Along with many members of the Conservative Movement and Conservative rabbis this week, I received a letter from the leadership of our sister Israeli movement, the Masorti Movement, explaining the latest developments in the inexplicably complex effort to gain access to the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount for prayer by non-Orthodox groups of Jews.
This length of retaining wall is as close to the site of the great Temple as we Jews can get. The Temple was the focal point of the Jewish world from the time of Solomon (10th century BCE) to its final destruction at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE. For close to two thousand years, the western wall has served as the prime pilgrimage destination for Jews.
I remember my first visit to the western wall quite vividly: it was 1973 and the approach to the section of the wall reserved for prayer was much simpler than it is today: no gates. It was a quiet place for contemplation and prayer. There was a very low, moveable metal barrier separating the men's section from the women's section. I was overcome by the confluence of physical reality and the mythic power of biblical narrative before my eyes. I was in that place.
I'll admit I was young and in love and in Israel for the first time in my life . . . but with all that being said, I am sure that it was not the stars in my eyes that blinded me to political and religious tensions around the site. It is that over the decades, this site has accrued layer over murky layer of political and religious, politically religious and religiously political conflict. The tensions and confrontations that now muffle the spiritual significance of the kotel were just not there before the intifada, and before the non-orthodox movements began to establish Israel-rooted congregations, youth movements, seminaries and organizational structures.
Except for one day a year, on the fast of the 9th of Av, the day on which we commemorate the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, I am not moved to pray at the western wall. That's my choice, for my own reasons. The centrality of this site in Jewish history, Jewish practice, Jewish spirituality is absolute and it should not be acceptable that Jews wishing to pray in proximity to this retaining wall should be booed and assaulted and physically removed . . . or even have to ask special permission and special access when other Jews have free access any time at all.
The leaders of the Masorti Movement in Israel are eloquent, determined people of vision and understanding. Understanding that there is a wide spectrum of Jewish identity and Jewish practice and Jewish community in the world, and it all converges on Israel. How ironic it is that in the only sovereign Jewish state in the world, Jews are discriminated against for their Jewish commitments. Trained and ordained in Israel, the only place in the world in which the marriage or the conversion I conducted is not recognized by the government of the country in which I was trained and ordained.
We are not understanding each other well, we diverse Jews. The principle of כלל ישראל / klal yisrael / the collective concern for the collective of the Jewish people is atrophying from disuse.
I pray that we will, none of us, receive such letters from Jerusalem again.
Those who follow the Jewish press, may be aware already that the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards met this week. As is the case at each meeting, the members of the CJLS (including me) reviewed and critiqued a number of draft teshuvot (papers establishing approaches to outstanding questions of halachah/Jewish law) for the first or second time, and held formal votes on papers reviewed at prior meetings. Sometimes, a passed teshuvah relates to a topic of such general interest that its passage will be reported in the press, as was the case with the document accepted by the CJLS providing models for ceremonies binding same sex couples and ceremonies dissolving those unions as well.
Another paper, easily of equal significance in terms of demonstrating the credibility of halachah as a guide to life in the modern world, is the work of Rabbi Daniel Nevins who has succeeded in bringing order and reason to the issue of the use of electricity on Shabbat. Rabbi Nevins' teshuvah approaches the length and depth of a monograph more than a concise teshuvah and therefore I cannot possibly summarize it in this short blog. But I am eager to publicly convey my thanks to a hard-working, intelligent and passionate colleague for rendering comprehensible a complicated topic that has confounded me, and many others, for a long time.
Going far beyond a declaration to reasoned proof, Rabbi Nevins establishes that electricity is by no means the fire whose transmission is prohibited on Shabbat, that opening an electric circuit is not "boneh", is not building an entity that did not previously exist on Shabbat, that running electricity through an appliance does not transform the appliance itself rendering a prohibited change.
In such a topic, details and technical parameters are of utmost importance. Rabbi Nevins reviews and categorizes a number of electric appliances and categorizes them in terms of prohibition or permission according to a number of criteria. His work provides the basis for analysis of electric appliances in terms of Shabbat usage, but does not provide blanket permission to the Shabbat observer to use any electric appliance on Shabbat.
We who voted in favor of this teshuvah (and I am proud to have cast my vote in favor) hope that those who seek to observe Shabbat on the basis of tradition and science and spiritual fulfillment will be informed by this work. We hope that colleagues will find very useful material for teaching and for their own reviews of electricity use on Shabbat for their communities.
For all that, Rabbi Nevins' work, passed by a large majority but not unanimously, does not constitute blanket permission to use electricity in every way in every conceivable electric appliance on Shabbat. Far from it. A central principle to this teshuvah is that an action (like cooking) which is absolutely prohibited on Shabbat does not become permitted simply because the cooking implement is heated by electricity rather than flame. That which is prohibited on Shabbat remains prohibited on Shabbat.
Yes, there will be conversations about, and probably adjustments made, to our policies here at Torat Yisrael regarding some uses of electricity based on Rabbi Nevins' work. Once again, the Conservative Movement demonstrates that it is more than possible to live a life committed to Jewish tradition and Jewish law in the modern world.
This week's parasha/Torah portion includes a passage that has become iconic for all people engaged in a relationship with God, and that has particular significance for those of us in the Conservative/Masorti denomination of Judaism.
In the biblical account of this moment, Moshe is shepherding the flock of his father-in-law Yitro/Jethro in Midian. Out in the middle of nowhere, Moshe is drawn to an astonishing sight:
"And an angel of God appeared to him in a fire's flame from inside a bush. And he looked, and here: the bush was not consumed! And Moses said, 'Let me turn and see this great sight. Why doesn't the bush burn!?'" (Shmot/Exodus 3:2-3)
Back in the 15th chapter of Breishit/Genesis, in the evocative moment of covenant between God and Avram, we are first introduced to the association of God's presence with flame: "And the sun was setting, and there was darkness, and here was an oven of smoke and a flame of fire that went between the pieces [of animals, echoing an ancient near-eastern treaty ceremony]. In that day, God made a covenant with Avram...." (Breishit/Genesis 15:17-18)
This same association will recur as God guides the progeny of Israel through the wilderness with a column of cloud by day and a column of fire by night.
In our parashah this week, the connection is firmly established: "And God saw that he turned to see. And God called to him from inside the bush, and He said: 'Moshe, Moshe.'
And he said: 'I'm here.'" (Sh'mot/Exodus 3:4)
How can we interpret this intense image of the bush that is not consumed? God's presence is the flame and the bush represents our world: rooted in the earth, organic and mortal. As God's presence infuses the earthly bush, the bush is illuminated, elevated, enlivened . . . but it is not burned up even when filled with God's presence. Here is an irresistible image of encouragement for those seeking to engage God in the real world . . . which is precisely the passion of Conservative Judaism: living in the real, modern, multi-faceted world informed by the wisdom of Jewish tradition and a passion for finding God around us.
Those who established our Conservative movement over a century ago, turned to this same iconic image of the burning bush to express their conviction that their evolving approach to Jewish life in America would similarly embody the eternity and passion and symbiosis of the burning bush. Indeed, a beautiful relief of that image adorns the front of the Jewish Theological Seminary building . . . which is the photograph on the left below.
As you can see, the theme of the flame, associated with God's presence and the light of Torah, is a consistent theme in the logos of our movement's major organizations. This week's parashah is "home base" for those of us who consider ourselves Conservative/Masorti Jews.
When I return to our "home base" image of the burning bush, I am recharged by the promise of that image: I am reminded again that God's presence is not only inextricably part of Creation, of that organic, mortal world I inhabit, but that the fact of God's presence is meant to generate heat and light. The heat of passion for my people and my tradition. The light of Torah as cast by God.
Parashat B'ha'alotkha Torah Reading: Numbers 8:1-12:16
On the very same week that the Torah reading talks of the role of the 70 elders of Israel as a team of people sharing in the leadership of the Israelites, seven times seventy Conservative and Masorti rabbis from the United States, Israel, Latin America and Europe gathered for our annual Rabbinical Assembly Convention.
We shared an intense five days together during which we mourned our colleagues who passed away during the past year and welcomed our newly ordained colleagues . . . some of whom have held the title for a week!
At our annual Women's Lunch, over one hundred female colleagues learned that we now number about 275 throughout the Rabbinical Assembly, serving in every region all over the world. We stood in turn as our year of ordination was called out in a roll call and shared our professional and personal news. It was a heady and awe-filled experienced, especially for those of us who were part of the struggle to establish the ordination of women in our movement in the United States, Israel and Latin America.
We studied and celebrated together as the American Conservative Movement's new Machzor Lev Hadash was revealed and dedicated. "Lev Hadash" means "A New Heart" and this Machzor has the power to implant a very new heart into our Days of Awe: it is uplifting, sensitive, accessible, wise and visually beautiful. We were told that the RA had planned a first run of 30,000 copies, but that so many congregations had ordered copies at the pre-publication deadline that they had to up the run to 130,000 . . . which sold out immediately. The second printing is in progress.
There were three programs dedicated to three extraordinary people . . . two of whom are close personal friends of mine:
On Monday evening, Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld was installed as the Rabbinical Assembly's Executive Vice-President. Rabbi Schoenfeld will serve as the public voice of the Rabbinical Assembly, as the Rabbi of all of the RA's rabbis (over 2,000 of us!), as a spiritual and political leader of our movement. She is the first woman to hold this position in the 110 years of the Rabbinical Assembly's existence.
On Wednesday evening, I sat in the JTS auditorium as my dearest friend, Rabbi Gilah Dror of Hampton, Virginia was installed as President of the International Rabbinical Assembly. Rabbi Dror is a quietly courageous, spiritual leader who has broken glass ceilings for women in the rabbinate time and time again over the twenty years of her rabbinate. Rabbi Dror brings intelligence and insight into the dialogue between the Jews of the United States and the Jews of the State of Israel . . . having served congregations in both countries . . . . As is the case with Rabbi Schoenfeld, Rabbi Dror is the first woman to hold the position of RA President. So you can see, this convention was quite a celebration for RA women . . . and men!
On the same evening as Rabbi Dror's installation, my teacher, my rabbi, my friend, Rabbi Neil Gillman, was honored by the RA and The Jewish Theological Seminary on the eve of his retirement as, I believe, our movement's most beloved and inspiring teachers. Generations of rabbis shaped by Rabbi Gillman's intellect and soul gathered to pay tribute to him. It is almost impossible to imagine JTS without him.
And those are just the highlights of my week in New York!
One of the most significant enterprises during convention week is the examination and passage of Rabbinical Assembly resolutions. These are documents of principle and purpose discussed and voted upon by colleagues and disseminated throughout our Movement. I will bring with me a number of our newly-passed RA resolutions for us to examine and discuss together over Shabbat morning kiddush tomorrow morning and in the coming weeks. I hope you will come be part of these engaging and significant conversations.
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.