Coming Up Against the Wall

The big story in the Jewish world of the past few days has been the decision by Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu to cancel the plan to build an egalitarian entrance and guaranteed access to the Kotel (Western Wall) for all Jews who wish to pray there according to their customs.  After lengthy negotiations, a plan was approved nearly 18 months ago that would have seen the construction of a new entrance and the allocation of space for non-Orthodox Jews to pray at the Kotel in egalitarian minyanim, something now prohibited by the Chief Rabbinate and the official Rabbi of the Western Wall.  Caving into pressure from Haredi Jews, who hold political power and form a part of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, the Prime Minister shelved the deal and created another commission to study the problem (a pointless task).  All of this infuriated the people who negotiated the deal on behalf of Conservative and Reform Jews in Israel and around the world, causing some to respond with harsh statements against Israel, and Natan Sharansky, an icon of modern Jewish history and current head of the Jewish Agency, to wonder openly if trust between Israel and non-Orthodox diaspora Jewry can ever be rebuilt.

To untangle this issue, we ought to focus on three elements:  1) To whom does the Wall belong, 2) What insights can be gained from the behavior of Haredi (ultra-Orthdox) Jews? and 3) How should Diaspora Jews respond to the situation?

Undoubtedly, the Kotel or Western Wall is among the most recognized symbols of the connection between Jews and the Land of Israel.  Built by Herod (73-4 BCE), Jewish ruler of Judea during the time of the Roman occupation, the Wall was reclaimed by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.  Since then, it has become a popular place to pray, stuff notes between the crevices of its massive stones and visit to appreciate the power of Jewish history in the land of Israel.  The Kotel is also an official synagogue under the supervision of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, an arm of the government.  Is the Wall the possession of the State of Israel, so that the way it is accessed and used is the sole determination of Israel’s government?  Or is it the possession of worldwide Jewry, meaning that every Jew, regardless of denomination or the way we choose to practice Judaism, has a share in its ownership and thus a voice and vote in how it is managed?

That is certainly not a simple question to answer.  We who live here in America do not serve in the IDF, nor do we pay taxes in Israel.  What right do we have to determine the policies of Israel’s government?  On the other hand,Israel is not only home to Israelis, but also the spiritual home of worldwide Jewry.  Our relationship to Israel is different from our relationship to any other foreign country.  Our relationship to Israel ought to be an aspect of our Jewish identity.  There is a sense of belonging and connection to Israel that many Diaspora Jews feel.  We need to nurture that relationship, especially among Millennials, many of whom are increasingly alienated from Israel because of the unsolved dispute with the Palestinians, an issue that is far more important to them than whether or not Conservative Jews have equal access to the Kotel.

The question of “who owns the Wall” is also symbolic of a larger issue—are the views and needs of non-Orthodox Jews, in Israel and here in America, taken seriously by the Israeli government?  Or are we dismissed, primarily by the Haredim, as illegitimate clowns who pose a threat to the Jewish way of life by the way we practice Judaism?  That is certainly how the Haredim see us, and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s acquiescence to their demands was seen as an endorsement of their views, nothing less than an insulting slap in the face to the millions of Conservative and Reform Jews here and in Israel.

What insights can we gain from the behavior of Hareidi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews?  These are people who claim to have exclusive understanding of God’s will and to have a monopoly on the truth.  Such a viewpoint is simply antithetical to the fundamental values of Judaism.  They exude intolerance and arrogance.  What they have not been able to achieve through education and gentle persuasion they try to achieve through coercion and even violence.  In the face of such obnoxious and offensive behavior, we must retain our dignity and our principles.  We must be unwavering in our assertion that all Jews matter, and unflinching in our upholding of the idea that no one has as a right to claim that they know and understand God’s will and thus have a right to impose their views on others.  Nothing good in human history has ever come from one group forcing another to submit to its will.

How should Diaspora Jews respond to this situation?  I do not believe that we should attack the Israeli government, threaten to withhold financial resources from the State of Israel, or make bold statements about how Israel is no longer a home for the entire Jewish people.  Rather, we must see the bigger picture.  Yes, egalitarian access to the Kotel would be a meaningful expression of the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Jewry in Israel and around the world.  But we ought not view this as a single-issue situation.  At the core of the problem is that Reform and Conservative (Masorti) Jews in Israel are perceived as too small and weak to matter.  Those who care about pluralism in Israel should invest resources in growing and strengthening the Masorti Movement.  Learn about the work of the movement and support it with your charitable dollars.  There is power and influence in numbers, and we must seek to gain influence by becoming bigger and stronger.

I welcome your comments on this powerful issue and look forward to a robust debate.

Shabbat Shalom,

RABBI COOPER

 

 

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Empathy for the Outsider

This week’s Torah portion relates the story of the 12 scouts who are sent by Moses on a reconnaissance mission to determine if the land of Israel that God has promised they will inhabit is indeed all that it has been described to be.  In his orders to the scouts, he tells them:

“Go up there into the Negev and on into the hill country, and see what kind of a country it is.  Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many?  Is the country in which they dwell good or bad?  Are the towns they live in open or fortified?  Is the soil rich or poor?  Is it wooded or not?  And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land.”  (Numbers 13:17-20)

 While the premise of the story seems to be a scouting mission into the land, its deeper meaning and message may be that the struggle between God and Israel over matters of faith and fidelity to the covenant is a complex and turbulent one.  God demands that His people demonstrate faith that His promises will be fulfilled, yet the people’s doubts must be satisfied by seeing the land for themselves before they attempt to inhabit it.  At the end of the story, God becomes angry that ten of the scouts return from the mission with a discouraging report that says that the land cannot be conquered, and threatens once again to obliterate the people and start over again with Moses as leader.  If this type of interaction were experienced in the realm of human relationships, we might deem it a relationship in trouble and need of help.

Even more intriguing is the companion story to the Torah portion that is told in the Haftarah for Parashat Shelakh-Lekha.  Taken from the second chapter of the Book of Joshua, it tells the story of a scouting mission ordered by Joshua after he assumed the leadership role from Moses.  Joshua sends two scouts, not 12, to check out the city of Jericho, a key stronghold that will need to be conquered.  The scouts approach the city and come upon the home of a prostitute named Rahav, which is squeezed into the small space of the broad wall surrounding the city.  While she could turn them in to the authorities, she instead protects the two scouts, diverting the guards who come to capture them and hiding them in her house.  She does this because, as the text says, the people of her land are “filled with the dread of God.”  It’s likely that this story was written at a time of higher national confidence than the Torah story, or perhaps written as a statement of wishful thinking.

Rahab asks that she and her family be protected during a future invasion.  Assured that they’re safe and will be able to return to base with an accurate report, the scouts promise Rahab they’ll take care of her and tell her to place a sign outside of her house so the conquering Israelites will know to leave her alone.

Is there a significance to the story that Rahab is a prostitute?  Bible scholar Danna Nolan Fewell asserts that there is.  She writes:

“From Israel’s perspective Madame Rahab is the epitome of the outsider.  She is a woman, a prostitute and a foreigner.  As a prostitute, she is marginal even in her own culture, and her marginality is symbolized by her dwelling in the city wall, in the very boundary between the inside and the outside.  And it is Rahab who saves the lives of the feeble Israelite spies, who willing cavort with foreigners, indeed with a woman whom they would have eventually slaughtered in battle.”

Rahab is the quintessential outsider.  She is marginalized by being a prostitute, hardly the kind of work for which someone is honored at a testimonial dinner.  Because she is a woman, she is already marginalized by her society.  And according to the story, she is a foreigner who faces the additional stigma of being outcast.

Her status as an outsider makes her the perfect savior for Joshua’s two scouts, and by extension for the nation of Israel.  In the times in which the story was written, the Israelite nation was very much an outsider, enslaved, demeaned and brutalized by a powerful nation and facing the arduous task of establishing themselves in the world.  Across the centuries, the People of Israel has faced oppression, exile and torment.  There have been times we have had to navigate our way through social systems that denied our legitimacy, even our right to exist.  It could be said that we, the People of Israel, are also the quintessential “Outsider Nation,” marginalized, facing discrimination and rejection.  Who better to save the Israelites than Rahab, herself an outsider?

The Haftarah chanted this week can serve as a powerful reminder that we, the members of this “Outsider Nation” that has so often been compelled to seek acceptance, must practice acceptance and tolerance.  There are, distressingly, so many opportunities to do so.  All around us there are people who ostracized—refugees, immigrants, people who appear “different” and are thus unfairly perceived as a threat.  It is our obligation as Jews to end their ostracization and isolation, and to bring those who are forced to the fringe of society into its heart.

In that spirit, I encourage you to attend this year’s Pride Shabbat in celebration of LGTTQ+ individuals.  This year’s theme is “Hineni: Bearing Witness as a Response to Discrimination, Exclusion, Hatred and Violence.”  Join us for a Music Lover’s Shabbat Service at 7:45 PM, followed by a presentation by Les Skolnick of Keshet, an important organization devoted to the full inclusion and equality of LGBTQ people in Jewish life.  Les will speak about how we can create a culture of acceptance in our synagogue.

Shabbat Shalom!

Race, Nation or People?

Last night’s Annual Meeting of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey was a wonderful event.  Lifelong Oheb Shalom member Arthur Schechner received the first-ever President’s Bamberger Award for his wonderful accomplishments as a communal leader.  Leslie Rosenthal, longtime member and past president of Oheb Shalom, was deservedly honored on the conclusion of her 3-year term as Federation President.  The room was packed for these testimonials, as well as for the other meeting agenda items, including a report from Leslie and Federation CEO Dov Ben Shimon on this year’s Federation achievements on behalf of our community, our Israeli partners and Jewish communities around the world.

Each year, the Federation Annual Meeting is enriched with a presentation by a notable Jewish leader or scholar.  This year’s speaker was Avraham Infeld, President Emeritus of Hillel International and Consultant on Tikun Olam to the Reut Institute in Israel.  I had the privilege of sitting next to Dr. Infeld during the meeting, so I asked him what he intended to speak about.  He thought for a moment, then answered: “the Jewish people!”  At first, I thought his answer was tongue-in-cheek, as if he had said that he would speak about Judaism.  After hearing his remarks, passionately delivered, I see that he meant what he said.  In his speech he referred to Israel’s Declaration of Independence, read aloud by David Ben Gurion on May 14, 1948, which declares the establishment of “a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.”  Infeld noted the peculiarity of the term “Jewish state.”  What does the phrase mean?  Can a state be Jewish?  Does it keep Shabbat?  Does it keep kosher?  Of course not, he confirmed.  Infeld went on to say that the key to understanding the notion of a “Jewish” state is to see being Jewish not solely as a matter of religious affiliation but as belonging to a people.

Religion can be divisive rather than unifying, and the Jewish religion is no exception.  We see animosity and conflict all around us caused by the way some understand and practice the Jewish religion.  Some Orthodox Jews reject outright those who are not Orthodox.  This is especially true in Israel, where ultra-Orthodox Jews with political power deny legitimacy and support to the Masorti and Reform Movements that are established there.

But peoplehood is an all-encompassing enterprise.  It is a wide umbrella that can include all those who are connected to the Jewish people.  Peoplehood offers not only religious life but cultural, intellectual and communal experiences.  This is an important framework for understanding the State of Israel, which is a state not only for people who want to practice the Jewish religion but for those who want to express their affiliation with the Jewish people through cultural and communal ways as well.  In this way, Israel is a “Jewish State.”  It is the land in which the Jewish people were born.  As the first line of Israel’s Declaration of Independence says, “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.”

We can only hope that those Jews who believe that they possess the truth about what it means to be a Jew and how a Jew should live and behave, that those who believe they can and should use political power to coerce their fellow Jews into practicing the Jewish religion as they believe it should be practiced, should come to understand that throughout our history our source of strength has been the unifying notion of Jewish peoplehood.

In seeking to define Judaism, it’s not uncommon to ask this question:  Are Jews a religion, a nation, or a race?  It can be argued that even if we do not now share common racial traits, Jews once did.  Hitler certainly saw Jews as a race that had to be exterminated.  We are certainly a religion, as there are norms of religious practice that define Jewish life, even if they are interpreted and lived differently by Jews around the world.  And we are certainly a nation, as a connection to the land of Israel is fundamental to what it means to be a Jew.

But perhaps the best definition of what it means to be a Jew is that we all belong to a people, one that shares a common history and a destiny.  Our strength and our future lie in the simple adage that says “Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Ba-zeh…All members of the people of Israel are responsible for one another.”  Perhaps that simple phrase is the most profoundly important of all Jewish teachings.