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.
This week's parashah / Torah portion continues the revelation at Sinai begun during last week's dramatic, shofar-blasts-smoke-and-thunder forging of the brit/covenant between God and Israel.
This week's chapters of Torah settle down to the task of laying out our responsibilities as we fulfill our commitment to maintain our covenant with God. The scope and diversity of the mitzvot / commandments delivered in our parashah, Mishpatim (which literally translates as "laws") is are tremendously comprehensive. As we look through laws that outline our relationships with other human beings, with God, with other elements of creation, like animals and plants, the realization dawns that our tradition is holistic . . . our thoughts, our actions, our aspirations can all be elevated and bring holiness to the world if we turn to the Torah and the covenant for guidance. "One who steals a man, and has sold him, or he was found in his hand, will be put to death." (Exodus/Sh'mot 21:16) "And if an ox will gore a man or a woman and they die, the ox shall be stoned, and its meat shall not be eaten--and the ox's owner is innocent. And if it was a goring ox from the day before yesterday, and it had been so testified to is owner, and he did not watch it, and it killed a man or a woman, the ox will be stoned, and its owner will be put to death as well." (21:28-29) "You shall not bring up a false report. Do not join your hand with a wicked person to be a malevolent witness." (23:1) "And you shall not oppress an alien--since you know the alien's soul, because you were aliens in the land of Egypt." (23:9) "And six years you shall sow your land and gather its produce; and the seventh: you shall let it lie fallow and leave it, and your people's indigent will eat it. You shall do this to your vineyard, to your olives." (23:10-11) "You shall not cook a kid in its mother's milk." (23:19)
Few of us in East Greenwich have fields to leave fallow (and anyway, that particular mitzvah is reserved for Jewish-owned fields in Israel) or have to worry about the behavior of our ox. But the values couched in those ancient middle-eastern realia find expression in our own practices, traditions and standards today.
This past Sunday morning, our third, fourth, and fifth graders, their parents and even a few grandparents gathered at the Frenchtown Road Stop and Shop for a "Mishpatim Moment." After having studied about kashrut in class with teacher Joie Magnone, our students and parents met at the supermarket to put theory into practice. Armed with a booklet showing a variety of kosher symbols and a shopping list of ten items to find that sported those symbols, our kosher shoppers took off: salad dressing, pasta, breakfast cereal, prune juice, crackers, canned peaches . . . we spread through the store collecting kosher non-perishibles.
Lesson #1 learned: It's actually pretty easy to eat kosher. Most of our favorite national brands are kosher!
After checking everyone's basket and purchasing our 10 items per family, we arrived at Lesson #2: We met Susan Adler, Director of the Jewish Seniors Agency, which runs the Chester Full Plate Kosher Food Pantry. Sue accepted our kosher offerings with enthusiasm and promised to stock the shelves of the pantry for the over 125 clients of the JSA who are food insecure . . . who do not always know where their next meal is coming from.
Our Mishpatim Moment: We learned a bit about what kosher food is and how to find it . . . and we got it into onto the tables of those in our community who need it most.
As Shabbat ends this coming Saturday evening, we will transition into the commemorative fast day of the 9th of Av. This date, in our tradition, has been associated with the destruction of both the First and Second Temples (in 586 BCE by the Babylonians and 70 AD by the Romans respectively).
Rabbinic sources place some responsibility for the destruction of the Temple on the shoulders of the Israelites themselves: In the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 9b) we learn that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred among the different Jewish communities living in the Land of Israel at the time.
Suddenly a fast that sounds archaic and anachronistic (why should we still mourn the loss of a building in which animal sacrifice was practiced?) becomes urgently contemporary: sadly, it is a phenomenon we experience all over the Jewish world, not just in Israel. One group, or denomination of Judaism condemns, rejects, belittles others because their practice or their theology, or their norms of dress and behavior, or their choice of rabbis, does not meet that groups standards. We Jews are not terribly successful at loving one another . . . and sometimes it's not even a matter of cross-denominational disdain . . . sometimes it's just about "the shul I wouldn't set foot in."
So should we mourn on the 9th of Av?
I'd say: a little bit. In a teshuvah written almost 30 years ago, Rabbi Tuvia Friedman, z"l* writing for the Israeli Masorti /Conservative Law Committee (Va'ad Halakahah): There is a clear historical precedent of canceling a fast on days in which the Jewish people was saved from a disaster. We have been so fortunate as to witness the founding of the State of Israel, where Jews are sitting on their land as a sovereign people. In light of this decisive change in the history of the Jewish people, I propose marking this change by not completing the fast of Tish'a b'Av, and concluding the fast with a Minhah Gedola service.
But I would also say that our observance of the fast of the 9th of Av should not end with the shortened fast, but should serve as a day to commit to pursuing the value of "k'vod hadadi", of mutual respect among the various denominations that comprise the Jewish world.
There may be room, therefore, for some mourning on this historic day of remembrance, but let us use the message of this day to develop what unites us as Jews and to approach each other with mutual respect and a sense of being one very extended family.
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.
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.