Saturday, September 28, 2013

Rosh Hashana Day Sermon: Women of the Wall

Rosh Hashana Day Sermon

It has taken some time for American Jews to wake up to the call of The Women of the Wall. They have endured the scorn and derision of the black hat and ultra Orthodox sectors of the country, while receiving little support from the majority secular Israeli population.  At the celebration of each rosh chodesh (or the new Jewish month) these women gather together at the women’s section of the Western Wall and put on their talitot and kippot and sometimes tephillin, creating a spectacle which sometimes leads to the arrest of their leader, Anat Hoffman, who is, by the way, also the director of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center.  These progressive Jewish Israeli women refuse to give in to rejection by their own people, and to police intimidation, and to the so-called pious men on the other side of the mechitza who sometimes spit on them or yell at them, and to the religious women beside them who deride them with every sort of insult that pious women are not supposed to utter towards their Jewish sisters.
Recently, the courts in Israel ruled that these women had a right to pray as they wished at the Western Wall and now the police protect them instead of arresting them. Even Prime Minister Netanyahu realized that the optic of Jewish women of the wall being hauled off to jail had become a public relations disaster for Israel in America and around the world. He directed Natan Sharansky to come up with a plan fix this problem.  Sharansky’s plan, it turns out, was to widen and expand the entire Kotel plaza to include the south end of the wall by Robinson’s Arch, thereby creating a separate gender- neutral area for worship, which has garnered cautious bipartisan support amongst religious and secular parties. We shall see what takes shape in the months to come.
Why should this issue concern us? What is the relevance to our purpose as Reform Jews? The point here is that we have devoted this morning’s aliyot to the women of Beth Yam as a sign of support for the Women of the Wall and for Jewish women who yearn to find their place in Israel to pray with the same prayer garb that men use and to read the Torah.  Today, on Rosh Chodesh Tishrei, or on Rosh Hashana, we at Beth Yam stand in solidarity with the Women of the Wall and all women in Israel who seek the right to pray in public places as their Jewish birthright. Reform Judaism stands for equal justice and especially for equal participation of both genders in public worship.  We have ignored this cause for far too long and it is time we did something about it.
We all understand that Israel has many issues more pressing on its plate that relate to its very survival,  security issues like the threat of Hamas rockets from Gaza, or even more powerful Hezbollah rockets from Lebanon, or the tumult in Syria and Egypt, not to mention the existential threat of nuclear weapons being developed in Iran. But Israel is a vibrant, prosperous and strong nation with a robust economy, capable of dealing with many different issues. The fact is, however, that the issue of The Women of the Wall and free access to worship at the Wall is critical to Israel’s reputation, not only in the American Jewish community and to Jewish communities around the world but also to nations in the western world, where Israel knows it must demonstrate that it shares common values with other democratic societies, and especially regarding the role of women. Resolving this issue by creating an expanded gender neutral public space at the south end of the Western Wall will fortify Israel’s standing as a beacon of light for women’s rights in the Middle East.
Going back to this morning’s Haphtarah and the story of Hannah, who enters the area of the Tabernacle at Shiloh and prays by herself to God so that she may become pregnant by her husband. The high priest Eli watches her and becomes infuriated with her, presuming, just by the movement of her lips in prayer, that she is intoxicated. He then accosts her, saying,
 “How do you propose to carry on drunk like this? Get rid of your wine!”  To which she replies, “‘I am a sober woman: I have been pouring out my heart before the Lord. Do not think your servant so debased. All this time I have been speaking out of my great sorrow and grief.”  Realizing his error, Eli replies, somewhat chastened: “Go in peace and may the God of Israel grant your request.” Ultimately God does grant her request and she becomes pregnant and gives birth to a boy who would one day become the great prophet Samuel.
Even then, you see, a woman could be challenged and derided while at prayer, and so this text reminds us that the women’s desire to approach God in prayer in a public place was an uphill battle, even in biblical times, and despite the fact that Eli the priest relented.
Furthermore, traditional Jewish law has created two separate tracks for men and women in public worship. In Orthodox and Hasidic Judaism, men occupy a privileged center of public worship, while women, according to halachah, are not obligated to participate in any mitzvah that is defined as a time- bound mitzvah, meaning a mitzvah that is performed at a specific time. The assumption behind this is that women must be free to take care of children and family first.  The problem is that the term “exempt” or “not obligated” came to mean, as a practical matter, “forbidden.”
 In addition, the law of our tradition states that the kol ishah ervah, the voice of the woman is a “temptation.” In other words a woman’s voice in public worship will distract men to thoughts other than communicating with God, which added further to the cultural norms throughout history for why women could not occupy a pulpit and lead a worship service.  That is how Jewish religious practice worked until the 19th century, and until the advent of Reform Judaism. It is, therefore, an anathema for ultra Orthodox Jews to watch women put on a talit and tephillin and participate in services just like men. For them, such religious practices violate every cultural norm of Jewish religious practice. It is no surprise, therefore, that secular Israelis do not get behind this issue because they have become so distant from traditional religious practice that these kinds of issues simply do not appear on their radar screens.
What is fascinating about this subject is that if we dig a little deeper we will find a few examples in the Talmud itself of women who did, in fact, pray with talit and tephillin. Such women were Michal, the daughter of King Saul and the scholarly Beruriah the wife of Rabbi Meir. Both women, the Talmud suggests, wore talit and tephillin. One sage even advised that they should have recited the traditional blessing before donning these prayer garments. Modern day scholars are recovering these ancient sources, few though there are of them, to establish a precedent that women have and can today participate equally as men do in communal prayer. Even though it has not been mainstream religious practice in Judaism to allow women to wear talit, or tephillin or to read from the Torah, these scant examples from the Talmud serve as precedents for legitimizing the movement toward gender equality in worship that progressive Judaism must and is making today.
 Sadly, on Rosh Hashana we should be talking about ways to unite the Jewish people and here we see an issue that divides us. At the same time should we simply cover our eyes when Israelis who want to practice Judaism out of our movement are not allowed because of their gender? How can we remain silent to their aspirations to open the opportunities for diverse Jewish religious practices? Is it ok to bow to the hordes of Hasidic men and women who represent an image that many non-Jews consider  “authentic” Judaism, even if the majority of us do not subscribe to, or believe in, that way of being Jewish? It has been a problem for us and it is a problem for how Israel defines the religious contours of Jewish identity in this blessed state that struggles to maintain peaceful co-existence between so many different kinds of Jewish Orthodoxies and one huge alienated secular majority.  If we ignore this issue then I am afraid we risk committing a communal transgression, as we shall read on Yom Kippur, “We sin against you when we sin against ourselves: In the category of sins of Justice and for the sin of silence and indifference.”
We spend so much time training our young girls to become Bat Mitzvah in this congregation leading them to believe that reading the Torah, Haphtarah, and delivering a drash is the norm. What are we doing to prove to them that this effort is not in vain when they go to Israel on their first trip in high school or college? Do we not have a sacred duty to our young ladies here to clear the pathway for them and the young ladies of the same age in Israel?
There is a lot we can do to support this group, from such simple things as sponsoring an Oneg Shabbat for Women of the Wall at their monthly celebrations, to going to Israel and participating in their Rosh Hodesh vigils at the Western Wall. Even buying one of their talitot at their online store goes a long way towards giving them the financial, moral and spiritual support they deserve to carry on with their arduous but honorable soul work. In fact this November fourth Women of the Wall will celebrate their 25th anniversary. Yes, for 25 years these women have been trekking over to the western wall and performing their prayers-- and that is all they want to do-- to pray as Jews in the tradition of Jews. Can we at Beth Yam be part of this historic venture or will we remain on the sidelines?
Reform Judaism was not about creating a rupture in European Jewry 160 years ago. Instead it intended to provide new opportunities for women and men to experience Judaism with one foot in the world of tradition and the other in the modern world.  And that is exactly what these women, our fellow Reform Jews in Israel, want to do beside the holiest site in the Jewish world.  The prophets called us to stand up for what is just and right  and this is not about exposing a weakness of Judaism but demonstrating our strength to fortify the middle ground of modern and progressive Judaism in Israel.  If these women succeed it might very well trigger more secular Jewish women to reclaim their Jewish spiritual heritage in Israel and worldwide. Is this not the meaning of redemption and renewal, by returning to the sources of the spiritual core that for many non-observant women was never available to them but for us could be a watershed in Jewish history?   We will not know if we remain silent.
If our beloved Israel will continue to be a cutting edge society in so many areas, like the sciences and the arts and technology, why should it not lead the way in its spiritual contribution for the 21st century? Our people bequeathed the world a faith tradition that produced the Hebrew Bible and we have saved traditional Judaism from the fires of Hitler’s furnace. Now is the time for a modern day woman like Hannah who can stand at the Western Wall in a minyan of women, with her talit, kippah and tephillin and pray for God to give her a child or any other blessing God should bestow upon her just like any other pious man would pray to God for while davening at that same Wall.
  The Talmud elaborates the story of Hannah pleading with God to give her a child by having her say: “Master of the Universe, is it so hard for you to give me just one son?” Rabbi Elazar explains her remarks with a parable. “A king made a feast for his servants and a poor man came in, stood by the door and said to them, “Please give me a piece of bread, but no one paid attention to him, so he pushed his way into the king’s chamber and said to him, “Your majesty, seeing that you made this great feast is it so hard for you to give me this one small piece of bread?” (Talmud Berachot)
The Women of the Wall are pushing their way in too, and like Hannah they are asking, is there not room for us to have room for our prayer –to read torah? All they want is just enough space to meet their needs and not to take away space or prayer time from the Haredim. They too have been ignored or denied, but now, like Hannah, they are pushing their way into the king’s chamber, into the chambers of the Israeli government, and into the chambers of world opinion. It is the chamber of God as well.

As Hannah asked God to remember her for a child, let us pray on Rosh Hashana in remembrance not only of Hannah’s prayer for a child, but also  that God remember these women of the Wall as well who yearn for the natural right to express themselves as Jews in communal prayer. It is their birthright too.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

High Holy Days Sermons: Rosh Hashana Evening

Rosh Hashana Night 2013
Many of you know a few weeks ago I attended a conference specifically for Rabbis sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, D.C  on the current challenges Israel faces in a tumultuous Middle East especially in regards to newly revived US sponsored peace negotiations with the Palestine Authority. The first morning of the conference I left my hotel room, entered the elevator and a young lady walked in with me. I noticed immediately that she was wearing a tee shirt and it had Hebrew letters around it. I didn't have the time to figure out what the words were, but, I did say to her almost amusingly, “I see you have a lot of Hebrew letters on your tee shirt?” She looked at me and responded, “Yes, I represent an organization and we have forty kids staying in the hotel from Israel.”
I replied, “Cool, is your group touring America?” She responded, “Yes but not exactly the way you think, our kids have all lost a parent in terrorist attacks.”
The elevator opened and I had to catch a cab to the conference. With no time to talk further I said, “You’re doing real mitzvah work.” She smiled and thanked me.
Here I was attending a conference where world class analysts, Pulitzer Prize winning news commentators, former federal elected officials were lecturing us about their views on Israel’s strategic predicament and potential options.  The conference was all theory and speculation about the complexities of Israeli politics and the volatility of the current explosion of violence ripping through the Middle East. Yet, in this one chance encounter I had met someone who embodied the very opposite of theoretical speculation. I was looking into the eyes of collateral damage, in the real world, from the bone and sinew of families and especially children who understand the full repercussions of today’s peace negotiations without ever entering into a think tank.
This brief encounter reminded me just how wide the gulf is between the way the world really is with all of its brutality and suffering, versus what I would like the world to be. The group counselor’s somber eyes hit me right in the face as I sat the rest of the day, taking notes on one speaker after the next offering their strategic and tactical scenarios about Israel’s options amidst the forest fires of violence raging through its Arab neighbors.  I came back to the kids in the hotel who bear witness to the stark realities that our world is broken.  At the same time who am I to give up hope when these kids have the fortitude and faith to move forward in their lives and seek out a world that will give them and their country peace?
We enter into the High Holy Days with the hope and optimism of how we can make a difference on issues affecting our own lives, but we are also obligated to look beyond ourselves and our needs. Our own national leadership also is engaged in a debate about looking beyond our nation’s needs versus our humanitarian and moral values in regards to Syria. Some argue military intervention as a tactic is beyond America’s moral concerns and beyond her vital interests whereas others in Congress including the president see military action in Syria in the opposite view.  In either situation there is fear and trembling spreading  whether we are talking about the peace process  between Israelis and Palestinians or whether we are debating the repercussions (especially towards Israel) of attacking Syria due to the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.  The peace process in Israel is fraught with every reason why experts predict it will fail. It is so easy to be cynical and dismiss these new negotiations, yet, I come back to the children at the hotel, wondering if they too feel the same way especially now as people in Israel stock up on gas masks.
Our representatives are now focused on voting for war or not but I am not losing sight on peace because this peace process between Palestinians and Israelis will have to continue no matter what happens in Syria. We cannot lose sight of the peace we all seek for Israel even though our attention at this minute in America is on an imminent decision our elected representatives are debating about attacking Syria.
What does our faith teach us regarding the value of peace? The last Mishnah of the Talmud, according to the sage Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta, tells us that the Holy One found no vessel that could hold blessing for Israel except peace, as it says, “God will give might to the Jewish people. How? One commentary said, “By blessing them with peace- For all the blessings in the world will endure only if there is shalom.”
  This is why peace is the most important thing that Jews should pray for at this time of the year. In a way we have to be of two minds regarding peace. We are cognizant of the potential hazards that might derail peace talks with the Palestinians-now add to that the prospects of America’s potential bombing of Syria.  On the other hand, everything that our tradition teaches is that we shall never give up on our prayers for peace on behalf of the state of Israel, no matter how remote the chances may appear to be in achieving peace.
I am not suggesting that we ignore the stark realities that Israel faces to its security especially the frightening thought of Syria attacking Israel in retaliation if America launches cruise missiles. Clearly one can argue persuasively that an eventual peace agreement is not likely and that, if history is a teacher, a failed peace process could easily lead to another Intifada. At the same time, if I allowed that kind of thinking to dominate my own outlook, and God forbid it overshadowed Israel’s mindset, would it not signal a moral and spiritual defeat for Israel in the long run?
I am of the belief that if God opens a book and decides which individuals will be inscribed and sealed in the book of life then why can’t we pray that a people such as ours should be worthy to be inscribed and sealed into the book of life as well? Should we completely ignore the Mahzor’s prayer for the State of Israel which is for peace? Does the Israeli national anthem HaTikvah (meaning the Hope) have no meaning anymore? I don’t think that Jews can ever afford to give up on peace, no matter what the odds are in attaining it. Tikvah and Shalom go hand in hand in our prayers.
 The leaders of the Jewish state have debated for decades what it would take to make peace in the Middle East, without achieving anything like consensus. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, was a realist who never lost sight of what Israel could be or what it had to be, given the dangers that faced it on every side.   Nahum Goldman, a leading Zionist and founder of the World Jewish Congress, wrote in his memoirs of a conversation with Ben Gurion.  Ben Gurion the realist once remarked, “Why should the Arabs make peace?  If I were an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel.  That is natural:  we have taken their country.  Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them?  Our God is not theirs. We come from Israel, it is true, but, two thousand years ago, and what is that to them?  There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault?  They only see one thing:  we have come here and stole their country.  What should they accept that?  They may perhaps forget in one or two generations time, but for the moment there is not a chance.  So it is simple:  we have to stay strong and maintain a powerful army.  Our whole policy is there.  Otherwise the Arabs will wipe us out.”
However, that same pragmatist said, in an interview with CBS news in 1956, “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.”  Both of these quotes represent a paradox that we as Jews should revisit when assessing chances of peace today and in the future. It is the same sentiment we read in the Shabbat Siddur that says, “Pray as if everything depended upon God and act as if everything depended upon you.”  I would like to believe that this unique paradox of pragmatism and faith began with Moses facing the odds of leaving Pharaoh’s Egypt and from that point on it became part of our spiritual DNA-suppressed for 2000 years and reawakened in this modern era.
I have faith that Israel will do its part in keeping its military strong, whether it will be resisting Hezbollah, or any Syrian action in the advent of an American attack against Syria, knowing that Ben Gurion’s prediction was correct: that only a strong military presence will motivate the Palestinians to come to the peace table. But there is a propaganda war going on in America and around the world that requires our involvement. We could be taking more positive steps in this congregation to support Israel’s position in America. Don’t think for a moment that it does not help Israel’s standing and credibility in the peace process and in world opinion. For there is enough evidence to convince me that public support is shifting slightly in favor of the Palestinians. We are seeing this in the liberal Christian denominations in particular. College campuses have also been major areas of success for pro- Palestinian propaganda.
Here at Congregation Beth Yam there are a few things we should be doing to influence public opinion and educate the community. We need to be sponsoring on a yearly basis at least one Israel cultural event for the community at large. We need to and shall begin the planning of another trip to Israel. Details will be coming out by Yom Kippur. We need to find a way to help our teens visit Israel. We should be more supportive of Progressive Jews in Israel and developing a relationship with a progressive Israeli synagogue would be a good thing for us to connect us to Israel in a more personal way than simply being tourists.  All of these are doable and would make a huge difference for our congregation. Who among us is willing to step forward and help out? Who will make the miracles happen when there are always ten reasons why something can’t be done?  This is the exact same spirit that Ben Gurion evidenced when we he said, “You have to believe in miracles in order to be a realist.”
These high Holy Days will remind us that the past still weighs heavily on our minds. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. During the Yom Kippur afternoon services when we read prayers remembering the martyrdom of our people over the centuries, our chaver Yale Roe who lived in Israel at that time will reflect on what it was like that day when Israel woke up to discover its very existence was being threatened. Please plan to join us then.
I am convinced that most of American Jewry never grasped the depth of the impact upon the spiritual life of Israel that the Yom Kippur War has had. Yes, we watched with horror and then relief as Israel, with the help of the US, recovered from near defeat against Egypt and Syria, to defeat the Arab armies. But I am not sure we watched Israeli society carefully to see the gut wrenching process of reflection and yes, atonement, that the people engaged in afterwards when they realized that the victories of 67 were now dust in the wind and may have blinded them to the need to preempt the YK War, a war which caused over 2600 casualties.
Forty years have gone by since then, and the changes to the religious fabric and political character of the country that began in ’73 are still evident today. Sadly, an unresponsive Orthodoxy still is entrenched, and the chief rabbinate in particular is by most accounts a corrupt institution. On the positive side there is hope for positive change when we see the modest beginnings of different forms of experimentation with other ways of expressing Jewish spirituality, including but not limited to, Reform and Conservative Judaism. I’ll talk about some of those changes with regard to the Women of the Wall tomorrow morning. But when it comes to making peace we have a nation that is able to shield itself for now and heal its wounds, knowing it is a different nation that tourists do not grasp on a ten day trip or by reading the New York Times. It is a country that has learned hard lessons from the lost lives and from the mistakes made by their political and military leaders and for the victims of war who could have been saved from injuries. We are seeing this same process play itself out from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the national debate on Syria as well.
I say this because it all goes into the layers of thinking which underlie the peace process. It explains how complicated these negotiations are from a historical, moral, theological and political perspective.  I am enjoining us to pull together and pray for Israel’s leaders-and now I must add to pray for our own national leaders - to find the wisdom to make the kind of decisions where Israel and America can find the security and peace it deserves and needs. I am asking that we not indulge the temptations to be cynical and instead remember what our religious teachings say about the importance of striving for peace. I am asking us to suspend that understandable suspicion and pray to the God who some say saved Israel in YK 73 from total annihilation to be a presence in these forthcoming negotiations and in the national debate we shall watch from the comfort of our homes.
Think about the Israeli kids on that trip who will enter the military in a few short years. They too have a birthright to enjoy the fruits of the land and the promise of history starting from the Torah down through the ages that our sages taught to this very day. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem and for the miracles that Ben Gurion believed in and for all the soldiers who fought and for those who died so that one day Israel could pursue and win the peace. That is the ultimate prize we seek.
And during these High Holy Days when contemplating Israel’s efforts to make peace, despite listing all the practical reasons why this process could fail, remember the following poem for why Israel must engage every opportunity for peace regardless of the potential risks. This poem is found from the Gates of Prayer Shabbat Siddur.
“The young soldiers do not speak
Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses; who has not heard them?
They have a silence that speaks for them that speaks at night and
When the clock counts.
They say; we are young. We have died. Remember us.
They say; we have done what we could but until
It is finished it is not done.
They say; we have given our lives but until it is finished no
One can know what our lives gave.
They say; our deaths are not ours; they are yours; they will
Mean what you make them.
They say; whether our lives and our deaths are for peace
And a new hope or for nothing we cannot say; it is you
Who must say this.
They say; we leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.
We were young, they say. We have died. Remember us.

Please pray that peace comes to Israel this year. Pray for the well being of American soldiers who wait on battleships alongside the coast of Syria. Pray for the innocent victims in Syria who have suffered from the relentless war and chemical warfare waged by Assad and his regime and for all other endangered religious minorities such as Coptic Christians in Egypt. Do they not deserve our prayers? But right now we ask the Eternal One to help us in our prayers to bring Israel one step closer to the Peace we all yearn for in this New year..
Shana Tova.