This week, we read the opening chapters of the book of Numbers, Bamidbar. This is a clear case in which meaning is lost in translation: The book is entitled "Numbers" in English based on the census that is related in the opening chapter of the book, but in Hebrew the title "Bamidbar" means "wilderness" . . . as the book relates the saga of the Israelite journey through the wilderness from Sinai to Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel.
This is also a week in which the whole world is watching the spiritual wanderings of the residents of modern Israel.
The Christian Science Monitor, The Arab News as well as The Jerusalem Post, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and every other Jewish news source has covered the turn of events at the Western Wall this week.
One month ago, at the beginning of the new Hebrew month of Iyyar, police arrested (for the umpteenth time) women who were participating in a participatory women's service celebrating the new month . . . for disrupting the peace. Following these arrests, a series of Israeli justices have ruled that it is not the praying women who have disturbed the peace of this significant historic sight (the Western Wall is the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount, the height on which the long-destroyed First and Second Temples stood).
Today, the beginning of the Hebrew month of Sivan, saw a new development in the wake of the court decisions. This month the women returned to pray . . . but instead of arresting the women, as ultra-Orthodox Jews threw chairs, water and worse at them, the police restrained the outraged onlookers.
Since 1948, with Jewish sovereignty over Israel established, a significant dynamic of wandering came to an historic resolution. We are, in the words of Israel's national anthem: am chofshi b'artzeinu . . . a free people in our land.
But in other profound ways, we have not yet arrived.
The tendency to self-righteousness and even contempt between Jew and Jew is not limited to the conflicts within Israel around the Western Wall. Although generally less violent, there are those within the Jewish community who label other Jews as violaters of Torah, abductors of innocents, sabotagers of our tradition.
In my view, we will remain at the very beginning of our spiritual growth as a people as long as we foster theological one-upsmanship and self-righteousness. I await the spiritual milestone at which all of us who identify with our Torah and our people and our God and our tradition will be able to address each other with theological humility and say: your path may not be mine, your interpretation of Torah may not be that which is practiced in my community, but we are all the children of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekkah, Jacob, Leah and Rachel and we share the same God, the same values and deserve the same respect.
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.
Bernie at Purim 2009
Mardis Gras. Halloween. Carnevale de Venezia. Masquerade.
It seems everyone loves a chance to dress in costumes.
Purim is such a fascinating and unique moment in the cycle of the Jewish year: It's our "let loose" moment . . . costumes, songs, raucous audience-participation during the reading of the Megillah (the Scroll of Esther), even some condoned adult tippling.
When we read the Purim story in the Scroll of Esther, however, some engaging, substantive themes emerge:
It is in this book of the Hebrew Bible that we encounter a new model of women's leadership. Vashti, King Ahashuerus's rebellious queen is banished from the throne for her non-compliance.
"Back in the day" active Megillah-listeners would hiss at the sound of Vashti's name. Today, women are more likely to cheer for the female sovereign who risked her crown to preserve her dignity.
Over the course of the Scroll, we witness Esther's transformation from a shy, self-deprecating beauty to a royal-court-savvy, assertive champion of our people, more successfully risking her crown for principle than her predecessor.
Jewish Identity in the Diaspora
Purim shares a significant distinction with the festival of Shavuot . . . neither festival takes place within the Land of Israel. What does it mean that we received the Torah (celebrated at Shavuot) and defended the security of our community (at Purim) outside the borders of the Land of Israel? This may be a question that we here in the United States may see differently than our peers living in Israel.
Too Much Bloodshed?
Whether hyperbole, fantasy or historical fact, the ninth chapter of the book of Esther relates the mechanism by which the Jews of Shushan and the Persian Empire survived. The King's order to slay the Jews (provoked by Haman) could not be revoked. There existed no mechanism for revoking a royal decree. So, the best King Ahashuerus could do was to order a second decree permitting the Jews to defend themselves. Which they did. Effectively. Enthusiastically. Throughout Shushan and its 127 provinces, over 75,000 enemies were killed by the Jews . . . who did not touch the spoils of war.
I had the opportunity to live in England for a year. A friend involved in the administration of Great Britain's equivalent of our Reform Movement explained that their tradition was to hold a board meeting the night of Purim in order to demonstrate to their non-Jewish neighbors and friends that this Jewish community would not gather to celebrate the deaths of their non-Jewish enemies.
Clearly the juvenile and family-friendly versions of the Megillah skip this chapter, but here, among adults, we are left to ponder: is the story of Purim meant to convey to our diaspora neighbors that God will protect us one way or another no matter where we live? Has the story of Purim generated hostility directed at diaspora Jewish communities over the centuries? Should we read Chapter 9 and take pride in the fact that our ancestors stood up for themselves instead of allowing themselves to be slaughtered? Do we cringe a little and wish the text of the book of Esther expressed some regret for the bloodshed?
The Priority of Community
The annual celebration of Esther and Mordechai's triumph over Haman is described in the final verses of the book of Esther. Purim is to be an occasion for feasting and merrymaking . . . for sending gifts of food to one another and sending donations to support the poor. The feasting and merrymaking are not unexpected expressions of joy, relief, celebration. I find the last two elements . . . Mishloach Manot, Sending Portions of Food to neighbors and friends and Matanot l'Evyonim, Sending Gifts to the Needy to add a quality of significance to our celebration. As we indulge in, perhaps, a little too much rich food and a little too much to drink, we are also equally expected to share our bounty with family and friends and make sure that the vulnerable among us also have cause and the means to celebrate.
Purim is most definitely fun . . . and we here at Torat Yisrael are hoping the snow won't get in the way of our celebration this year. And, between the snowflakes, we can also pause to consider some of Purim's "meatier" themes.
This week's parashah/Torah portion contains one of my most favorite passages. Moshe and Aaron are back in front of Pharaoh for yet another round of pre-plague negotiations. Pharaoh asks who among the Israelites would go out into the wilderness to worship the God of the Israelites if Pharaoh were to give his permission. Moshe replies:
"We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and our daughters..." (Sh'mot/Exodus 10:9).
Pharaoh's reply is infused with skepticism: "He said to them, "Adonay would be with you like that, when I would let you and your infants go! . . . It is not like that. Go--the men!-- and serve Adonay, because that is what you're asking." (10: 10-11)
There is a good deal of formal counting of "noses" in the Torah: before getting ready to leave Egypt, at significant junctures in the 40 years of wandering, on the eve of entering the Land . . . Israel gets counted. In those counts, we've seen that it is the men who get counted: the heads of the tribes get counted, the heads of the households get counted, the males fit for military service get counted. So we might get the impression that women don't count in our defining text as the foundations of Judaism are laid down.
This passage shows us otherwise. Yes, males get counted when there needs to be a sense of how many political or socio-economic units make up the עם/ahm/nation of Israel, how strong a military force is available to defend our people. But when Moshe and Aaron are talking about who goes and who stays, the definition of עם is inclusive: men and women, young and old, sons and daughters, the able-bodied and the frail, the economically significant and the dependent. Moshe makes it clear to Pharaoh that when Israel leaves Egypt it will be all of Israel, every single Israelite soul counts.
So it is in the best of Jewish communities today: everyone counts. Everyone is valued for the talents and the experience and the intelligence and the creativity and the humor and the dedication and the resources we each bring to the community . . . each individual's configuration of these elements is valued as essential to the well-being of the community as a whole. No one has it all: some of us are great organizers. Some of us brainstorm inspiring ideas. Some of us reach deep into our pockets. Some of us are there to support mourners. Some of us lighten the mood at meetings. Some of us bask in the limelight. Some of us thrive behind the scenes.
One of my most beloved "us" moments here at Torat Yisrael is our Torah at the Table Shabbat morning study sessions (the second and fourth Saturdays of the month at 9:15 am). Around the table, covered with munchies and coffee mugs and chumashim/bibles, we read and discuss Torah. Any given Torah at the Table can see Cohen School kids and their parents, empty-nesters and grandparents, all studying Torah together, all listening to and pondering each others questions and suggestions. That's us. A community of young and old, sons and daughters brought together by Torah.
Moses described it. We live it.
Our focus on the elections and on the local issues that engaged us on the Rhode Island ballot was intense. We are, though, in a "no rest for the weary" situation as we enter into the Sabbath whose Torah reading is so infused with the images and lives of women: In parashat Hayyei Sarah we will mourn for Sarah and welcome Rebecca into the family as Isaac's wife.
As we look at the young loving couple, Isaac and Rebecca, it behooves us to remember that too many marriages lock couples into relationships of pain, emotional and physical abuse, and life-threatening violence.
At the beginning of October, President Obama issued a Presidential Proclamation in which he said:
"Despite considerable progress in reducing domestic violence, an average of three women in the United States lose their lives every day as a result of these unconscionable acts. And while women between the ages of 16 and 24 are among the most vulnerable to intimate partner violence, domestic violence affects people regardless of gender, age, sexual orientation, race, or religion."
The reality of President Obama's last statement was brought home to me in a most palpable way when, as a rabbi in Jerusalem, I was invited to conduct the seder for the residents of a shelter for battered women and their children in the neighborhood in which I served. As we began the seder, I saw that I was sharing the table with women with advanced degrees and women with an elementary school education; I was sharing the table with women born in Israel and Russia and the United States and Morocco and France. I was sharing the table with over a dozen Jewish women whose Jewish husbands beat them. Another comforting myth down the drain.
The Violence Against Women Act, (VAWA), enacted in 1994, recognizes the insidious and pervasive nature of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking and supports comprehensive, effective and cost saving responses to these crimes. VAWA programs, administered by the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services, give law enforcement, prosecutors and judges the tools they need to hold offenders accountable and keep communities safe while supporting victims. VAWA must be swiftly reauthorized to ensure the continuation of these vital, lifesaving programs and laws.
VAWA expired over 660 days ago and in fewer than 50 working legislative days the act can either be reauthorized or become history.
I encourage you to inform yourself on the issue of the importance of Congress reauthorizing VAWA and to contact directly Senators Whitehouse and Reed, and Representatives Langevin and Cicilline to convey to them your desire that they act on your behalf to establish the authority and capacity of VAWA before the act's final expiration date.
For more information: www.4vawa.org
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.
This week's Torah reading contains one of the most disturbing passages in the entire Hebrew Bible: the rape of Jacob and Leah's daughter, Dina. The story is a challenging one for us to understand in the first place, and it also highlights the struggles of many women throughout history. I am grateful to Rabbi Laura Geller for the following commentary on this biblical passage. Rabbi Geller's insights are comprehensive and I feel the best I can do is share them with you with no further comment from me:
Comforting Dina: The rape of Dina...and other horrible, contemporary acts of violence. By Rabbi Laura Geller
[Jacob is journeying back to Canaan, his homeland, to meet his estranged brother, Esau. He journeys with his wives, concubines and children....]
Somehow, alone, separated from his "two wives" and his "eleven children," Jacob discovers the face of God in his adversary--and Jacob is blessed.
Eleven children cross the river? But Jacob already at this point has twelve children. What about Dina, his daughter? What happened to her? Rashi, quoting a midrash, explains: "He placed her in a chest and locked her in." While many commentaries understand that by locking Dina in a box Jacob intends to protect her from marrying his brother Esau, we know the truth of the story. Hiding Dinah--locking her up--is a powerful image about silencing women. And that silence echoes loudly through the rest of the Torah.
What happens next? Dina gets In an ultimate act of silencing, the commentaries understand Dina's rape as Jacob's punishment for withholding her from Esau. Dina's rape is Jacob's punishment? What about Dina? What has she done? How does she feel? Out text is silent. We only know what her brothers and father think: that she has been defiled (34:5-7), that she must not be treated as a whore (34:31). No one in the Torah or the midrashic accounts asks her what she wants, what she needs, or how she can be comforted.
Her silence is loud enough to reverberate through the generations. We hear it in the reports of other fathers who perceive their daughter's rape as their dishonor, their punishment.
Fortunately for Dinah, in Genesis the blame and punishment fall entirely on the perpetrator and his people, not on her. Other women are not as lucky. In 1998, in Pakistan, Arbab Khatoon was raped by three men in a village in Jacobabad district. She was murdered seven hours later. According to local residents, she was killed by her relatives for bringing dishonour to the family by going to the police. In 1999, Lal Jamilla Mandokhel, a 16-year-old mentally retarded girl, was reportedly raped several times by a junior clerk of the local government department of agriculture in a hotel in Parachinar, Pakistan. The girl's uncle filed a complaint about the incident with police--who took the accused into protective custody but then handed over the girl to her tribe. The elders decided that she had brought shame to her tribe and that the honor could only be restored by her death; she was killed in front of a tribal gathering.
Similar stories are reported not only in Pakistan but also in Bangladesh, Great Britain, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco, Sweden, Turkey, Uganda-as well as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. No wonder women are silent!
This outrage is only part of a much larger problem of violence against women. For example, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), more than five thousand brides die annually in India because their dowries are considered insufficient. Widney Brown, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, says that "in countries where Islam is practiced, they're called honor killings, but dowry deaths and so-called crimes of passion have a similar dynamic in that the women are killed by male family members and the crimes are perceived as excusable or understandable."
The practice, she said, "goes across cultures and across religions." In the few cases when public outcry around the world and international pressure were used, a woman's life was spared. But stories that capture the headlines do not begin to address the scope and range of the problem.
We hear Dina's silence as well in the challenges to reproductive rights happening right now in the United States. If Dina were raped and pregnant while living in South Dakota in 2007, she might not be able to get an abortion.
What happens to Dina in the aftermath of ordeal? We do not know. We never hear from her, as we may never hear from the women and our generation who are victims of violence and whose voices are not heard. But the legacy of Jacob as the one who wrestles, demands that we confront the shadowy parts of ourselves and our world--and not passively ignore these facts. The feminist educator Nelle Morton urged women to hear each other speech." Dina's story challenges us to go even further and be also the voices for all of our sisters.
Reprinted from The Torah: A Women's Commentary,
edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss
(New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
Parashat B'ha'alotkha Torah Reading: Numbers 8:1-12:16
On the very same week that the Torah reading talks of the role of the 70 elders of Israel as a team of people sharing in the leadership of the Israelites, seven times seventy Conservative and Masorti rabbis from the United States, Israel, Latin America and Europe gathered for our annual Rabbinical Assembly Convention.
We shared an intense five days together during which we mourned our colleagues who passed away during the past year and welcomed our newly ordained colleagues . . . some of whom have held the title for a week!
At our annual Women's Lunch, over one hundred female colleagues learned that we now number about 275 throughout the Rabbinical Assembly, serving in every region all over the world. We stood in turn as our year of ordination was called out in a roll call and shared our professional and personal news. It was a heady and awe-filled experienced, especially for those of us who were part of the struggle to establish the ordination of women in our movement in the United States, Israel and Latin America.
We studied and celebrated together as the American Conservative Movement's new Machzor Lev Hadash was revealed and dedicated. "Lev Hadash" means "A New Heart" and this Machzor has the power to implant a very new heart into our Days of Awe: it is uplifting, sensitive, accessible, wise and visually beautiful. We were told that the RA had planned a first run of 30,000 copies, but that so many congregations had ordered copies at the pre-publication deadline that they had to up the run to 130,000 . . . which sold out immediately. The second printing is in progress.
There were three programs dedicated to three extraordinary people . . . two of whom are close personal friends of mine:
On Monday evening, Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld was installed as the Rabbinical Assembly's Executive Vice-President. Rabbi Schoenfeld will serve as the public voice of the Rabbinical Assembly, as the Rabbi of all of the RA's rabbis (over 2,000 of us!), as a spiritual and political leader of our movement. She is the first woman to hold this position in the 110 years of the Rabbinical Assembly's existence.
On Wednesday evening, I sat in the JTS auditorium as my dearest friend, Rabbi Gilah Dror of Hampton, Virginia was installed as President of the International Rabbinical Assembly. Rabbi Dror is a quietly courageous, spiritual leader who has broken glass ceilings for women in the rabbinate time and time again over the twenty years of her rabbinate. Rabbi Dror brings intelligence and insight into the dialogue between the Jews of the United States and the Jews of the State of Israel . . . having served congregations in both countries . . . . As is the case with Rabbi Schoenfeld, Rabbi Dror is the first woman to hold the position of RA President. So you can see, this convention was quite a celebration for RA women . . . and men!
On the same evening as Rabbi Dror's installation, my teacher, my rabbi, my friend, Rabbi Neil Gillman, was honored by the RA and The Jewish Theological Seminary on the eve of his retirement as, I believe, our movement's most beloved and inspiring teachers. Generations of rabbis shaped by Rabbi Gillman's intellect and soul gathered to pay tribute to him. It is almost impossible to imagine JTS without him.
And those are just the highlights of my week in New York!
One of the most significant enterprises during convention week is the examination and passage of Rabbinical Assembly resolutions. These are documents of principle and purpose discussed and voted upon by colleagues and disseminated throughout our Movement. I will bring with me a number of our newly-passed RA resolutions for us to examine and discuss together over Shabbat morning kiddush tomorrow morning and in the coming weeks. I hope you will come be part of these engaging and significant conversations.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.