Union for Reform Judaism Member Congregation


The Voice of a Woman


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.

A Stroke of Luck

Young Israeli's being inducted into units of the Tzanchanim (paratroopers) of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) in May 2015 at the Kotel.

Young Israeli’s being inducted into units of the Tzanchanim (paratroopers) of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) in May 2015 at the Kotel.

This past Thursday was Lag Ba’omer, and here in Israel, there was great rejoicing – bonfires, weddings, and music. By pure coincidence, our tour group struck a lucky, unplanned moment by happening upon a great celebration. We had spent the day in the Old City of Jerusalem, as we stepped back through some 3,000 years of Jewish history, here in the layers of the City of David. The excavations that have been conducted, and the structures and artifacts that have been found, are nothing short of extraordinary, all shedding light upon the period of the establishment of the Jewish kingdom under Kings David and Solomon, and periods following. Then we strolled a bit through the Jewish Quarter, and ate lunch in the Quarter Cafe, as we gazed out over an extraordinary panoramic view of the Mount of Olives. Later in the afternoon, it was time for us to visit the Western Wall for some personal reflection. Then, by dumb luck, as we approached the Western Wall – the Kotel Hama’aravi – we arrived exactly as a major celebration was taking place at the Wall, scheduled for Lag Ba’omer. It was a “moving up” ceremony for the Israel Defense Force, particularly for the units of the Tzanchanim – paratroopers. They had completed their basic training, and just as we arrived at the Kotel Plaza, the soldiers were gathering in formations with their commanders to receive their red berets, and be officially welcomed into these elite units. In addition, each received a Tanakh, which they keep with them at all times.

IDF-kotel-may-2015-2-webHere in Israel, as you know, upon graduation from high school, everyone is required to serve in the Army, men and women alike. There are many different kinds of assignments, several very elite combat units. In order to be accepted into the Tzanchanim, if a young man is an only son, he must bring written permission from his parents to serve in this capacity, which of course carries with it the potential for great danger. In fact the same holds true to any unit of active combat. For us in the United States, for whom military service is strictly voluntary, the relationship that most of us have to the military is markedly different from that of Israelis to the Israel Defense Force. Every Israeli has an intimate relationship with the Army. They have served in it themselves, their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, parents, nieces and nephews, neighbors and friends, all serve in the Army. The Army, in fact, is the great leveler of Israeli society. It is there that Israelis of different ethnicities and socio-economic strata come together, serve together, grow together, and entrust their very lives to one another. It knits together what ordinarily would be very disparate threads of Israeli life.

Sometimes even the most carefully planned itinerary must make allowances for moments of spontaneity such as the one we experienced on Thursday. It was a very special moment indeed, one that none of us will ever forget.

Women at the Kotel

women-of-the-wall-website-screenshotChodesh Tov! This is our greeting to each other today on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month. Today begins the month of Kislev, during which, of course, we will celebrate Chanukah (25 Kislev) – our festival of light and freedom.

The number 25 for this particular Rosh Chodesh Kislev is most auspicious indeed. Today marks the 25th anniversary of Nashot Hakotel, Women of the Wall. For 25 years now Jewish women of all denominations, nationalities, and social strata, have come together to hold Morning Prayers for Rosh Chodesh. Month after month, Rosh Chodesh after Rosh Chodesh, legal case after legal case, Supreme Court decision after decision, arrest after arrest — for 25 years. But the past year has been an extraordinary year. After the crackdown by the Rabbi of the Kotel, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, leading to an increased number of arrests of women at the Kotel for the “crimes” of raising their voices in prayer together, and wearing tallitot, the citizens of Israel, and Jews around the world stood up and said, ENOUGH! And indeed, as of last Spring, an Israeli court handed down the decision that women were NOT breaking any laws by holding services at the Kotel, and wearing Talitot and Tefillin.

While this represented a gigantic victory for Nashot Hakotel, the summer months were quite chaotic and difficult. At the urging of Rabbi Rabinowitz, thousands of Ultra-Orthodox women and yeshiva girls flooded the Kotel plaza to prevent the members of Nashot Hakotel from getting near the Wall itself, and there was loud and depressing heckling and shouting back and forth.

But today, on the 25th anniversary of Nashot Hakotel, Women of the Wall, there was no such blockade. I just heard from Noam Zion, one of the faculty members of the Hartman Institute, who went to the Wall with the group, that the abbreviation of the group, “WOW,” would be a great way to describe the goings-on. A delegation of my rabbinic and cantorial colleagues, and congregants as well, are in Jerusalem today for this anniversary. Together with Jews from all over Israel, they went to the Kotel to celebrate Rosh Chodesh, about 1,000 strong. And indeed, “WOW” is the word. Noam said the dovening was wonderful. And while there were some cat calls and whistles from the Ultra-Orthodox hecklers, it really was pretty mild, and didn’t throw any sort of damper on the elation of WOW, and particularly of Anat Hoffman, leader and driving force of the group. The police, of course, are now charged not with harassing WOW, but keeping the hecklers and opponents from throwing chairs and other objects, and exerting any sort of physical violence upon the women.

Social progress often takes longer than we would like. There is still much to accomplish for WOW. It is still not possible to actually read the Torah at the Wall, because the women are still barred from bringing one in (a lingering punishment in place since Anat’s first arrest in July of 2010). But the time will come, if we keep the pressure on. In addition, the Scharansky proposal for constructing a third section of the Wall for egalitarian prayer is still far from any realistic materialization. But just for today, we won’t worry about that. Just for today, we will revel in the progress that WOW has achieved. And once again, we wish each other Chodesh Tov!

Stones of Destruction; Prayers of Comfort


Stones from the Destruction of Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.

This is The Night of Tishah B’av… the 9th day of Av, a day of mourning, as Jews all over the world remember the Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, first in 586 BCE at the hands of the Babylonians, and then the Romans, in 70 CE. Services are characterized by sitting on the floor in the dark, a 24-hour fast, and wearing canvas or rubber shoes instead of leather – kind of like a mini-shiva. In addition, the Scroll of Eichah (Lamentations) is intoned, with its mournful timbre reflecting the poetry of bereavement.

The Stones of Destruction … This year, instead of going to synagogue on this night, Steve and I did something different, that one can only do here in Jerusalem. We spent the evening at Robinson’s Arch – the archaeological site of the remains of the Temple. There we gazed upon the huge stones, strewn about just as they have been, since they toppled to the ground some 2,000 years ago. This is what is left of the magnificent structure that once stood towering above Jerusalem, now reduced to a pile of rubble. From there we walked a bit further uphill to the main Kotel area – the Western Wall – a section of the retaining wall that surrounded the Temple Mount. It is perhaps the most iconic symbol of our deep roots as Jews in the Land of Israel. The plaza was filled with people tonight, as was the entire city, as Jews devoted this night to memory and prayer.

As New Yorkers, unfortunately we can relate all too well to a place of destruction such as this. The devastation at Ground Zero is seared into our memories forever. We remember the The Twin Towers, once rising above all New York, gleaming in the sunlight. And we watched them as they fell to rubble and ash over over a huge area of Lower Manhattan. Every year on 9/11, solemn memorials are held all over the country; the most significant in New York, at Ground Zero.


Model of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Israel Museum

The Difference, of course, is that even in the face of this horrific destruction, we New Yorkers did not lose our city, nor our freedom or national identity as Americans. Twelve years after the catastrophe, our businesses are back, and the new towers are on their way up, though the losses of loved ones are permanent. For us as Jews, however, the destruction of the Temple meant the destruction of Jerusalem itself, exile from our land, and loss of our sovereignty. For some two millennia, our people dreamt of our homeland and restoration of our independence. “Next year in Jerusalem,” we have echoed through the centuries. Finally, in the late 19th century, we began the process of reclaiming Jewish sovereignty, which culminated in May of 1948 when the State of Israel was born. Now, 65 years later, Israel is a nation seething with excitement; with scientific and high tech advances, a rich and profound cultural and intellectual life, an animated political and philosophical discourse, and economic progress and creativity, all of which far exceed her size. Yet with each year we understand more acutely that the responsibilities and challenges of sovereignty are manifold. There is much work yet to be done, so that Israel can evolve into all that she is capable of being, as a modern democratic nation. Yet we give thanks that the State of Israel is alive and flourishing, and that the process of rebuilding that state is ongoing, and continuously evolving. We will remember that during this coming Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort, as we begin the anticipation of our rejoicing in the New Year.

The Reform Movement, historically, has distanced itself from observing Tishah B’av, on the ideological grounds that we do not mourn the Temple, nor the Priesthood, nor its sacrificial cult. While that is still the case, there can be no doubt that Reform Judaism in recent years has sought to link itself to the shared history of ALL the Jewish people. The Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, along with the Exile that ensued, is a seminal moment in our people’s history, and thus we have much more willingly embraced this memory. As I beheld that pile of rubble tonight, I felt this link most profoundly.

This Coming Shabbat is Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort, as we read words of consolation from the Prophet Isaiah:

Nachamu, Nachamu Ami – Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God,
And declare to her that her term of service is over. . . (40.1)

Youths may grow faint and weary, and young men stumble and fall.
But they who trust in our God shall renew their strength.
They shall run and not grow weary, they shall march and not be faith. . . (40.30-31)

Fear not for I am with you. Be not frightened, for I am your God;
I strengthen and I help you, I uphold you with My victorious right hand. (41.10)

A Place for All Jews


Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, Anat Hoffman, and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

This has been an extraordinary week here in Jerusalem, and it’s only Wednesday! Since Sunday we have heard from three extraordinary people heavily involved in the ongoing debate over religion in the public sphere, which has now become a higher-pitched debate than ever before during the entire 65 years of Israeli statehood. Last night’s guest speakers were Anat Hoffman, Director of the Israel Religious Action Center (of Reform Judaism), leader of Women of the Wall, and former member of the Jerusalem City Council; and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, graduate of Yeshiva University, Talmud Professor at Hebrew University, Rabbi of Ohr Torah Stone, and Chief Rabbi of the City of Efrat, Israel. A Modern Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Riskin grew up in Brooklyn, and served for twelve years as the founding Rabbi of the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan.

Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute, introduced the program by articulating the great challenge to Jews and Judaism in the Jewish State. Is it possible for Jews of different religious perspectives and groups to build a democratic nation together, in a pluralistic environment, respecting each other’s rights as citizens? (The question, of course, also pertains to non-Jews, but for now I will confine my remarks to Jews.). The clashes at the Western Wall on Monday (Rosh Chodesh Av) reached fever pitch, and the previous day, the Israeli cabinet approved a bill for Haredi military service. Thus this discussion was particularly apt at this extraordinary time.

While Ms. Hoffman and Rabbi Riskin hold different personal perspectives on religious observance, they agreed on virtually every issue that was discussed during this forum. The crux of the matter is not that Judaism is a state religion. Israel is, after all, the Jewish state. The problem, as both agreed, is that the power brokers and arbiters of how Judaism is lived and practiced have been, for far too long, the small group of Ultra-Orthodox rabbis who have co-opted the Torah and held the entire country as hostage.


Member of Knesset Dov Lipman

What is clear now is that Israelis have had enough, and this phenomenon is about to change. On Sunday we at Hartman heard from new Member of Knesset Dov Lipman. Dov Lipman is an Ultra-Orthodox rabbi from Silver Spring, MD. He holds seat #17 in the Yesh Atid party, led by Yair Lapid. This party represents an unlikely conglomeration of people, men and women, from all points along the religious and (non-religious) spectrum. Rabbi Lipman advocates a separation between religion and state in matters of personal status and observance. Sound familiar? Both Rabbis Riskin and Lipman are American olim, and Anat Hoffman spent a number of years in the States, and holds an undergraduate degree from UCLA. It is not surprising that the principles of American democracy inform the sensibilities of all three, as they work to establish a fairer and more reasonable society in the Jewish State.

women-of-the-wall-vimeo-video-wSince the confines of time and space require that I not go on too long at this time, I will ask that you access this video of the goings-on at the Kotel on Monday for Rosh Chodesh Av. It was a madhouse, but it needs to be seen in the perspective of this transitional time in Israel, and in the arc of an historic movement regarding Women of the Wall. At a certain point, I think you’ll recognize me, even with the sunglasses. I am confident that at some point a more workable compromise will be reached, and all Jews will have unfettered access to the Western Wall, the most iconic locus of Jewish historic significance.

Shalom Uv’rachah Mirushalayim – peace and blessings to all from Jerusalem