Saturday, July 17, 2010

Devarim 5770 - Delegitimization of Diaspora Jewry by the State of Israel

(Originally delivered on Saturday morning, July 17, 2010.)

The following is from an open letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, by Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, Exec. VP of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international organization of Conservative rabbis. It concerns the bill that was introduced in the Knesset this week by David Rotem, a member of the Yisrael Beiteinu party. This bill will effectively turn over the question of “Who is a Jew” to the increasingly Haredi/ultra-Orthodox chief rabbinate of Israel, and threatens to draw a deep division between Israeli Jewry and all the rest of us.

"Dear Mr. Prime Minister,

"I have good news and I have bad news.

"The bad news is that rabbis all over the world are thanking you for giving them a Rosh Hashanah sermon.

"The good news is that you get to write every one of them.

"The sermon we all want to give is one in which you, as a visionary leader, make an unambiguous statement in opposition to this bill which divides Israel from the Diaspora. We hope that we can invoke your name, Mr. Prime Minister, with the same spirit of reverence we reserve for the great leaders of the Jewish people.

"Regrettably, David Rotem has already brought us a tragically cynical Rosh Hodesh Av homily, when he unexpectedly reintroduced his bill, undermining discussions you set in motion with Natan Sharansky [the former Russian Refusenik who is now the head of the Jewish Agency]. Our tradition teaches that the exile of our people was brought about by senseless fighting among ourselves. Please, Mr. Prime Minister, bring us a message for Tishrei that is redemptive."

Rabbi Schonfeld goes on to say that it would be a true betrayal of Jewish history and heritage if our communities are torn apart by one extremist group’s judgment about who is “religious” enough. (You can read her entire letter here.)

The last time I spoke about Israel, the subject was the delegitimization of the Jewish State by others. Today, it is the delegitimization of non-Orthodox Jews BY the Jewish State.

Yisrael hi lo Iran. Israel is not Iran. This is a bumper sticker that I recall having seen when I lived in Israel a decade ago. It is a defiant statement made by secular Jewish Israelis that no matter how much certain sectors of Israeli society want to live in a theocracy, or believe that they do, the State of Israel stands for all of its citizens (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Druze, Circassian, Hindu, Buddhist, religious, secular, Zionist, anti-Zionist, gay, straight, female, male, etc.). Unlike all of the Arab governments in her neighborhood, Israel is a healthy democracy. Everybody in Israel is free to practice his or her own religion, except, apparently, for Jews who do not subscribe to Orthodox Judaism.

Now, it is true that Israel is not a theocracy, like Iran, where the religious leaders control the government. However, there are times when Israel’s lack of official separation between Synagogue and State causes this complicated nexus of politics and Judaism to boil over in conflict, and particularly regarding personal status issues.

And that happened again this week. Actually, two truly horrible things happened: the introduction of the Rotem bill, and the arrest of Anat Hoffman at the Kotel plaza for carrying a Sefer Torah. These two things amount to, if not an organized campaign, then at least a haphazardly deliberate delegitimization of progressive Judaism by the Jewish State.

1. The Rotem bill you may have already heard of, particularly if you read the emails sent from Temple Israel. The bill was introduced unexpectedly into the Knesset, despite assurances that it would not be, with even harsher language than what had initially been proposed.

This bill, if passed, would do the following:

It would allow conversion candidates in Israel to go to different state-enfranchised rabbis in municipalities other than their own. This is helpful especially to immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who have often had trouble marrying because one of the members of the couple is not halakhically Jewish, and the local rabbi is more right-wing and makes the process more difficult, or refuses to do it, or invalidates the conversion after the fact (this has happened! More than 15,000 Israeli converts were recently invalidated by the Chief Rabbinate.)

Of course, the rabbi that they go to cannot be Conservative or Reform (and there are, of course, many non-Orthodox rabbis in Israel).

The bill would also place total control over conversion in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate. It has not been this way in the past. Until now, the State of Israel recognized conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis, even if the Chief Rabbinate or local rabbis did not. This would be a major affront to the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel, because our converts and their families would no longer be recognized as Jews by the State, and therefore would not be able to become Israeli citizens under the Law of Return. This would implicitly create a legal second-class status for non-Orthodox Jews, who account for something like 80% of Diaspora Jewry.

The bill states that conversions will only be considered valid if the candidate has "accepted the Torah and the commandments in accordance with halakha." Now, we in the Conservative movement, of course, expect this of both our adherents and converts, but we do not follow them around to see if they are fulfilling every miniscule custom. Once language like that is enshrined in law, those who are in a position to judge others based on their behavior will surely do so, according to their standard.

Is anybody upset yet? You should be outraged by this. I am.

2. The second item of concern is the arrest of Anat Hoffman.

Somebody sent me a YouTube video this week that brought me to tears. It shows Anat Hoffman, a former Jerusalem city councilwoman who is the head of the Israeli Religious Action Center, the Reform Movement’s political adjunct in Israel, carrying a Torah on the women’s side of the Kotel, and subsequently arrested for doing so. Ms. Hoffman, who is well-known to police who work the Kotel beat, such that they call her Anat, is a long-time crusader against the creeping Haredization of Jerusalem and the Kotel in particular. She has been participating in the monthly Women of the Wall services, which take place every Rosh Hodesh.

As it turns out, this past Rosh Hodesh was Monday, the same day that the political storm let loose in the Knesset regarding the Rotem bill. Just a few miles across town from the Knesset, in the most ancient part of the city, the Women of the Wall met for their monthly service, many of them sporting their tallitot wrapped around their necks like scarves (because it would be “illegal” for them to wear them properly as tallitot). It is also, apparently, illegal for them to chant from the Torah, as is done at the morning service on Rosh Hodesh, and as our own Linda Abrams does on every RH in the chapel here at Temple Israel, but it is apparently not illegal for the women to carry the Torah. If so, why was Anat arrested? I am not sure, and I daresay, neither is she.

BTW, you can see the video elsewhere on this blog. Watch women and men cursing and screaming at the Women of the Wall, and watch the police esCORT Anat from the plaza, take the Torah away from her by force, and put her in a police vehicle. Hear the defiant Women and their supporters sing both joyful and mournful tunes as all of this takes place.

So it seems that the State of Israel has officially, legally declared the Kotel to be an Orthodox synagogue, and the rule of law prevents violations of religious law, as interpreted by the Haredi rabbi of the Kotel, one Shmuel Rabinowitz.

Why is the State of Israel enacting laws about religion? Why is the Kotel no longer a place where any Jew can worship in his/her own style? Why was a woman arrested for holding a Torah? Yisrael hi lo Iran. Israel is not Iran.

You should be outraged by this as well.

And not only because it is an affront to everything that this community, this congregation stands for, but also because of what we read today in Parashat Devarim, p. 983, Deut. 1:8:

Bo-u urshu et ha-aretz asher nishba Adonai la-avoteikhem,
Le-avraham leyitzhaq ulya’aqov latet lahem ulzar’am ahareihem

Go, take possession of the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assign to them and to their heirs after them.

The Hebrew does not literally say “heirs,” but “seed.” We are all the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and, for that matter, the seed of Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rahel. It is not the land of some Jews, nor the holy places of a subset of very fervent Jews, but of ALL Jews. No qualifications. No insistence that we all hew to a particular standard. No litmus test. All of us.

Israel is ours, and the Kotel is ours. We cannot allow ourselves to be made second-class citizens in the land that was promised to us by God. Let us channel that outrage to defeat the status quo of Israeli politics and religion. If you have not sent an email to Prime Minister Netanyahu regarding the Rotem bill, do so. As of yesterday, more than 15,000 people had done so through the Masorti website, and just as many from a similar Reform site.

But do not stop there. Don’t just email Netanyahu - call his office in Jerusalem (they’re open on Sunday! 011-972-2-640-8457) and the consulate in NY (212-499-5000). Call Gary Ackerman (718-423-2154). Call Senator Schumer (212-486-4430). (A group of Jewish senators are writing a letter to Israel. That’s right, the US Senate is involved!) Email all your friends.

There are more of us than there are of them, and we matter. Israel needs us, and we need Israel.

We are approaching the saddest day of the Jewish year, the ninth day of the month of Av, usually referred to by its Hebrew name, Tish’a be’Av. In my Mishnah Class this past spring, we studied an oft-quoted passage from tractate Ta’anit, which tells us that the First Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed because of Israelites who committed the three biggest sins: idolatry, murder, and sexual impropriety, and that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sin’at hinam, baseless hatred. We are fortunate to live in times in which Jerusalem, if not the Temple itself, is rebuilt and thriving. The shame would truly be on us if we were to allow sin’at hinam tear apart the earthly Jerusalem (Yerushalayim shel mata) once again.

The sermon that I want to give, as Rabbi Schonfeld put it, is the one in which PM Netanyahu prevents this from happening. He is the only one who can make that sermon possible. Let us hope that he does so.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Destruction and Rebuilding: A Tish’ah Be’av Thought for 5770

(Originally published in the Temple Israel Voice, July 15, 2010.)

“Free Gaza!” proclaimed many of the signs carried by the anti-Israel protesters awaiting the arrival of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address the Council on Foreign Relations on the East Side of Manhattan. “Free Gaza from Hamas,” remarked a woman standing near me, wearing a “Stand With Us Israel” tee-shirt. I had come to join with the ranks of Israel supporters, who turned out in much greater numbers than the Neturei Karta (an anti-Zionist sect of Satmar hasidim) and other anti-Israel activists across 68th St. The police kept us neatly collected in our separate groups, behind blue barriers, and each side chanted slogans and sweated through what must have been the hottest hour of the day.

My thoughts ran to the new reality of the Palestinian territories - rapid economic growth in the West Bank, easier movement for those Palestinians living there, and a new era of cooperation between Israeli and American authorities and the Palestinian Authority led by President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. And then the contrast with Gaza, where Hamas ousted the Fatah-led government, and thereby condemned itself to international isolation. The Qassam rockets are not falling on southern Israel as they were a year and a half ago, but the economy is not improving in Gaza, as it is in Ramallah. The difference is stark, and we can only hope that the people of Gaza will hear from their cousins in Bethlehem and Jericho that cooperation yields good fruit, and choose a new path.

The overarching theme of the month of Av is destruction and rebuilding. The ninth day of Av is the day upon which we commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, and as we approach that day, we begin to recall those tragedies with liturgy, music, and custom, echoing the ancient, two-fold descent into the chaos wreaked by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and then the Romans in 70 CE. The period following Tish’ah Be’av is about consolation, featuring seven dedicated haftarot from the book of Isaiah for the seven weeks between the Ninth of Av and the first of Tishrei, also known as Rosh Hashanah. We call this month “menahem Av,” the comforting Av, because the latter two-thirds of the month remind us that after destruction there is rebuilding.

It is this cycle that prepares us ritually for the High Holidays. It is the breaking and healing of the Jewish soul, the mental deconstruction and reconstruction of our historic and spiritual center that girds us for the Big Ask of Yom Kippur.

As the tumultuous year of 5770 enters its final, steamy months and we begin the descent and ascent to the High Holidays, I cannot help but put this rally in Jewish perspective appropriate to the month of Av: I very much want Gaza to be rebuilt, and for it to be a thriving, cosmopolitan city wherein people can travel freely and worship as they choose, like Tel Aviv, or even Jerusalem. I want the people of Gaza to get a fair shake, but not at the expense of the people of Sderot or Ashkelon. I want the powers that be in Gaza to renounce terrorism, acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, and dedicate themselves to rebuilding their lives and their land. In Megillat Eikhah, the book of Lamentations, which we read on Tish’ah Be’av, we chant the following in mournful tones: “For these things I weep, my eyes shed tears... My children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.” We know that the enemy of all good intentions in Israel and the Palestinian territories is Hamas; let us hope that rebuilding Gaza, in cooperation with Israel and the West, occurs speedily, in our day.