Friday, July 16, 2010

Sometimes, We Are Our Own Worst Enemies ...

I've been bothered a lot by what has been happening in Israel this past week ... here is the sermon I delivered at Congregation Beth Israel tonight ... let me know what you think.  : )

Shabbat shalom.

Get ready, everybody ... as a rabbi, I am about to say something controversial:  "I have a love/hate relationship with Israel."

Yes, there are things I absolutely love about Israel … and there are things I absolutely hate about Israel … and two examples of things I hate reared their ugly heads this week in Israel’s news.

But first, things I love … I love that passengers clap when a plane lands in Israel.

I love the hustle and bustle of getting ready for Shabbat in Jerusalem, knowing that the shops are going to close early on Friday afternoon and you better do your shopping early Friday morning if you want your pick.

I love the chocolate milk in Israel, where you buy individual servings in little plastic bags and just tear open a corner with your teeth and suck the milk out of the bag.

Most of all, though, I love living on Jewish time … I love that the whole city of Jerusalem closes down and you can walk right through the middle of the streets on Yom Kippur without ever worrying about being hit by a car.

But then there are the things I hate about Israel, some of them having to do with the fact that I lived there during the second worst year of the Second Intifada, but not all.

I hate that I couldn’t ride an inner-city bus and travel all over Israel because of safety issues.

I hate that there WERE places I could go because I was an American and “didn’t look too Jewish.”

And I hate that, especially when it comes to Israel, we Jews seem to be our own worst enemies.

For a liberal Jew, I mentioned that two dangerous things happened this week in Israel. First, a bill was read in the Knesset that, on its face, seems intended to make conversion easier in Israel. However, if you look below the surface, its effects could actually be quite grave.

The bill’s proponents claim that it will allow greater accessibility to conversion courts for those born in the Former Soviet Union. However, the bill will be implemented by granting power regarding conversion in Israel exclusively to the ultra-orthodox Chief Rabbi of Israel, who I can assure you, is anything but open to supporting the legitimacy of liberal Judaism. Consequently, the disregard of months of behind-the-scenes negotiations to resolve issues before the bill was to be introduced is being considered an open attack on the legitimacy of liberal Judaism.

But it is not just Reform Jews who should be worried … .

In the editorial section of the New York Times yesterday, Editor-in-Chief of Tablet Magazine, an online magazine devoted to cutting edge topics regarding Judaism, wrote the following: 

It is hard to exaggerate the possible ramifications, first and foremost for Jewish Israelis. Rivkah Lubitch, an Orthodox woman who is a lawyer in Israel’s rabbinic court system, painted a harrowing picture of the future in a recent column on the Israeli Web site Ynet.

“Even if you didn’t go to register for marriage, and even if you didn’t go to a rabbinic court for any reason, and even if you didn’t pass by a rabbinic court when you walked down the street — the rabbinic court can summon you, conduct a hearing about your Jewishness and revoke it,” she wrote. “In effect, the entire nation of Israel is presumed to be Not-Jewish — until proven otherwise.”
. . .
And lest one imagine that this is just another battle between the more progressive Reform and Conservative denominations and the more observant Orthodox, it must be noted that the criteria used by the rabbinate are driven by internal Haredi politics, not observance. According to the Jewish Week, at one point the number of American rabbis who were officially authorized by the Israeli rabbinate to perform conversions was down to a few dozen. Even if you are Orthodox — and especially if you are Modern Orthodox — your rabbi probably doesn’t make the cut. (Don’t believe it? Go ask him.)

Given that the conversion bill is the latest in a series of similarly motivated efforts, it seems almost useless to note that the stringent approach to Jewish law that the Israeli rabbinate promotes bears little connection to the historical experience and religious practice of the majority of Jewish people over the past two millenniums. It will do little good, too, to point out that it is well outside the consensus established by Hillel — arguably the greatest rabbi in all of rabbinic Judaism and whom, as Joseph Telushkin argues in a forthcoming book, was willing to convert a pagan on the spot, simply because he’d asked.

Unfortunately, though, this week, there was a second event in Israel that should be worrisome for progressive Jews.

At a service recognizing the new month of Av, a group of women came together as they usually do to pray at the Western Wall. Known formally as “Nashot HaKotel,” or Women of the Wall, the group’s leader, Anat Hoffman, was arrested as she carried a Torah near the Western Wall.

By now, you probably know that the issue of whether women can read from the Torah at the Western Wall (just like men do) has gone all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court. The result was a ruling that women must pray at a separate location at Robinson’s Arch, away from the Western Wall so as not to offend the ultra-orthodox praying there.

But on Rosh Chodesh Av, Anat was not reading from the Torah, nor was she even close to the Western Wall, and in fact was not violating the Israeli Supreme Court’s order when she was arrested for carrying a Torah and praying with this group of women.

Candidly, I watched the video of the incident and I cried. I saw three classmates and a rabbi I worked closely with in Los Angeles standing so close to Anat as the police officers shouted at them to pray the Rosh Chodesh service quietly.

What I kept thinking was, “you women, pray quietly.” Can you imagine if that happened here in the US? Gentlemen, how long do you think you would be allowed to sit before the women in your life helped you stand up and fight for their rights?

One of my classmates, Leah Berkowitz, a rabbi in North Carolina, witnessed Anat Hoffman's arrest and wrote the following in her blog about the incident:

I’ve previously only prayed with WOW on Purim, when their actions are considered less objectionable (after all, on Purim, Israelis let their children smoke and their men wear dresses). This was my first opportunity to see firsthand how the women’s prayer group–which adheres strictly to halacha (Jewish law)–prays, reads Torah, and celebrates Rosh Chodesh in the face of harassment and, sometimes, violence.

One challenge I sometimes have to traditional prayer is that much of it is done silently or in a low unintelligible mumble. Given the opinion of the haredim that “a woman’s voice is lewdness,” I was concerned that this would be a quiet, rushed prayer service rather than a joyous celebration of life and G-d’s goodness, like it should be.

But even with the constant reminders of a police officer to keep our singing volume to a minimum–I naively thought that he was there to protect us from being harassed by the haredim–much of the service was sung proudly and sweetly, by women wearing tallit and kippot.
. . .
The sweet sound of women singing was almost overshadowed by the cacaphony from the other side of the metal mechitza. Some of it, I later realized, was actually the mournful tunes used for prayer at the beginning of the month of Av, in which we commemorate the destruction of the Temple, though I imagine the sheer volume of it was not unrelated to our presence.

One voice rose louder than the others, though, belonging to a white-bearded man standing on a chair on the men’s side. His head and upper body was wrapped in a tallit, tefillin protruded from his forehead, both physical reminders to love G-d in every moment and every action. Between his responses to the male leader’s prayers, he screamed at us in Hebrew. I only caught snippets of what he said.

At one point, another man shouted at us in English (I was not sure whether he was translating for the bearded man or shouting his own obscenities). There were some shouts from haredi women, mostly related to our wearing tallitot, but not many. The police officer circled the crowd and reminded the women that tallitot had to be worn around our necks like scarves.

There were comparisons drawn between our joyful singing, the destruction of the Temple, and the crimes of the Nazis. There was a claim made that our prayers were particularly offensive since Av was a solemn time (even though they were praying the same prayers on the other side). And, most ironically, the one phrase I caught from the bearded man was sinat hinam, which is what the rabbis blame for the destruction of the Second Temple. Translation? “Senseless hatred.” Says the man screaming at a group of women peacefully praying.
. . .
Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, took out the Torah and led a procession to the approved site for our Torah reading. Although it has been months since she has attempted to take out the scroll while still in the Women’s Section, she ordered us to march slowly, singing loudly, to our designated space at Robinson’s Arch.

We never got there.

Once we were through the security gates and OUTSIDE of the Kotel Plaza, Anat was arrested and the Torah scroll taken away. Nofrat Frankel, who was arrested in November for the same crime (“performing a religious act that offends the feelings of others”) was knocked down in the struggle.

We followed Anat to the police station. Several members of the group wrapped tefillin as we prepared to finish the Torah service, without a Torah. Others stood by in the modest dress and head coverings of the Orthodox, reminding us that this is not an issue of Orthodox versus Reform, but a multi-denominational struggle for a woman’s right to pray and read Torah in public.

The mission statement of Women of the Wall includes the following: "The Western Wall belongs not to one individual, group, or denomination, but to all Jews … but in practice right now, this is not the case."
Religious freedom in Israel is suffering. The only democracy in the Middle East is about to cede religious power to the ultra-orthodox. They already have exclusive control regarding marriage and divorces for Jewish Israelis and now this bill in the Knesset is about to give them power to decide “who is a Jew” … which frightens truly me.

About ten years ago, I was sitting in a room with about 20 other young Jewish adults at a program sponsored by a modern orthodox synagogue. During the discussion, the rabbi told me that I wasn’t Jewish because I was adopted … even though my birth mother was Jewish, my adopted mother was Jewish, and my adopted father was Jewish, even though I was placed through a Jewish adoption agency, even though I attended Friday night and Saturday morning services every single week, he didn't consider me Jewish because I did not undergo a conversion ceremony (by an orthodox rabbi) as a baby.

Think about it, though, could I be any more Jewish?

Well, more than likely, if this bill passes, one of your rabbis wouldn’t be considered Jewish according to the state of Israel.

Tisha b’Av falls this coming Monday night this year … it commemorates, among other things, the destruction of the Temple. The Talmud teaches that the Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred amongst Jews. Now, amidst such religious intolerance and fanaticism, I wonder if we are doing any better?

The rest of the world doesn’t care if we are ultra-orthodox, modern orthodox, conservative, reform, or secular … we are all just Jews, but, as I said before, sometimes we Jews are our own worst enemy.

The Torah teaches: “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.” Right now, progressive Judaism in Israel is bleeding. Please do not stand idly by.

To get involved in either of these issues, I have printed off a list of websites so you can do your own investigation and decide whether to get involved. Sheets with this information have been placed in Smith Auditorium for you to pick up during the Oneg Shabbat following services.

Shabbat shalom.

Resource List / Links for Further Investigation:
The Religious Action Center’s Page with an E-mail to Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, Regarding the Conversion Bill …

Israel Religious Action Center’s Petition Regarding the Conversion Bill …

Official Website of “Nashot HaKotel / Women of the Wall” …

Video Showing Anat Hoffman’s Arrest …!

Rabbi Leah Berkowitz’s Blog … With an Eyewitness Account of Anat Hoffman’s Arrest …

Letter from Rabbi Eric Yoffie and Peter Weidhorn, Union for Reform Judaism
Dear Friend,

Emergency is not too strong a word. This week, despite commitments to the contrary, the Israeli Knesset is considering legislation that would fundamentally change the Law of Conversion and further concentrate power with the Chief Rabbinate. The bill would give the Chief Rabbinate exclusive oversight of all conversion matters, putting non-Orthodox conversions performed abroad at risk, and greatly limiting the options available to Israelis and olim (immigrants to Israel) wishing to convert or in need of 'official' recognition. Sadly, this happened within hours of the arrest of Anat Hoffman (Director of the Israel Religious Action Center and Founder of Women of the Wall) for praying at the Western Wall with a Torah scroll, yet another reminder that non-Orthodox Jews don't enjoy the same religious freedom in Israel that we do in North America.

It is critical that Prime Minister Netanyahu hear a loud and clear message from Diaspora Jewry that further alienation of non-Orthodox Jews goes against our deeply held beliefs in Klal Yisrael and creates a dangerous rift between Israel and world Jewry at a time when the relationship between North America and Israel is so vital. We urge you to contact the Prime Minister as soon as possible and share your concern over the future of religious freedom in Israel, the character of the Jewish State, and the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.

The Union for Reform Judaism, along with our Reform counterparts in Israel and affiliates around the world, will be closely monitoring the legislation over the next few days. We are prepared to take any action at our disposal necessary to prevent passage of this bill. We've dispatched senior members of the Union's staff to join with Rabbi Daniel Allen, ARZA Executive Director, in Israel to personally meet with members of the Knesset and convey to them the significance of this matter. At the same time, our Israeli and international Reform communities are mobilizing as well to convey their concern.

Your email and support are essential to our success. For more information on this issue you can visit We hope you will join us in this cause.


Rabbi Eric Yoffie                     Peter Weidhorn
President                                  Chairman of the Board