This week, the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island took a leading role in making Rhode Island history. After publishing the following statement, and after have a number of Board of Rabbis members, myself included, having testified at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing a few weeks ago, and following up with e-mails, we have succeeded in making it clear that there is visionary, compassionate and religiously committed spiritual leadership in Rhode Island.
We stood with an impressive number of other faith leaders and organizations around the state including the Rhode Island State Council of Churches. At a meeting at Gloria Dei Church in Providence, a few weeks ago, my colleague, Rabbi Peter Stein, reported that a room full of marriage equality activists from all over the Rhode Island faith map stood and cheered at the mention of the Board of Rabbis role in this effort.
It has been a consistent principle in our statement and in interviews I have subsequently held, to emphasize that there must never be any judgment towards colleagues whose theological commitments do not include the embrace of same sex marriage. This made the testimony of Rabbi Barry Dolinger of Congregation Beth Shalom in Providence all the more impressive. Rabbi Dolinger is also an attorney. He stood before the Senate Judiciary Committee and explained that he supports the civil institution of same sex marriage precisely under the conditions of the current legislation because there is no coercion of any clergy to officiate at such unions should their theological commitments dictate otherwise.
I am proud to share with you the words of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island:
Statement in support of Marriage Equality in Rhode Island
The Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island, representing different movements and practices, endorses the idea that the right of civil marriage should be available to all Rhode Islanders.
Our support of full civil marriage rights for same-sex couples rests on two key principles. First, lessons from Jewish history provide us with a mandate to work for civil rights. We understand the right of same-sex couples and their families to enjoy liberty and equal justice under law as a civil right. Married couples receive many federal and state-level legal protections, benefits and responsibilities with a civil marriage. Recognition by the State of Rhode Island of the right of same-sex couples to marry would provide access to such fundamental family and financial rights.
Second, is the clear distinction American law makes between civil and religious marriage. Legal recognition of same sex civil marriage should not and will not require clergy of any faith or denomination to officiate at or recognize the religious status of same-sex marriages. This is consistent with our understanding of the separation between church and state. This liberty is in keeping with Roger Williams’ vision for religious freedom that is pivotal to our state's identity
As rabbis we believe that every human being is created in the image of God; thus, it is our obligation to defend vigorously the dignity of and respect for every human being and every loving couple. For all the reasons stated above, the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island supports the legislation proposed to the Rhode Island General Assembly providing marriage equality in Rhode Island.
As we approach Shabbat here in Jerusalem, word has reached us that those responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings are two brothers from Chechniya. With the sparse information reaching us, it seems incomprehensible that an eight-year-old child posed any kind of affront or threat to these brothers. It is the random nature of the bombings that makes the bombings an act of terror.
This same week ends with the stunningly disappointing and irresponsible inaction of our Senate regarding the gun control legislation.
This week, we read a double Torah portion: Aharei-Mot and K'doshim. The words Aharei-Mot mean "after the death" and in the original context of the passage in Leviticus, refer to the death of Aaron's two sons. The second Torah portion of this double reading is K'doshim. The context of the name of this reading is a message to the Israelites: "Holy you will be, for I your Gor am holy."
But in the combining of the names of these two portions we create a new phrase: acharei-mot k'doshim, after the death of the holy ones.
The Torah describes Aaron's response to the shock of the death of his sons: Aaron stood in shocked silence.
There are a few moments after the shocking death of innocents, of those with souls bestowed by the Holy One, when standing in shocked silence is, perhaps, the only possible response. It gives us the opportunity to choose our response with care and compassion and perspective. To take responsibility for the common good, to protect the innocent as best we can against the randomness of terrorism and, at the same time, take care not to indulge in the emotional "terrorism" of bigotry and suspicion and blame.
We pray that friends and family and the God who created us all will bring comfort to the bereaved families of Newtown and Boston and West, Texas. That our leaders will put the welfare of our people ahead of political self-interest. That the injured and those who support them will heal quickly and completely in body and spirit.
Shalom from Jerusalem.
This week, the Jewish world marked the beginning of the new Hebrew month of Iyyar. The beginning of each Hebrew month is observed as a semi-holiday called "Rosh Hodesh," the "head" of the month. The synchronicity of the lunar month and the female biological monthly cycle has led to a long-standing special relationship between women and Rosh Hodesh.
There are many ways in which Jewish women have celebrated Rosh Hodesh: refraining from cooking or sewing, gathering a group of women together for study or discussion . . . and for more than two decades, a group of women have gathered together every Rosh Hodesh to conduct a prayer service together at the Western Wall in Jerusalem . . . actually the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount.
What began, in the 1980s, as an informal group of women seeking to deepen their spiritual engagement in Rosh Hodesh by gathering at this unique, historic site has become, over the years, an official organization with a director and a president. Women of the Wall have supporters . . . and detractors . . . all over the world. As women's prayer groups go, Women of the Wall is pretty tame. They are guided by liberal Orthodox halachah (Jewish law) meaning that there are passages of prayer they will not recite as a group of women in the absence of a minyan (prayer quorum) of Jewish men. They are on the left edge of the liberal Orthodox Jewish world because it is quite accepted practice for these women to wear tallitot (prayer shawls) and they do read Torah together (although they have been forced to move their Torah reading away from the Western Wall for several years now).
The photograph above documents this month's new outrage: Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall, was arrested with four other women, on the charge of "disturbing the peace" by attempting to pray, early in the morning, modestly, as has been their practice for decades while wearing tallitot and holding a Torah scroll.
This is actually not the first time this has happened . . . but this month's arrest led to an unprecedented judicial decision. The website thejewishpress.com reported:
After examining the evidence, Judge Sharon Larry Bavly stated that there was no cause for arresting the women, WOW Director of Public Relations Shira Pruce reported.
In a groundbreaking decision, the judge declared that Women of the Wall are not disturbing the public order with their prayers. She said that the disturbance is created by those publicly opposing the women’s prayer, and Women of the Wall should not be blamed for the behavior of others. The women were released immediately, with no conditions.
This decision is long overdue . . . the travesty of arresting and harassing and allowing others to abuse women who are simply trying to pray has been an ongoing source of shame. Personally, I've never participated in a Women of the Wall service, even when I've been in Jerusalem on Rosh Hodesh . . . largely because I find perseverating about a retaining wall politicizes and distracts from prayer. On the other hand, I cannot accept the legitimacy of any authority that seeks to prosecute women who seek to pray . . . in a public space . . . respectfully . . . knowledgeably . . . and I am deeply relieved that Justice Bavly has put the weight of her office behind the obvious: "...Women of the Wall should not be blamed for the behavior of others."
There is a bit of irony that this arrest took place during the week that we read the Torah portion Tazria-Metzora. The parashah (Torah portion) opens with a controversial passage defining the protocol a woman was to follow to restore her ritual purity after childbirth. One aspect of this passage which is often overlooked as people deal with the apparent inequities of the system is that it is absolutely clear that the assumption was that a woman was responsible for her own state of ritual purity or impurity, that no one was authorized to act on her behalf to rectify a state of ritual impurity, but rather that she was expected, with the means at her disposal, to bring her own olah offering on her own behalf, placing her offering directly into the hands of the kohein/priest herself.
How odd and how sad that 2000 years after the women of Jerusalem were freely entering the precincts of this outer courtyard bounded by the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount, purchasing animals for their own sacrifices, that their 21st century counterparts should be frog-marched off of that same piece of real estate for exercising that very seem spiritual responsibility established in the Torah.
Justice Bavly has inched us back towards the right direction. Natan Sharansky is addressing this issue through other avenues at the Prime Minister's request. We are not finished discussing the issue of women praying at the Western Wall . . . but I sure hope we're done with women getting arrested at the Western Wall.
Every year, within a week of emerging from Passover's journey from slavery to freedom, we gather together as a community to remember and to mourn on Yom HaShoah: Holocaust Memorial Day.
The proximity of these two days is thought-provoking: truly for neither our ancient Israelite ancestors in Egypt nor for our more immediate forebears in Nazi Europe did "Arbeit Macht Frei" . . . did work generate a state of freedom.
For much of the last half of the 20th century, Jews all over the world (although less so in Israel) suffered from a form of collective Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We were well and truly traumatized by the truths revealed about the Nazi campaign to create a Judenrein Europe . . . a Europe stripped of any Jewish presence. The truths revealed by the mountains of human hair and eyeglasses and suitcases . . . the emaciated prisoners liberated by Allied Forces . . . the testimony recorded at the Eichmann trial . . . it was all stunning, shocking, too much to take in.
In the Torah, in the books of Shmot/Exodus and Bamidbar/Numbers, we are witness to some dramatic expressions of faith, doubt, fear, backsliding and commitment coming from the released slaves following Moses through the wilderness. Considering all that they had been through, and no doubt suffering from some PTSD themselves, our ancestors who did not die at Egyptian hands had a lot of processing to do before they could formulate a new, coherent, positive Jewish identity and commitment to the Torah and the covenant with God.
Two thousand years later, there was a wide spectrum of reactions within the Jewish world as we emerged from World War II: some Jews found their faith reinforced . . . only a caring God could have succeeded in seeing any remnant of the targeted Jewish communities survive. Other Jews lost their faith . . . there could not be a God after all if a horror like Auschwitz could have come into existence. Yet others simply remained angry at God for the rest of their lives . . . how does the God described in Deuteronomy as אל רחום וחנון . . . as a merciful and caring God . . . remain silent and inactive as that God's covenantal partners, the Jews, are brutally enslaved, tortured, slaughtered, traumatized for life, marked for life . . .
As a Jewish kid in New Jersey growing up in the 50s and 60s, I was being educated as a Jew at a time when the adults in my community were still figuring it out: they were figuring out what really happened; they were figuring out how to take care of the survivors and their families; they were figuring out what this horrific attack meant for us as a people; they were figuring out what to tell us kids. I have a very vivid memory of sitting in the sanctuary of my New Jersey synagogue as an elementary school student, watching a film about the Holocaust that no Jewish educator today would be allowed to show to anyone under the age 16. Those images seared themselves on my brain . . . perhaps for better, perhaps for worse. I can't say I was traumatized by those images more than I was traumatized by other events in my life; but I did "get the message": being Jewish from now on was going to have to involve living with the shadow of the Holocaust.
It is 2013. World War II started almost 75 years ago. Like our ancient ancestors who came back home to Canaan after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, we are a generation informed by, but not directly touched by, our experiences of slavery. We are about to celebrate the 65 anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel. We are making history in East Greenwich opening up the town's first synagogue since the town was established in 1677. We are comfortable and safe here . . . more comfortable and more safe then our ancestors were when they followed Joshua into Canaan.
Our journey has led us into and out of Egypt, into and out of Auschwitz . . . and where will our journey take us next? What need we take with us from our history as we create our renewing identities as Jews today?
Twenty, thirty years ago, we were still talking about the importance of preserving Jewish tradition and community and observance in order not to hand Hitler a posthumous victory. It was a compelling image at the time, but I find that I need much more than the specter of Hitler to inspire me as a Jew. Hitler's dead, we're still here. Pharaoh is dead, we're still here. Titus is dead, we're still here. Stalin is dead, we're still here.
Surviving is great . . . but it is not enough. As we gather as a community to contemplate the incomprehensible chapter of Jewish history called the Shoah, let us also come together to integrate our past experiences into a positive Jewish identity that inspires us and infuses our lives with "kedushah" / holiness and "simchah" / joy.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.