The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
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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.


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