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.
Olim celebrate new Israel ID cards.
Israel is an exciting place: Just as I arrived about ten days ago, a plane load of new immigrants (olim) from the United States landed at Ben Gurion airport. Over half of those on board were children. All kinds of people were on board: Orthodox families, secular singles, retirees and students.
Watching the news that day brought me back to my own arrival in Israel as a new immigrant: I stepped off the plane with my husband and my 16 month-old daughter. I knew some rudimentary Hebrew and had visited Israel a number of times over the last few years. My husband's parents and grandparents and sisters had moved to Israel, so we had the benefit of immediate family, as well as extended family all over the country. With all that, I still had a tremendous amount to learn, and a tremendous amount to assimilate.
The magic and the privilege of living in Jerusalem never really wore off. But every day sights that would stop me in my tracks ... like a glimpse of the Old City Walls while standing at a city bus stop ... became part of the unnoticed everyday landscape. Getting on that bus and hearing Hebrew and Spanish and French and Russian and English and Amharic and Hebrew used to elevate the ride, bringing home to me the face that Israel is home to Jews from all over the world. Then, I stopped seeing my fellow bus passengers so much, engrossed in figuring out how to get my errands before and still be on time to pick up my kids from pre-school.
Watching the news of this plane load of new olim brought it all back to me. I was happy for them, thinking of all that awaits them: the magic of those glimpses of the old and the new, of breathing in the air of the one place on earth that is our place. I was even happy for them for all the challenges that await: learning the Israeli children's stories and songs, figuring out how to navigate through the Israeli bureaucracy of Ministry of the Interior and the municipal tax office.
This week's Torah portion, Eikev, includes Moses' exhortations to our wilderness-wandering ancestors on the eve of their entrance into the land of our matriarchs and patriarchs: remember God's gifts of Torah and manna; keep true to the commitments and inspirations of Torah no matter what distractions and temptations your neighbors may offer you; don't forget to stop and enjoy the beauties and blessings of our land; be prepared for lots of difference of opinions and public debate ... just don't lose sight of the essentials.
If you've never been to Israel, perhaps it's time to plan a visit to experience this for yourself. If you have been to Israel, then think about coming back to recharge your spiritual batteries. It will work during the week we read Parashat Eikev, or any other time!
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.
This week's parashah/Torah portion contains the powerful story of the rebellion instigated by Korach. Korach challenged the relationship between God and Moses and presumed to decide for God who would control and interpret God's word to the people. For this hubris, Korach and his followers were swallowed up alive as the ground opened up beneath their feet.
This very week, as we approach the Shabbat during which we read of Korach, the man who presumes to know who should serve as God's representative in the world, the Masorti (Conservative) and Mitkademet (Reform) rabbis in Israel and, indeed, all over the Jewish world were attack by the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar.
I bring you the Jerusalem Post report on Rabbi Amar's remarks and some of the aftermath. I invite you to share your opinion of Rabbi Amar's remarks, and to share your opinion on the recent Supreme Court decision to recognize Masorti (Conservative) and Mitkademet (Reform) rabbis in Israel with Israel's Ambassador to the United States, the Honorable Michael Oren: Israel Embassy to the United States,
3514 International Drive Northwest, Washington, DC 20008, (202) 364-5500
Amar: Stop recognizing of non-Orthodox rabbis
By JEREMY SHARON
19/06/2012 / The Jerusalem Post
Sephardi Chief Rabbi plans to convene emergency meeting of Chief Rabbinate to combat state’s recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis. Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar said Sunday night that he would be convening an emergency meeting of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate next week to discuss the state’s recent recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis and its decision to pay their wages.
“With God’s help, a great voice [of protest] will come out against this shameful phenomenon in which they [non-Orthodox rabbis] insist on describing themselves as rabbis at the same time as they uproot the foundations of Judaism,” Amar told haredi radio station Kol Berama.
“We have tried to explain the great damage they cause,” he continued. “There is a great danger here to the Jewish people. It is well known that the greatest danger in our times is assimilation and they recklessly enable this phenomenon.”
Last month, the Attorney-General’s Office announced that the state would recognize non-Orthodox rabbis working in regional council jurisdictions, kibbutzim and other small communities as “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities,” and would fund their wages from state coffers.
This decision came in response to notice from the High Court of Justice that unless the state changed it’s position, it would issue a ruling in favor of the non- Orthodox Jewish groups who filed a petition with the court against the state on this matter back in 2005.
Orthodox rabbis serve in state-funded positions such as rabbis of cities, towns and neighborhoods. Non-Orthodox rabbis have been excluded from such positions, and the attorney-general’s decision covers only positions in small municipal jurisdictions.
Several non-Orthodox movements have already petitioned the High Court to allow non-Orthodox rabbis to be selected for positions in larger jurisdictions as well.
In addition to convening the Council of the Chief Rabbinate, Amar will also be inviting rabbis from across the country to participate in the meeting in order to form a broad coalition against state recognition of non- Orthodox rabbis.
Reaction to Amar’s comments was strong, with non- Orthodox groups condemning him as unrepresentative of Israeli society and the broader Jewish community.
Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform Movement in Israel, called for Amar to resign, and until then to internalize the principles of democracy.
“Amar’s intentions to work against the decision of the state, supported by the High Court of Justice, proves how much the Chief Rabbinate has lost its state function and how much it is disconnected from the heart of broader Israeli society, which is fed up with the Orthodox monopoly.”
Reform Rabbi Uri Regev, head of the Hiddush religious- freedom lobbying group, added to this theme saying that Amar’s proposal was “proof of how disconnected the rabbinate is from the values of democracy, the rule of law and equality.”
Regev accused Amar of seeking to recruit rabbis in a struggle against “the majority of the Jewish people, which is non-Orthodox” and putting Israel on a “collision course with the Jewish people.”
Yizhar Hass, head of the Masorti Movement – the branch of Conservative Judaism in Israel – said in response that Amar was abusing his position as a state official to promote hatred instead of respect, and was responsible for the declining perception of the rabbinate.
Planning for Adina's bat mitzvah Shabbat was a challenge for us: We were active members of Kehillat Ramot Zion, the Masorti (Israeli Conservative) congregation on French Hill in Jerusalem. Many of our best friends were living on the "Hill" walking distance to us and to the congregation, we enjoyed this tight-knit community of knowledgeable and committed observant Conservative Jews, largely immigrants from the US like us.
But Ramot Zion's leadership would not allow anyone of the female persuation to read from the Torah. And for her bat mitzvah, Adina wanted to "leyn", to chant the parashah. Not just an aliyah or two, but the whole Torah portion. Not the "shlish", not the third of the triennial cycle, but the whole thing. And lead the service. And chant the Haftarah. And the congregation she grew up in said "no."
But our friends Roz and Ray understood that community is not just what happens within the official four walls of a synagogue building. So they offered their home as the venue for the Shabbat of Shlakh L'cha 5752 (1992) and we set to creating a home-made bat mitzvah. I baked a lot . . . a lot . . . of muffins. My husband shlepped a lot . . . a lot . . . of chairs. We packed the room and Adina did everything she had set her mind (and I hope her heart) to do. It was a magnificent, intimate, triumphant simkha. A real source of joy.
Adina's parasha, Shlakh L'cha, contains the famous story of Moses sending spies into the land promise to the Israelites by God . . . most of the spies come back with intimidating stories of giants and military might. But two men, Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Yefunneh, spoke of faith. They praised the land as "flowing with milk and honey" and that, as God had promised the land to them, God would support their efforts as they came to settle the land.
This was a stirring story for my 12 year old daughter to read, standing in friends' living room, chanting what others told her she should not do. Crossing a border she felt so compelled to cross, despite the objections of others.
Twenty years later, Kehillat Ramot Zion is led by their spiritual leader, Rabbi Chaya Rowen Baker . . . a female rabbi! I would like to think that all those members of Ramot Zion who spent that Shabbat with us down the street instead of in the Ramot Zion building appreciated the potential of women organically engaged in our tradition and perhaps had Adina's image in mind when, so many years later, they voted to engage a woman as their rabbi.
Parashat Tazria Metzora Torah Reading: Leviticus 12:1-15:33
About a month ago, I sent an e-mail out to all of you informing you of the possible introduction of a bill to the Knesset. This new legislation, referred to by the name of the bill's architect Knesset Member David Rotem, would roll back the clock on all the achievements we have made for Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative conversion rights in Israel: not only losing recognition for Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel, but even completely redefining who is a Jew. From now on the power to perform conversions would rest solely with the Chief Rabbinate - which only recognizes Orthodox conversions.
Many of you responded by writing to Israel's Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, protesting this legislation . . . and many of you forwarded my e-mail to others so that they could add their voices to our expressions of concern. This legislation has the potential to seriously damage the relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel, as well as threatening the spiritual and religious freedom of thousands of Israelis.
On the eve of Israel Independence Day, which we will be celebrating this coming Monday evening and Tuesday, I wanted to share with you an update and I wanted to thank you.
As a result of the strong feelings expressed by so many, including many of you, the bill in the Knesset which would have affected conversion and the Law of Return has been sidetracked, at least for now.
Our Masorti/Conservative community, along with our peers in the Reform movement, took the lead in identifying the problems, and then the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee and others weighed in very forcefully. Credit goes to all, though it is a pity we even have to wage such battles.
MK Rotem stated the bill would not be acted upon last month. He also said that on any issues involving conversion or the Law of Return, there would be consultation with Diaspora Jewry.
While the most objectionable provisions of the proposed legislation, which treat converts differently from those born as Jews, may be dead, we still need to be alert to provisions that would further enhance the power of the State Rabbinate. Masorti/Conservative and Mitkademet/Reform leaders in Israel believe this fight is very far from over.
Now that the Knesset is back from it's Passover recess, we need to continue to monitor this situation carefully. Thank you for responding so effectively last month. I hope there will be no need to ask you to raise your voices again, but, unfortunately, I cannot promise that this is the case.
Parashat D'varim Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:22
This coming week, we will observe the fast of Tisha B'Av. "Tisha" is Hebrew for the number 9. Av is the current Hebrew month. As you will learn from the short article below, this date has taken on a heavy burden of grief for our people as a national and religious entity. I bring you this short article from a wonderful website: www.myjewishlearning.com. This site is a very reliable and accessible resource for information on Jewish tradition, observances, culture and history.
A Day of Disaster
Many calamitous events are said to have occurred on Tisha B'Av.
By Rabbi Robert Goodman
Reproduced with permission from Teaching Jewish Holidays: History Values and Activities (A.R.E. Publishing, Inc.).
Tisha B'Av has become the collective day of mourning in the Jewish calendar. Many tragic events are reputed to have occurred on this date. In some cases there is a question as to the precise dating of an event. For instance, with regard to the destruction of the First and Second Temples, some 656 years apart but on the same date--the 9th of Av--some sources indicate that the First Temple was destroyed on either the seventh or the 10th of Av, and the Second Temple was destroyed on the 10th of Av; rabbinic authorities, however, decided to mark the ninth of Av as the official date for remembering the destruction of both.
-Tisha B'Av serves to bind all of the following tragic events together in one day of mourning and remembering. [Tradition has it that] on the ninth of Av:
-It was decreed that the Israelites, after leaving Egypt, would wander in the desert for 40 years, until a new generation would be ready to enter the Promised Land.
-Betar, the fortress headquarters of Simon bar Kokhba, fell to the Romans in 135 C.E.
-Hadrian, the Roman [emperor] and ruler of Jerusalem, in 136 C.E., established a heathen temple [in Jerusalem] and rebuilt Jerusalem as a pagan city.
-The First Temple (that Solomon built) was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylonia, in 586 B.C.E.
-The Second Temple (that returning exiles built and then Herod rebuilt) was destroyed by Titus and the Romans in 70 C.E.
-The Edict of Expulsion of the Jews from England was signed by King Edwald I in 1290.
-Ferdinand and Isabella decreed this to be the official date of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Led by Isaac Abarbanel, 300,000 Jews began to leave Spain on that date. Columbus set out on his first voyage of discovery on the day after Tisha B'Av (after delaying his sailing by one day).
Rabbi Robert Goodman is a former consultant to the Boards of Jewish Education in Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee. He is the former rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Brandon, Florida.
Most traditional Jewish communities observe this fast as a sign of mourning from sundown to sundown (this week from Wednesday night through Thursday night). A highly respected Conservative Jewish opinion with which I identify states that the fact of the existence of the State of Israel should be reflected in our ritual practices and observances. For this reason, there are many of us who cut our fast short following minchah in the afternoon of the 9th of Av. Our mourning is lessened by our deep joy in the existence of the State of Israel.
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.