We 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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’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.
Thanks to the efforts of our wonderful congregant Peter Gomori, a group of us will soon treat ourselves to a performance of Di Goldene Kale (The Golden Bride) at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park. It is being presented by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, and is one in a series of performances this week in Lower Manhattan celebrating Yiddish song, dance, theater, culture, history, food, neighborhood tours, and more, called YIDDUSH NEW YORK (click for schedule of events). For at least fifteen years, there was a huge gathering during this particular holiday week called “KlezKamp” at a hotel up in the Catskills. Of course, it was a play on the word “Klezmer,” the name for the type of music characteristic of the street musicians of Eastern Europe, and has become such a beloved medium, both within the Jewish community and out in general culture as well. (The word “Klezmer” is actually an amalgamated pronunciation of “Klei Zemer,” “instruments of song.”) But this year, the gathering upstate has moved its format and venue to Lower Manhattan, which of course has been the seething hub of Yiddish culture from the time it arrived here with the massive Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century.
During the Holocaust, some 80% of the Yiddish speaking population of Europe was brutally murdered by the Nazis. And, truth be told, the first generations American Jews made every effort to learn English, speak it with their children, and cast aside the Yiddish language and culture of their parents and grandparents, along with the baggage of ostracism and persecution in the Old World. In the years after the establishment of the State of Israel as well, the early generations of Israelis also rejected Yiddish as the language that was spoken on the way to the gas chambers. Nevertheless, history is like a pendulum in a number of respects, particularly as it has swung back and forth through successive generations of Jewish life. In the case of Yiddish, it has been the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Yiddish speakers, whether here, in Europe, or in Israel, who have virtually jumped onto the pendulum themselves and swung it with determination back to reclaim the treasures of an almost vanquished world. And, they have succeeded. The revival of the language, music, literature, politics, and cultural activity of this world, has been nothing less than miraculous.
As we know, Yiddish has a particular “ta’am” – a flavor, if you will, that is hard to duplicate exactly in translation. And we in New York particularly are fortunate that Yiddish language and culture still float in our air, if you will, to a much larger extent than elsewhere. Yiddish words and expressions have found their way into common parlance here in a way that most of us, whether Jewish or not, have come to take for granted.
In light of this, I must ask for a moment, my friends, to register my deep resentment at the crass remarks coming from Donald Trump this week, even though he is by no means the first in this regard. Politicians in past campaigns have also used such words through the years. I understand that Yiddish slang, particularly in its colorful array of words referring to male body parts, seems to punctuate certain conversations more satisfyingly than ordinary English vocabulary. Nevertheless, when this slang is used in public settings by those running for public office – President of the United States, no less – it takes on an even more offensive cast. Yes, Mr. Trump is from New York, and I’m sure he has come to think of Yiddish slang as nothing unusual. But in fact, there is a serious problem with it in my view. First, it is indeed crass language, and someone aspiring to hold the most powerful position on the world stage needs to figure out a more respectful and dignified way of expressing himself. But in addition, it smacks of an abuse of the richness and creativity of Yiddish language and culture itself; an abuse which portrays this culture with the vulgarity that has all too often been ascribed to Jewish people for over a thousand years now. (Not to mention the disrespect of these remarks to women AND to men.) In short, it is completely repulsive and unacceptable, and Mr. Trump, and anyone else who abuses their public notoriety in this way, should be roundly called into account.
With this said, I will now redirect our attention away from the crassness of Mr. Trump and others, to the more constructive and sophisticated activities going on in New York this week, and to the importance of kindling and rekindling our interest in the richness and vibrancy of Yiddish. Indeed, it is our rightful inheritance. And thus I say to one and all, Sholom Aleichem, and Aleichem Sholom!
We at Union Temple Planned share with you, and join in sentiments expressed in the Parenthood Clergy Advocacy Board statement and interfaith prayer in response to the violence at the Colorado Springs health center:
In the wake of the violent assault on the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, our hearts go out to the victims and their families. We pray healing for the injured, comfort for those who mourn and give thanks for the devoted staff of Planned Parenthood Rocky Mountain and first responders who put themselves in harm’s way to protect and defend their fellow citizens. We stand with Planned Parenthood and their continued commitment to provide care in the safe, supportive environment that millions of people rely on and trust for quality healthcare. We also pray for an end to the climate of violence and polarization that grips our nation — asking for the will and wisdom to overcome hatred with hope, fear with trust and violence with compassion.
And so we pray with heart and mind that God of many names, Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that all nations and peoples may make known your values of love, hope and justice. Amen.