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Life and Death of the Egalitarian Kotel – Huqqat 5777

A little more than three years ago, I went with my family to celebrate my older son’s bar mitzvah in Israel. We had, as is customary in some places, a ceremony on Thursday morning, when he put on tefillin for the first time, and then a service and lunch on Shabbat. Thursday morning was just immediate family, and we were at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.

But not quite at the Kotel. We were actually in an area known generally as “Robinson’s Arch,” because of the ancient piece of an arch that sticks out from the the southern end of the Western Wall, visible from the Ophel Archaeological Park complex below. At the time, there was a new, temporary platform that had been built over the ancient ruins of that park.

The women’s section of a synagogue is referred to in Hebrew as “Ezrat Nashim,” a reference to the area designated for women in the Beit HaMiqdash, the ancient Temple in Jerusalem that was on the other side of the Kotel. There was also a separate area of the Temple known as the Ezrat Yisrael, which was reserved for men.

That temporary platform where egalitarian services have been held for the last 3+ years is called Ezrat Yisrael, a kind of Hebrew wordplay that suggests an area reserved for all Jews. And yet it has been something of a lightning rod.

Israel Tour Connection & Masorti Kotel clip - YouTube

For one thing, it has remained controversial since its inception; some of the people who had been advocating for egal prayer groups at the traditional Kotel plaza rejected this plan as something akin to a “separate but unequal” solution to the challenge posed by the fact that the Kotel has become a de facto Orthodox synagogue.

And, without going into all the battles that have occurred at the Kotel plaza, it is worth pointing out that in February of this year, a large group of Orthodox Jews descended upon a mixed group having a service in the Ezrat Yisrael, set up a mehitzah, and prevented the egal service from taking place. In the scuffles that ensued, the female Masorti (that’s Conservative in Israel and in the rest of the world) rabbah (female rabbi) that coordinates services there was physically attacked.

And this platform has remained unchanged now for more than 3 years, although it was not intended to be permanent. About a year and a half ago the Netanyahu government agreed to a plan, coordinated by Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel (and former MK and famous refusenik) Natan Sharansky, to widen the area and make it accessible, with appropriate security, around the clock, just as the rest of the Kotel plaza is. But the Israeli government began dragging its feet over the plan almost as soon as it had been agreed upon, and just this past week, PM Netanyahu’s cabinet voted to freeze the plan (which had never quite been put into motion in the first place). As it happens, lay leaders representing Diaspora communities were in Jerusalem at the time for the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors meeting, including Beth Shalom member (and PGH Federation head) Jeff Finkelstein, and so the cabinet’s decision was immediately met with an outcry from the Diaspora Jewish leadership.

Now, I must concede that officially freezing the agreement to make a permanent, accessible egalitarian prayer area is an affront to world Jewry, a cowardly move by the Prime Minister to maintain his coalition and sacrifice the good will of Diaspora Jewry, who already feel that the Judaism they practice is at best unfamiliar in Israel. However, I must also state for the record that the situation now is somewhat better than it was when I lived in Israel in 1999-2000, when there was really no egal prayer space and groups with people davening together at the Kotel risked their personal safety. Indeed, at the time there had been several violent incidents when chairs and other things were thrown at egalitarian worshippers on the plaza.

However, along with this particular, symbolic act, I hear more about incidents that deny non-Orthodox groups access to prayer spaces, sifrei Torah, and other ritual items. This happened to me at the hotel run by Kibbutz Shefayim, a secular kibbutz on the coast just a stone’s throw north of Tel Aviv, when the teen group I was leading in 2011 was denied the use of the hotel synagogue because we were openly egalitarian.

And, add to that the cabinet’s advancing of a bill this week designed to turn over all affairs related to conversion in Israel to the Chief Rabbinate, and we have a growing pattern of disenfranchisement of Diaspora Jews.

***

There is a moment in Parashat Huqqat when we are reminded that there are both delicate and blunt ways to get what you want.

You may recall the story in which the Israelites are complaining of thirst (Numbers 20:2-13), and God instructs Moshe to command a particular rock to give water. But then Moshe is emotionally thrown off-balance by the boisterous Israelites, who have been complaining with abandon about everything that is wrong with this whole journey. And so Moshe strikes the rock instead of speaking to it, and as a result is not permitted to enter the land of Israel.

But you may argue that the end justified the means! The Israelites received their water. What difference does it make how he did it?

I’m not worried about egalitarian prayer at the Kotel. That will continue to be available, even if it is shunted to the side and has the sting of second-class about it. Even the current platform is beautiful, if not “permanent,” and on the whole, most egalitarian services that go on there are, I believe, unmolested.

What I am more worried about is the use of the blunt instrument of the Knesset by Haredi parties to force not just Jewish tourists but also Israelis to conform to their extreme vision of what Judaism is. One might say that it is ironic that the only democracy in the Middle East does not give religious freedom to Jews!

One of the great things about America is the lack of an established state religion. That has enabled a multitude of religious traditions from across the spectrum of human spirituality to flourish and thrive. There is a wide range of Christian and Jewish practice, as well as many, many other types of faiths that are practiced here. While our system is not perfect, I think that it’s fair to say that the ongoing struggles over where to draw the lines are still healthy and benefit the overall spiritual bottom line for Americans.

But Israel has no such separation, and the state religion is becoming more and more Haredi.

The free practice of religion enables different groups to compete in the marketplace of ideas for people’s attention and support. That kind of “competition” encourages me, for example, to try to be the most inspiring rabbi I can be, and devote my time to building this community so that it will attract new adherents. It encourages us to be the best congregation we can be, and not be limited by government strictures.

The Israeli Rabbinate, has become state-sponsored coercion, with those in power exhibiting extreme hubris while simultaneously ignoring that Judaism’s very survival for the last 2,000 years has relied on our tradition of disagreement. The Talmud famously states that while Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai disagreed about matters of Jewish law, they still married each other’s daughters (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 14a). Today, religious forces within the government seek to deny some Jews access to Judaism, and to deny the very Jewishness of many others.

If the Haredim are so certain that their way is right, I would hope that they would be subject to the same market forces that the Masorti and the Reform and the Modern Orthodox streams, rather than wielding the clumsy gavel of parliamentary politics. They should speak to the rock to try to get their way, rather than hitting it.

I am sorry to say that nothing will change in this regard until the Israeli government gathers the legal fortitude to cut loose the rabbinate, and create a free environment for religion in Israel like we have here.

The Israeli Rabbinate will not be going away in the near term; this may be a decades-long fight. But in the meantime, what can we do to ensure that our voices continue to be heard, at the Kotel and everywhere else in Israel? First, by continuing to go there. Nothing gives you a voice in Israel more than being there and supporting the Israeli economy with your tourist dollars. We are currently in the early planning stages for a Beth Shalom trip to Israel in 2018; watch for that info.

(I should point out that this first item is actually second to making aliyah; that’s a bigger step than visiting, but if you’re interested in aliyah, please talk to me.)

Second, drop an email to the Israeli Prime Minister’s office: http://www.pmo.gov.il/English/PrimeMinister/Pages/ContactUs.aspx

Tell them how much you care about Israel, and how Israel must continue to be a haven for all Jews, and that religious freedom is an essential plank of democracy.

Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/1/2017.)

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Sermons

Open up the Kotel – Va’era 5777

In 1987, on my first visit to Israel with the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program*, I visited the Kotel, the Western Wall, as every Israel tour group does. And out of nowhere, it seems, tears welled up from deep within me, from some ancient place in which Jewish history and theological yearnings meet and tap into our collective grief and our enduring optimism. I bawled as I leaned against the warm, ancient stones. So did everybody else in my group, including the one guy out of the 80 or so of us who was not Jewish. I was seventeen.

Fast forward thirteen years to 2000, when I was in cantorial school at Machon Schechter in Jerusalem, I experienced an unusual thing that at the time seemed quite avant-garde, even slightly illicit: an egalitarian shaharit / morning service at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount complex. At the time, there was no proper area for such a service – it was just a spot on the ancient Roman roadway at the base of the wall, under a rocky outcropping referred to as Robinson’s Arch, within the archaeological park that covers the southern vicinity of the Temple Mount. I don’t think there was even a table; just a few cantorial and rabbinical students with tallit and tefillin and our own siddurim.

robinsons-arch
Robinson’s Arch

What seemed like a covert operation at the time, a solution arrived at to allow egalitarian groups to daven / pray in the style that is customary for 85% of North American Jews, was a compromise – an attempt to allow mixed groups to do it their way without upsetting the more traditional, men-and-women-separate prayer that goes on in the plaza that is often thought of as the Western Wall (even though that portion of the outer retaining wall is really only a small fraction of Herod’s rebuilt, 2000-year-old plaza). Our ability to meet there was granted by the Israeli government to solve the problem of Haredi groups harassing egalitarian daveners (people who are praying) and throwing chairs and even human feces at them.

For more than a decade afterwards, that Roman road under Robinson’s Arch became a well-known location for egalitarian groups, and particularly for destination benei mitzvah services conducted by Jerusalem-based Conservative and Reform rabbis who were grateful for the business. The road was uneven, and there were no chairs, and portions were roped off because it is an active archaeological dig, but it was a special and unique experience to don tallit and tefillin and read Torah among the ancient rocks.

But struggles continued at the traditional Kotel plaza, where (in particular) a group known as Women of the Wall gathered regularly on Rosh Hodesh (the first day of each Jewish, lunar month) to attempt to hold services in the women’s section, wearing tallit and tefillin (according to the various customs of the individual participants) and reading from a sefer Torah. These Rosh Hodesh gatherings became a focal point for many shocking confrontations between more traditional worshippers, the police, and the Women of the Wall participants, who were verbally abused and physically harassed and occasionally arrested.

For the last three years, there has been a solid, yet temporary and somewhat inelegant platform in the Robinson’s Arch area, just south of and out of sight of the “traditional” Kotel plaza, and this platform has made the area seem a little bit more official. About a year ago, the Israeli government agreed to complete the “upgrade” to the Robinson’s Arch area to make it a fully-functioning option for egalitarian groups.

But, Israeli politics being what they are, promises made by the Netanyahu administration were never quite fulfilled. Activity was stalled. Feet were dragged. Religious parties threatened. Nothing happened.

And the groups that had been advocating for change pressed charges, bringing their case to the Israeli Supreme Court. Just a few weeks ago, the Court handed down a verdict which said that the prohibitions against mixed tefillah, against women wearing tallit and tefillin and reading Torah were all the Israeli equivalent of “unconstitutional” (although Israel has no constitution and no principle of separation of church and state), and that the religious leadership of the Kotel (Rabbi Shemuel Rabinowitz and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation) would have 30 days to demonstrate why all people could not pray according to their own customs.

According to the JTA article on the verdict:

[The Israeli Supreme Cout] also declared that women should not be subjected to body searches before entering the plaza. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the Orthodox-run body that oversees activity at the site, has authorized such searches to prevent worshippers from entering the women’s side with Torah scrolls, prayer shawls, tefillin and menorahs…

The [administrative] parties “must explain why the petitioners  should not be allowed to pray in accordance with their custom at the traditional plaza, or alternatively allow them to pray in accordance with their custom at a place which has access to the Western Wall similar to [the access] at the traditional site,” the court said.

Kol hakavod to the Supreme Court for standing up for what is right here, and against the forces of fundamentalism in our midst. It is truly ironic that religious protection seems to exist for non-Orthodox Jews in every democratic country in the world except Israel.

It is worth pointing out that religious restrictions such as these are not limited only to the Kotel. In 2011, I took 37 teenagers to Israel, and we stayed one night at Kibbutz Shefayim, a secular kibbutz just north of Tel Aviv. It so happened that the following morning was Monday, a Torah-reading day, and as we gathered in the hotel’s synagogue for shaharit / the morning service, we were told by the hotel staff, secular Israelis, that we were forbidden from using the hotel’s sefer Torah by the local religious authorities because we were an egalitarian group.

In the weekly cycle of parashat hashavua, the weekly reading of the Torah, we are right now in the middle of reading the Exodus story, arguably the most powerful and moving narrative of the Torah, and certainly the one that has spawned the best biblical films. It is a tale of the struggle against oppression, against hatred and fear, and of overcoming authoritarian rule. But it is also a tale about egalitarianism, about equality between men and women. Let me explain.

Some of you may have heard (from some others in the Jewish world) that the only positive, time-bound mitzvot / commandments to which women are obligated are lighting Shabbat candles, separating a piece of hallah when making it, and immersion in the miqveh (ritual bath) following the menstrual cycle. But that is not true. Those are, you might say, “alternative facts.”

In actuality, there are many other positive, time-bound mitzvot that are identified in the Talmud to which women are obligated, and one of them is drinking four cups of wine at the Pesah seder (God’s promises to the Israelites that serve as a basis for these four cups were found in today’s parashah, Ex. 6:6-8). The Talmud’s reasoning for this is (Talmud Bavli Pesahim 108a-b):

ואמר רבי יהושע בן לוי: נשים חייבות בארבעה כוסות הללו, שאף הן היו באותו הנס

Said R. Yehoshua ben Levi: Women are obligated to drink these four cups, because they too were part of the miracle [of deliverance].

In other words, the Exodus was not just for men; all of the Israelites were saved. And we all are obligated to celebrate this egalitarian deliverance today. That statement for freedom and against oppression continues to resonate in every corner of the Jewish world, not only on one side of the mehitzah. And given the centrality of the image of our people’s redemption from Egypt as a justification for treating all people with equity, the poor, the widow, the immigrant and refugee among us, it is undeniably an imperative to ensure that all of us have access to God and our tradition, that none of us are excluded due to gender or any other status.

And there is plenty more material here – the idea of a mehitzah (separation barrier between men and women) is actually medieval; it may only date for certain to the 13th century. And never mind the fact that there was no official mehitzah  at the Kotel until 1967.

old-kotel-1
The Kotel in the 1920s

So I am waiting with great excitement to see how the anti-egalitarian forces of the Israeli religious right will justify denying adherents of the progressive movements to daven in our customary way. The Talmud tells us that Michal, the daughter of King Saul, was permitted by ancient authorities to wear tefillin (Talmud Bavli Eruvin 96a). Would our contemporary zealots challenge their authority?

jews_at_western_wall_by_felix_bonfils_1870s
The Kotel in the 1870s

By way of conclusion, it is worth pointing out that there are really no holy places in Judaism. Once the Temple was destroyed for the second and final time by the Romans in 70 CE, our understanding is that the Shekhinah, God’s presence, departed from the Qodesh HaQodashim, the Holy of Holies, and has not returned. We have sanctified time, not space or objects, for two thousand years. While there is no question that the Kotel is a place of great sentimental significance – a central connection to our history, the focal point of our prayer, the physical remains of the ancient epicenter of the Jewish world – our tefillah is just as valid right here in Pittsburgh as it is in Jerusalem.

But since the Kotel has been elevated to an unprecedented level in the contemporary world, that spot should be emblematic of all of the different paths we have through our tradition. It’s not a synagogue; it’s just a very moving, very powerful location. And it should be open to all.

Let’s hope that by the time that we take our congregational trip to Israel (coming your way soon! Let me know if you’re interested!) that we will proudly be able to gather there for a meaningful service the same way we are doing right now – acknowledging that we are all equal before God.

Shabbat shalom!

* AMHSI is now offering free scholarships to a few lucky teens from Pittsburgh. Please see me for details.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/28/2017.)