I followed President Biden’s visit to Israel this past week with keen interest, and I am sure many of you did as well. Upon arrival, he reminded the assembled folks on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport that “You don’t have to be Jewish to be a Zionist,” and that the two-state solution “remains… the best way to ensure the future of equal measure of freedom, prosperity, and democracy for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”
It was a relief for me to hear both statements. For those of us who are committed to the State of Israel, it is so important for us to be reminded of our nation’s steadfast alliance with the Jewish state as well as our responsibility to help build a sustainable future there.
Meanwhile, his trip followed an unfortunate event that occurred in Jerusalem two weeks ago, at a bar mitzvah, no less.
There were actually three benei mitzvah ceremonies taking place at the egalitarian prayer site by the Kotel, the Western Wall, which is run by the Israeli Masorti (Conservative) movement, on Thursday, June 30. That morning, a group of young Haredi men, in their teens and early twenties, were sent by their rabbis to disrupt the services. They displayed signs decrying Reform Judaism (despite the fact that the site is run by the Masorti movement), called a bar mitzvah boy a “Christian” and a “Nazi,” and actually tore pages out of the Masorti siddurim / prayer books. A video shows one of the disrupters actually WIPING HIS NOSE with a page torn out of the siddur.
To explain this monstrous behavior requires some context:
In 2013, the Netanyahu government reached a deal whereby they agreed to create a space at the southern end of the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount complex, that would be set aside for egalitarian prayer. This is important because more than 80% of American Jews are most comfortable holding services in an egalitarian fashion, where men and women stand and sit together. As you may know, I cannot hold a service like this one at the established Kotel not only because there is a meḥitzah / wall dividing men and women, but also even in the open plaza behind the meḥitzah’ed-off area, if a mixed group prays there, they will be harassed and shouted down by Haredi onlookers. The same is true even for a group of women who hold a traditional service in that area, as has been demonstrated over and over by the activist group Women of the Wall.
Following that so-called “Kotel agreement,” the Israeli authorities built a temporary platform at the south end of the Kotel. The original intent was to complete this area and make it permanent, raising up the egalitarian area, known as “Ezrat Yisra’el,” to the height of the rest of the Kotel plaza and extending it to the wall itself. But at some point later, the Netanyahu government, bowing to pressure from Haredi parties in its coalition, put the project on hold. So the temporary platform erected in 2014, where I celebrated the bar mitzvah of my own son in March of that year, is still there, and is showing signs of wear and tear.
And, to draw a fine point on this, I was at this area a week and a half earlier, celebrating with Simon Braver, the grandson of Beth Shalom members Marian and Stan Davis, as we called him to the Torah as a bar mitzvah. We were not on the platform, but by the south wall around the corner. But we were still in the same category of egalitarian prayer that the Haredi world deems unacceptable.
And that could very well have been Simon’s bar mitzvah that was disrupted. And he might have been the one to be called a Nazi.
Now, you might naturally ask, why do they care? Why can’t these folks just live and let live? Why can’t they just leave us alone and let us pray the way we are accustomed to doing?
I concede that I have not actually spoken to any particular Haredi person about this. However, my sense is that their justification in breaking up egalitarian services, and perhaps calling 13-year-olds “Nazis” and tearing up siddurim as well, is that this behavior will ultimately prevent other Jews from transgression.
And what is that transgression? Participating in non-Orthodox services, with men and women standing together, and using non-Orthodox siddurim, which are doubly unholy because not only do they lead people astray with slight textual changes from Orthodox siddurim (e.g. not saying “shelo asani ishah” – gratitude for not being created a woman), but also because they print God’s name in vain.
Let me rephrase that: Some of our fellow Jews believe that the type of prayer in which we are engaging right now, and every morning and evening here at Beth Shalom, is an egregious sin, one from which we should be physically and legally restrained from doing.
All the more so, the way in which I serve you as your spiritual leader, is leading you astray. I am committing the unforgivable sin of החטאת הרבים / haḥta’at harabbim – causing many others to sin as well by participating in our services.
Now, of course, one of the most wonderful features of Judaism is that we have no equivalent of the Pope – no single human authority who has the final say about what is “the right way” to do anything in Jewish life. What’s more, we thrive on disagreement; rabbinic Judaism is an ongoing conversation around different opinions regarding the same texts.
We in the Conservative movement know that what we do is authentic Jewish practice. We are committed to the traditional approach to halakhah / Jewish law, even as we acknowledge that halakhah must change as the world changes. We are dedicated to daily tefillah / prayer, conducted with traditional modes and customs. We strive to learn the words of the Jewish bookshelf and apply the lessons and values therein to improve ourselves and our world.
We are Jews who know and practice Judaism. And, like most of the Jewish world, including some quarters of Orthodoxy, we are also pluralists, who believe that even within Judaism there are multiple paths and perspectives.
And we will not be dissuaded from our contemporary approach by those who behave badly and destructively in public.
Today in Parashat Balaq, we read about how the Moabite king of that name hires Bil’am, a non-Israelite would-be prophet, to curse the Israelites. When Bil’am opens his mouth to do so, only flowery words of praise emerge. Bil’am defends his actions by explaining to Balaq that he can only do what God makes him do (Bemidbar / Numbers 23:8):
מָ֣ה אֶקֹּ֔ב לֹ֥א קַבֹּ֖ה אֵ֑-ל וּמָ֣ה אֶזְעֹ֔ם לֹ֥א זָעַ֖ם ה’׃
How can I damn whom God has not damned,
How doom when Adonai has not doomed?
We in the non-Orthodox world cannot be cursed by zealots because we are not cursed! Nor can they prevent us from practicing Judaism. Let them behave badly; it only reflects poorly on themselves and their spiritual leaders who have put them up to it.
Let me be clear on this point: we are as authentically Jewish as they are. Nowhere in the Torah or Talmud does it say that thou shalt wear a black hat to be truly Jewish. And we must remember that our traditions are as holy and legitimate and deeply rooted in Jewish life and text as theirs.
While some in the Jewish world might be overwrought about how we are apparently doing it all wrong, the overarching concern here is sin’at ḥinnam: causeless hatred.
Three weeks away from Tish’ah BeAv, the most mournful day in the Jewish calendar, which commemorates the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, we should remember that the latter was destroyed due to sin’at ḥinnam (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma 9b). That Temple will surely never be rebuilt if we continue to revile each other.
I should add here that we, the non-Orthodox community, have to step up to the plate as well. If we want our needs and desires met by the State of Israel, we have to have a greater voice. If we want our Orthodox cousins to respect our authenticity, we have to demonstrate our commitment to Jewish life and practice, and to the State of Israel. One of the criticisms of the Ezrat Yisrael is that, if not for the benei mitzvah services, there would be no services there at all. On the Mega Mission, I brought a small group to that space for a Friday night service; it should have been much larger.
And the best way to demonstrate our commitment is to go there – both to the State of Israel and Ezrat Yisrael – more often: not just for benei mitzvah, not just for Federation Mega Missions, but for vacations, for visiting friends and family, for business if we can arrange it. We need to continue to show that we are there for Israel, and that we stand for serious Jewish practice in a non-Orthodox style in the Jewish state.
Yes, it’s expensive and getting more so. Yes, it’s far away. But I have traveled to Israel more times than I can count, and I can assure you that on virtually every flight, the fraction of non-Orthodox Jews is vastly under-represented. We need to change that.
Beth Shalom will certainly be putting together another trip to Israel within the next few years. But don’t wait: go now. And then go again with us. Let’s pre-empt the curses, and shower those who despise what we do with love.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 7/16/2022.)