Our Torah portion focuses on Korach, a member of the tribe of Levi. In fact the portion itself bears his name. Korach foments rebellion among the people, because he resents Moses’s leadership, which of course, was assigned by God. Korach is the paradigmatic troublemaker, because he deliberately tries to break the unity of the Children of Israel. His reward, along with the 250 who joined him in his rebellion, is to be swallowed up within the earth, and die in ignominy.
As the Jewish People has evolved throughout history, we have come to understand that unity does not mean uniformity. History has taught us that our people can maintain our ties with one another, even across continents, while at the same time, tolerating and even embracing our differences with one another. This holds true with regard to theological perspectives, ethnic expressions, political positions, and diversity of all kinds. The modern description for this embrace of difference is pluralism: one people, different approaches.
This coming Monday, Steve and I are heading to Israel for our regular study at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Last year was a highlight for us, as I became a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Institute. After the intensity of the three-year program, I will rejoin the wider Rabbinic gathering for a shorter, but still quite intense program. For two weeks every summer, some 170 rabbis of all denominations gather in the Beit Midrash – the study hall – of the Hartman Institute, literally elbow-to-elbow, to study from morning to night with the finest scholars in Israel, and with each other as well. The Hartman Institute is devoted to promoting pluralism within unity as the ideal for the Jewish State, and indeed, for the Jewish People around the world.
We at Union Temple have studied with some of the Hartman scholars through the iEngage series. We also have met and heard from a few of them in person at the Brownstone Brooklyn synagogues, including our own. Those of us who traveled together to Israel in 2015 visited the Hartman Institute and spent a remarkable hour with Tal Becker, one of the luminaries of the Hartman faculty. Learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute.
Before any trip we make to Israel, I remember the beautiful poetry of Psalm 122 as it resounds in my mind and in my heart. It is a prayer for those going up to Jerusalem, and for the city of Jerusalem itself. So, as we prepare for our journey this summer, I offer the words of Psalm 122 – “A Song of Ascents.”
א שִׁיר הַֽמַּֽעֲלוֹת לְדָוִד שׂמַחְתִּי בְּאֹמְרִים לִי בֵּית יְהֹוָה נֵלֵֽךְ: ב עֹמְדוֹת הָיוּ רַגְלֵינוּ בִּשְׁעָרַיִךְ יְרֽוּשָׁלָֽם: ג יְרֽוּשָׁלַם הַבְּנוּיָה כְּעִיר שֶׁחֻבְּרָה־לָּהּ יַחְדָּֽו: ד שֶׁשָּׁם עָלוּ שְׁבָטִים שִׁבְטֵי־יָהּ עֵדוּת לְיִשְׂרָאֵל לְהֹדוֹת לְשֵׁם יְהֹוָֽה: ה כִּי שָׁמָּה ׀ יָשְׁבוּ כִסְאוֹת לְמִשְׁפָּט כִּסְאוֹת לְבֵית דָּוִֽד: ו שַֽׁאֲלוּ שְׁלוֹם יְרֽוּשָׁלָם יִשְׁלָיוּ אֹֽהֲבָֽיִךְ: ז יְהִֽי־שָׁלוֹם בְּחֵילֵךְ שַׁלְוָה בְּאַרְמְנוֹתָֽיִךְ: ח לְמַֽעַן־אַחַי וְרֵעָי אֲדַבְּרָה־נָּא שָׁלוֹם בָּֽךְ: ט לְמַעַן בֵּֽית־יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֲבַקְשָׁה טוֹב לָֽךְ:
A Song of Ascents. Of David.
I rejoiced when they said to me, “We are going to the House of the LORD.” Our feet stood inside your gates, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem built up, a city knit together, to which tribes would make pilgrimage, the tribes of the LORD, as was enjoined upon Israel – to praise the name of the LORD. There the thrones of judgment stood, thrones of the house of David. Pray for the peace of well-being of Jerusalem; “May those who love you be at peace. May there be well-being within your ramparts, peace in your citadels.” For the sake of my kin and friends, I pray for your well-being; for the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I seek your good.
Vayakhel Moshe – and Moses convened all the community of the Children of Israel. So begins our sidra, as the Israelites now set about the task of building and adorning the Mishkan – the Tabernacle in the Wilderness.
Last Wednesday morning there was an historic moment in the Israeli Knesset. For the first time, more than 300 Reform rabbis convened at the Knesset to attend a meeting of the Knesset Committee on Israel-Diaspora Relations. We were in Israel last week for the convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the professional body of the Reform Rabbinate of North America. We were also joined by our Israeli colleagues in MaRaM (Mo’etzet Harabbanim Hamitkadmim – the Council of Progressive Rabbis), in addition to Reform colleagues from the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, Australia, and South Africa. Never before had so many rabbis attended such a meeting, let alone Reform rabbis!
After some introductory remarks by the leaders of the CCAR and MaRaM, various Members of Knesset came into the Committee chamber specifically to address us, a body of Reform rabbis, and to affirm their support, including Tzippi Livni, Yair Lapid, Michael Oren, and Isaac (Bouzi) Herzog, among others, about fifteen in all. They expressed their firm belief that the stranglehold of the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate over Israeli politics and laws concerning personal status – marriage, divorce, conversion, burial – had to be brought to an end. Particularly noteworthy was the statement by MK Michael Oren, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States. Member of Knesset Oren grew up in New Jersey, and remains close friends with one of our esteemed colleagues there.
Now, of course, Owen lives in Jerusalem, where he and his family belong to Kehilat Kol Haneshama, the largest Reform congregation in that city. Not long ago his son was married at Kol Haneshama. The wedding was attended by Former President Shimon Peres, whose own daughter and her family belong to a Reform congregation in the Tel Aviv area. In fact the kehilah was packed with notables on the Israeli political scene who came to rejoice with the Oren family at that wedding. The officiating rabbi was Rabbi Levi Weiman Kelman, the spiritual leader of Kol Haneshama. Rabbi Kelman’s officiation, of course, is not legally recognized in Israel. Oren, who addressed us in Hebrew (since this was, of course, the Israeli Knesset), looked up at us and verbalized the question that all of us ask every day: “How can such a wedding possibly not be recognized?!” Yet, because of the monopoly of the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate, indeed, such a wedding is not recognized. And, not one of the 300 rabbis sitting in front of MK Oren that morning is able to perform a legally recognized wedding in the Jewish State. If there exists a greater absurdity than this, I can’t find it. But the fact is that a growing number of Israelis – the majority of Israelis in fact – are just plain fed up with this state of affairs. Many spurn the Rabbanut altogether and leave the country to get married, preferring to go to Cyprus, or somewhere in Europe, or, of course, to the United States. Some give in, go through the motions at the Rabbanut, and then hold their own ceremony somewhere in Israel, with the Rabbi and/or Cantor with whom they have a relationship – whether Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist. And many fight – they fight constantly – to change this absurd situation once and for all.
If you were to stop an ordinary Israeli on the street and ask about the political foundation of the State of Israel, most likely he or she would give the knee jerk response: “Israel is a Jewish and democratic state.” There was a great deal of study, and attention, and soul-searching this past week, about what that actually meant in current reality, and what it must mean in aspiration. A great many Israelis – both colleagues and ordinary Israelis alike – actually were happy and relieved to have us there this week, because they recognize the organic relationship between themselves as Israelis, and us, as Jewish leaders from outside of Israel. They need us to help them fight for the kind of Israel that can truly call itself “Jewish and democratic.”
And Moses convened all the community of the Children of Israel. What kind of MIshkan are we building within our community? The oppressive monopoly of the Rabbanut is coming to an end. It may not be tomorrow, or the next day, but the evidence of progress is mounting steadily and dramatically – witness the gathering at the Kotel on Thursday of rabbis and laity – men and women – to pray and sing together at the egalitarian platform that will be built as a result of the deal worked out between IRAC and Israeli Attorney General Rosenblit. Pressure is mounting steadily on the Rabbanut and upon the political leaders. While the nature of Israeli democracy differs from American democracy to the point of necessitating such fighting, it nevertheless has learned from America that it is possible and desirable to live in a religiously pluralistic environment, without dictatorial control in the religious sphere, or coercive control in the public square. I am confident that this issue can and will be solved. But we must be part of the solution – because we are one People: we are Jews.
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.