The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
77 Meadowood Drive • Aspen, CO • 81611
Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Wall Divides, the Wall Unites

Rabbi David Segal
28 December 2012
The Wall Divides, the Wall Unites

Picture, for a moment, a country in the Middle East that houses a religious site that is most holy to its adherents all over the world. They make pilgrimage to it, pray at it, even direct prayers toward it when they’re praying elsewhere. Now imagine that that same country places discriminatory restrictions upon women who want to make that pilgrimage, to pray at the holy site as they are accustomed to praying. Imagine that the council overseeing this site is made up of representatives of a relatively extreme branch of the religion. Imagine that the government of this state, as directed by this council of men, orders its law enforcement officials to arrest women who try to pray in groups, or pray out loud, or wear traditional prayer garments, or read from the holy book of the faith.

If you’ve been paying attention to the news the last few weeks (or really the last few decades), you know the country I’m talking about is Israel; and the site, the Western Wall.

Now, before I continue, let me state up front: Women in Israel enjoy religious, economic, and political freedoms largely unknown in their neighboring countries. So there’s that caveat and reality check, but also this question: Are those neighboring countries really the standard by which Israel should be judged? When it comes to religious freedom, isn’t that aiming a bit...low?

In the last few months, Israeli authorities have arrested several women for carrying a Torah, wearing a tallis, or praying out loud together at the women’s section of the wall.

Earlier this month, a group known as Women of the Wall made its way through security for its monthly Rosh Chodesh women’s prayer group. On this particular day, the authorities had arbitrarily decided that women would not be let in wearing a tallis -- not even allowed into the Western Wall plaza. Security was confiscating them. One of the group, Rabbi Elyse Frishman of NJ (and editor of the prayer book you’re holding), went in with her tallis and started leading a group in prayer, when the police approached her and detained her for “disturbing the public peace.” Rabbi Frishman’s initial response was, “Am I not part of the public?” She was detained for a time, and kept insisting, to their questions, that she wears a prayer shawl whenever she prays. Eventually she was free to go, as apparently there was nothing to charge her with.

These prominent arrests, along with Anat Hoffman’s in October (which allegedly involved her mistreatment by the police), have brought this issue to the forefront of Diaspora Judaism, particularly to American Jews. It’s outrageous to most of us, and an affront to our egalitarian principles, our vision of what Judaism can be, of what the Jewish state’s holiest site -- and the Jewish state herself -- should be for all Jews. 

Today, the Wall is run as if it’s an Orthodox synagogue, with a mechitzah, a divider, between the men’s section and the noticeably smaller women’s section. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which runs the site, is led by an Ultra-Orthodox rabbi. This was a modern decision, during the late 20th century after the Wall was liberated by Israel in the 6-Day War of 1967. There’s a famous black & white photo, taken in 1929 before Jerusalem was unified, of Jewish men and women, praying together at the Wall, casually mixed, and apparently unperturbed (here's another, by Felix Bonfils, from the 1870s). The men are dressed in traditional garb, the women have their heads covered -- and yet, there’s no mechitzah dividing them. Then, as one commentator put it, when Jerusalem was unified, the Wall was divided.

The division of the Wall foretold another division between the Jewish state and the Jewish diaspora. For all the outrage among American Jews, the typical Israeli response to gender segregation at the Wall is something like: “Meh.” In other words, this issue doesn’t top the list of concerns even among liberal Israelis. Many of them are more outraged that Israel has no civil marriage, and that the Orthodox rabbinate controls marriage, divorce, burial -- and, increasingly, aspects of conversion and defining “who is a Jew.”

And for most Israelis, who identify as “secular” anyway, the shul they don’t go to is Orthodox. So although they may not be very observant themselves, they still see Orthodoxy as “the true Judaism.”

There is irony in this assumption, which some American Jews share, that Orthodoxy is somehow the “true Judaism” that represents “how it always was.” That old black & white photo is one example: Orthodoxy, in some sectors, has become MORE stringent about gender separation, perhaps as backlash against perceived threats from outside culture. The director of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (Elana Maryles Sztokman), reminds us that Rashi’s daughters wore tallit and tefillin, that 13th century German rabbis said women should wear tzitzit. The commandment about tzitzit, which is relevant to the tallis conversation, in Bemidbar/Numbers (15:38) calls the “Children of Israel” -- an inclusive term -- to put fringes on their garments.

Orthodoxy has an aura of being “the one, continuous, authoritative way of being Jewish” -- but the truth is, there never was such a thing as one way to be Jewish, and there still isn't.

Our task though, as Reform Jews, as non-Orthodox Jews -- and, unfortunately, the place we too often fall short -- is to educate ourselves Jewishly, to be Jewishly literate enough to participate in the conversation and to make a compelling case for our Judaism. If "Reform" is just another word for "ignorant,"then we've lost the argument before it started.

Another criticism leveled at Women of the Wall is that they are an American import onto Israeli soil. To this point, Anat Hoffman, the group’s founder, agrees: “This did not evolve here in Israel, this is an import from abroad.” She continued: “Many of Israel’s best inventions were imports. For example: Zionism.”

The real danger here, the profound concern I have, is that this kind of incident and policy further distances American Jews, especially younger ones, from Israel. It makes it hard for them to see Israel as what we keep telling them Israel is: a haven, a home, for ALL Jews. As Rabbi Steven C. Wernick, the director of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said: “When my kids start expressing frustration with Israel as a society because what they hear and see from a distance is not welcoming to them in their religious practice — that’s not good for the Jewish people, let alone for the state of Israel.”

The challenge, then, is how do we bridge that gap?

Perhaps there is some wisdom, some inspiration, in this week’s parshah, Vayechi. In his dying moments, Jacob offers a blessing to his grandsons, Ephraim and Menasheh. These are Joseph’s sons, children of an Egyptian mother, born and raised in high Egyptian society -- in other words, diaspora Jews -- and it is precisely these two boys whom Jacob not only blesses, but calls for all future children to be blessed in their name. We will hear Hannah chant it tomorrow, as she becomes a Bat Mitzvah, and it’s part of the children’s blessing for every Shabbat evening: Yesimcha Elohim K’Ephraim v’chi-Menashe, May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe.

Jacob’s other name, of course, was Israel, so in this scene we see Israel, the grandfather, blessing these Egyptian-Jewish grandsons.

This is the Fatherland reaching out to bless the Diaspora.

And in return, those two boys keep a commitment to their Jewish heritage even as they live out their days in Egypt.

Perhaps we’ve forgotten that we are family, that relationships are two-way streets and not one-way demands. That we diaspora Jews and Israelis owe much to each other, can learn much from each other, share much with each other.

As for the issue of Women at the Wall, I’m proud that we will call a young woman to our bima tomorrow to become a Bat Mitzvah, an adult in our Jewish community, an heir to the tradition that we hope and pray -- and truly believe -- she will uphold and pass on, and also help to evolve as the world around her changes. I hope that some day she can be present Jewishly at the Western Wall as fully as her brother is allowed to be, and as fully as she will be here, tomorrow.

I believe that needed change will come eventually. Some changes already have: There have been legal victories against gender segregated buses and sidewalks, and the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the government had to fund the salary of a Reform Rabbi (who happens to be a woman) just as they do hundreds of Orthodox community rabbis.

And, moreover, On Christmas Day, Primer Minister Netanyahu appointed Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency, to study the issue and propose a solution to make the Western Wall more accommodating to all Jews. Whatever your opinions of Netanyahu, he seems committed to protecting the relationship between Israelis and American Jews, and the unity of world Jewry.

Indeed, what’s at stake here is not just a matter of who can pray where, with whom, wearing what. We are in the midst of testing the very question of whether we are One People living among various nations, or not.

Time will tell, and in the meantime it is upon us to keep working both to make change, and to strengthen the relationships which that very change, or it’s avoidance, threatens.

I’ll conclude with words by Abraham Joshua Heschel, great rabbi and theological poet of the 20th century, who said this of the Western Wall (Israel: An Echo of Eternity, p. 21):
The Wall . . . At first I am stunned. Then I see: a Wall of frozen tears, a cloud of sighs...
The Wall . . . The old mother crying for all of us. Stubborn, loving, waiting for redemption. The ground on which I stand is Amen...These stones have a heart, a heart for all... 
We too, await redemption. And we do our part to bring that day closer, when more hearts will beat with the presence of the Wall, and all who desire can pray fully in its presence. Let the ground we stand on also be Amen.


Friday, December 14, 2012

How the Grinch Saved Chanukah

How the Grinch Saved Chanukah

Have you heard the amazing news?! In the attic of the Massachusetts home of Dr. Seuss, some researchers discovered a geniza! There in the attic, a treasure trove of discarded Jewish manuscripts. Never-before-seen works like: 
  • The Cat in the Kippah
  • One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Gefilte Fish
  • Oh the Places You’ll Shlep
  • Green Eggs and Lox
  • Hop on Pop, Take Pop to the Orthopedic Surgeon
  • Horton Hears a Jew

But beyond all those tempting titles, one stood out above the rest. So tonight I am proud to present the international debut of Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Saved Chanukah!


All the Jews down in Jewville were busy preparing
the latkes and candles and fresh pickled herring.
To the Chanukah festival all thoughts were turned,
to the Maccabees’ win, and the oil they burned.

But the Grinch was not pleased, he was rather irate,
that he had to endure this, not one night, but eight!
“What’s all this mishigas, with the gelt and the dreidels?”
said the Grinch to the Jews, all the boychiks and maidels.
“If you’re looking for Chanukah somewhere in Scripture,
Check the Christian ones -- now are you getting the picture? 
I’m sick of this nonsense, you’ve got it all wrong.
And don’t get me started on Chanukah songs!”

The children were stunned, and some of them whimpered.
(The Grinch was well known for his horrible temper.)
“Shame on you,” said the Jews, “for pooh-poohing their fun,
You’re ruining Chanukah for everyone.”

“That’s not true!” said the Grinch. “It is you Jews who blow it.
You get Chanukah wrong, and you don’t even know it!”

Every Jew down in Jewville loved Chanukah time,
so the Grinch’s behavior was nearly a crime.
But while everyone stood there, so angry and proud,
suddenly someone emerged from the crowd.
It was a young Jew, to the Grinch’s surprise,
who looked up at him with her innocent eyes.
Little Cindy-Lou Jew then said to the Grinch,
“If we’re getting it wrong, lend a hand, be a mensch.
If the meaning of Chanukah’s something you know,
then help us by teaching us Jews how it goes.”

At first the Grinch stared right at Cindy-Lou Jew.
No one ever had asked him, so simple and true.
“Yes I’ll share what I know,” said the Grinch to them all,
“And, with knowledge and wit, all of Jewville enthrall.

“Your heroes are Maccabees, warriors so brave,
who fought the Greeks rather than bow down as slaves.
They rid all Judea of pagan oppressors,
Making Israel a homeland for Jewish successors.
A miracle, sure, that the underdog won,
that a small band of Jews had the Greeks on the run.
And then, as the story you like to tell goes,
came the miracle of oil that everyone knows:
the oil that should have just lasted one night,
for a week and a day gave off heavenly light.
So we light our menorahs, our dreidels we spin,
for these miracles two, that happened there, then.

“But that’s not the whole tale!” said the Grinch with a shout.
“Let me tell you what Chanukah’s really about! 
The story you know is just too black & white,
with Greek villains, and Maccabees setting things right.
The truth is a lot of Jews fell in the middle,
And pinning them down is the heart of this riddle.
They were Jews, to be sure, but they also felt Greek,
and compared to the Maccabees might have seemed weak.

They liked their Greek names, followed certain Greek ways,
But their Jewish neshamas illumined their days.
The Maccabees, too, though known as so pure,
learned Greek skills for battle that helped them endure.
And even the way that they wrote down their story
used techniques from the Greeks to make public their glory.”

The Grinch paused and looked out on the Jewville Jews’ faces.
Not a sound could be heard in the high and low places.
Bewildered, offended, confused or perplexed,
all were equally baffled by what happened next.
For Cindy-Lou Jew then spoke up to the Grinch,
“I get it now, thank you, it’s really a cinch.
The real tale of Chanukah makes much more sense,
In Jewville and everywhere else Jews pay rent.
We live ‘in between,’ just like those Greek Jews,
adapting and changing while facing the new.”

At that moment, the Grinch’s frown melted away,
And a smile appeared as he started to say,
“My dear Cindy-Lou Jew, you’ve got it, my girl,
the true Chanukah tale, now let’s give it a whirl.
We have enough feasts with that theme we repeat:
‘They tried to destroy us. We lived. Now let’s eat!’
Here’s to Chanukah teaching us something contrasting,
a message more resonant, truer and lasting:
Whenever Jews live in surroundings non-Jewish,
We adapt, and we thrive, and create something newish!”

Then Cindy-Lou Jew said, “The sun is now setting.
There’s something important that we’re all forgetting!” 

The Grinch then reached into the pouch on his belt
and pulled out some candles, a dreidel, and gelt.
The Jewville Jews joyfully lit their menorahs 
and broke into laughter while dancing the hora.

The Grinch said, “I’ll leave you with one final notion,
before we get lost in this festive emotion:
‘Dedication’ is how the word Chanukah’s defined,
if you learn nothing else, just keep this in mind.
When we’re spinning our dreidel and kindling our lights,
Let’s rededicate ourselves to the point of these rites.”

Hollered Cindy-Lou Jew, “A great miracle happened!”
And the Jewville Jews answered with singing and clapping.
The Grinch, with a flourish, said, “Strike up the band!”
And the children, with sufganiyot in their hands
Lifted voices and spirits and hands up in song,
And the Jewville Jews -- and all of you -- sang along!

*   *   *

Inspired by “A Chanukah Proposal” by Matthew Kraus, Tikkun Magazine, Nov/Dec 2003.

With gratitude (and apologies) to Dr. Seuss.