Friday, July 13, 2012

Speak Up For Pluralism in Israel - Pinehas 5772

Every time I go to Israel, I am reminded of the normalcy of life in the Jewish State.  Here are a few of my notes from my most recent visit, two weeks ago.

1.  One of the nights during my stay there was an all-night festival in Tel Aviv called “Laila Lavan” (“White Night,” also Israeli slang for pulling an all-nighter). There were free concerts in many places all over the city, including one featuring a French pop group called Nouvelle Vague that also featured women strutting in front of the stage displaying the latest fashions from French designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac.  There was a silent dance party in Rabin Square, where hundreds of younger Israelis tuned into the music, courtesy of live Djs, on their smartphones and danced under the stars and the impressive light show (I couldn’t get mine to work, but maybe that’s because I’m over 30), and a gaggle of Israeli reggae bands on the beach. I wandered through the city on foot before calling it a night at the geriatric hour of midnight, but the noise floating into my rental apartment was so loud that I had to wear earplugs to fall asleep.

2.  While purchasing French-language books for my kids at La Librairie du Foyer, a French-language bookstore in Tel Aviv, I got into a conversation with the owner about language acquisition.  She grew up in France but married a sabra; although she spoke French with her Israeli children, she lamented the fact that their French vocabulary was limited. I lamented the fact that there are no French bookstores in New York, and so I visit this store whenever I am in Israel.
3.  The hot political topic of my visit was the hubbub surrounding the deliberations of a government committee that was considering enlisting Haredim (so-called “ultra-Orthodox” Jews) as well as Israeli Arabs into the Israel Defense Forces or some other national service option. The current situation is that there are more than 50,000 Haredim who should be serving, a black-clad army in itself.

One of the essential features of the Israeli personality is to avoid being a “freier,” the Yiddish word for “sucker,” and the fact that these tens of thousands of young men who avoid army service by being enrolled in yeshivot has always irked secular Israelis.  For much of the past half-year, a Tel Aviv-based protest movement dubbed “Mahaneh ha-Freierim,” or “Camp Sucker,” has kept this issue in the spotlight as the committee has deliberated.

4.  In other news, former Prime Minister Yitzhaq Shamir died and was buried. A few rockets from Gaza fell in the Ashkelon area; nobody was hurt. An Israeli court sentenced a Filipina kindergartener and her mother, who had overstayed her work visa, to leave Israel within three weeks. The Haredi man who allegedly defaced Yad Vashem by spray-painting insults to the memory of the Shoah was arrested.

These are just a few items, but I could go on. Every time I return to Israel, to the soothing Mediterranean beaches and kafe hafukh (the Israelified version of cappucino, but to describe it as such does not do it justice) as well as the traffic snarls and high cost of living, I am reminded that the news coming from Israel to the States affords us such a narrow view of Israel. The reality on the ground is quite different.  Israel’s streets are alive with people; cultural offerings permeate the air, and life in all its glorious, Middle Eastern complexity goes on.

What is not normal in the Jewish State is Judaism.  Unlike the United States, or really any other nation in the world, there is an official Judaism, that of the increasingly hard-line Chief Rabbinate, often referred to simply as the Rabbanut.  Rabbis who work for the Rabbanut are paid a small government salary, and only their work is recognized by the State; in particular, non-Orthodox rabbis (such as myself) are not recognized, and only within the last few months a Supreme Court decision has allowed a handful of them to receive money from the government for working in their communities.  This last bit has particularly upset the Rabbanut.  Those of you who were here last Shabbat may recall that I mentioned the incitement against non-Orthodox rabbis and non-Orthodox movements by one of Israel’s chief rabbis, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, in calling for a protest against the Court’s decision.

In response to Rabbi Amar’s letter accusing non-Orthodox rabbis of being terrorists who trample on the Torah and who have wreaked destruction on Diaspora Jewry, the Jerusalem Post editorial board suggested, under its masthead, to eliminate all government subsidies for rabbis in Israel.  This would disenfranchise the Rabbanut and allow all Judaic offerings to be presented to Israelis on a level playing field, just like they are everywhere else in the world.  Certainly, the Jerusalem Post is not the first to make this argument; I have been hearing it as a kind of trope for the last decade or so, although it seems to me that the anger and frustration against the creeping “haredization” of the Rabbanut in Israel and the Diaspora is steadily growing.

Change will not come so easily, however.  The vitriol evident in Rabbi Amar’s letter is but a foreshadowing of the ways in which the Rabbanut will lash out when it feels threatened.  But that does not mean that we should not seek change.

One of the striking moments of today’s parashah, Parashat Pinehas, is the story of the five daughters of Zelophehad, a man of the tribe of Menasheh.  Zelophehad has no sons, and his daughters plead with Moses that they should inherit their father’s land instead of some other male relative.  Moses, unsure of what to do, takes the question to God, who agrees with the women that they are, in fact, entitled to receive their father’s land, even if it is only for one generation (i.e. until their is a male heir).  It’s a small comfort, I know, buried in a sea of patriarchal Israelite and rabbinic tradition.

But the important thing here is that the daughters of Zelophehad spoke up. They saw an injustice, and they raised their voices in protest. And the inheritance law was immediately modified to account for their situation.

There are a couple of ongoing protests in Israel right now – not only in favor of recruiting the haredim, but also an attempt to revive last summer's social protests against cost-of-living. Change occurs when people speak up.

Let’s consider for a moment how the Conservative movement came to embrace egalitarianism.  In many congregations here in America, beginning in the middle of the 20th century, women began asking to participate in Jewish life.  Here at Temple Israel, Rabbi Mordecai Waxman opened the door to women’s participation in the 1970s by having his wife Ruth called to the Torah as the maftirah, the one who chants the haftarah.  My childhood congregation became egalitarian in a much more offhanded way: one weekday morning in (I think) 1976 when there were nine men in the room and one woman, Rabbi Arthur Rulnick looked around and said, “We have a minyan.”  In the 1980s, the call to egalitarianism reached the center of the movement, when the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary voted to ordain female rabbis, much to the chagrin of the Talmud department, which was then stocked with traditionalists.

Ultimately, the halakhic argument that enabled the ordination of women rabbis, crafted by Rabbi Joel Roth in 1986, considered that although women have not classically been considered obligated to the performance of positive, timebound mitzvot (that is, mitzvot that must take place during a certain time frame, and are phrased in the manner of “thou shalt,” rather than “thou shalt not”), there are many sources in rabbinic literature, in the Talmud and elsewhere, that allow or even require women to fulfill some of these mitzvot.  We have studied them here in various contexts; here is just one that I will share with you now:
ת"ר הכל חייבין בציצית כהנים לוים וישראלים גרים נשים ועבדים ר"ש פוטר בנשים מפני שמצות עשה שהזמן גרמא הוא וכל מצות עשה שהזמן גרמא נשים פטורות
Our Rabbis taught: All are obligated to the mitzvah of tzitzit: priests, Levites and Israelites, converts, women, and slaves.  R. Shimon exempts women, because it is a time-bound positive mitzvah, and women are exempt from all time-bound positive mitzvot.
The dissenting opinion is from one rabbi; the rest agree that women are in fact obligated to wear a tallit.  So why do women not wear tallitot today?  Sources such as this have been sitting on the Jewish bookshelf for centuries, ignored and/or bypassed by deeply-entrenched custom, and it was not until 20th-century American Judaism saw the need for change that they were put to good use.

Today’s Israeli chief rabbinate has its roots in Ottoman Turkey and the British Mandate period, and borrowing from the British model of elected (and hence politicized) rabbis, represents a curious merger of synagogue and state.  Add to this mix the millions of sheqalim doled out to those rabbis with the State’s imprimatur, and the result is an unfair system in which Israelis (and Diaspora Jews who are in any way involved with Israel) are not just discriminated against, but downright delegitimized by the Rabbanut. Weddings performed by non-Orthodox rabbis in Israel are not recognized by the State.  Conversions performed there and abroad, even by some Modern Orthodox rabbis, are not recognized.  Some non-Orthodox olim (immigrants to Israel) have been asked to prove a connection to an Orthodox ancestor to demonstrate that they are halakhically Jewish.  Women who wish to wear a tallit at the Kotel, the Western Wall, a mitzvah which is mandated by the Talmud, are arrested by police.

While the principle of the rabbi as halakhic decisor and teacher in the community is a long-standing tradition in Jewish life, nowhere in Jewish tradition does it teach us that rabbis should have a governmental status. On the contrary, Pirqei Avot warns us in multiple places to steer clear of the secular authorities (e.g. 2:3):
הוו זהירין ברשות--שאין מקרבין לו לאדם, אלא לצורך עצמן:
Be wary of the authorities!  They do not befriend anyone unless it serves their own needs.
In recent years, as the Rabbanut has moved rightward, it has accelerated the pace at which we in the non-Orthodox world (which includes about 80% of North American Jewry) are increasingly seen as not Jewish, not to be trusted, unable to marry or be buried in Jewish cemeteries in Israel.  There are those in Israel and abroad who are working to change this situation, but change will not come soon enough until more of us speak up.

For the sake of kelal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people, this is an untenable situation.  Now is the time for us to begin the call for the end of the Rabbanut’s stranglehold on Jewish spiritual life.  Now is the time for us to call on the Israeli government to end its official association with the Rabbanut.  Send an email to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office directly through their website.

Here is something to think about as we consider the strength of benot Tzelofehad: we must speak up for pluralism in the whole Jewish world.  Shabbat shalom!

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 14 July 2012.)

Letter From Rabbi Shlomo Amar

This letter was circulated by Israel's Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, in response to Israel's Supreme Court decision to pay fifteen non-Orthodox rabbis for their work in rural communities.  The rabbis will be paid not by the Ministry of Religion, as Orthodox rabbis are, but by the Ministry of Culture and Sport.  Full translation is below.

A Letter Addressed to all Rabbis in Every Part of the Country,
May God be With Them

We hereby make known our distress and deep pain about the desecration of Heaven’s honor, about the trampling of the Torah, and about the aid and comfort given to those who uproot and destroy Judaism, people who have already brought horrendous destruction on the Jewish people in the Diaspora, by causing terrible assimilation and an uprooting of all of the fundamental principles of the Torah.
These people now seek recognition in the Land of Israel as well, so that uprooters of the faith will be recognized as religious leaders. Woe to us that this is happening in our time – that heads are held high by enemies of God, wicked people who are like the turbulent sea that cannot be quieted, their entire aim being to do harm to the sanctity and purity of Torah in our holy land. So we declare before one and all: “This will not stand!”
We are therefore calling on one and all to assemble for a deliberative rally, to cry out bitterly on behalf of the Torah, and to entreat the Almighty to void this evil decree, to preserve our holy Torah as it was given, to keep it untouched by alien hands, and to stop those who would sabotage [modern Hebrew: commit terrorism] and destroy the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts.
No one should be absent at such a time, when the participation of all Rabbis is essential, so that each can lend support to his brother and give one another strength. Let us be strong and supportive on behalf of our holy Torah, and on behalf of the Jewish people, so that the wall of its vineyard not be breached. May the One who repairs all breaches repair this one as well in mercy, and put repentance into the hearts of those of errant ideas, so that they come to believe that this Torah will never be replaced or changed, God forbid.

Shlomo Moshe Amar
Rishon Le-Tziyon, Chief Rabbi of Israel

(Translation by Rabbi Gordon Tucker)

Friday, July 6, 2012

Balaq 5772 - Talking Donkeys and Cursing Rabbis: The Importance of Being Civil

Shabbat shalom. It’s good to be home. (I was in Israel for eight days.)

Woody Allen once quipped that the Jewish history of persecution armed our people with the ability to talk their way out of a tight spot. I like to see Jewish history as somewhat more positive: the rabbinic tradition of learning and commentary, arguing and revisiting and re-commenting has, if nothing else, endowed us with an appreciation for the power of words and speech.

Parashat Balaq could be either the world's oldest known satire, or the silliest piece of cheap fiction ever written. A talking donkey? Try selling THAT in Hollywood. Here's the elevator pitch:

A goyish prophet is hired to curse the Jews. While on his way, his donkey keeps seeing an angel, so he beats him, until the donkey talks back. That's right! Then the prophet opens his mouth and tries to curse, but blessings come out instead. Whaddaya think?”

But in all, this parashah may be the greatest commentary ever on the importance of words. In broad strokes:
  1. Bil'am's donkey is given an opportunity rarely afforded to animals: to express what he or she is feeling. This is a miracle that we humans all enjoy daily, and we should never forget the value of such a commonplace miracle.
  1. When Bil'am arrives to perform his task of cursing the Israelites, he opens his mouth, and words of hatred become words of love and admiration. Don't you wish that this happened more often?
A few weeks back, a video surfaced on YouTube that “went viral.” Last I checked, there were over 8 million views. It featured a 68-year-old grandmother, Karen Huff Klein, who works as a bus monitor for a school district in upstate New York. 

Ms. Klein is shown sitting on her bus, and for ten excruciating minutes is seen being verbally abused by seventh-grade boys. They taunt her with horrible, disgusting words, calling her fat, stupid, poor, smelly, and other mean insults coupled with the most colorful four-letter expletives imaginable, causing her to cry. The fact that these boys know and choose to use such words is disappointing; the fact that they are engaged in what amounts to torture is shocking.

Yes, the proliferation of cameras today has enabled us to see many things that may have always taken place. For sure I was teased when I rode the schoolbus, as I am sure that many of us were, although perhaps not with language as pungent as what may be heard in this video. But I have never seen such unrelenting torture. The good news is that people responded to the video by raising over $650,000 dollars so Ms. Klein can retire and never have to ride the bus again with such savages.

But here is a question we must ask ourselves: what have we done to create this? Yes, that's right. You and me and everybody else in this nation. How are we at fault?

If this incident had happened (has veshalom / God forbid) in Great Neck rather than the town of Greece, New York, would we acknowledge personal responsibility? That's not my kid, we would say. My child is not cruel. My child would never use language like this. That was somebody else's kid.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow, in his own commentary on this incident, suggests that we are all to blame.
Those boys are us, or at least too many of us: America at its ugliest. It is that part of society that sees the weak and vulnerable as worthy of derision and animus. This kind of behavior is not isolated to children and school buses and suburban communities. It stretches to the upper reaches of society our politics and our pulpits and our public squares.”
Think about it for a moment: we live in a society obsessed with youth, beauty, and success. We spend inordinate amounts of money on products that claim to make us look younger or more attractive, on dieting, on cosmetic surgery, on status symbols that suggest success or power or virility. It is only logical that the messages that we send to our children are that the opposite of these things are bad, that those of us who are old, not attractive, or not successful deserve scorn.

Some of us do this explicitly, and some implicitly. (And believe me, I have spent enough time around children in this community to know that we are not immune to the kinds of teasing to which Ms. Klein was subjected on that bus.) How many of us have found ourselves making any kind of generalizations, positive or negative about any group? Those of a different ethnicity, or color, or sexuality, or religion?

We hear politicians attack each other personally rather than argue relevant issues.  We hear religious leaders denigrate other groups. I know Rabbi Stecker spoke last week about how one of Israel’s Chief Rabbis, Rabbi Shlomo Amar sent a letter to all ofhis colleagues in the Israeli rabbinate (who are all Orthodox, because non-Orthodox rabbis are not recognized by the Israeli rabbinate as rabbis). In this letter, he called for attendance at a rabbinic protest rally in Jerusalem against the Israeli Supreme Court's recent decision that the Israeli government should pay 15 non-Orthodox rabbis for work in their communities, just like it pays Orthodox rabbis. In this letter, he let loose an invective in rabbinic Hebrew that gravely insulted me and every other non-Orthodox rabbi in the world: he called us "uprooters of Torah" who had "visited disaster upon the Diaspora” and “terroristswho trample on our holy traditions.

His words are saddening at best, dangerous at worst. Part of the story here is that the Israeli Rabbinate feels that it is losing its hegemony over the spiritual lives of Israelis, and indeed as it has moved rightward and become more Haredi, it has managed to alienate not only secular Israel (which is nearly half of the country) and those who belong to Reform or Conservative congregations, but also much of Diaspora Jewry and swathes of Modern Orthodoxy as well. So the Rabbinate is lashing out, attempting to draw on whatever power it still holds.

What kind of spiritual leader can say such things about another? And what sort of message does that send to all of his followers? That it is OK to bash non-Orthodox Judaism.  That we are not just impostors, but actively working to destroy Judaism as they see it, and therefore we are dangerous and worthy only of derision.

One of my rabbinic colleagues and current president of the Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Gerald Skolnik of the Forest Hills Jewish Center, recently wrote in the Jewish Week, sees this statement as not merely insulting, but potentially dangerous:
Did Rabbi Amar fail to learn anything from Yigal Amir's murder of Yitzchak Rabin?  Does he not know that the repeated references in extremist religious circles in Israel to the law of rodef [one who is chasing after you to kill you, about whom the ancient rabbis gave us permission to violently defend ourselves], essentially characterizing Rabin's willingness to sacrifice portions of the land of Israel as presenting an imminent danger to Israel's citizens, constituted in Amir's demented mind enough of a rationale to justify murdering him?”
Ladies and gentlemen, in Israel and here, civil discourse is broken. It's not civil. And these messages reverberate in the ears of our children. Every time that we denigrate another, every time we open our mouths even to curse the guy who just cut you off on the road, or to say something nasty about somebody else, in their presence or otherwise, the barriers to lashon hara, the evil tongue, get just a little lower. And we all lose.

And it's not just what we say. It's also what we don't say. Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted this week on 45 counts of child sexual abuse, despite the fact that bits evidence against him had appeared from time to time over the last few decades. Those around him were willing to excuse him because he was Jerry – well loved and trustworthy, right?

In discussing this trial, the NPR morning program The Takeaway featured Harvard business ethicist Max Bazerman, author of Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What's Right and What to Do About It, says that in polls, most people say that they would intervene if they heard somebody say something that denigrates others. But studies have shown that very few of us actually do so. How many of us in this room have heard friends and family members make racist remarks and let them pass? Even worse, how many of us have allowed our children to hear such things without correcting their impressions?

Ladies and gentlemen, the first step to fixing society is in fixing ourselves. Consider carefully what you say; if it isn't something that you'd like to see in print with your name attached to it, or in a viral video on YouTube, then don't say it, no matter who you're talking to. And when you hear somebody say something or see somebody do something that you know is wrong, don't let it go by.

God won't always be there to turn curses into blessings, or to prevent gangs of seventh-grade boys from teasing senior citizens or each other. Only you and I can make sure that our every single utterance is laced with holiness.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, July 7, 2012.)