Monthly Archives: October 2012

A Tragedy in Jerusalem- part 2

I want to follow up on my last blog post regarding Anat Hoffman with a thought that I shared with the Congregation yesterday.

Adin Steinsaltz, in his beautiful book Biblical Images, makes an interesting claim concerning Abraham. He says that instead of looking at Abraham as an innovator, one who brought a new idea- monotheism- to the world, we should see him as a “renovator”, one who brought people back to an idea which existed before. He says that the stories in the Torah which precede the story of Abraham’s “mission” presume a belief in one God. He also says that a belief in one God is in fact more primal, more basic to the human being than a belief in many Gods.

Whether we agree or not, he brings up an interesting point. Occasionally what we perceive to be something new is in fact something old and one who is viewed as an “innovator” is really trying to bring us back to something that existed previously.

I think that it is important to keep this in mind regarding the situation at the kotel for two reasons. First, the fact is that while the situation for those who wish to practice a Judaism which is egalitarian was not ideal in Jerusalem, it wasn’t too long ago that there was less conflict and more of an somewhat “laissez faire” attitude towards such action than there seems to be now.

In 1984, I led a group to Israel for the first time and we had an egalitarian minyan within the kotel plaza (outside of the segregated sections delineated by the mechitza, the separation between men and women). Honestly, no one seemed to care. People walked by our group and glanced and some looked disapprovingly but no one started any kind of trouble or raised an issue.

Similarly, on our visit to Rachel’s Tomb, on the border of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, we stood, men and women together, remarking on the deep meaning of this place and wondrously staring at the verse on the covering of the tomb, the quote from Jeremiah addressed to Rachel: “refrain your eyes from crying for your children will come back to you and there is hope for your future”. Now the tomb has been classified as a synagogue, men and women must enter and stand separately and the entire mood is different.
The way things were in 1984 would not be satisfactory to those of us who believe that Israel should encourage and embrace different approaches to Judaism. But, what is important to understand is that in some ways, and certainly in Jerusalem’s holy places, Israel is moving in the wrong direction, becoming more restrictive and less welcoming for those who believe deeply in progressive Judaism. Perhaps Anat Hoffman and all of us who support her are not to be viewed as seeking innovation but a return to greater respect.

And, the issue of innovation and renovation is important for a second reason. Our teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary used to tell us that if Rabbi Akiva were alive today, he would be a conservative Jew. Whether or not that is an exaggeration, the basic point is true. Rabbinic Judaism, from the beginning, was based on the principle of innovation, on reacting to new situations with new expressions of ritual and law. The tradition of Rabbinic Judaism was based on the principle that Judaism was not static, but constantly being discussed, changed, pro-actively facing the present and the future.

The fear that Anat Hoffman’s actions  inspire among those who see only one approach to Judaism being acceptable and that being one which is the most restrictive and least open to more contemporary interpretations is dangerous. It flies in the face of the foundations of our faith which called for innovation and honestly and openly facing changing times. This approach to Judaism moves us away from what Judaism was intended to be. I believe that we should view Anat Hoffman and all of us dedicated to progressive Judaism as being “renovators” not innovators.

I don’t mean to imply of course that the Rabbis of the Talmud would have necessarily approved of some of the aspects of Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism today. But, they would have, I believe, recognized efforts to help Judaism keep pace with the times with more respect than is seen today.


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A tragedy in Jerusalem- for all of us

Unfortunately, and this is perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of a very sad story, I didn’t suspect even for a moment that the story was exaggerated. I read it and realized that it was absolutely true. And now the story has been told and retold and no exaggeration is needed to make the point. It is that horrible.

Anat Hoffman, director of Women of the Wall, an organization dedicated to bringing equality to the experience of praying at the Western Wall as arrested for saying the Shema at the Wall in a tallit with a group of women. She was, dragged away, strip searched, and thrown into a jail cell.

What can be said? What can possibly be said to make sense out of this horrendous, tragic episode? Nothing. It is further evidence of how far religious authorities in Israel are willing to go to ostracize, humiliate, and condemn anything other than one particular brand of Orthodox Judaism in the Jewish State. And, that is a tragedy, a travesty and a sin.

How do they expect Jews outside of Israel to overlook this? How do they expect us to continue to care about Israel if people who serve as role models for our children are beaten and humiliated for saying the Shema in what is supposed to be our holiest place? The excuse that women’s prayer is a provocation to others and therefore must be stopped is ludicrous. There are times where people must be told that their reaction is the problem. Anat Hoffman’s action is far from being an act of provocation. It is an act of commitment, of faith, of principle.

I only hope that some of the women who were there with her when this occurred, who are members of Hadassah, the organization which has done so much to build up Israel and support for her and commitment to her will ask themselves: What has Israel become? and will not let the matter rest.

None of us should.

In 1982, I traveled to the former Soviet Union and met Jews who were denied the right to worship, to identify as Jews. Many of the Jews I met eventually came to Israel where they knew they could express themselves as Jews in the way they saw fit.

What has happened to that dream?

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Remembering the Holocaust

An article appeared in the New York Times last week which I found fascinating and deeply troubling. The article concerned young Jews who are having numbers tattooed on their arm as a reminder of the Holocaust. Many of these young people are grandchildren of Holocaust victims or survivors and while I realize that it really isn’t my place to comment on how an  individual should react to this most tragic story in our history, I have some strong opinions concerning the story.

I find the entire idea troubling for two different reasons.

First, let me make a comparison. Often, people come into my office and ask me about cremation. Sometimes they have very good reasons for wanting to be cremated and ask me why we won’t bury cremated remains in our synagogue cemetery and why I find it so disturbing when Jews want to be cremated. I have several answers but I save my most emotional one for last. Imagine, I tell people, the Jews who were killed and bodies burned in the crematoria. It was the ultimate indignity that after all the suffering they endured, they did not have a proper Jewish burial. In the face of this, how can we, willingly, deny ourselves that proper burial that Jewish tradition dictates.

I feel the same way about the number tattoos. Tattooing is against Jewish law and while some people may not really care about this fact, I would ask them to imagine how those who held that law dear felt upon being tattooed by the Nazis. While obviously no one could even for a moment blame anyone for submitting to the tattooing when ordered so and while no one would accuse these individuals of transgressing Jewish law willingly, at the same time, for many this was not only a matter of persecution and a sign of great danger but also was the indignity of being forced to go against the  law they respected. In memory of those individuals, for that reason alone, I would counsel people against taking this step.

Then, there is the more general issue. What does it mean to remember the Holocaust? Are we, today, two or three generations later, serving history or the victims by this serious but only symbolic gesture? Those who feel it is critical to honor the victims or remember the agony would, it seems to me, be doing so in a more effective way by standing up for our people or by working for peace and justice and human rights for all  rather than to engage in this symbolic gesture.

I don’t question people’s seriousness in making this choice. And, we each need to remember in our own way. But,for those  who live in freedom to voluntarily choose to mark their bodies in this way seems inappropriate. We can remember without imitating, we can mourn without defacing our own bodies and we can work for better times for our people and for the entire world.

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