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.
There is a length of retaining wall supporting the western side of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem that is probably the most iconic piece of real estate in the Jewish world: The Wall / The Wailing Wall / The Western Wall / The Kotel . . . there is not a bus tour of Israel that does not include a stop at this place. Every Jew around the world engaged in prayer faces north, south, east or west in order to face this spot.
Instead of serving as the focal point of tranquility and spirituality and mutual respect throughout the Jewish world, we have witnessed repeated clashes between the ultra-orthodox and almost every other segment of our people acted out on this spot. Almost twenty years ago, involved in leading the Masorti (Israeli Conservative) Movment's Tisha B'av service (commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples . . . according to one tradition because of senseless hatred among Jews) I was removed from the Kotel plaza by Israeli police. Over the last several months, news reports have documented Israeli police alternately (depending on the month and the latest court ruling) either removing women praying at the wall for Rosh Hodesh (the new month) or restraining angry ultra-Orthodox protestors who were outraged by the women praying at the wall for Rosh Hodesh. The Israeli paratroopers--iconic in themselves within Israeli society--used to be inducted into their units at the kotel . . . until the ultra-orthodox succeeded in prohibiting the ceremony because female Israeli soldiers sang at the ceremony.
This seems to be one place where we do not seem able to separate religion from politics.
But I was present at one unique moment of blessing standing before the Kotel. I stood with Imam Farid Ansari, Reverend Donald Anderson, and representatives of the Hindu and Confucian faiths. Ringed by quiet but curious ultra-orthodox youth, we each prayed in our own way as part of the First International Jerusalem Symposium on Green and Accessible Pilgrimage. These few moments changed forever my associations with the Kotel and set me to dreaming once again about a spiritual center of tranquility and inclusivity and universal blessing:
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.
Vayak'heil-P'kudei 5772: Sermon Delivered at Congregation Moreshet Israel, Jerusalem, Israel in celebration of womens' leadership in Jewish life
In a progression of verses that is in no way unusual, this week's parasha comes to remind us that at the time of the revelation at Sinai, God, Moshe, and, apparently the people, all assumed that a patriarchal societal structure was the norm: in Sh'mot 32, the people, panicking at Moshe's prolonged absence, crowd Aaron: And the people saw that Moses lagged. The people. In the next verse, Aaron responds: take off the golden rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters. In other words, "the people" are the men.
Professor Tikva Frymer-Kensky, z”l, in the introduction to her book, Reading the Women of the Bible, pointed out that the Torah does not challenge the patriarchy of the society to which it was revealed, just as the Torah does not challenge the institution of slavery. The Torah does not conceptualize such cultural revolutions as an egalitarian society or the eradication of the institution of slavery.
Biblical thinkers, as Frymer-Kensky refers to biblical authorship, were very aware of social problems, trying to emeliorate the suffering of the downtrodden, curtailing abuses, helping runaway slaves stay free, redeeming those sold into slavery, and calling for a limit to capitalist aggrandizement.
Today, we might turn to the Torah, the foundation document of our faith, and feel disappointed or embarrassed by what seems to be the biblical embrace of patriarchal structure, not to mention a sanguine acceptance of slavery.
I think we err in the reading of the Torah if we lapse into embarrassment and disappointment at these junctures. Indeed, I see in the Torah's challenging, incremental, insistent pushing back on societal assumptions the key to the deepest values of our tradition and the key to the eternal vibrancy of Judaism.
It is easy, too easy, to sit in this sanctuary today and look with disdain on the poor primitive creatures of the past who didn't "get it" that women simply do fulfill the same spectrum of roles in Jewish community as do men. It is too easy to sit in this sanctuary today and look with disdain on the poor primitive creatures of the past who didn't "get it" that a mitzvah observed by a gay guy is a mitzvah that has been observed by an obligated Jew.
In a drash on the parashah Mishpatim, my friend and colleague, Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses asks a perceptive and challenging question:
"...after all the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt, the very first laws of Mishpatim concern slave ownership. Not the prohibition of owning slaves, as one might want and expect, but the rules detailing the treatment of a slave, slavery an institution that is simply presumed by the text. After all that, after all those years enslaved, after witnessing the plagues, after passing through the red sea to escape slavery, why in the world are the Israelites permitted the ownership of other human beings?"
The key phrase, in Rabbi Cohler-Esses' question is: "an institution that is simply presumed by the text." In other words, the institution of slavery was a common and integral part of ancient economies and societal structures. As common as salaries and taxes are today.
These passages in Mishpatim make it clear that the slave held by an Israelite master was never to be treated with the harshness and cruelty that the Israelite slaves experienced at the hands of Egypt's taskmasters.
For certain, there are also passages in the Torah about the treatment of slaves that seem brutal to us and repugnant in the document we embrace as revealed sacred text. All this is a reflection of the reality of the time and place in which the Torah was revealed.
I recently saw a TV advertisement in which a person in very authentic-looking medieval dress hands another person a gift: something wrapped in the folds of a cloth. The recipient carefully opens up the folds of the cloth and a very modern-looking television remote control is revealed.. The gift is received with very understandable confusion and incomprehension.
If the Torah reflected our 21st sensibilities towards slavery, toward the basic economics of debt service, toward women and even employer-employee relations, the response at the time and place of revelation would have been even more profound confusion and incomprehension. There would have been no collective of people to accept the Torah and declare "na'aseh v'nishma" / "we will do, we will obey" because there would not have been a human alive at that time capable of understanding and committing to such a covenant.
Even a sacred revelation rooted in the cultural assumptions of the day was ultimately responded to with the golden calf. Can you imagine what the response would have been to a Torah unilaterally and with no warning casting aside patriarchal society, abolishing slavery, prohibiting capital punishment? Crickets. Instead of a heartfelt na’aseh v’nishmah (“we will do, we will obey,” our communal response to the revelation of the Torah) you would have only heard the chirping of crickets...
The power of our tradition, right from the very beginning, has been our commitment to connecting our faith, our religious commitments, our observances to the myriad of times and places in which we have lived. We have demonstrated, time after time after time, that the covenant, laws, mitzvot of our tradition travel with us, reflect and inform the realities of our lives wherever and whenever we live in Jewish community.
This makes looking back confusing at times . . . as if we, in our 21st century culture, mindset and dress were to unwrap a present and find chain mail armor. These anachronistic moments, though, serve to remind us that our faith, our brit/covenant with God, has always been about the lives we are leading right now. Whenever and wherever right now might be.
In this season of “nahafoch hu” (Turn things on their heads / referring to the irreverent spirit of Purim) it behooves us to remember that profound change does not happen . . . or does not happen well . . . when we begin by overturning tables and standing things on their heads.
Indeed, it is our Torah...that sacred document steeped in patriarchal and slaveholding assumptions that models for us the path to the kind of change that made this Shabbat in this place possible. We need to start where people are, not where we expect them to get to. Really, there is little that is more irritating than having someone approach from the heights of enlightenment to say: "you poor misguided thing, follow me and you'll get it right.". How much more effective, as the Torah models, to say: "here's where we are. Look what's ahead. We can figure out together how to get there!"
Profound change comes from modeling, suggesting, teaching, persevering, relying only on the eternal, sacred values that reflect profound truth. Having faith. And a little humility.
We, the Masorti community here in Israel, as well as the American Conservative community, need to do a little remembering.
Here are a few things I remember from the not-distant-enough past:
I remember being all but frog-marched out of the daily minyan at my own (pre-rabbinical school) Masorti kehillah in Jerusalem and being told that I was not welcome in the room if I was going to wear my tallit and Tefillin.
I remember members of the Israel Rabbinical Assembly standing up at meetings
and insisting that Israel was not ready for women in the rabbinate.
I remember a high-ranking member of the Machon Shechter administration informing me that women belonged in the rabbinate as much as an orange belongs on a Seder plate.
I remember: here's a little back story to this memory: when I began my studies in the rabbinical program at Shechter, I was actually registered as a student of JTS while studying in the Israeli program. JTS had been ordaining women since 1983, but then, in 1991, Schechter was not yet accepting women. Therefore, I ... and a few other women ... were in the unique position of studying in a program that did not officially accept us. The other women at that time were studying at Shechter as Masters students. So...back to remembering: I remember a fellow student gave a d'var Torah one day at minyan urging the Schechter faculty and administration to change their policy and to accept women. A high-ranking member of the Schechter administration came up to him immediately and within hearing of several of us said: “atah bogeid,” you are an iconoclast, you are a traitor.
I've had a moment or two like that myself: I had been davenning in minyanim at shul and at school as the only woman in the room wearing Tefillin for close to a year before I finally walked into a minyan where there was another woman wearing Tefillin. I watched her wrap up and I remember saying to myself: Wow! That looks really weird!
All of that is to say that we need to have a little rachmonis (compassion) for those who don't quite get it yet. We need to acknowledge that the kind of change that addresses the way people engage in society and community is complicated and frightening and confusing. Obviously that does not mean we don't proceed with change, it does mean we must manage change with wisdom and compassion and allegiance to sacred values.
For all that the Torah assumes a world that marginalizes women and condones slavery, the most sacred principles which will ultimate overthrow those assumptions are embedded in that same revealed text and have served as the basis for the revolutions which overturn those institutions:
And God created the Adam in His image. He created it in the image of God; He created them male and female. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it . . .”
Adam is male and female, a type of gendered creature, like so many others. Both genders of this Adam are created simultaneously and equally. Both genders of this Adam are blessed equally and charged equally with reproducing and with managing the rest of creation. This first relating of the creation of humanity considers both genders equally blessed, equally in partnership.
How many times have we heard that we are partners with God in completing and perfecting creation? How often are we uplifted by the concept of Tikkun Olam? The idea that God needs our collaboration to bring ultimate completion and peace, to the act of Creation?
The blueprint for our collaboration are the "first principles" of the Torah: Tikkun Olam is the enterprise of integrating these first principles of Torah into the world.
God had the chance to foster a homogeneous, uniform humanity . . . all speaking the same language, all building towards the same goal: the destruction of the Tower of Babel is the signal that God expects diversity, creativity, the exercise of our various intelligences from us. Humanity begins with one language, one set of words, and ends the passage dispersed and speaking many tongues. Yes, perhaps, as is expressed in Genesis 11, humanity would have been more formidable were we to speak one language and see one vision...but if that state of affairs reflected God's aspiration for the Adam we would, today, be speaking but one language and aspiring to one goal.
Hence the blueprint for our collaboration with God must include the embrace of diversity within the Adam / humanity.
It's rather exhausting, isn't it, to contemplate how many millennia it has taken to achieve just a few steps forward in establishing God's first principles. After all, the catalyst for this awe-inspiring Shabbat is the rejection of the equality of genders within the Adam among certain misguided groups within Israel. Really, what on earth could a little orthodox girl be wearing to school that could possibly be deemed inappropriate by anyone save a truly misguided soul?
So let us, today in this sanctuary, respond to Professor Frymer-Kensky's concerns and Rabbi Cohler-Essess' probing question with pride and reassurance: the Torah does not abandon 21st century Jews, the Torah provides us with the wisdom, perspective and inspiration to understand the scope of the challenges and to be compassionate and focussed as we pursue those first principle truths that shine through the cultural anachronisms of the text.
In this season of nahafoch hu, I suggest there are times when up-ending tables is the order of the day: most effectively when grassroots support for change wells up against an authoritarian loathing to abandon long-held assumptions.
In place of disappointment and embarrassment, let us be guided by both patience and determination. The patience to inspire those around us with the challenging and uplifting first principles of the Torah: equality, inclusivity, diversity--and the determination to up-end each table of bigotry, narrow-mindedness and intimidation in their turn.
As we take the Torah scroll from the ark we sing "Ki mitzion teitzei Torah" ... For Torah will emanate from Zion and the word of God from Jerusalem." Part of the cache of our Holy Land is the unique relationship between God and this Land. For all that the original revelation of Torah was not in the Land, we Jews have looked to the Land for the wisdom and insight of Torah for millennia.
This makes recent events emanating from Israel all the more disturbing: Ultra-orthodox Jews have intimidated and attacked females from school-age girls to professional women visiting Orthodox neighborhoods on business.
Make no mistake: This is not the Torah of 90% of the Jewish world.
But it's easy to draw attention to negatives. Congregation Moreshet Israel on Agron Street in the center of Jerusalem has decided to walk the talk of another kind of Torah . . . a truer Torah, from Jerusalem. Led by Dr. Naomi Sarig (a member of the congregation), Rene Feinstein (president of the congregation) and Rabbi Adam Frank (spiritual leader of the congregation), Moreshet Israel has decided to celebrate this year's confluence of Purim and International Women's Day with a Shabbat led entirely by women.
I am deeply honored that the congregation is flying me to Jerusalem to serve as "Rabbi in the Congregation" for Shabbat. I will have the pleasure of welcoming a series of formidable, inspiring Jewish women to Moreshet Israel's bimah to teach, to lead prayer, to preach: Professor Alice Shalvi, founder of the Israel Women's Network, Naomi Sarig
Project Coordinator, Jewish Art and Visual Culture Research Project at Tel Aviv University, Rachel Azaria, a member of the Jerusalem City Council, Emily Levy-Shochat, Chair of the Masorti Movement in Israel . . . and me!
When I was a rabbinical student, I was studying in the Israeli rabbinical school at The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. But Schechter was not officially accepting women at that time, so I was officially registered as a student of The Jewish Theological Seminary of New York. During the first few years of my rabbinical training, Schechter was undergoing a process of studying and examining and contemplating the ordination of women as rabbis. I was privileged to be a student of Rabbi Zev Falk, z"l ... a brilliant and committed and inspired professor of halacha (Jewish Law). At one of our very intense school-wide discussions of women's ordination at Schechter, Professor Falk got up and said that the Jewish people had been robbed of the teaching and insights of Torah for too long. We have the Talmud of the men, Professor Falk declared, it is time to train women so that we can also embrace the Talmud of the women.
Professor Falk used to be a member of the daily minyan at Moreshet Israel, he would have been so proud of the Shabbat we are about to celebrate there this week: It will be a Shabbat of women's Torah, Talmud, prayer and inspiration.
Parashat D'varim Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22
On the eve of our annual commemoration of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (which takes place on Monday evening and Tuesday this week), we are reminded of the startling lesson the rabbis of the Talmud drew from this disaster: that the Temple was destroyed because that generation of Jews fostered among themselves "sinat chinam", baseless prejudice.
It is painful to see, in that same venue, the heart of Jerusalem, that baseless prejudice against non-Orthodox Judaism, threatens to become legislated policy of the government of Israel. Please read this article and then log onto www.masorti.org to send your e-mail of protest to Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Our own officers and board members signed such a letter jointly this past Tuesday at our board meeting. This was a true act of leadership and I urge you to follow their lead.
The link to send your e-mail to Prime Minister Netanyahu:
For background on this issue, excerpts from a recent article from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency:
Opponents alarmed as Israeli conversion bill moves ahead
By Jacob Berkman · July 13, 2010
NEW YORK (JTA) -- Opponents of a controversial bill that could give the Orthodox Rabbinate the final say over conversions in Israel are trying to keep the bill from moving ahead in the Israeli Knesset after its surprise introduction and passage by a Knesset committee.
For months, Israeli lawmakers have been discussing a bill that would put more power over conversion into the hands of Israel's Orthodox-dominated Rabbinate by giving local rabbis the ability to perform conversions and giving the Chief Rabbinate oversight and control over the whole process.
The bill, sponsored by Yisrael Beiteinu Knesset member David Rotem, gained steam Monday with its approval in the Knesset law committee by a 5-4 vote. The bill now must pass three readings before the full Knesset to become law.
Opponents are desperately trying to stall the process, at least until the Knesset starts a two-month break next week.
"They have to bring it to the Knesset now for a first reading, and we have to make sure that it will not happen," the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Natan Sharansky, told JTA.
Sharansky is leading a coalition against the bill that includes the leaders of the North American Jewish federation system and the non-Orthodox Jewish religious movements in the United States.
Rotem's bill originally was intended to ease the conversion process within Israel and make it easier for non-Jewish Israelis of Soviet extraction to obtain conversions and marry within Israel.
Despite its intent, opponents warned that the bill would consolidate control over conversions in the office of the Chief Rabbinate and drive a wedge between Israel and the Diaspora by carrying the risk that non-Orthodox conversions performed in the Diaspora could be discounted in Israel. In addition, they said the bill would affect the eligibility of converts for the Law of Return, which grants the right to Israeli citizenship to anyone who is Jewish or at least has one Jewish grandparent.
The opponents urged Rotem to revise the proposal. They believed they had a deal in place with Rotem to hold off on the bill pending more discussion after Rotem came to the United States in April to discuss the bill with them, and after a number of meetings between Sharansky and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Several top Israeli officials, including the justice minister and minister for Diaspora affairs, had agreed to work with Sharansky on altering the bill.
But Rotem caught Sharansky and the Diaspora leaders by surprise by bringing the bill to a committee vote this week; Sharansky was given only a day's warning. The move set off a maelstrom of criticism from the Diaspora.
The CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, Jerry Silverman, called Rotem's action a "betrayal."
In a letter of protest from the president of the Union for Reform Judaism that was signed by 14 other organizations, including various arms of the Conservative movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie wrote, "Rotem's actions are contrary to the assurances we received in meetings with him and with others over the last several months."
In an interview with JTA, Rotem was unapologetic about moving ahead and said, "This bill will pass, no doubt. I never promised anything," Rotem said. "I told them all the time in the meetings that if I will see there is a majority, I will bring it a vote. No one can say I promised anything."
Since Monday, Sharansky has engaged in a number of discussions with Israeli lawmakers, including Netanyahu. The Jewish Agency chief said he believes the bill will not come before the Knesset this week, and hopes it will not be on the agenda before the two-month recess provides a chance to alter or scuttle the bill.
Sharansky said he is pushing for Netanyahu and his Likud Party to publicly oppose it.
The Jewish Federations say that Silverman and federation lay leaders met with Israel's president Shimon Peres Monday. Peres, according to a JFNA press release, pressed for more dialogue on the proposed bill that would give American voices greater credence.
"More than half of our people are living in the State of Israel. Almost half of it lives outside of Israel. We should remember that those living outside of Israel are not represented by the Knesset, they have their own communal life," Peres told the group.
"A discussion that bears consequences on the entire Jewish people should include different voices -- from within Israel and from without. The legislative process should include an open public discussion that will lead to an understanding. It should be conducted with tolerance, with open hearts and open minds
"It is important for us, for the unanimity of the moment, that we have to keep the pressure on," Rabbi Steven Wernick, the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, told JTA.
"I think it would be an error to think that in the political society as dynamic and hyper-dynamic as Israel is that we are done with this," he said. "The people who care about these issues have to constantly keep them on the agenda and explain why they are important to decision makers."
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.
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.
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.