The recent reports of women being dragged from the Kotel — the Western Wall — while Torah scrolls were ripped from their hands and subjected to other tactics of intimidation and force by the Israeli police are unnerving, to say the least, to read and listen to. Israel is indeed a modern democracy with a state religion, Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. It is not the only contemporary democratic state with an official religion. Americans unaccustomed to overt state sanctioned religion may find it incomprehensible that instruments of the state would enforce the rules, practices and customs of a religious sect yet this is commonplace in many countries.
David Landau in a Haaretz opinion piece argued that non-Israeli Jewry protesting the enforcement of Israel’s state religion at the Kotel is nothing short of libelous by portraying Israel as a country mired in medieval-isms and religious obscurantism. He asked those who protest Israel’s actions at the Kotel to consider what the state response would be to someone performing non-Catholic worship at the Vatican or Catholic worship at the Diocese of Canterbury in England.
Landau’s argument though only extends to a certain point. Yes, the state would enforce the normative religious practice of the state religion in institutions or buildings that represent that state religion. However, the state would also simultaneously enforce the rights of the protesters acting out in civil disobedience at those sites. The harassment and physical violence inflicted upon the protesters would be prosecuted to at least the same extent as those doing the protesting would be held accountable. It is a basic right of modern democracy to protest and the modern democratic state has as much responsibility to protect the integrity of the legally recognized status quo as it does to protect the well-being of those who disobey it.
This, however, is not the entire point. If we seek to compare and contrast Israel’s treatment of the complex situation at the Kotel with that of other modern polities with a state religion and stop there we will have missed the full picture. Israel is not just a modern democratic state with an official religion, it is also a Jewish state and as such it bears a unique prism by which to view this issue.
Jewish civilization throughout history has not been known for its architecture nor its artwork. Indeed, a traditional Biblical injunction exists proscribing many forms of art. (Nonetheless, Jews throughout history and contemporary times have designed art not conforming to that injunction but a full discussion of that topic is beyond the scope of this post.) Jewish civilization is known for two primary contributions to the wealth of human development: a culture of ideas and a society of engagement with the Divine.
Our buildings do not define us. It is our books and our relationship with God that has been the hallmark defining characteristic of the Jewish story. We do not venerate places; we appreciate the potential that a place has for furthering our religious, spiritual and/or intellectual growth. This is true even when it comes to the greatest and most significant Jewish building project ever undertaken, not once but twice, the Temple in Jerusalem, of which the present-day Kotel is but a retaining outer wall of the Second Temple complex. It wasn’t the Temple building that made the Temple holy, it was the profundity of that space and the power of the rituals performed therein that infused it with holiness. When the Temple leadership become corrupt and when the Jewish people drifted far away from the principles and ideals that it represented it was destroyed.
Thus, perhaps the most critical problem that this Kotel quandary presents is that there is a Kotel quandary in the first place. To acknowledge that the Kotel presents the potential for holiness is absolutely clear. Yet, the politics of power and of control and the perspective that the Kotel itself is vested with a singular ability to intensify our prayers and meditations before God is bordering on idolatry. Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a seminal Orthodox Israeli public intellectual, declared shortly after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that brought the Temple Mount under Israeli control, that the Kotel should be transformed into a disco or as he called it a Diskotel because he astutely understood the grave possibility that Jews would begin to worship the Kotel instead of God.
So instead of battling for various religious outcomes for the Kotel: status quo, three partitions (men, women and mixed), no partitions, timeshare model, etc., let us throw our hands up in the air and dance. Let us go back to the business of being Jewish: wrestling with ideas and with God and let us stop wrestling over a wall.
While driving to work the other day I heard a woman interviewed on the radio asked about the “Rape” comments of some particular politicians running for office. The reporter asked if those comments would influence her vote. “No,” she replied, rather dispassionately, “he is entitled to his opinion about that, even if we disagree.” In other words, she would still support candidates associated with those views, as well as those who articulate them.
I gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles, channeling my anger into the tightness in my hands. This is RAPE we are talking about — not taxes, not health care or energy policy – all issues about which I have strong feelings, but not nearly as potentially personal. Yes, I know that these issues and several more are serious reflections of our values and therefore personal on many levels. But rape – the heinous act of violence against a woman – is a step above these issues in its import.
Rape is an act of violence. There is no qualifying it. It is a forceful act, a violent imposition of power over a woman. It is as wounding, or more, than a physical act of harm that leaves external wounds. The internal wounds, the spiritual, emotional, psychological wounds left by rape can be longer lasting and more difficult to heal than many other wounds. For the women I have counseled as a rabbi, along with their loved ones, I am anguished by their pain.
Politicians who have used terms like, “legitimate rape” or who have legitimized the violent and forceful act of rape by labeling resulting pregnancies as “God’s will,” are just plain disdainful of women. They may think they are nice people and they may say they are compassionate, but make no mistake about it – the men who have made these crude statements are neither compassionate nor nice. They are soldiers in a war against women.
Partisan politics ugliness has reached a new crescendo with this war on women. It has become acceptable for politicians to speak in crude and demeaning ways about women’s bodies or our ability to make choices for ourselves. How can a bunch of politicians — who appear to know nothing about women — make choices for us? Yes, some of their supporters are female politicians. I have just one thing to say to them: Shame on you!
Personal decisions about birth control and pregnancy are spiritually and emotionally serious and challenging. Rabbis, ministers and therapists are equipped to guide women who are facing difficult choices. But politicians are not, and I think they know that. This is not about helping women. It is about power.
To those who support these insensitive brutes, who say, “It’s just a difference of opinion,” I say: Shame on you. Women waited too long and fought too hard to win our right to equality and respect. We owe each other vigilance to make sure we don’t turn the clock back.
Oh, if only “men and women could be gentle, and women and men could be strong,” in the words of Judy Chicago. Then “everywhere will be called Eden once again.”
There are white Jews, Black Jews, Asian Jews, and Arab Jews – but blue Jews? No, no such thing exists. Which is exactly why artist Siona Benjamin paints them. Blue is the color of water and sky. It belongs everywhere and nowhere, so when Benjamin paints her figures are often blue. If the Jews are blue, one cannot simply assume a race or identity to them, they could be anyone, at any time.
Born in Bombay, Benjamin grew up amidst Hindus and Muslims and attended Catholic and Zoroastrian schools. She understands the ability of Jews to blend into their environment. An accomplished artist whose fine brushwork and vivid colors evoke the cultural themes of her native land, the subject of many of her paintings engage the stories of Jewish texts. One look at her illustrations for the story of the biblical Queen Esther and I find myself considering this familiar tale from an entirely new point of view, how did she not stand out? What makes us able to choose not to see difference?
At this time of year Judaism can seem overly cerebral. Lots of praying, listening, talking and of course the exception to the rule, the eating. But the moment we finish with Yom Kippur we prepare for Sukkot. By contrast to High Holidays, Sukkot is about doing. It celebrates the very physical work of the harvest. It has us building physical structures and taking holy objects in our hands and shaking them about. Even the eating, with the moving in and out, is much more physical.
And then there is the art. A Sukkah is meant to be decorated. Sure you can just buy a few premade chains or hang apiece of fruit, but you can also take the opportunity to stretch your Jewish thinking and engage with art as text or in creating new art. There is a tradition of inviting ushpizin, mythical guests from the Jewish past into our Sukkot. Peruse Benjamin’s art online and ask yourself how her depictions of Jewish biblical figures might shape your own take on these potential guests, or inspire you to create your own artistic interpretations and representations. Who might you invite from ancient or even modern Jewish history? What would they look like? How would you depict them?
Those lucky enough to be in Northern California can come hang out with Benjamin and make art at Sukkot Under the Stars. But even if you are not in the area, or not even building a Sukkah, take some time this season to gather some friends, create and consider the possibilities inspired by Siona Benjamin and her blue Jews.
I have loved watching the conventions ever since I watched the Democratic Convention in 1988 and heard my fellow Texan, Ann Richards, skewer George HW Bush. She gave the keynote address at the convention that year, and become famous for her biting sense of humor. She made the famous quip about George HW Bush, “Poor George, he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” I was honored and excited to campaign for her for Governor of Texas in 1990, and cheered her victory at her inaugural ball where she came to the podium and said, “I know men invented high heels because otherwise they would not hurt so much.” Standing with aching feet in high heels myself, I cheered and hollered for this sassy strong woman.
My fascination which conventions continued when I was fortunate to attend both the Republican and Democratic state conventions in the summer of 1992 as an intern for the American Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). I staffed the AIPC booth, handing out flyers and answering questions about Israel. President Bush was at the Republican Convention and soon to be President Clinton spoke at the Democratic one. The great state of Texas brings in star power! I remember checking out the other booths and chatting with the volunteers as a sense of excitement swirled around us. We were part of something important.
I watched with tears in my eyes four years ago when Obama accepted the nomination. “We Shall Overcome” kept playing in my head. I had HOPE. I was ready for CHANGE. Our first African American President, proof that progress has been made.
So, unlike Rabbi Amy Small, who wrote last week about her lack of interest in watching the political conventions this year. I was excited to tune in. Even though it has been a tough, even brutal, four years, I wanted to feel that old sense of excitement again. Not surprisingly, I did not get it from the Republican Convention. The messages did not speak to me. But the Democrats delivered. Watching Michelle Obama, I wondered why she has not run for office. While not as biting as Ann Richards, her speech reminded me of my old friend. Here stood a strong woman making her case clearly and articulately. She exemplified women’s power. She was feminine in her presentation, a gold, grey, and deep pink dress with hair and makeup expertly done. Yet, her arm muscles displayed a physical strength and her words a mental one.
Bill brought it the next night combining facts and statistics with humor and stories. And of course President Obama himself commanded the stage and had me wanting to stand up and shout “Four More Years!”
I am looking forward to the debates and the rhetoric to be shared over the next 2 months. I wish more people enjoyed the back and forth as much as I do. The back and forth of arguments is part and parcel of Jewish tradition going back to the Talmud where the rabbis argued about the best policies to live by. Like the presidential candidates of today they expressed differ worls views and wanted to shape society to adhere to their own viewpoints. One of the things I love best about the Talmud is reading the ridiculous ways the rabbis try to one up each other. Sometimes playing fast and loose with Biblical proof texts just as some politicians play with facts. Not surprisingly, throughout history Jews have been active in political movements look at the student activist of the sixties, the women’s movement, civil rights movement, and the gay rights movement. Jews held leadership positions in all of them. Political activism is in our blood. It is part of our inherited tradition whether activists make that connection or not.
So this fall, be a good Jew. Get active in one of the campaigns and fight for an issue that means something to you. One week before Rosh Hashanah is a time to think about the future and what we want it to look like. We each have the power to make that vision a reality. Raise your voice, stand your ground and usher in a New Year that will live up to your dreams. Shannah Tova!
Is it kosher to listen to Neshama Carlebach in concert? Go to an opera where women are singing solos? Enjoy the latest production of “Fiddler on the Roof“?
Based on traditional rabbinic law, the prohibition known as kol isha (literally, “a woman’s voice”) is based on a verse from the Song of Songs 2:14: “For your voice is sweet (arev) – and your appearance pleasant (naveh).” It has had the Orthodox world in yet another gender-driven debate.
Turning that verse inside out in order to protect the men from the allure of a female voice and the transgression of the laws of ervah (“nakedness”), a man was prohibited from praying or studying Torah in the presence of a singing woman.
The essence behind hearing a woman’s voice is not solely its intrinsic sensuality, as many halachic authorities have indicated, but the functional concern that it might distract a man from his concentration on prayer or study.
Although liberal Jewish communities around the world do not adhere to the strict interpretations of kol isha, in Israel it has become an issue of religious rights for men and women on both sides of the debate.
Last September nine religious soldiers, in obedience to the Kol Isha prohibition, walked out of a mandatory Israel Defense Forces (IDF) training course because it included women’s singing.
An IDF committee was formed to study the issue and make a recommendation about how to handle this military insubordination in light of this religious law. The decision? The army required all soldiers to remain at these mandatory training sessions regardless of the kol isha prohibition.
The religious authorities who have jurisdiction over the Kotel have framed their opposition to women publicly praying at the Western Wall around the kol isha prohibition. Since 1967, women’s collective voices at the Kotel have been silenced. In December 1988, Women of the Wall was founded to secure women’s rights to hold and read the Torah in public in the women’s section of the Western Wall. Each month on rosh hodesh, the group meets and prays at Robinson’s Arch, the place designated by the authorities in 2003 for women’s public prayer.
The Psalmist encouarges us to “lift our voices” (Pslam 147) and to “open our mouths” (Psalm 144) to declare God’s glory. Our voices are our instruments towards religious freedoms. Let us find the path together as we sing God’s praises, male and female in one united voice.
Reading Anne- Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” has caused me to wonder, what would “having it all” looks like. As I was letting my imagination go and dreaming big, a teaching from the Jewish wisdom book, The Ethics of Our Fathers came in to my head. “Who is rich? One who is happy with his portion.”
I began to think about the wisdom of that statement. On one hand, it makes perfect sense. We each have our lot in life, and if we can make peace with it then we could indeed lead happy and fulfilled lives. We would not want for anything. On the other hand, if we all accept whatever we have, then there would be very little drive to make the world a better place. Human ingenuity is sparked by an individual desiring something to be better than it is. Without this drive to make things better we might all still be living in caves and hunting and gathering for our food.
The article sparked an internal debate about this delicate balance between being happy with what I have and striving for more. If I may be chutzpadick enough to compare myself to Mrs. Slaughter, I see many similarities in our personal stories. Like her, I have entered a field previously dominated by men, and I am very thankful for the women before me who led the way. Like her, I have a spouse who shares parenting and domestic duties equally. And like her I have a wonderful job which affords me flexibility when I need to attend an event at my daughter’s school or take her to the doctor. When I look at the big picture I feel rich. I am happy with my life and my work.
And yet…I have a desire for more. Like most women, I too make compromises to balance life and work. To rise in my field to a position of national prominence I would have to travel much more than I am willing to do. I choose to be home with my husband and daughter. By making this choice I am limiting my career trajectory. In addition, I work in a field still dominated by men and a male definition of what a leader looks like and sounds like. I don’t have a long beard or a deep voice. My leadership style is not always recognized as “leadership” because I have a quieter style which focuses on relationship building rather than being the center of attention.
There is so much I want to change both in my field in particular and American society as a whole. I want a world where men and women have the ability to reach the height of their career success and have time to be with those they love.
But my guess is that even when that happens, life will still be a balancing act. It might be easier to balance work and home life, but it will still need to be done. And we will always need to balance being happy with what we have and striving for more. This is part and parcel of what it means to be human.
Hope is a Jewish value. The Psalmist says “Hope in Adonai and be strong.” The national anthem of Israel is Hatikva – the Hope. Yet, in the Jewish community today I hear more complaining and lamenting than I hear expressions of hope.
This past week I spent a day with a group of women Jewish non-profit professionals. We gathered under the auspices of Advancing Jewish Women and the Jewish Community. Over the course of the day we identified obstacles to women’s advancement in the Jewish non-profit sector, and brainstormed ideas to overcome these obstacles. The women at the gathering were smart, articulate and creative in their ideas. But the highlight of the day for me was when we all had a chance to share our personal journeys. We were asked to create a collage the represented two points of challenge in our lives and how we chose to overcome those challenges. Each woman took a turn relating the events that formed their adult identities. Stories of deep challenge were shared: deaths of family members, job loss, painful transitions, and sexual harassment. Each story brought tears to the eyes of those gathered in the room, and we sat with each other in our pain.
But we did not wallow in the pain. In each instance, I was amazed at the courage and perseverance the women showed. Not a one of us was knocked out by our painful experience. Instead we rallied and rebounded. Family relationships were reformed, new jobs were found, and difficult transitions turned in to wonderful new opportunities. The collective and individual strength of the women in that room awed me and filled me with great hope.
These women are the next generation of Jewish leaders. Each is poised to take the helm of a Jewish non-profit in the near future. I can assure you that the future is in good hands.
These women have the wisdom to steer the Jewish community through this current period of malaise caused by the economic crisis and shifting religious affiliations. They will not moan about the state of the Jewish world as so many of our leaders do today. They will take the reins and with courage, creativity and perseverance lead us in to a new era.
“We can do it!” was the slogan pasted on posters of Rosie the Riveter during the Second World War encouraging women to help in the war effort. This poster has always been one of my favorites. Roise is strong, powerful, and above all hopeful. The job can be done and we can do it! Women should raise a new version of this poster across the community today.
I am profoundly hopeful that the very real obstacles women face in the culture of leadership in the Jewish community will be overcome. We have slowly been moving towards more inclusion of women in leadership roles in the Jewish community over the past 30 years. More must be done. But I see it happening. The income inequality gap will close. Parental leave and flex time policies will be instituted, and women will rise as leaders in established Jewish Institutions and as founders of new projects yet to be launched.
The women I sat with this week are my hope. They go to work each day fighting for a better world for all. The psalmist asked “I turn my eyes to the mountain from where will my hope come?” My hope comes from the stories and leadership of these women. We have a lot to look forward to!
An Orthodox rabbinic colleague Rabbi Zev Farber recently posted on Morethodoxy a piece on the experience of place women have in Orthodox synagogues. He concludes his post with: “Rather my aim here is the underlying message that our synagogues are sending to women. We all want to remain true to halakhah and create a synagogue environment where men and women thrive, but I fear that without addressing the underlying message of women not really being in the room, instead of creating a home for all Jews, we are creating a men’s club.”
In response to this, I posted a comment to him “While I share the sentiments here, I am wondering why Rabbi Farber has written what is essentially a thirty or forty year old dated post, including the Flintstone and Ozick references. My fifty two year old wife would vigorously nod in agreement and my age seventeen and twenty seven daughters’ eyes would glaze over and say deal with it”. (My twenty four year old is a less frequent synagogue attendee, but the one she attends less frequently would be Orthodox.)
It is interesting where we draw our lines in the sand. My daughters would never put up with being denied equal access to Jewish text, but are more at peace with ritual inequality or difference. They do not harbor a secret desire to put on tefillen. As my daughter put it “Why would I? Nobody in my community does”.
I am left to wonder why this is the case. What changed between my wife’s generation and my daughters’? I think part of the answer is that my daughters are the beneficiaries of those women and men who came before them and fought the battles, created the learning environments and opened up the doors of the Beit Midrash. What is striking is that the ritual practices per se are not the issue. The fact that their voices can now be heard appears to be critical. They are not silent but engaged participants in the debates of Jewish life. If they are not bothered by not being able to read Torah, it is because their voices can still be heard in the Beit Midrash actively engaging our sacred texts.
In a different vein, but I think not unrelated, I see a liberal approach to social issues. On the one hand they are committed to Taharat Hamishpacha (family purity laws) and there was no question my daughter would cover her hair after her wedding. However my sense is that on issues confronting their gay friends, my daughters simply want their friends to be happy in whatever relationship they are in.
In acquiring a voice and becoming active learners, these young Orthodox women are at peace with their place in the synagogue. They love the best of the Orthodox community, but they retain their moral voice. As committed to halakhah as they are, they retain their sovereign self.
Every year I get a call from my mother, “Remind me again, do we eat peanuts on Passover?”
This question should have an easy yes or no answer. Rabbis have lists of what to eat and what to stay away from to uphold Passover, and I’m a rabbi so….. But as an Ashkenazi rabbi committed to multiculturalism, I’m torn.
Here is the problem. Back in the 13th century some rabbis in France decided that in addition to things that rise, legumes and rice , which can be made into flour should be off limits during Passover. The rule spread East and caught my family in Romania, Poland, Russia, Yugoslavia and Austria in the bargain. Jews in North Africa, the Middle East and the Sub-Continent were never affected. So growing up it was easy, like all of my ancestors, we stayed away from legumes including peanuts during Passover.
But at 19, I went to study in Israel for a year. Among the classes I took was a class in Jewish law with Rabbi David Golikin. Golikin argued, and here I quote from his written opinion on the matter, “it is permitted (and perhaps even obligatory) to eliminate this custom.” In the written response (see volume 3), Golinkin provides many explanations as to why to do away with this custom, but what struck me then and what resonates now is “it causes unnecessary division between Israel’s different ethnic groups.” His plea to eat rice and beans and peanuts was an attempt to tear down this culinary divider between Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi groups.
As the Rabbi-in-Residence for Be’chol Lashon I work daily to remove barriers between groups of Jews of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. From a rabbinic point of view I think it is advisable and permissible to do so. The answer should be easy, “Yes mom, we eat peanuts.”
But though Golinkin is quick to dimiss “the only reason to observe this custom; the desire to preserve an old custom,” I am not so quick to walk away. All of my ancestors, as far back as I can tell, were Ashkenazim. They stayed away from peanuts, rice and so on. Celebrating diversity is important, but fundamental to my ability to reach out and connect with others who do not share my background, is my understanding of who I am and where I come from.
In recent years, my mother has taken to making gefilte fish for the Seder. She doesn’t even like the stuff and it is hard to make. But she makes it as a tribute to her mother and to her grandmother (who she never knew and was murdered by the Nazis) because she wants us to remember them, who they were and to know where we come from that family and place.
So will I eat peanuts this Passover?
I’m sorry mom, I don’t know, the best I can do is “I see a value in doing it both ways.”
Women and women’s rights have received a lot of attention in politics and media in recent weeks. March is Women’s History Month – a time to celebrate the contributions of women in the USA, particularly contributions to social and economic justice, and women’s rights. How ironic, therefore, that the beginning of March saw a debacle over women’s freedoms to make personal and moral choices about their own bodies. We saw women being silenced through their absence from important conversations taking place in congressional committees, and we heard Rush Limbaugh using crass language to dismiss the perspective of one young, brave woman who offered her opinion.
I know there are many perspectives on the issues themselves. But I am deeply concerned by the tone of the conversation, and what appears to be an increasing inability to engage in respectful discourse.
This past week, I was talking with a group of students at my congregation about two different ways of thinking about the power of speech. On the one hand is the US Constitution, guaranteeing the right to free speech. This is a core American value, and my students were all able to express the importance of this legal construct intelligently and articulately – our middle schools are teaching them well.
On the other hand, we explored some Jewish values and teachings on the subject of lashon hara. Literally meaning ‘evil tongue’, the term is often used to talk about the negative impacts of gossip, but the teachings apply to much more than that. Jewish wisdom sees speech as such a powerful tool that even saying something positive about someone should be done with great care (it may have a negative impact, such as stirring up feelings of jealousy in someone else). That might seem extreme, but it is indicative of how strongly the tradition feels we should guard our tongue and try to always speak from the highest place possible.
At our Rabbis Without Borders alumni retreat at the end of last month, we engaged in an exercise where we took issues in the public realm where we felt strongly one way, and were required to make a persuasive argument for the other side. It was a powerful exercise in which we were able to see the validity of another perspective. I highly recommend trying it – it becomes much more difficult to demonize ‘the other side’ when we recognize that they do not come from a place of malice, but have another way of seeing things that also contain some truths.
It is true and important that the first amendment protects the right to free speech. But just because we can say it, doesn’t mean that we should say it. Our moral values point to a higher standard, and it is also good and true to hold those who speak in the public arena to this higher standard. They set the tone for the rest of us.
A version of this article was first published in the Op-Ed pages of The Bridgeport News, Bridgeport CT on March 16, 2012