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.)

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