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, because it contains some of the most fundamental values of ethics and decency that are embodied in Biblical teaching. “You shall not insult the deaf, nor place a stumbling block before the blind. . . You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19.14,16). The “Holiness Code” implores us to protect the poor, the weak, the elderly, and the stranger. This is a core value of Judaism.

As American Jews, we bring this core value into the public sphere in the demand we make upon our government – that its policies and precepts reflect this basic human decency. But yesterday (Thursday) afternoon, the US House of Representatives flagrantly ignored this most basic concept of decency, as it voted to vacate the Affordable Care Act, and place millions of Americans in jeopardy – the poor, the elderly, the weak, the sick and disabled, at the top of the list.

One of the primary targets of the House was Planned Parenthood. The excuse is abortion. But this is a smoke screen. In fact there already has been a ban on public funds for abortion. But Planned Parenthood provides the gamut of health care services for women, and for men: breast cancer screening, pap smears, colon, prostate, and testicular cancer screenings, birth control, infertility treatment, HPV tests, and the list goes on. For many women and men around the country, Planned Parenthood is the only source of treatment and preventative care that they have. This cut in funding to Planned Parenthood is vicious, and could have deadly consequences.

If I may admit to it, I have to say that have never been able to understand this dynamic in American politics during the election cycles of the past several decades. With regard to health care in particular, it has always seemed as though the very people who stand to lose the most in our country have repeatedly voted against their own best interests. Latest estimates put some 24 million Americans in jeopardy of losing their health coverage. Those with various “pre-existing conditions” will be running up medical bills that will threaten their very stability, and that of their families. It simply defies reason.

As a member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, I proudly stand with the statement it issued yesterday in its condemnation of the “American Health Care Act.” Please take a moment to read it.

Prayer and Sacrifice

The Three Blessings: Boundaries, Censorship and Identity in Jewish Liturgy by Yoel Kahn. Oxford University Press

This week we begin our reading of the Book of Leviticus, much of which focuses on the ancient system of animal sacrifice. Within the context of the ancient world, this system was the primary modality of vicarious atonement for sins. The priests (Kohanim) would serve as divinely-appointed intermediaries. They would dash the blood of slaughtered animals upon the altar in the inner sanctum (Kodesh Kodashim – the “Holy of Holies”), and through this blood, the people would be cleansed of their sins. A bit gorey sounding, I admit, but in the ancient mindset, very serious business, which had to be carried out with utmost precision. Out in the desert wilderness described in the Torah, this took place in the Mishkan – the “tent” that was erected by the people. Eventually, according to the Biblical chronology at any rate, this of course was replaced by the magnificent Temple that stood in Jerusalem called the Beit HaMikdash – House of Holiness. In the outer courts the Levitical choirs would sing and the instruments would play, suggesting a grand spectacle of pomp and circumstance. The actual sacrificial act in the Kodesh Kodashim, however, would be carried out in complete silence.

Fortunately, once the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the Jewish community was ready to move on from this system of vicarious atonement. Rabbis replaced the Kohanim as the leaders of the community, and prayer and mitzvot replaced animal sacrifice. But, just as the minutia of the sacrificial rites had to be observed absolutely according to prescription, lest we incur further guilt, so too subsequently did the words of our mouths have to be uttered with great precision. Otherwise, they would go unheard, or even worse, rejected. Prayer, then, is a serious business. And its evolution and development through the ages, particularly as our community and our reality has evolved and developed, has always been a very serious business.

This past Saturday we were blessed with a brilliant and fascinating presentation by Rabbi Yoel Kahn, our guest scholar for the Rabbi A. Stanley Dreyfus Memorial Lecture. Rabbi Kahn gave us an extraordinary glimpse into the development of three specific prayers of our liturgy, particularly concerned with the changing status of women, non-Jews of one description or another, and those with some sort of disability, in the eyes of those writing and/or funding the prayer books. As the adage goes, “history is written by the winners.” Well, that goes for prayer books as well! In his book, Rabbi Kahn identifies some of the “winners,” and what their various agendas really were. Rabbi Kahn’s book is: The Three Blessings: Boundaries, Censorship and Identity in Jewish Liturgy. He offered to personally autograph copies at the reduced rate of $30 (the list price is $45) to any of our congregants and friends who would like one. If you would like to order a copy from Rabbi Kahn, please send me an email, along with whatever dedication you would like, and he will be delighted to send it to the temple for you.

The Voice of a Woman – Again!

What a week for us to be celebrating Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song! The name of the Shabbat derives from our reading of The Song of the Sea, in Chapter 15 of Exodus. Moses begins the song by leading the Children of Israel in praise as they cross the Sea of Reeds on dry land. But the song ends with Miriam, who specifically leads the women in song, as she takes up her timbrel and sings. Particularly because of this, the song is also known as The Song of Miriam. Miriam the prophetess of Israel raises her voice in praise and in leadership. The voice of a woman is thus elevated and revered.

Unfortunately, there are many who have attempted to silence the voices of women through the ages. I’ve written on previous occasions about the way in which this has played itself out at the Western Wall for almost three decades now. On January 11, the Israeli Supreme Court challenged the ultra-Orthodox authority of the Wall, bringing women one step closer to establishing full rights to hold prayer services, wear talitot, and read the Torah at the Women’s Section of Western Wall.

This week, however, we witnessed the voice of a woman being silenced in a different, yet all too similar, context. On Monday evening, Senator Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans publicly silenced the voice of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, as she rose to bring the voice of another woman to the floor, as the Senate confirmation hearing of Senator Jeffrey Sessions for the office of US Attorney General ensued. That woman was the late Coretta Scott King, who wrote a letter some 30 years ago, testifying as to manifestations of racial bigotry implicit in the actions and statements of Mr. Sessions. This was during the confirmation hearing for a federal judgeship, for which he was ultimately voted down. This time, Senator McConnell invoked a little-known rule that is virtually never used, to silence the voice of Senator Warren, who was unceremoniously told to sit down and be quiet by Montana Senator Steven Daines, who was presiding over the Senate at that moment.

For the moment, I will leave aside the content of Coretta Scott King’s letter. While it is still relevant, the fact is that the issue is now moot, in light of the Senate’s confirmation of Mr. Sessions as Attorney General of the United States. What I will react to, however, is the appalling behavior of Senators McConnell and Daines, who, for all intents and purposes, told a woman senator on the Senate floor to sit down and shut up. There was little doubt in my mind that the ultimate effect of the ruling was driven by an undercurrent of misogyny. Oh yes, partisan politics came into play as well. But the optics of a woman on the floor of the Senate challenging the majority, and ultimately, challenging the President, being silenced in the middle of her statement and told to sit down, I believe, spoke louder than any statement could. Subsequent to this outrage, no fewer than four of Senator Warren’s male colleagues stood up and read Coretta Scott King’s letter.

The voice of a woman, as it channeled the voice of another woman. . . two women, strong and resolute, standing up to power. . . I believe that both Senators McConnell and Daines understood the power of these women’s voices, and that is precisely why they resorted to this cowardly tactic to silence them. But these women will not be silenced. Neither will women all across America, who understand and embrace the values of fairness and equality; of justice; and respect for human dignity.

Senator McConnell offered this by way of explaining his actions: “(Senator Warren) was warned, she was given an explanation, nevertheless, she persisted.” Yes, Mr. McConnell, she persisted. This morning Sec’y Hillary Clinton tweeted: “She persisted. So must we all.”

Thank you, Senator McConnell, for our new battle cry. No, we will not sit down and shut up. We will stand up, and continue to raise our voices!

In the Footsteps of Heroic Women

Last week we began our reading of the Book of Exodus, and the beginning of our enslavement in Egypt. Moses is undoubtedly the most preeminent figure in the story as it unfolds, and indeed, henceforth through to the end of the Torah. Nevertheless, it could be argued that the most heroic figures of last week’s portion are women: Yocheved, the mother of Moses; Miriam, Moses’ sister; and the two midwives, Shifra and Puah. The cruel and despotic Pharaoh orders all Hebrew baby boys to be thrown into the Nile to drown, lest someday they rise up in combat against him. Shifra and Puah carry out their own personal resistance to this brutality by deliberately saving the Hebrew baby boys. When Yocheved gives birth to a baby boy, she hides him for a short while, but then takes desperate measures to save him. She places him in a wicker basket, wraps him in swaddling cloth, and enlists her daughter Miriam to follow him and watch over him as he floats down the river. He is found by the daughter of Pharaoh who pulls him out of the Nile and adopts him. Miriam volunteers to “find” her a wet nurse, and “finds” Yocheved, making it possible for Moses to live with his own family for a time. And thus in addition to the four women I have mentioned, we must mention the daughter of Pharaoh, known in the Midrashic tradition as “Bityah.” While she knew the baby was a Hebrew, she participated in saving him, and went on to raise him as her own beloved son.

The salvation of the Children of Israel begins with women – women who are not afraid to stand up to the power and brutality of Pharaoh.
This past Saturday was a remarkable day indeed. On the very Shabbat when we were reading the stories of Yocheved, Miriam, Shifra, Puah, and Bityah, a great “Women’s March” took place all over our country, and all over the world – millions of women, and men as well, marching shoulder to shoulder – to rise up against the intimidation and wrong-headed policies of the newly-installed Trump presidency.

Trump-WomensMarch_2017-Capital-wikimeida

Women’s March in Washington D.C. 2017. Courtesy Wikimedia

(There were even 30 people marching in Antarctica!) A group of us left together from Union Temple after services and took the subway to East 14th Street in Manhattan, where we met up with several hundred Jews from the Downtown Kehilah, a consortium of liberal congregations in Lower Manhattan. We marched together up 2nd Avenue to 42nd Street, where we joined some 400,000 of our fellow New Yorkers in an unbelievable throng that stretched all across 42nd Street and then up 5th Avenue to Trump Tower. While we may have lost an election, we have not lost our values. The message was clear: we intend to uphold our values and our rights, and fight tooth and nail against those who would seek to undermine them.

Lest we forget, the day after the march, Sunday, January 22, was the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in the United States. The decision put an end to underground networks and back-alley butchers, unwanted pregnancies, and risks to the physical and/or mental well-being of women and girls all over our country. Decisions over women’s reproductive lives were no longer the domain of elected officials, but rather the domain of women themselves – in consultation with their doctors and medical professionals, and, when appropriate, with their families and members of clergy. But the government is once again taking aim at the gamut of women’s health issues, particularly when it comes to reproductive choice. And while now the federal government is key, the state houses are critical as well, regarding the statutes in the health codes and criminal codes of individual states.

Here’s one way we New Yorkers can stand up to this now more imminent threat to women’s rights and integrity. As I have announced previously, on Monday, January 30, I am going to be in Albany at a Day of Action coordinated by Family Planning Advocates (FPA) in cooperation with Planned Parenthood of New York. I am a member of FPA’s Concerned Clergy for Choice. There is still a small window of opportunity for you to attend this important day of education and lobbying the members of the Assembly and State Senate. The information follows. I hope you will decide to attend, as we walk in the footsteps of the heroines of our people.

What is “Pink Shabbat?”

pink-shabbatThis week we turn back to the beginning of the Torah upon the dawn of Creation and the appearance of humanity on Earth. “And God created man and woman in the image of God; male and female, God created them, and God blessed them.”

This is a lovely and poetic account of how we as human beings came to be, and we generally accept it as our particular creation myth, as one among a myriad of other creation myths in different cultures and literary traditions. The account, of course, is relatively simplistic.

Our reality as human beings, of course, is far from simplistic. We recognize the complexities of the evolutionary process, and the potential for human growth. Yet we also recognize that among the complexities of human reality is the potential for things to go wrong. One of the most present for us in our lives today is cancer. A chance mutation of otherwise healthy cells, a random chink in a chain of DNA, and we find ourselves facing a horrifying diagnosis and the prospect of potentially grueling medical treatments as we fight to save ourselves. Yet, with the ever-expanding possibilities of medical science, many of us can and do save ourselves! And sometimes, unfortunately, we can’t. It is a fight that continues for us as individuals, and for our society at large.

This month of October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. One of the chief aims of marking this month is to remind us to get ourselves to our doctors for checkups! The other is to make us aware of the possibilities for treatment and network of support for women, and for men. Breast and ovarian cancer are both diseases that often can be more effectively treated with early detection, and they both can potentially be detected through genetic testing and counseling, in addition to more conventional testing procedures.

We at Union Temple will mark this very critical month with “Pink Shabbat,” on Friday, October 28. Kabbalat Shabbat begins as usual at 6:30PM. Dinner follows at 7:30PM, for which we ask a $10 contribution. Then at 8:30PM, we will hear from Sophia Benshloush, a Brooklyn resident, who will speak to us on behalf of Sharsheret, an outstanding organization that addresses the issues of breast and ovarian cancer particularly as they effect Jewish women and the larger Jewish community. Sophia herself is a survivor, and we are delighted to welcome her to Union Temple.

A Sacred Moment

The Daughters of Zelophehad (illustration from the 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster)

The Daughters of Zelophehad (illustration from the 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster)

As always, I prefer to use these blasts during July to bring you thoughts and experiences from Israel. I have one more observation to share with you from my last day in Israel for this summer. But, it will have to wait until next week. It is impossible for me to let this particular moment go by without remarking upon the extraordinary events in Philadelphia last night, as, for the first time in history, a major party nominated a woman as its candidate for President of the United States. And wouldn’t you know, our Torah portion for this week is practically screaming to me, “Darsheini!” – “Comment upon me!” And so I will, for this singular moment in history.

Within Parashat Pinchas is the episode of the daughters of Tzelophechad ben Hepher, of the tribe of Menasseh, who died in the Wilderness. In preparation for life in Eretz Yisrael, Moses reviews the laws of the Torah for the Children of Israel, as they stood together on the Steppes of Moab. One of these was the law of inheritance. When a man dies, his property goes to his sons. But if he has no sons, his property should pass to the husbands of his daughters. If they hailed from a different tribe, then the land would pass to their ancestral tribe. But the daughters of Tzelophechad would not sit still for such a law. “The daughters of Tzelophechad. . . came forward. . . They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, ‘Our father died in the wilderness. . . and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!’” (Numbers 27.1-4) It would seem that Moses could not find anything objectionable in their claim. So “Moses brought their case before the Eternal. And the Eternal said to Moses, ‘The plea of Tzelophechad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them.’” (Numbers 27.5-6)

The story of Tzelophechad’s daughters is remarkable for several reasons. First, it is a demonstration of women asserting what they considered to be their moral and inherent rights, even in opposition to the law of the Torah. The modern feminist movement takes pride! But also, within the context of Torah law, it is something of a mini-demonstration of the flexibility of the law, to accommodate changes that must come about as the result of expanded thinking and practice. Things change – they must. Societies cannot live in their own time with the mores of former times that are no longer appropriate. The daughters of Tzelophechad were bold enough to suggest a new understanding of the law, informed by their own ethical sensibilities, and the changes that they knew had to be brought about. Thus they stand as role models for all of us.

Hillary Clinton accepting her nomination for President of the United States on July 28, 2016.

Hillary Clinton accepting her nomination for President of the United States on July 28, 2016.

And now, back to events of last night. It is no secret that I have always been an admirer of Secretary Clinton’s. But the significance of this nomination transcends personalities and party affiliations. It is an historic moment. There have been many contexts in which various groups of people have elected female leadership for the first time, the clergy, of course, the one I know most intimately. But it holds true for women across the board. Yes, some glass breaks easily. Not so when it’s on the ceiling. And while of course the shattering of the “glass ceiling” has been a goal, I assure you that the fundamental aspirations of women have not been born out of having to break that ceiling. Rather, they have been the pursuit of learning, serving, achieving and accomplishing, in whatever fields our interests have taken us.

A moment of personal reflection, if I may. When I was little girl, there were no women rabbis. There were no women cantors. There were only a precious few women lay leaders. It had not even occurred to me that such a thing was possible. And in the particular synagogue my family belonged to, I couldn’t even be down there among the men, wearing a tallit, reading from the Torah, pursuing knowledge of the tradition I loved. But one of the greatest accomplishments of our movement, and of my small part in it, is that no little girl now at Union Temple would ever even have such a thought, nor would any little boy. And there are almost a thousand of my female colleagues around the world who can say the very same thing. It may seem like a simple thing to say now. I assure you that arriving at this point was not, and is still not, a simple thing.

That is why I sat in front of the television last night, crying, and cheering, and listening intently. I cannot adequately express the gratitude that I feel at this accomplishment. And while I will reserve comment at this particular time about the months of campaigning ahead, and on my beliefs regarding what the outcome should be, nevertheless I will not reserve my joy and relief that this glass ceiling finally has been shattered. Congratulations to Secretary Clinton, and to all women everywhere for whom, in my own vocabulary, this moment was sacred.

 

 

The Voice of a Woman

chagall-the-dance-of-myriam-1966

The Dance of Myriam by Marc Chagall. 1966. Musée national Marc Chagall, Nice, France.

Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them: “Sing to the Eternal, who has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver God has hurled into the sea.” (Exodus 15.20-21)

These are the last verses of the Song of Miriam, as the Israelites crossed the sea on dry land. The song is also called the Song of the Sea, and it begins with Moses as he leads all the Israelites in this song of praise to God. This Friday morning at our Service for the Conclusion of Passover, our cantor, Emma Goldin Lutz, will chant this song for us. I am grateful for every opportunity I have each year to either chant this song myself, or hear someone with as beautiful a voice as Emma’s chant it. I hope you will give yourselves that opportunity as well this Friday at 10:30AM. The text of Mi Chamocha, Who is like You, O God, that we know from all our evening and morning services, comes from this song.

There is a poignant irony, and for many, a bitter one as well, in this Song of Miriam. The irony is known to us by the phrase Kol Ishah Ervah. It is Talmudic shorthand for the concept that if a man hears the voice of a woman (kol ishah) raised in song, it is tantamount to his committing sexual impropriety, ervah literally meaning nakedness. Miriam the prophetess, sister of Aaron and Moses, would have blanched at such a law – a law written over a millennium after she led the women in song. This is the law that has driven, at least in part, the opposition to Women of the Wall, who have sought for 25 years now to hold morning services together at the Kotel Hama’aravi, the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Read a fresh look at this Talmudic prohibition by Professor Aharon Amit, a scholar of the history of the Talmud at Bar Ilan University.

This past Sunday, on the second day of Passover, thousands of people flocked to the Kotel for the traditional Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing. On the Festivals of Pesach and Sukkot, those men who are descended from priestly families come to the Kotel, stand in the men’s section, and raise their hands and voices to pronounce the blessing upon the people. When they raise their hands, their fingers are separated into 3 groups to form the letter shin, for Shaddai, one of the divine appellations. They also cover their heads with a tallit. For his portrayal of the character Spock on “Star Trek,” the late great actor Leonard Nimoy reached back into his experience as a child in synagogue, and brought this hand formation to accompany his own “Vulcan Salute.”

But this particular Sunday was a bit different in Jerusalem. In a move by Women of the Wall, those women who traced their ancestry back to priestly families, planned to raise their hands and cover their heads, as they too raised their voices to pronounce the Birkat Kohanim from the women’s section of the Kotel in a Birkat Kohanot. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Rabbi of the Kotel, prohibited the women to raise their hands and voices, and the Kotel police cordoned off the women into a holding area, so they would not be seen or heard by other worshipers. Funding for the effort mounted by WOW for the Birkat Kohanot was provided by Leonard Nimoy’s estate. Read a news report of this incident.

If Miriam the prophetess had suddenly appeared at the Western Wall, I wonder what Rabbi Rabinowitz would have done. I suppose we’ll never know. What we do know is that those of us who are committed to equality for women in Jewish life, no matter where we live, will never relent in this ongoing movement.

Come to services this Friday and raise your voices with us.

Breaking News: The Kotel Belongs to Everyone!

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

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

Revolution for Women and Jewish Pluralism in Israel

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are we leaving the women’s section?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women of the Wall vision- then and now

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

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

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

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