The Western Wall beckoned at the beginning of the new Hebrew month of Kislev, 5760.
I was studying at the Conservative Yeshiva for a month and residing at the Ratisbonne, a French Catholic monastery in the heart of downtown Jerusalem. My neighbor for the month was a sixty year old nun from South Africa named Trudy.
Although I had lived in Israel and visited there many times, I had never ventured into the Holy Sepulchre where the Tomb of Jesus resided. Trudy, who had been in Israel nine months, had never experienced the Western Wall, known in Israel as the Kotel. We made a deal on that rainy early morning in December that we would share each other’s holy places.
Trudy and I awoke before dawn and started the 30-minute walk to the Old City. We wanted to be present for the Rosh Chodesh morning prayers that are being sustained by the Women of the Wall, an organization of religiously and socially diverse women who come together once a month on the New Moon at the Western Wall. We reached the Kotel and immediately gazed at the gathering of women on the separated women’s section of the Western Wall. In lullaby hush tones we heard the singing and chanting of some sixty women. We drew closer to this monthly prayer circle. We lingered with them in a bittersweet prayer cocoon for twenty minutes. Like pregnant women getting ready to give birth, they packed their prayer books and the Sefer Torah (the Scroll that held the Five Books of Moses) in anticipation of their journey towards motherhood.
Since the religious municipality that governs the Wall prohibits women from chanting directly from the Sefer Torah’s scroll, the women journey half a mile to a more secluded and less public space known as Robinson’s arch.
The ancient space offered a stone carved table for our precious Sefer Torah. Several women unwrapped the scroll from a large blue duffel bag, and like a newborn baby, they placed her gently and lovingly on this changing table.
The rain turned sun reigned on us; the chatter turned silence shone inside. Trudy and I watched and waited for the next prayer chapter.
As the women prepared the sacred scroll for the reading, they asked if anyone would like to come up and receive an aliya, an honor.
I scanned the women’s faces, absorbed the question and hesitated before I answered. ”Yes, I would like an aliya.”
The woman standing next to me was wearing a special “Women of the Wall” tallit embroidered with the names of the four matriarchs on each corner.
“May I borrow your tallit for my aliya?” I asked this stranger pleading as I spoke.
“Yes, but of course,” came her quick unequivocal reply.
The tallit made my aliya complete. This slow holy motion moment remains in my memory.
I returned to my place next to Trudy and removed the tallit from my shoulders. I thanked this beautiful lady for her generosity.
“What a wonderful way to inaugurate my new tallit with your blessings. This is my first time wearing it. Thank you.”
“You are the blessing,” I said.
Sometimes what we need someone else has to give.
Well I did not make it to the Newsweek Rabbi list, or even the My Jewish Learning Real Top Rabbi list. It would therefore be easy for me to be critical of this whole venture of voting for America’s Real Top Rabbis. However, this Real Top Rabbi vote is a reminder that rabbinic work is being carried on daily by some genuinely talented rabbis who do not make the headlines, but really deserve a thank you from all of us.
This whole phenomenon does raise a vital question as to what characteristics we look for in our rabbinic leadership. This is certainly a very old question without a simple answer neither today nor in years past.
This past Shabbat I taught a Rashi from Leviticus 9:7. Moses instructs Aaron to approach the altar. Since Aaron was already involved with the needed sacrifices, Rashi apparently saw this instruction as superfluous and therefore assumed something was happening that warranted this command from Moses to Aaron. “Aaron was bashful and afraid to approach [the altar]. So Moses said to him: “Why are you ashamed? For this [function] you have been chosen!”
One could imagine Moses being critical with Aaron here: Nu- get on with it, offer the required sacrifices, and do not hesitate! The Sefat Emet does not follow this approach. He understands Aaron’s bashfulness or reticence as a genuine religious/spiritual characteristic and one worthy of emulation. When commanded, Aaron acted, but with a certain hesitancy. What is that source for hesitating? Why not simply plow ahead eagerly?
I think it is not an expression of inadequacy to the task at hand. Rather, the Sefat Emet is suggesting that the serious religious personality has to take a breath, pause and consider: “what an awesome responsibility I have and an amazing opportunity to fulfill a mitzvah! What I am about to do is not something to be taken lightly. It is an extraordinary privilege to serve God and others. Am I truly worthy of it?” Not only a duty one must perform, a mitzvah is a statement of our worth and dignity. Have I earned the right to perform it?
As I write this it is Yom Hazikaron and this is being posted on Yom Ha-atzmaut. In this context I am reminded of one of my teachers, Rav Yehuda Amital, the founder of Yeshivat Har Etzion. He built an amazing educational institution whose students and teachers play important roles in Israel and world-wide. At a number of celebrations of the Yeshiva and at certain family celebrations he would walk around and sometimes express to nobody in particular “What did I do to merit this?” Now Rav Amital knew his talents and was not expressing false humility, but his sentiment was genuine. I think it came from this sense of amazement; how did he merit the privilege to create and nurture a yeshiva of the highest, spiritual, educational and moral order. It is the appreciation of this privilege that gives the religious person pause.
So, if you vote, vote for all the rabbis! And before you vote, pause and appreciate the privilege you have that these rabbis are your teachers and leaders.
There are times when Jon Stewart just hits the nail on the head of an issue. Last week he had a segment on how all of the Republican candidates for office and President Obama spoke at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual convention in Washington DC.
All of the Republicans spoke about how they would back up Israel and bomb Iran so that Iran cannot develop nuclear capabilities which it would likely use against Israel. All claimed that the current Obama administration would not do so. Until of course President Obama took the stage and said that he would do everything in his power to keep Iran from building a nuclear bomb including military action. Basically everyone agrees that a nuclear Iran is dangerous for Israel, the Middle East and the world at large. Everyone agrees that Israel is an important ally of the US, and the US would protect her if the need arises. Jon Stewart expertly points out all of these facts, and then closes the segment with some incendiary quotes from politicians criticizing Israel. Who , he asks, has the gall to say such things? – Well Israeli members of parliament, of course, since only in Israel “Can you hold political office and criticize Israel.”
The simple meaning of this final line is that no American political candidate or nationally elected politician will criticize Israel. The clips which he played demonstrated the truth of this statement. However, the ability of any American to criticize Israel is also now up for debate.
I myself usually do not write or talk about Israel for fear of saying the wrong thing or offending someone. If you lean a little left on Israel those who lean right will attack you, and if you lean right, those on the left will attack. There is no winning. Better to not say anything at all.
The problem with this approach is that then we leave the conversation to all of the people who are shouting their position from the rooftops. If everyone is shouting, then no one is listening. Not listening to each other is not good for Israel, and is not good for the Jewish community as a whole. We could learn a lesson from the clips Jon Stewart shows. The truth is that once all the yelling dies down, we would see that we are all basically standing in the same place. All of this rhetoric and energy around Israel is because American Jews actually have a very strong relationship with Israel. We care. In fact, we care so passionately we fight with each other over things large and small.
For decades, American Jews have questioned whether we have a right to criticize Israel. Some argue yes, we are all one big family, so we can set each other straight when we need to. And others say no, we are one big family and we just need to support each other. There is truth to both positions. There is no “right” way to talk about Israel.
I would love to see everyone calm down a bit and remind each other that we are indeed all coming from a place of supporting Israel. We just support Israel in different ways, and have different ideas and dreams about what Israel can and should be. Let’s talk about ideas and dreams. Let’s also talk about possible solutions to the political realities Israel faces.
I truly wonder if we can learn how to talk and listen to each other again. Because I don’t want Jon Stewart’s jokes to ring so true. He can make fun of the situation because when all else is stripped away, it is silly. We are squabbling and posturing to each other for no reason.
Each of us can take steps to lower the rhetoric around Israel. Be brave, start conversations with friends and relatives. Truly listen to points of view which differ from your own, and ask others why they care about Israel. There are a lot of great stories and connections that we can build in this way.
These days the pundits and analysts say that the peace process is over. Remember Oslo? Remember the Roadmap for Peace back in 2002? It is now one more memory on the heaping pile of “almost” peace deals. Now, 10 years later, as much has changed as has stayed the same, including the fact that some of you will surely disagree with me about even that statement.
I was reflecting on this when I recently had a chance to see my favorite singer-songwriter, Israeli superstar David Broza, in New Jersey. It was a unique setting – just about 100 people in a small, informal performance space at the NJ Performing Arts Center (NJPAC.) More than a performance, it was a “conversation with the artist”, conducted by the director of the arts program at NJPAC, who brought the audience into the conversation as well. For long-time Broza fans like most of us in that audience, it was a thrill to sit at the master’s feet, so to speak. Here is why: Broza is not only a beloved and influential popular artist for two generations of Israelis. He not only earned an international reputation for his music, but he is one of us. He is not only an incredibly talented singer, composer and master of his guitar, he is also a living example of a commitment to peace that one can only wish the politicians should learn.
As his website, rather humbly, I think, says:
More than a singer/songwriter, David Broza is also well known for his commitment and dedication to several humanitarian causes, predominantly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Beginning in 1977, Broza has been working to bring the message of peace to the masses by joining peace movements, and singing what has become the anthem of the Peace process, his hit song, Yihye Tov.
In a recent project, Broza has written and recorded with the Palestinian music group, Sabreen, the song ‘Belibi’, that featured Broza and Sabreen’s Wissam Murad, and two children’s choirs, one from each side of the conflict. In Search for Common Ground presented awards to both artists in November of 2006.”
Broza’s music is inspiring, and made that much sweeter when you meet the artist in person and learn his story. By working on behalf of tolerance, justice and co-existence, Broza is an example of “lived” Jewish values that we look to Israeli society to represent as its very raison d’etre.
A few years ago I made his song “Yihye Tov” the ringer on my IPhone. I wanted to remind myself to never to give up hope that the world can be healed, that things will be better, and that we must keep our dreams of peace alive in our everyday moments. The song movingly envisions:
“I look out of the window and it makes me very sad, spring has left, who knows when it will return. The clown has become a king the prophet has become a clown and I have forgotten the way , but I am still here. And all will be good yes, all will be good , though I sometimes break down but this night oh, this night, I will stay with you.
We will yet learn to live together between the groves of olive trees children will live without fear without borders, without bomb-shelters on graves grass will grow, for peace and love, one hundred years of war, but we have not lost hope.”
A few years ago we heard Broza perform at NJPAC, and while he gave a fabulous performance of a wide range of his music, he left me sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for “Yihye Tov” in vain. We were fortunate that night to be invited to a “chat with the artist” after the show and, of course, a fan hastened to ask Broza why he hadn’t sung his signature song. He said, sadly, that he was a bit tired of it. There is still no peace. I left with such a heavy heart.
But I refused to give in to despair. Like a prayer, I have sung the song many, many times since then. And I continue to support and engage in Arab-Israeli peace projects, though I have been called naïve, or worse.
This time, when Broza was asked to sing “Yihye Tov”, he happily obliged. I smiled thinking about how he had brought the song back to life this past summer with new words for the Israeli “social justice” protests that swept the country. Yes, I felt, there is hope, things will be better.
After the show I had an opportunity to personally say hello to David Broza. I reminded him of that show a few years ago when he didn’t sing “the” song. He didn’t remember that until I reminded him of it. Not bad, I thought, that his hope has so overcome his sadness that he doesn’t even recall that moment. That made me happy. I so appreciated the very human, open-heartedness that Broza brought to the stage, and to our conversation. I’m grateful to him for yet more inspiration.
Yihye Tov. It’ll be good – we have not lost hope.
Two weeks ago I wrote about the tragic loss of little Ayelet Galena z”l. I discussed how one young life was able to literally save the lives of twenty one other people. We can not and must not lose hope in our own potential in the face of all the goodness that was brought about due to the inspiration of one two year old girl and her valiant struggle.
This week I am reminded of the loss of yet another young life. Last year our community at Harvard suffered the tragic and sudden death of a beloved member of our student community, Ilya Chalik z”l. Ilya would have graduated along with the rest of the members of the class of 2011. His dream was to enter the medical profession, which fit his driving character trait of serving others perfectly.
Members of the community who knew Ilya gathered on campus this week to reflect on the one year anniversary since his death. As I listened to people share their stories and how they are coping one year later, I was struck by the same thought as I was a year ago: One life, one relatively young life, was able to bring together such disparate sectors of the broader community into conversation with each other. I thought of this a year ago when I flew with his Harvard tai-chi instructor to his funeral. I thought of this when I heard his friends from his diverse high school in Chicago reflect on how he impacted them. I thought of this when friends from college discussed their interactions with him from house life; from Hillel; from trips to Colombia and to Israel and from his work with various Asian societies on campus.
Ilya, through his friendships, his life and his deeds, wove threads linking people and magnified life for all who knew him. Students, reflecting on how Ilya impacted their life, commented that because of him they now have come to appreciate how beautiful a tree in fall is or how serene an afternoon in Harvard Yard could be. They have come to see life can mean more than performing well, it can be just as much about living well.
The lessons imparted to us by Ilya are shared by the single most defining ritual of the Jewish year of mourning, the Kaddish. The prayer traditionally recited daily by mourners has very little to do with mourning and with death. Rather, its central themes rest on the world that ought to be, glorifying God and optimism for the world and its inhabitants:
May the great name of God be exalted and sanctified throughout the world… May His kingship be established in your lifetime and in the lifetime of all of Israel… May there be abundant peace from Heaven and a good life upon us and all of Israel…
Kaddish is a daily reminder that the deceased lives on, in a sense, through the ways in which his or her striving for a more holy, more peaceful and more abundant life become a part of our ways and our lives. Death is an end, sometimes abruptly so, to the potential of one life, yet our ability to magnify that life and be magnified by it, can be tremendously realized through finding times to reflect and come together to remember.
And so as I left the space this week where fellow students, friends, teachers and mentors of Ilya gathered to reflect on one year since his loss, I felt a deep pain and sadness. I remember his warm presence at our Shabbat table. I remember his excitement about seeing the world and I remember the intense pain and mourning of his parents, his friends and the entire Harvard community. However, I also left that space feeling inspired and uplifted by hearing the ways in which Ilya’s life left a mark and forever changed the lives of so many others; how his ability to bring unique parts of society together in harmony has become stamped on the hearts and minds of so many others who knew him.
May the memory of Ilya Chalik z”l and all that he strove for, all that he believed in continue to inspire all who knew him and who have come to know him through hearing the stories of his life, to magnify the connections between people and the beauty of life. May we continue to work towards a day of abundant peace for us and for all people as Ilya worked so hard for in his short life.
It is a tree of life to those who hold it close and all of its supporters are happy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all of its paths lead to peace. Proverbs 3:18
This was one of the very first Hebrew songs I learned. Even as a young child, I knew it was special because it was the melody we sang as we ushered the Torah back into the aron hakodesh — the holy ark where it is kept.
The book of Proverbs, attributed to King Solomon, was written during a time when even our royalty was more innately connected to the earth than your average suburban or city-living Jew today. King Solomon — and most who lived in ancient Israel — surely understood the tremendous power of the metaphor associating Torah with a tree. Just as a tree has roots and branches, so too does Torah. Its roots date back some 3,300 years, to the Jewish narrative of Mt. Sinai — and even earlier, to the formative stories of our people that it tells. Its branches stretch well into the future, carrying generations of Jews who have, through the process of intellectual debate and spiritual discovery, enabled Judaism to evolve and continue to speak the language of modern society. Just as a tree produces fruit, so too does Torah. This fruit comes in the form of mitzvot, or commandments — active ingredients in a recipe for purposeful living. As children, we cherish the opportunity to climb a tree. So too, we strive to ascend Torah, grasping its multiple branches of interpretation and reaching for higher meaning.
Our Rabbis’ decision to celebrate this metaphor offers a good hint not only at how their society felt about the Torah, but also how they related to trees. The Torah is precious. We hold the Torah, kiss it before and after we read from it, and do everything we can to prevent it from falling. So too, we understand that we must care for our trees. We can swing from their branches, but we must be careful not to break them. We can eat from their fruit, but we are forbidden from destroying the forests they comprise.
This past Wednesday, Jews around the world celebrated Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees. First documented in the Mishnah in about 200 CE, Tu Bishvat falls in the midst of winter, when trees are bare — not a time when one might expect a holiday that celebrates the glory of nature. And yet, maybe that is the very reason why this date was so aptly picked. It is at this time, when we are not necessarily cognizant of the beauty of the trees around us, that we most need a holiday to remind us of their ultimate potential. In this midway point of winter, the sap begins to travel up the roots, enabling the buds to form and flowers to bloom in the coming months of spring. Once spring arrives, we will likely be more cognizant of our relationship with the natural world, but during the winter we need a nudge to remind us of the glorious process of renewal that lies ahead.
In recent years, Tu Bishvat has been adopted by environmentalists as a Jewish earth day of sorts. Through an effort to combine Jewish spirituality and environmental action, Jewish environmentalists have stood alongside other religious activists in using a sacred voice to advocate for the future of our planet.
The midrash from Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:19 reads, “When God created Adam, God took him around all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: ‘See how wonderful and praiseworthy all of my creations are. Everything I have created, I created for you. Be careful not to destroy My world; for if you destroy it, there is no one who will fix it after you.’”
This midrash was written 1300 years ago, yet it could not ring more true for us today. We are in the midst of environmental crisis. We must make thoughtful, resolute steps if we wish to live in a world with clean air, edible and healthful food, and a stable climate. The vitality of creation depends on our ability to find sustainable ways of stewarding our planet, and this will only come through a combination of personal commitments and governmental legislation.
This year Tu Bishvat fell during the week of the Interfaith Power and Light National Preach-In on Global Warming. The preach-in is an effort to encourage religious leaders throughout our nation to speak to their communities about the devastating impact we continue to have on our planet. As we humans engage in the burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and problematic agricultural and industrial activities, we unleash billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the environment. This carbon dioxide mixes with water vapor and other gasses in the atmosphere, trapping heat like the glass on a greenhouse and creating devastating climate change here on earth. “The vast majority of scientists now agree that our climate is being threatened in an unprecedented way,” Asserts the Reverend Sally Bingham, Founder and President of IPL, “And we’re already seeing and feeling some of the devastating consequences. I have always maintained that religious people should lead the environmental movement. If we aren’t going to take care of creation, we can’t expect others to. People from all religions have a shared purpose in doing our part to keep God’s earth clean and healthy for the future.”
Congregants in synagogues, churches, and mosques throughout the country will be offered 5×7 postcards at services this weekend that they can mail to their senators, asking them to own their moral responsibility and support the Clean Air Act.
Bingham asserts that religious leaders not only have a responsibility to speak the truth, but also have a unique ability to reach those who have not yet thought deeply about these issues. She tells congregants that the environment is not a political issue, but rather one of theology – “It’s a matter of life and death.” People often respond by saying: “I’ve just never thought of it like that – this means something to me and is going to make a difference in my life and the way I behave.”
In Judaism, we do a lot of thinking, debating, and reflecting – but the beauty of Judaism is that it is not simply esoteric and spiritual; it is also grounded and practical. Ideally, all of these discussions lead us to action that will improve our communities and our world. As we move from Tu Bishvat into National Preach-In Shabbat, may we be resolute about turning our intentions into action. It is time to take an account of our carbon footprint and recommit ourselves to environmental action — both through personal reform and national advocacy — before it’s too late.
Many Jews have ambivalent feelings about the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Thankfully, the Jewish story in the United States has largely been one of success. The dominant narrative (but by no means the only narrative) is that Jews came as immigrants to this country, worked hard, got educations, and moved from the poor, to the middle class, and in many cases in to the upper classes of American society. Those Jews who have achieved great financial success feel attacked by the Occupy Movement. At an event held by the Edgar Bronfman Foundation where Simon Greer, the head of the Cummings Foundation, presented on “Jews and the 99%”, a man in the audience commented, “Why am I being painted by the Movement as a bad guy? I am not a bad person. I am an example of how to succeed in this country.” He was able to fulfill the American dream. He grew up poor, went to college, founded a business and is now considered to be “successful by any standard,” he said.
What Simon Greer, and an Op-Ed by Anderw Kohut the president of the Pew Research Center, point out is that Americans are not upset that there is income inequality in this country, but rather they are upset that it seems that now those in the lower economic echelons do not get a fair chance at raising themselves out of their current state. In Kohuts Op-Ed, he cites “ a Gallup poll last month found 54% believing that income inequality was an ‘acceptable part of our economic system’…What is different these days is that a despondent public, struggling with difficult times and an uncertain future, is upset over a perceived lack of fairness in public policy. For example 61% of Americans now say the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy.”
People need to have hope that they can do better. Hope that their dreams can be fulfilled. Hope that their children’s lives will be better than their own. Depression is really an apt word for the state of this country right now. A key symptom of depression is a lack of hope. Kohut ends his op ed by writing, “What the public wants is not a war on the rich but more policies that promote opportunity.”
Jewish leaders and the Jewish community have a lot to teach Americans about hope. The concept of hoping for a better time in the midst of the deepest darkest days is a central theme in our liturgy, the way we organize our communities, and the Jewish nationalist quest for a homeland in Israel.
First take a look at our liturgy. Since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 ce, Jews have prayed and hoped for the re-establishment of the Temple. This hope for an eventual return to the holy land, and the re-building of the Temple carried the Jews though thousands of years of Diaspora living. While holding on to this hope, the Jews leaders crafted a Judaism not based on offering sacrifices to the Temple, but rather on daily prayer and rituals. A new Judaism emerged, one which today makes the rebuilding of the Temple itself irrelevant. Yet, it was the hope for the return to the land of Israel and dreams of the Temple that carried Jews forward. Without hope, all would have been lost. Statements and prayers for hope can be found all over the prayer book and Jewish texts.
Then, during the nineteenth century Jews across Europe had the hope of one day making it to the “goldene medina,” the golden land of America, where they imagined the streets were paved with gold. This hope propelled tens of thousands of Jews to travel from across Europe in many different waves of immigration to the US. Then once they were here, the hope of eventual success in America caused Jews to organize Jewish welfare boards, Jewish Social Service Agencies, Jewish Community Centers, and the United Jewish Appeal in order to help Jews here in America and those suffering from persecution in every corner of the world. The Jewish community erected an amazing social support system which still exists today. The Jewish value of helping the poor, widowed, and orphaned was then and still is today taken seriously by the leaders of these organizations. With the hope of eventual success these great organizations would never have been established, and the Jewish community would not be as successful as we are today.
And of course, there always was the hope of returning to the promised land, to Israel. While Jews dreamt about Israel in different ways, some for religious reasons, others for secular nationalist ones, the goal of achieving a homeland stayed with Jews for centuries. It is no surprise that the name of the Israeli nation anthem is “Hatikvah,” “The Hope.”
We have a lot to teach about sustaining hope and the power the simple act of hope has to propel people forward to achieve great things. The Talmud teaches, “you must remove the stumbling block before the blind.” Now is the time to organize to remove the stumbling blocks which stand before us. The Occupy Movement will not succeed if it is based in anger. The message needs to be turned around and made positive. Hope is a positive message. It is the message that propelled Barak Obama in to the White House four years ago. But four years of continued economic depression had taken hope away from the average American.
Let’s restore the hope that the American economy can be strong again. That those who work hard and want to succeed can. Let’s remove the stumbling blocks that exist for those born into poverty. There are many different viewpoints and public policy arguments to be made on how to do this. I am not going to advocate here for any particular one. But I am going to strongly assert that before any particular policy can be effective we have to re-establish the grand hope that our country has the will and resources to help all of its citizens get a leg up.
All of us need to start preaching the call for hope. This is the starting point for our individual and collective success.
I began making frequent trips to Israel during the second intifada, in August 2001. I became accustomed to the security guard at public places, having my bag checked at entrances to restaurants, markets, malls, etc., which made me feel secure.
Yet, it can still be a little bit jarring to transition in when I arrive in Israel and have my bag checked or go through metal detectors at shops and other public venues. I am now in Jerusalem for a two week stay, and my first stop was the supermarket. At the SuperSol, the now familiar guard, a young Ethiopian man who could be the age of my son, sits at the entrance and asks, in Hebrew, “Madame, do you have a weapon?” I can’t help it, I laugh, and answer, “No.” He looks in my bag in a cursory way and lets me enter.
I laugh for several reasons, I suppose, as I think about it later. One reason is that it is still so surprising, even after all these visits, to be asked this question. I wonder what would happen if I said “yes”. I wonder who carries a weapon in their bag. I also laugh at the thought that if I did carry a weapon, why would I want to tell him? But that’s a scary thought, not funny at all, and so totally absurd for me — I could never imagine even touching a weapon, no less carrying one around. I laugh because of the momentary nervousness generated by the horrible reason that the guard is asking me this question in the first place. And then I grab my shopping cart, consume myself with the delight of being in this place, feeling secure because of the presence of this guard at the entrance.
I was thinking about weapons that night of my return to Jerusalem. Coincidentally, just a block away from the SuperSol is Jerusalem’s Independence Park (Gan Ha’atzmaut). That night there was a huge demonstration of the Israeli Ethiopian community, protesting racism in Israeli society. The streets were all blocked, traffic was at a stand-still as I arrived at my short-term apartment just a few blocks away. Shortly after the demonstration, I could see some signs still left there as I walked past the park. I watched the news that night and heard one protester sum it up: “You brought us here. Now what?”
There are a lot of seam-lines in Israeli society. Racism is one of them. Tolerance, respect and inclusive democracy are all hot button issues. Yet, while Israel’s social problems are in sharp focus for the occasional visitor like me, it also strikes me that we are not so perfect in the USA either. I wish there were more protests addressing the social problems in our country, actually, when I see the Israeli activism.
It occurred to me that these are the weapons we have — words. That had been the first thought that had made me laugh at the guard’s question. What went through my mind was, “Of course I have a weapon! It is my voice. It is my words.”
A couple nights later I walked past the park and noticed an elaborately decorated car parked nearby. The car was covered with banners, signs, bumper stickers and painted words, all promoting the Bretslover Chasidic sect. The words proclaim G-d’s love. Echoes of the protest still linger, perhaps this is one of them. Here is one kind of weapon against hate, captured in words. I wonder how we get from slogans to actions — how we can do a better job of loving each other with acceptance, respect and compassion.
As I walk down the street I am consumed with thoughts of protests, activism, tolerance and mutuality. I notice a slightly familiar person walking past me, now in front of me. It’s the young Ethiopian guard from the SuperSol. His pace is quick — but I want to catch up and tell him that I DO have a weapon. It’s my words. It’s my actions. It’s OUR activism.
Of course, I don’t bother him. But I think about how we need to do a better job of revealing our best weapon against hatred, inequality and violence. And I am grateful to him for his unknowing inspiration.
Photo by Itta Werdiger Roth
My daughter sings in the choir at her Jewish high school. Only her mother can attend the annual concert. I am not allowed to attend as this would violate “kol isha” hearing the voice of a woman sing. While the school certainly allows my daughter to sing, out of modesty it cannot take place in front of men.
In many Hasidic sources, based on a Zohar passage, the Exodus from Egypt is viewed as the movement from silence to speech. Pharaoh’s oppression of the Israelites was so intense that initially the people could not even respond to God and Moses’s call of redemption. They lacked the strength to simply listen to Moses. The Exodus became the restoration of the authentic Jewish voice to the People, for at Sinai they spoke loud and clear as one to accept the Torah. Moses who in Egypt complained he cannot speak well gained a full voice at Sinai and for the rest of his life. It is no accident that our annual retelling of the Exodus story at Passover is such an important verbal activity. It is precisely though telling and talking that we show we are free of the oppression from Egypt. What emerges from this is that to give someone voice is to liberate them and to suppress voice is to enslave them.
In an American context this can certainly resonate with our concern for free speech. While Jewish tradition has many laws concerning proper speech and would recoil from the repugnant nature of much of what passes today as protected free speech, nonetheless one should be very hesitant to suppress someone’s voice because that borders on enslaving them. At the same time, there is much American society could learn from the ethics of speech that plays a role in Jewish tradition.
As an Orthodox rabbi, I have followed as many have, the issues of “kol isha” hearing a women’s voice that have played out both in a singing context and even women not being allowed to present at a medical conference in Israel recently sponsored by a very important organization Puah which works on issues in fertility. While this is not the place to enter into the legal arguments, there is an underlying tension being played out between traditional understandings of modesty, unfortunately and incorrectly placed as a burden/responsibility on women, and an open society where women are full participants in the public square. At least one leading rabbi has argued for a more open understanding of this issue, but what I have seen lacking is this viewing of suppressing women’s voices as an act of oppression. It returns the woman to a form of slavery and the silencer to a type of Pharaoh. However this will play itself out in Israel and in America, this imperative of giving voice to people must begin to enter into the discussion, even as the community wrestles with the imperative of modesty.
As an American-Israeli it is painful to watch Israel’s dirty laundry be aired out so publicly. I have been content defending Israel’s right to exist, touting her accomplishments and achievement as a leader in high tech innovation and in medicine. When I was a kid I loved the bravado of the T-shirt in the Shuk that depicted an F-16 with an Israeli flag on its wing tailing and similar jet with stars and stripes. The caption said, “Don’t worry America, Israel is right behind you.” It’s not that Israel could do no wrong, but that her mistakes were forgivable given the enormous pressure that the country’s citizen bare every day.
Being the American family, my parents were the only one of their siblings who left Israel for the states, it fell to us to be religious. None of my twenty Israeli cousins are religious. Given that, and given the reality of Israel, I am certain that had we stayed in Israel, I would not be religious either, and certainly not a rabbi. While there is a large swath of the Israeli populous which is religious in its own way, the polarity of either/or thinking, either black hat or no hat at all, still feels like the norm. I’ve recently been introduced to this great term for the unvoiced middle contingent of Israelis – they wear “transparent kippot.”
In the past, American Jewry’s wading into the affairs of Israel was frowned upon. “You have no idea,” we have been told. It was true – before. It was true during the first sixty years when Israel was fighting for the right to exist, but that fight is largely won. To be sure, threats still exist on a daily basis. However, that something like “peace” is nearing is evident in that the central issue facing Israel, since her birth, is finally being addressed. The elephant has grown larger than the room itself: What does it mean to be a “Jewish State?” To what degree religious, and to what degree culturally defined? This is where American Jewry has to step in. The greatest asset we have to offer Israel in the midst of her crisis of Identity, religious or secular, is a working model of pluralism.
I suggest that Israel make a clear separation of Synagogue and State. I suggest this A) Because it works for us and B) Because there can be no compulsion in religion – it weakens any sense of moral compass for its adherence. I am suggesting that the Haredim, who don’t want women on their busses, who don’t want women on their streets to be dressed in any way other than their specific way, who don’t want female doctors to rise to the dais to accept awards, will actually be healthier without the over-stated voice in Israeli political life. While I disagree with each and every embarrassing misogynistic position that has been voiced these past few months, I actually believe in the right of these Haredim to voice their opinions. And where else to do it but in Israel? Nonetheless, they are going about it all wrong. We are taught that “everything is in the hands of heaven, with the exception of awe of heaven” – Our early sages guided us that we must be free to choose God and choose our path in Judaism, or the entire enterprise is meaningless.
Only without a government sponsored Rabbinate can freedom of religion really flourish in Israel. When that happens we can see Orthodox, Hassidim, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Jews, and even right-wing Haredim, support each other in continual growth and closeness to our shared, One and Only God.