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.