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:
Our congregation's move to East Greenwich engages us in the life of the greater East Greenwich community more fully than in previous years, when we were still rooted in Cranston. The faith community here in East Greenwich is a mutually respectful and supportive coalition of houses of worship in town. We saw this ourselves when the clergy of several East Greenwich churches wrote letters on our behalf to the East Greenwich Zoning Board and came to testify at a number of Zoning Board meetings as well.
My clergy colleagues in these churches have told me that together their congregations sustain and maintain an Interfaith Food Cupboard housed at St. Luke's Episcopal Church on Peirce Street. This is a model of community cooperation with which we are familiar through our participation in and support of the Edgewood Food Pantry housed at the Church of the Transfiguration on Broad Street in Cranston.
East Greenwich enjoys a reputation as a beautiful town with affluent residents and a superb public school system. This is a hard-earned and well-deserved reputation. There is another side to East Greenwich from which many of us are sheltered: there are hungry adults and children in town who the professionals call "food insecure." That means they do not always know if there will be a next meal, let alone where it is coming from.
Chris and Steve Bartlett, who run the EG Interfaith Food Cupboard at St Luke's have reported that in July alone 256 individuals received food from the Cupboard, and this includes 21 new families who had never turned to the EG facility for this support in the past.
This coming Shabbat is referred to in our calendar as Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation. The consolation is God's response to us on the loss of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 AD at the hands of the Roman Empire. The loss posed a fundamental theological challenge to Judaism, as it was through the korbanot, the sacrifices at the Temple that Israel drew closer to God and atoned for their transgressions. In an early rabbinic gloss on the Mishnah (Avot d'Rabi Natan 4:5) Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai consoles a colleague who is mourning the loss of the Temple. Rabbi Yohanan says: Be not grieved, my son. There is another equally meritorious way of gaining atonement even though the Temple is destroyed. We can still gain atonement through deeds of lovingkindness. For it is written (Hosea 6:6): "Lovingkindess I desire, not sacrifice."
Our consolation, at this distance of two thousand years, should also be expressed through acts of lovingkindness. I hope you will all take a moment during the summer weeks that remain to drop off non-perishable food at our TY house for all three of our food-support projects: the Edgewood Food Closet, the Chester Kosher Food Pantry, and our East Greenwich Interfaith Food Cupboard. You can designate where you want the food to go, or you can leave it to Beverly Goncalves, our Social Action Chair, to divide up the food and pass it on to those who deliver it.
Here is some basic information about the EG project:
East Greenwich Interfaith Food Cupboard
The Interfaith Food Cupboard, located in St Luke’s Parish house on Peirce Street, is open from 10:30 AM -12:00 noon each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The service is available to any East Greenwich resident, member of an East Greenwich congregation, referral from a clergy or someone in need of emergency food. We are currently asking for donations of the following food products: canned ham, chicken or fish, cereal, oatmeal, canned fruit, soups, pasta sauce, juice and juice boxes, jam/jelly and crackers. Other products that we always need include staples like cooking oil, mayonnaise, salad dressing, mustard, sugar, flour, coffee, tea, etc. If you would like to make a cash donation rather than food, your check can be sent to your clergy or directly to the EGIFC. We have a very dedicated volunteer staff and on their behalf, we thank you for your support of the East Greenwich Interfaith Food Cupboard. Chris and Steve Bartlett
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.
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 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.