A Holy Calling

by Eliana Fischel, HUC-JIR First Year Rabbincal Student and Women of the Wall Intern

As I begin my last month in Israel for the year, it seems fitting that the parsha includes a calendar. Parshat Emor establishes Jewish time. God tells Moses to tell the children of Israel, “These are fixed times for the Eternal, which you will proclaim as holy callings, these are the fixed times.” (Leviticus 23:2) God goes on to describe the major holidays, or fixed times, of the year and the expectations of those days. Interestingly, the first expectation has already been stated: that the children of Israel will designate the day as a “holy calling”. How? By completing the tasks God requires: sacrificing, eating unleavened bread, sounding a shofar, etc. A “holy calling” requires action. Setting them aside as fixed days is not enough. The children of Israel need to be called to act in a holy manner on these days. This work does not happen by sitting idly by, but rather by hard labor accompanied with immense intention. This year, my first in Rabbinical School at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, I was lucky enough to witness what enacting a “holy calling” looks like.

For the past nine months, I’ve been working as an intern for Women of the Wall/Nashot HaKotel. Along with the Jewish calendar stated in Parshat Emor, this year was shaped, in particular, by the Rosh Chodesh calendar. There was Rosh Chodesh Av, my first at the Kotel, when we were barricaded in the welcome plaza, holding each other’s hands to not be afraid. There was Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan—the first time I witnessed women dancing at the Kotel. Rosh Chodesh Kislev—when we filled the Ezrat Nashim with women from Israel and the United States for Nashot HaKotel’s 25th Anniversary. And the list goes on to today, Rosh Chodesh Iyar, when women from another prayer group were already dancing when we arrived and Nashot HaKotel joined in, no longer in activism, just in joy.

These mornings of Roshei Chodeshim were not just “fixed times”, they were a “holy calling”. We prayed passionately. We answered words of hate with “Chodesh Tov.” We immediately welcomed strangers into our community. And our love for Judaism and equality empowered these actions.

As seen from Parshat Emor, Judaism is a religion of action. Nashot HaKotel exemplifies this commandment. The women of Nashot HaKotel have taught me what it means to not just learn Torah, but to enact Torah and for this, I am forever grateful. Chodesh Tov.


Terumah, Rosh Hodesh with Women of the Wall: Behind the Veil


By Ally Resnik, HUC-JIR Student in Israel

This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, gives us a description of the details of the mishkan (tabernacle) and the beautiful materials that the Israelites must procure in order to create it. One of the many elements of the mishkan is a special curtain, known as a parochet, which sections off the Kodesh haKodashim, “Holy of Holies,” from the rest of the mishkan. In Exodus 26: 33 we read, “V’hivdilah haparochet lachem bein kodesh u’vein Kodesh haKodashim”—And this curtain shall divide for them between the holy and the Holy of Holies (also translated as “most holy”). This distinction between holy and most holy was so sacred that only the kohen gadol had permission to go past this curtain, and he could only do so once per year on Yom Kippur. Instead of focusing on the literal “Holy of Holies,” I want to focus on the concept of holiness and the obstacles that impede our ability to access it.

As an individual, I search for holiness among the mundane. I am always on the look out for nisim b’chol yom—daily miracles, and I try to be mindful of my relationship with God and that mindfulness can imbue my life with holiness. Nonetheless, when I think of holiness, I immediately think of a kehilah kedoshah—a holy community. I am fortunate to participate in many holy communities: my learning community at Hebrew Union College, my synagogue community at my home in America, and of course, Nashot haKotel here in Israel. However, I would not give any of these holy communities the elite status of being the Kodesh haKodashim of communities. They are on the simply kodesh side of the dividing parochet. Unlike the parochet described in Terumah, which is made of woven blue, purple, and scarlet linen, the metaphorical parochet keeping these communities from reaching their highest potential holiness is not so beautiful. This parochet, which separates us from utmost holiness, is made of ignorance, intolerance, and politics/arguments—not the kind l’shem shamayim (for the sake of heaven). Fortunately, this parochet does not characterize the communities themselves, but it is always hanging next to them—keeping out utmost holiness. Kodesh haKodashim remains just out of reach.

What is a parochet but merely a thin veil? It is thin, moveable, and perhaps even translucent. This gives us the opportunity to peek behind it from time to time. We can glimpse this utmost holiness by combating ignorance with education, intolerance with acceptance, and politics with peace. Rosh Chodesh with Nashot haKotel this morning was a glimpse behind the veil. There was minimal police presence and there were very few people trying to disrupt our prayer. Instead, the experience was dominated by beautiful voices raised in song and prayer. Kodesh haKodashim was not out of reach. This week we read, “V’asu li mikdash, vashachanti b’tocham”—And let them build me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them (Exodus 27:8). May all of our holy communities be a Kodesh haKodashim—a most holy place where the Divine Presence dwells.

Meet the Women of Hannukah

By Simone Schicker, Women of the Wall Intern and HUC-JIR first year rabbinical student

This week’s Torah portion Mikeitz, is one of the more popular portions because it stars Joseph interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh followed by the visit of his brothers due to the famine that has at this time spread across the land. Despite the excitement of the story what struck me while I was reading is that there are no women mentioned in the portion at all. Joseph does not ask after his sisters[1] nor after his mother Rachel. He asks after his father and after his brother Benjamin who has not traveled to Egypt but rather been kept behind by Jacob (who is worried that a calamity will befall Benjamin). With this in mind I decided to compare the popular version of the Hanukkah story, the story of the Maccabees, to this week’s portion and low and behold women are absent from this Hanukkah story as well.

Yet, there is hope. While the story of the Maccabees is the most popular story to tell to children about Hanukkah, there are others. The other stories have women in the lead roles. One of the most famous is the story of Yehudit (Judith), from the Book of Judith.[2] In the story, Yehudit is the daughter of Yohanan the High Priest and through her cunning she manages to gain the trust of the Greek general, gets him drunk and then uses his own sword to behead him.[3] The story is one of a true heroine, a woman who puts her own life at risk in order to save her people. Yehudit is one of the women celebrated in the holiday of Chag HaBanot, a North African Jewish women’s holiday that WOW is celebrating at Rosh Hodesh on December 4th.[4]  I was in high school before I heard the story of Yehudit and I know that I am not alone in this. Many powerful Jewish women’s stories have been pushed to the side to favor their masculine counterparts. As a young Jewish woman studying to be a rabbi I feel that I have a responsibility to learn each of these stories and share them.

Last week I heard another story in connection with rebellion against the Greeks during the period of the Second Temple. This one does not have its own book and its historical accuracy is questioned but I feel that it is important to share. This story also tells of the daughter of the High Priest but this time she is getting married. What should be a time of celebration is a time of great fear because the Greek government has instituted a new law. The law requires that all Jewish women who get married must go from the chuppa to the head of the army unit and have sexual relations with him. Only after this interaction may she go to her new husband. The story of this horrific practice continues with the bride tearing off all her clothes in front of the guests at the wedding before she is taken to the army. Her family is horrified and asks the bride how she can shame them in such a way? She responds how can they be horrified when they are taking her to be raped? The conclusion of the story is that her bravery gives her male relatives, and the male guests at the wedding, the courage to stand up against the Greeks and revolt.

Both of these stories are violent, as is the story of the Maccabees, which is interesting because the power of violence is placed in the hands of a woman in the first story and in the second it is the woman’s actions that lead to violence. Women are not traditionally seen, in Judaism or in Western culture generally, as violent. That these two stories are a part of our lore, historically accurate or not, says something to me as a woman and especially as a Woman of the Wall. I have the right to stand up against injustice and I should fight with whatever I have at hand (whether that is Yehudit using the general’s sword or the daughter of the High Priest using her body).  To stand up for myself and especially for my fellow Jews, regardless of gender identity is kadosh, holy in its separation from societal standard. As we read these stories, and as we read the weekly Torah portions, let us remember that while we may not always see ourselves reflected in these stories there is something to be drawn from each and every one. I do not believe violence is ever the answer. I do believe that knowing that Judaism has a history of strong women making a difference in not only their lives but the lives of their communities has a profound impact on me. Just as I can draw lessons from Joseph’s story, I draw lessons from the story of Yehudit and from the daughter of the High Priest.

May this Hanukkah be one of light – both physical and spiritual. May you find guidance from the stories of our ancestors.

[1] While we are only given the name of Dinah, in Genesis 46:15 it says: “These are the sons of Leah, whom she bore unto Jacob in Paddan-aram, with his daughter Dinah; all the souls of his sons and his daughters were thirty and three.” (Translation is the JPS 1917 edition)

[2] The Book of Judith is not part of the Tanakh but it was well known to the rabbis. It is part of the Catholic Bible and some Protestants include it in the Apocrypha.

[3] One version of the story can be read here: http://www.chabad.org/holidays/chanukah/article_cdo/aid/103019/jewish/Yehudit.htm

D’var Torah in Honor of the 25th Anniversary of the Women of the Wall

Shabbat Birkat Ha-Hodesh Kislev Women of the Wall
Paula Jacobs
Temple Israel of Natick, MA
Nov. 2, 2013
It was just one month ago on Friday morning, October 4th that I was in Jerusalem welcoming Rosh Hodesh Heshvan with the Women of the Wall at the Kotel. The group has received significant media attention lately, and I know that many of you have been following what’s happening in the American and Israeli press.
Before I describe my experience and share my thoughts, let’s review briefly some historical background.
Women of the Wall, or נשות הכותל in Hebrew, is a group of Jewish women from around the world who strive to achieve the right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Each month they welcome the new month at the Kotel.
Twenty five years ago, in the morning of December 1, 1988, a group of approximately seventy women approached the Kotel with a Torah scroll to conduct a halakhic women’s prayer service. As no provisions for Torah reading existed in the women’s section, they brought a sefer Torah, stood together, and prayed out loud. Many wore tallitot. The service was disrupted with verbal and physical attacks from Ultra-Orthodox men and women who screamed, cursed, and issued threats.
That was then. In the years since, there’s been ongoing harassment, violence, arrests and legal appeals to the Israeli Supreme Court. Finally in 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that the Women of the Wall had a legal right to pray — but at Robinson’s Arch, an archaeological site next to the Kotel.
Things were relatively quiet until four years ago on Rosh Hodesh Kislev, when the police arrested a young Israeli medical student for the “crime” of wearing a tallit at the Wall. Meanwhile, confrontations and arrests continued, while synagogues and other Jewish organizations began holding solidarity events.
Throughout 2012, the police continued to arrest and detain Women of the Wall supporters for disturbing the public peace, for which the punishment is six months in prison. At one point a decree was issued forbidding women to enter the Western Wall plaza with Jewish holy articles, tallitot, or tefillin; police confiscated these items before women could enter the plaza.
In recent years, there’s been increased pressure from synagogues and Jewish organizations in the diaspora which have organized solidarity rallies in support of Women of the Wall. In light of increased pressure, last December, Jewish Agency Chair Natan Scharansky was asked to come up with a feasible solution to satisfy all parties.
In April 2013 the Jerusalem District Court handed down its decision in Israel Police versus five members of Women of the Wall who had been arrested for allegedly disrupting the peace. Judge Moshe Sobel stated that there was no cause for arrest and that the women did not disturb the public order.
The battle continues to this day — and the Women of the Wall continue to fight for legal recognition to wear prayer shawls, read from the Torah, and pray out loud at the Western Wall. Most recently, the Women of the Wall presented a list of 16 conditions, under which they would agree to meet at the egalitarian section at Robinson’s Arch rather than at the women’s section in the main Western Wall plaza. Whether a compromise solution can be achieved remains to be seen.
That’s enough with the history lesson. I know that some of you sitting here are asking yourselves, “Why should we in America care about Women of the Wall?” That’s a good question.
Admittedly, for many years, I paid little attention to the Women of the Wall. I dismissed them as a small group of North American and British women — mostly Conservative and Reform — who were trying to make a point. My attitude was basically, “What’s the fuss? There are many wonderful egalitarian services in Jerusalem so why should I pray in a place I find uncomfortable; most Israelis couldn’t care less so why should I?” But I have come to change my position.
Now let me share my own recent personal experience and why I believe that the Women of the Wall matter to each and every one of us sitting here at Temple Israel today.
It was a beautiful Friday morning in Jerusalem. Around 5:30 AM, David and I started walking to the Kotel. The sun was just starting to rise and the Jerusalem sky was magnificent. It was a picture perfect day. I was dressed in my frum long denim skirt reserved exclusively for Jerusalem.
I was excited but my enthusiasm was tempered with trepidation. As we walked down from the Jewish Quarter, we saw a large group of IDF soldiers being briefed. We knew about the physical violence that had occurred in the past and wondered what would be in store that day.
David was carrying a tallit bag with two tallitot — one tallit hidden inside another. Why?
My cousin advised us to do so. She said that I should not carry a tallit in case police confiscated it at the security check— and if they saw two tallitot, they would come to the obvious conclusion. Although the police had stopped seizing women’s tallitot in recent months, there was no predicting what would happen on a given day.
We made it through security, although there was a tense moment when a policeman asked me whether I belonged to Nashot HaKotel. I left David at the Kotel Plaza, made my way to the women’s section, and put on my tallit. Never was I so mindful of the act of donning a tallit.
The women’s section was already crowded with hundreds and hundreds — the media actually reported thousands — of Haredi women and teenage girls who had been bussed in that day, ostensibly to offer prayers of healing for Rabbi Ovadia, the Shas leader who has since passed away.
Our group consisted of approximately 200 women of different ages and religious backgrounds. Some had participated in this group for years; for others, like myself, it was a first-time experience. Before the service began, we were told that if we were provoked, simply to respond, “Hodesh Tov.” Our prayer leader was the Hazzan from Hebrew Union College; her beautiful voice set an inspirational tone for the service.
It didn’t take long before the disruption began. No, no one threw apples, oranges, or chairs at us. If you have been following the issue or saw the Women of the Wall documentary that was shown at our community selichot service a few years ago, you know what I mean.
I was standing in the first row, eyeball to eyeball with Haredi teenage girls who were facing our group. I concentrated on my siddur. I don’t think I ever prayed so hard.
Standing there facing a sea of hostile women, suddenly prayer became an act of defiance. Although I didn’t think about it consciously at the time, afterwards I realized how much it was about protecting my rights. Although I grew up in a highly progressive Conservative congregation, not until I was an adult could I be counted for a minyan or read Torah.
The Haredi girls started squeezing us in, moving away from the Wall, talking on their cell phones, mocking us, cursing us, and taking pictures of us with their cell-phones. Then the screaming and yelling began.
The more and louder they screamed —and apparently the noise level reached a record high that day — the more fervently and louder we prayed. Simultaneously, in the men’s section, the voices got louder and louder to drown us out. I understand that the only time the loudspeaker system is used in the men’s section is when the Women of the Wall come to pray.
Someone asked me whether I was afraid. The truth is these attacks provided inspiration to pray more fervently. Despite the noise, I don’t think I ever prayed more intently or focused more on the words of the prayers. At one point, when I was kissing the tzitzit during the v’ahavta, an older Haredi woman glared at me with such venom that I thought she might punch me in the face. So I just prayed louder. Meanwhile more and more policewomen came to separate “us and them.”
What I did resent that as we recited key prayers, such as the Sh’ma and the Hallel, the verbal attacks grew louder in volume. It felt very disrespectful and I truly felt violated.
I don’t think I ever davened the Hallel with such kavanah or intention. I simply cannot describe how beautiful and meaningful the prayers were, despite the hostile atmosphere all around. As a young JTS cantorial student and I discussed, we never thought praying at the Kotel could be so meaningful.
We ended by singing the Hatikva with a powerful show of force. The police then escorted the Women of the Wall out onto bullet-proof buses as protection from physical violence. One Haredi man was arrested for spitting. So began Rosh Hodesh Heshvan.
Why am I sharing this story and why do the Women of the Wall matter to us as Conservative Jews in America?
First, I want to make this crystal clear. My intent is not to bash the Ultra-Orthodox, their beliefs, and religious practices.
Picture for a minute the Kotel. If you have visited Israel, you may be thinking about your first visit there. Many of us sitting here can remember watching on television the poignant footage of Israeli paratroopers reclaiming the Kotel during the Six-Day War. Others have seen the photos. The image of the Kotel is a powerful and evocative symbol for Jews worldwide.
Please ask yourself the following: In 1967, when the Israel Defense Forces reclaimed the Kotel was it for only certain types of Jews? We need to remind ourselves that the Kotel is a holy site to Jews all across the entire spectrum of religious beliefs and practices.
Now reflect on the ongoing violence at the Kotel. Think about this the next time you visit Israel and make the choice to pray there.
I realize that some people may argue that the right of women to wear tallitot and read from the Torah runs counter to what has become “local custom” at the Wall. However, in its April 2013 court ruling, the judge declared that the women are not violating this law. Moreover, he stated that the “local custom” is to be interpreted with National and pluralistic implications, not necessarily Orthodox Jewish customs.
The custom of the place has evolved since 1967 when we won back the Kotel. At the same time, the traditional divide in Israel between secular versus Orthodox has also evolved. Young, secular Israeli Jews are now seeking meaning in Judaism rather than Eastern religions, and are finding their places in egalitarian synagogues and minyanim.
The issue is not just about the right of women to pray at the Kotel — but is much broader in scope. There are important implications for Conservative Jews who love Israel.
The issue is about religious freedom. It’s about our right to pray as Jews as we wish. Tomorrow we mark Rosh Hodesh Kislev. In a few weeks we will celebrate Hanukkah and our religious freedom as Jews. Yet, as Conservative, egalitarian Jews,
we are unable to exercise full religious freedom at the Kotel.
The issue is about the relationship between the State of Israel and those of us in the diaspora. Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and Director of the Engaging Israel Project, talks about the need for a new covenant between Israel and world Jewry based on meaning. If as American Jews we are to be meaningful partners with Israel, it’s problematic when the Kotel, which is such a powerful symbol to world Jewry, comes into conflict with these values.
It’s about mutual tolerance, respect, and civility. In their struggle for women’s rights, the Women of the Wall are opening the door for greater mutual tolerance.
Rather than “us versus them,” both the Ultra-Orthodox and the champions for religious pluralism must learn to become more tolerant of each other. It’s a great learning opportunity and one that also applies to how we relate to those whose views on Israel do not conform to our own. Instead of raising our voices, let’s learn to listen respectfully and try to understand the other side, even if we don’t agree.
Finally, here’s what I learned by davening with Women of the Wall. The rabbis taught about Yerushalahim shel ma’alah, the heavenly Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of our dreams, and Yerushalayim shel matah, the earthly Jerusalem, the Jerusalem as it exists on earth with its problems and where it’s less than perfect.
If we focus exclusively on Yerushalayim shel ma’alah — and continue to put on blinders when it comes to Jerusalem, then we are blatantly ignoring the harsh realities that exist in Jerusalem today as exemplified by the Kotel clashes.
On the other hand, if we focus exclusively on Yerushalayim shel matah —and just see the negative aspects of Jerusalem, then we don’t allow ourselves to envision what the Holy City of Jerusalem could be as a fulfillment of our dreams.
The Kotel is the emblematic symbol of Jerusalem where, as Jews, we have directed our prayers and yearnings for centuries. The challenge is to reconcile the two Jerusalems, the real Jerusalem as we know it today and the ideal Jerusalem of our dreams and spiritual aspirations.
We have a huge task ahead: If Jerusalem is truly to fulfill our dreams, we, as American Jews connected to Israel, are obligated to become partners with Israel, fulfilling what Hartman calls a new covenant.
We have much work ahead to make Jerusalem a better place — a holy makom that truly reflects our values and a place where we can feel God’s holy presence. Let’s each ask ourselves how we can personally work in partnership with God to achieve this goal.
As we lift our prayers towards Zion, the Holy City of Jerusalem, let us fervently pray that the Kotel not be a symbol of what divides us as Jews. May this sacred site reflect our Jewish values and become a symbol of Jewish unity and peace predicated on respect, tolerance, and civil behavior.
Only then can we truly view Jerusalem as Yerushalayim shel ma’alah — the Jerusalem that embodies our dreams — as a place where Jews of all kinds, including those of us living in the diaspora, can feel welcome and comfortably pray in peace, without fear, according to our own customs.
In the words of a slogan popular a few years back, HaKotel l’Kulanu, the Kotel belongs to us all. I hope that we may soon realize this dream.
Shabbat Shalom v’Hodesh Tov.

Parshat Shoftim- Justice at the Kotel

By Eliana Fischel, HUC Student in Jerusalem and Women of the Wall Intern

Parshat Shoftim, the parsha that we read this week, the week in which we have welcomed Elul, is a parsha about justice. In the middle of the Israelites receiving the laws about how to live in the land of Israel, there is the statement that has become one of the bases for Jewish obligation towards social action today: tzedek, tzedek, tirdof –“Justice, justice, shall you pursue” (Deut. 16:20).

The wording of this statement alone expresses the importance of the mitzvah. “Justice”-not once, but twice-“JUSTICE shall you pursue.” This pair of justices could be a repetition for emphasis sake, or there could be another meaning. There could be two different types of justice.

The parsha continues with the laws of warfare, laws for a time when the line between justice and violence can become blurred. For example, “when you approach a town to attack it, you shall offer it terms of peace” (Deut. 20:10). There is a moral standard when one is pursuing another nation. The larger picture of land and nationality does not pardon a people from acting justly. Similarly, there needs to be a moral standard when pursuing justice. Justice cannot be an excuse. The “greater good” cannot be a reason to act immorally on the ground. Yes, pursue Justice-the larger goal, Justice-but it must always be accompanied by justice, by acting in terms of Jewish ethics and morals; by acting with decency.

I welcomed the month of Elul this week with Women of the Wall, a group of women who have actively been pursuing justice each month for the past 25 years. Their Justice, the larger picture Justice, is the right to pray at the Kotel with a Sefer Torah. Their justice, the means to which they are accomplishing this goal, is through prayer. Prayer is never immoral. Prayer cannot hurt a being. Prayer is a means towards and ethical life.

Their counter parts are Haredi men and women who believe that women praying with tallitot and tefillin at the Kotel will de-sanctify this holy site. This is their Justice. This is an ideal that they believe in and although I don’t agree with it, as a pluralistic Jew who believes in the right to believe, I cannot say that they are fundamentally wrong. However, their justice, their means to this larger end is wrong. Drowning out prayer with whistles and a loud speaker is immoral. Shouting profanities at women and men because they are acting in terms of their beliefs is immoral. This is not “calling out for peace;” this is not justice.

As we enter this month of teshuvah and reflection, these words and different meanings of justice could be a base for our repentance. When have we acted in the name of Justice? When have we not acted in terms of justice? When did we use Justice as an excuse? How can we make sure these different types of justice are not separated in the future?

Lastly, the parsha ends with another law of warfare that I cannot let go unnoticed: when you are at war with a people “you must not destroy its trees” (Deut. 20:19). Again, justice is present; don’t destroy more than you need to. Trees bear fruit and supply sustenance; it would be unjust to take that away.

The “tree” has other significance in Judaism, most importantly the Tree of Life, the Torah. The Israeli Government has denied Women of the Wall this right. They have cut down that tree and denied a group of people the sustenance of Torah. Hopefully, this month of teshuva will be one of reflection for all and the year 5774 will be one in which all people can learn and thrive off the words of Torah, wherever they choose to do so.

Parshat Ekev

by Rabbi Iris Richman, for more information Like Jewish Voices Together on Facebook


Ekev – “because” – the name of this week’s Torah reading is an exhortation to our people at the end of 40 years of wandering in the desert, poised to enter Israel, the Promised Land.  Moses reminds our people why they should follow God’s commandments and be ready to enter Israel.  It could have been that Moses would say: “God says – do it because I said so.”

This might have been the shortest Torah portion ever.

Instead, the entire text of Ekev, which also means “as a consequence of”, recounts the lengthy and compelling promises that God has made for the future, the wondrous actions of the past and, over and over again, the need for the people to remember that like any important relationship, the covenant is a two-way street.  We are warned both in the Torah reading and in the Haftarah never to be so full of ourselves that we come to think that we can make transformational change and become a people in the Land of Israel – all on our own.

Indeed, the main theme of these texts is consequences.  If you expect to do nothing and yet have things go your way – you will surely be disappointed; it will not happen.  Rather, it is in our hands to together make ourselves what we want to become.  If we see ourselves as:

following in the ways of God’s laws, choosing the path of righteousness and

acting for justice, remembering the most vulnerable and

responding in love, remembering our commitments and oaths,

we will endure “as long as there is a heaven over the earth”.

As we look forward to coming together to celebrate the new month of Elul in two weeks time, culminating on August 7 and beginning our annual process of reflection, repentance and repair, leading into Rosh Hashanah, this week’s reading gives us an opportunity to reflect on that very process of reflection.  How shall I begin?  Is this purely an internal process – if I promise myself never to act on those same nagging character traits – have I done all that I need to do?

This week’s Torah portion – “As a Consequence Of” is an eloquent reminder that individual action is a necessary – but not sufficient part of the work that is needed for full tikkun/repair.  It reminds us again that our God is a God of justice for the most vulnerable in our midst, yet again enumerated here as the orphan, the widow and the stranger, reminding us yet again, as we were once strangers, we must love the stranger, not just in our hearts, but in also in our actions.

Here in New York, or indeed anywhere outside of Israel, as we think ahead to acting in solidarity on Rosh Hodesh with Women of the Wall/WOW, we consider Rosh Hodesh Av two weeks ago and the fullness of the experience of those who want to daven/pray pluralistically at the Kotel.  In April, WOW won an appellate court decision granting the right to daven in accordance with their customs at the Kotel, but in most of the months since then, the Haredi rabbinate has interfered with this legal right and symbol of justice.  As of two weeks ago, the Haredi rabbinate, in cooperation with Jerusalem officials and the police, segregated and shunted WOW aside so that they were not allowed even to enter the Kotel area and were relegated to an area in the parking lot, next to the public bathrooms, surrounded by shouting, cursing, whistling, spitting, object throwing Haredim. Where is the justice?  Where is the love for one another?

Let us resolve to take our tradition seriously when it tells us that the repair is in our hands.  Let us join together on Rosh Hodesh Elul – in NY, in DC, in San Francisco and in all of the places where Jewish communities will speak up for justice.  Let us begin Elul and the process of repair by choosing righteousness and justice.  As this week’s Haftarah reminds us – as rod’fei tzedek/pursuers of justice, united in this cause, we will turn the midbar/the desert wilderness of our wanderings into Eden, thankfulness accompanied by the sound of music – perhaps, the Hallel of a Rosh Hodesh of religious tolerance for all.


Oaths and Shared Responsibility

by Rabbi Iris Richman

What do Tahrir Square in Cairo and the Kotel in Jerusalem share in common?  If you answered – a democratic impulse, rejection of totalitarian religious views or people uniting for a common cause – you only get partial credit.  They also share a much more disturbing common practice – violence against women.  As of July 3, at Tahrir Square: “Human Rights Watch says there have been at least 91 mob attacks on women in the last four days, with nearly all of the perpetrators going unpunished.” http://www.theatlanticwire.com/global/2013/07/egypt-morsi-deadline/66815/   So too at the Kotel, where violence against women takes a different form, including stones and objects thrown, spitting and death threats. How can it be that this violence is present at two sites of national significance for members of two of the world’s great faiths?

As we approach this month of Av, we celebrate the beginning of the month – Rosh Hodesh – and continue with some of the darkest days on the Jewish calendar – the first nine days of Av, culminating in Tisha b’Av/9th of Av, when our tradition tells us that both of our Temples were destroyed.  We are taught that 2000 years ago, the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat hinam – groundless hatred among Jews.

How do we put ourselves back on the right track, detach democracy from violence – especially against women – and focus on what really matters?  The first part of this week’s Torah reading, Mattot-Mas’ei, focuses on an unlikely subject for a discussion of pluralism and peace – preparations for war.  The Israelites are anticipating crossing the Jordan and conquering the Promised Land of Israel.  The first thing that we learn about the tribes of Reuven and Gad is that they share something in common that sets them apart from the rest of the Israelites – they “owned cattle in very great numbers.”  Num. 32:1.  And because of these holdings, they want to stay right where they are.  The Promised Land?  Not for them.  Our Rabbis picked up on this misguided priority system, noting that even after they were chastised by Moses, and only after focusing on their cattle, did these tribes then focus on establishing “towns for our children”.  Num. 32:16. (Num. Rabba 22:9).  And, another commentary adds, that, despite the Torah’s statement about how many cattle these two tribes had – in fact, they did not have any more cattle than their fellow tribes, they just spent more time focusing on their cattle than any other tribe.  Etz Hayim commentary, citing Midrash haGadol.

One might have anticipated that the response to this focus on narrow self-interest and the callous refusal to participate in the common cause of living as one people in the Land of Israel, would be a Divine smiting, or a plague, or the earth opening up under their feet – look what happened to Korach and company.  But in fact, even without consulting God, Moses knows just what to do.

It’s not an accident that this week’s Torah reading begins by reminding us of the power of words.  Men’s vows (though not women’s) are sacrosanct.  “If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips”.  (Num. 30:3)  Words are binding.

As the tribes of Reuven and Gad threaten to secede from the Israelite settlement of the land of Israel, Moses notes the error of their ways, and compares their refusal to join their destiny with the destiny of their people, to the spies’ disparagement of the ability of the people to enter the Land of Israel.  Because of the spies’ words, the people were discouraged from entering Israel and forced to wander in the desert.  Moses warns Reuven and Gad of the result of a failure to join the Israelites, “you will bring calamity upon all this people”.  Num. 32:15. Thus warned, they hastily offer a compromise.  Reuven and Gad’s people will first build the infrastructure for their animals and families – in that order – and only then join the front lines of the Israelites entering the Land of Israel.  But they take an oath – and literally, they “step up” — to stay with the battle “until every one of the Israelites is in possession of his portion” in the Land of Israel and will return to the other side of the Jordan River only after that has been completed.  Num. 32:18.

Moses accepts this oath as binding, and thus averts an insurrection.  Writing this as tanks enter Tahrir Square to overturn a President who believes he was elected according to law and asserts an ongoing desire to fulfill his oath of office, we understand all too well that oaths take many forms, some of them morally repugnant and some even deadly.

There are vows that diminish the one who makes the vow.  “The sources also speak of vows made out of spite and enmity, for instance, … where A bans his property against B’s enjoyment of it.  This kind of vow is treated as more unworthy than any other for obvious reasons.”   “Vows” in Louis Jacobs, The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.  Unfortunately in present day Israel, we live with the consequences of such vows at the Kotel, where one group regards the Kotel as though it were their private property which they can withdraw from full access by the other 92% of the Jewish people.

Consideration for others in one’s vows by words and actions is more than just a courtesy.  One of the reasons for the destruction of the Second Temple was the failure to take others into account.  “Ulla said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because they [its inhabitants] had no shame for one another, for it is written: ‘They should have been ashamed when they committed abomination; yet, they were not at all ashamed [… therefore they shall fall]’”.  Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 119b, quoting Jeremiah 6:15.

And, in the well known dispute between Kamza and bar Kamza, also cited by the Sages as one of the actions of sinat hinam/groundless hatred that brought about the Second Temple’s destruction, bar Kamza’s spite extended to informing on the Jews to the Emperor, by falsely posing a test of making a blemish on a sacrificial animal offered by the Emperor, that he expected that the Rabbis would disqualify from sacrifice because of the blemish.  “The Rabbis were inclined to offer it [despite the blemish] in order not to offend the Government.  Said R. Zechariah b. Abkulas to them: People will say that blemished animals are offered on the altar.  …  R. Yochanan thereupon remarked: Through the scrupulousness of R. Zechariah b. Abkulas our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt and we ourselves exiled from our land.”  Babylonian Talmud, Gittin, 55b-56a.

We don’t need to look back 2000 years for examples of what can befall us from overzealousness and one-dimensional vows that fail to take our fellows into account.  Not so long ago, our experience in pursuing religious division and adding “scrupulousness” again brought us severe harm.  “On September 23, 1928, the Jews set up a temporary mehitzah at the Kotel for Yom Kippur.  The next morning, it was removed by Kitroach, the Deputy Governor of Jerusalem. On August 15, 1929, on Tisha B’av, the Betar Youth Movement organized a protest demonstration at the Kotel. The Mufti then organized counter-demonstrations at the Kotel and on the Temple Mount and spread the lie that the Jews were desecrating the Muslim holy sites.  On August 23, the Arabs began to riot and subsequently murdered 133 Jews and injured 340 in Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed and elsewhere.  The British and the League of Nations then sent commissions to Palestine.  The latter Commission decided in 1931 to maintain the status quo at the Kotel. The Jews could pray at the Kotel, read from the Torah on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, the last day of Pesah and Sukkot and on Shavuot and bring in specific items of furniture such as the Torah reading table.  They were not allowed to blow the shofar. (Ben Dov, pp. 128-135; Hacohen, pp. 59-63).  Thus, ironically, the attempt to erect a mehitzah at the Kotel on Yom Kippur 1928 led indirectly to the Arab pogroms of August 1929.”  “Is The Entire Kotel Plaza Really A Synagogue?”, Volume 4, Issue No. 3, February 2010, Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin. http://www.schechter.edu/responsa.aspx?ID=48

We stand on many thresholds – we prepare to enter the Land of Israel in our Torah reading, we watch with concern the violence and threats – both at Tahrir Square and the Kotel, and we begin to think about both Rosh Hodesh and the month of Av.  Let us consider – how do we avert reliving our repeated collective amnesia about the consequences of standing up  — only for ourselves?  When we make an oath that takes into account both God and one’s people, as did the tribes of Reuven and Gad, one has made a lasting and valuable oath.   As the Jerusalem Talmud comments on our parashah, one’s oaths must “be judged favorably not only by God but by one’s neighbors as well.”  Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim 3:2.  May we be granted the vision to see the power of all of our words, may we remember to take each other into account when we utter those words and not succumb to oaths or actions which would deny others their personhood, or their fullest expressions of spirit and relationship with God.  Let us also insure above all else, that our certainty or scrupulousness about our own needs and oaths will never again bring us to violence, death and destruction, but to a place of reconciliation and peace.


Korach and Rosh Hodesh Tammuz 5773

by Rabbi Iris Richman

When the Earth opens up around us, let us seek wholeness and balance.

The Jewish calendar is structured on lunar activity.  Every time there is a new moon, a Hebrew month begins.  We read in Exdous that God told Moses: “Ha’hodesh hazeh lachem rosh hodashim rishon hu lachem l’hodshei ha’shanah.”

“This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.”  These words – that the Jewish people must mark the months – is counted as the first mitzvah that the Israelites received on their way out of Egypt. Rosh Hodesh happens every month, and in modern times, often with little note.  But, traditionally, the determination of the first observation of the monthly new moon is the key action by which we live and act as Jews.  Before the establishment of settled, printed calendars, it was the diverse voices of Jewish witnesses that set our Jewish calendar, without which we could not have set dates for any of the Jewish holidays.  Witnesses traveled to Jerusalem from near and far to testify about having sighted the new moon.  The date of every single Jewish holiday, and thus our celebrations and sacred markings of time – can only be determined by reference to the dates of the new moon.

The Mishnah vividly describes to us the importance of these diverse voices.  Rosh Hodesh is the ultimate occasion of coming together in unity from all of our separate places – even violating Shabbat to testify about the first sighting of the new moon.  Even those who could not travel by foot: “they may bring him by donkey [even on Shabbat] and if necessary even [carry him on Shabbat] in a bed. …  Because for a night and a day they may desecrate the Shabbat and go forth to testify about the new moon.”  (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 22a).  Everyone’s voices are what makes Rosh Hodesh – Rosh Hodesh.

And even today, we gather together as one Jewish people to celebrate Rosh Hodesh.  For almost the last 25 years, every month, a women’s group called Women of the Wall has been celebrating Rosh Hodesh at the women’s section of the Kotel in Jerusalem, seeking to connect with our ancient traditions and God’s presence.  Recently, there have been many arrests and much discord and violence, arising from Haredi objections to the women davening out loud, wearing tallit or tefillin, or reading from a sefer Torah.

As we consider the Torah reading for this week, Korach, coinciding on Shabbat and also Sunday with Rosh Hodesh Tammuz and the present situation of disharmony and violence at the Kotel, who among us doesn’t feel a little shiver down the spine?  Korach and his family and his possessions, all swallowed up by the Earth in a demonstration of God’s power in rejecting their challenge to Moshe’s leadership.  In our modern day, who is Korach and who is Moshe?

Korach confronted or stood up to the established leadership of the israelites, saying that all Israel is holy – and literally was struck down by God for doing this.  Did God reject a populist democracy?  And who would dare challenge religious leadership or want to follow in his footsteps after this?

Or was Korach’s sin an attempt to bring about anarchy and the disruption and elimination of ongoing religious ritual, by challenging not just Aaron the Kohen Gadol/High Priest but also all of the priests and the whole structure of religious, sacrificial worship to God?  What *was* Korach’s vision if he had survived to carry it forward?  In modern terms, was Korach a democrat or a fascist?

In considering this question a number of years ago, R. Elliot Dorff posed two possible responses.  Perhaps Korach was not wrong in seeking a democratic structure for the Israelites – but his timing was wrong.  Too many challenges and crises, in a society not ready or able to cast aside strong leadership. Or maybe, Korach’s challenge to the leadership was that of an anarchist, seeking to undo the rule of law, which would leave the people on their own in the wilderness, facing attacks from hostile surrounding nations.

In the end, the elliptical text does not allow us to determine with certainty what was truly dangerous about Korach’s position.  And that, I think, is exactly the point.

It would be SO tempting to say: “I have the answer – my position is like that of Moshe, not Korach – and I will seek to bring God to strike down everyone who doesn’t see it my way.  With a narrative this rife with this ambiguity, however, none of us can honestly say that.

Let us also remember the alternative to Korach – the challenge was not only to Moshe – but also to the High Priest, Aaron.  Presumably, had he survived and succeeded, Korach’s regime would have replaced Aaron.  With all of Aaron’s errors and sins – silence in the face of his own sons being struck down by God, collaborating with the Israelites to build the Golden Calf – how is Aaron seen in our tradition?  “Moshe used to say ‘Let the law pierce the mountain.’ But Aaron loved peace, pursued peace and made peace between people, as is said: ‘The law of truth was in his mouth, and unrighteousness was not found in his lips; he walked with Me in peace and uprightness and did turn many away from iniquity.'” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, 6b, quoting Malachi 2:6.)

From the ambiguity of the narrative and the survival and triumph of Moshe AND Aaron over Korach, perhaps we can learn that shalom and shleimut – peace and wholeness are what we must always strive for, even and especially, in the most challenging times.  So for our challenging times, this year, in thinking about the challenges facing our Jewish people, especially on this Rosh Hodesh Tammuz at the Kotel, we offer this prayer for shleimut and izun, wholeness and balance.

A Prayer for Shleimut 

Elokei Avraham, Elokei Yitzchak v’ Elokei Ya`akov v’ Elokei Sara, Elokei Rivka, Elokei Leah v’ Elokei Rakhel

Pokeach Ivr[1]im, Oseh Shalom[2]:

In this time of challenge to our unity and holiness, when we unite to seek Your Shechinah[3] in Its eternal place, we seek shleimut[4] and izun[5], and we ask for the inspiration and support of Your ruach hakodesh[6].

Grant us the wisdom to understand and appreciate ourselves and each other in the fullness of our humanity and integrity, male and female, Haredi, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal.  All of us Jews. All of us created in Your holy image, a little less than angels, crowned with glory and honor.

Open our eyes and let us see the ruach Elokim[7] that endows us with holiness and unites us.  Let the uniqueness in which we were each created make us more holy, more and not less, but not divide us or reduce us to anything less than our fullest human potential, the pinnacle of the miracle of life.  As women and men, may we appreciate our differences but most of all, as Adam Rishon[8] in Gan Eden[9] was created both male and female, let us not magnify those differences above what we share with each other, but rather help us to attain the integration and purity of Gan Eden.

Enable us to lift our spirits and our hands to engage and joyously immerse ourselves in holy actions in Your service and bring us closer to You, in fulfillment of our heritage and traditions. May we also find the holiness in one another, so that we need not diminish any expressions of holiness, but rather so that we are fortified to support each other to bring about connection with the Shechinah, according to the way that each of us recognizes as sacred.  May all of our service be received by You with favor and bring us to further blessings.

Above all, may we always remember that Your gift to us is of love and not hate, peace and not violence, allowing us to strive for shleimut and integration, not discord.  May Your breath of life inside each of us bring us to realize our highest, holiest potential as one Jewish people and also as Jewish individuals, acting together and individually, to bring about the fulfillment of all blessings and the ultimate unity with the Source of all blessings forever.


© Rabbi Iris Richman




[1]  The One Who opens our eyes

[2]  The One Who makes peace

[3]  The Divine Presence

[4]  wholeness

[5]  balance

[6]  spirit of holiness

[7]  Divine spirit

[8]  the first human, created with both genders

[9]  the Garden of Eden

The Crying Need for Jewish Unity and Religious Pluralism at the Kotel

by Rabbi Mark Zimmerman, Conservative rabbi serving Congregation Beth Shalom in Atlanta (from his blog)

Shortly we will celebrate the holiday of Shavuot which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Our tradition teaches us that every Jew was in attendance for this magnificent, historic event — including all who ever lived in the past, and all those yet to be born in the future.

The image is indeed a very touching one. We were allpresent at Sinai, and the entire Jewish people stood together as one.  The whole Jewish people standing together as agudah achat, one unified group has always conveyed a beautiful, inspirational lesson for us to emulate in every generation.
Yet sadly, that was not the scene at the Kotel this past Rosh Hodesh. Over five-hundred women came together to peacefully pray and read words of Torah together at a service organized every month by the group Neshot HaKotel, or Women of the Wall.  This time they had even more obstacles to overcome than usual.
In a groundbreaking ruling, the Jerusalem District Court upheld an earlier decision that women who wear tallitot at the Kotel plaza are not contravening “local custom” or causing a public disturbance, and therefore should not be arrested — as they had been in the past. The issue of equal prayer rights at the Kotel has become more prominent recently because of the frequent arrests of women participating in these special services held each month on Rosh Hodesh — which has long traditionally been considered a special holiday for women in Judaism.
During the last Rosh Hodesh service at the Kotel, the scene was chaotic as a large police presence tried to keep the the protesters and women daveners separated.  Haredi (Ultra Orthodox) women had gathered in large numbers to fill the women’s section in an attempt to prevent Women of the Wall from holding their monthly service.  Meanwhile Haredi men and children hurled stones and insults in the direction of these women, simply trying to gather in  prayer. Absolutely appalling.
I, like many of you have long supported Women of the Wall and their efforts on behalf of religious pluralism in Israel.  Yet when I expressed that support in the comments section of Jpost.com I was greeted with the typical barrage of delegitimizers, and those who deplore any expression of Judaism other than their own.
But let me say it clearly. WOW’s actions are not at all contrary to halacha, (Jewish law) but haredim throwing rocks at people clearly is a grave sin in Judaism. There is no comparison. Halacha is dynamic, and there has never been only one authoritative interpretation of Jewish law.  Our Sages have taught us that there are shivim panim laTorah (seventy faces to the Torah) and many modern Jews who support WOW are also living according to Torah. So those who say WOW and their supporters don’t accept the Torah are completely misguided.
The Kotel belongs to all Jews; not just the haredim, not just the Orthodox, and not just Conservative or Reform either.  But even beyond that, ethical, moral and civil behavior should be expected of all Jews and in all places — but especially in a sacred space such as the Kotel.
Others objected to my words of support saying it’s a complex issue and the sensitivities in Israel are different than they are here in America. I couldn’t disagree more.  It’s NOT complicated at all. I have davened at the Kotel many times over the years, and twenty years ago I could lead an egalitarian Kabbalat Shabbat service in the Kotel plaza without incident. But today there are haredi thugs who can’t accept that anyone has a right to any interpretation of Judaism other than their own narrow definition of Judaism.
The article on Jerusalem Post’s website where my comments appeared was titled: “Western Wall rabbi: I am hurting and crying”.  Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz told the Post: It wasn’t for this Kotel that we prayed. We don’t want a Kotel of disagreement.”
Well I certainly agree. The Kotel should indeed be for all of us, praying together in harmony, each in our own respective way. The Kotel belongs to all Jews, not just those who delegitimize us. We modern Jews who identify with more progressive streams of Judaism are tired of having our voices shouted down. And refusing to even acknowledge our observance of halacha is an insult that we should no longer tolerate.
So I encourage you all to add your support to these brave women who are liberating the Kotel for the entirety of the Jewish people.
Rabbi Mark Zimmerman
Congregation Beth Shalom

When a woman cannot mourn

When a woman cannot mourn….
The stones of the earth will shake.
The rains will flood
… The seas will swell
The earth will open
The Shekhina will wail!
She will moan…
Until every woman can cry
Until every woman can sing
Until every woman can laugh
So deeply that every man will feel
Called from the depths of his soul
To cry with her
To sing with her
To laugh with her
And to dance with her
Before the sun
Before the moon
Standing in the River of Life,
Holiness beating in their hearts.
Their bodies dust,
Their breath divine

Written by Jennifer Rudick Zunikoff, April 4, 2013

The Fifth Question

Women of the Wall Rosh Hodesh Nissan

by Allison Cohen, a rabbinical student attending Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the first year of the program is spent at HUC’s Jerusalem campus.

     As a rabbinical student, I am constantly reminded of one of the greatest skills I have been taught: the act of questioning. Who, what, where, when and my favorite, “why?” In each class, I take what I learn, question it, reason with it and apply it to society.

This past month’s Women of the Wall Rodesh Hodesh service not only celebrated the new month of Nissan, but also marked the month of the Jewish holiday of freedom, Passover (Pesach in Hebrew). During the Shacharit service, no women were detained, and just like last month, we prepared ourselves for the guards to be standing at the security checkpoint where we would exit from. As we made our way to Robinson’s Arch for the torah service, all of the women linked arms. I was linked in between two women who were in Israel for the Women of Reform Judaism’s Centennial CelebrationEveryone walked closely together as we sang Oseh Shalom. We waited for the guards to tear each other from our links, but to our surprise, no event occurred. Instead, we continued peacefully to Robinson’s Arch.

Women of Reform Judaism’s Vice President Susan Bass & Alli Cohen (me)

As wary as I am to an unexpected, quiet Rosh Hodesh, I know I need to stay hopeful. Nevertheless, Passover reminds me that in many ways, it seems we are still enslaved today. My involvement with Women of the Wall makes me question: How can we rejoice, when we cannot even have the freedom for religious expression, even in Jerusalem?
Jews especially love to ask questions, and this is quite evident through Passover. We have just asked ourselves four, very famous questions, and as the youngest child in my family, I may never retire from having to sing:    מה נשתנה, הלילה הזה מכל הלילות

(Why is this night different from all other nights?)”

However, I would like to propose a fifth question of my own: Why is this month different from all other months? This is the month of freedom. This is the month in which we recall the bitter times of our past but also the journey out of exile. Despite our past detainments and arrests, let this Rosh Hodesh and the recalling of the Passover story give reason to hope. Let it empower us to continue the struggle towards the freedom that we see just, for our own lives today.

Looking ahead, maybe Pesach teaches us that we need to continue asking in order to shape a brighter future. After all, the holiday is not just about remembering the time in slavery, but the journey our ancestors took; this journey continues today. So if it is up to us, maybe we should be asking: What can we do to create an atmosphere for religious pluralism in the public domain? How can we share a site that is sacred to a variety of people? How can we allow room for religious expression when it may go against our own beliefs? How can we enable the Kotel to truly be a place for all to find meaning? Just as a journey cannot be taken while stationary, neither can our need for continued questions cease. In order to move forward with ever-changing times, we must continue to question. As a student I have learned that ultimately, life is not about having all the answers but knowing that there are always more questions to be asked.

On Pesach many sing the song Bashana haba’ah, by Ehud Manor. Translated to English, the chorus means: You will yet see, you will yet see, how good it will be, next year.

Let us make this vision a reality! Hag Pesach Sameach!

B’chol dor vador, In Every Generation

by Rabbi Iris Richman Pesach/Passover 5773/2013

The celebration of Pesach and the reading of the timeless Haggadah from year to year requires a deeper and broader understanding.  We are not just obligated to tell the ancient story, but we are also required in each generation to see true liberation through our own eyes and in our own times.

It is not just that the ancient Israelites went out mi-mitzrayim.  We did that to arrive somewhere else.  As our Torah and Haggadah tell us, the liberation was to enable us to achieve a holy purpose.  “God took us out from there in order to bring us and give us the land that God swore to our ancestors.”  (Deut. 6:23)

For each of us, that liberation mi-mitzrayim may mean something different.  In the literal sense, being liberated mi-mitzrayim means the original Exodus that took us from Egypt.  Yet, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said: “The Exodus from Egypt occurs in every human being, in every era, in every year and even on every day.”  Moreover, mi-mitzrayim also means from the narrow places – meaning that this liberation that we require and celebrate is not only from Egypt, but also from those narrow places that constrain us and prevent our full spiritual and religious expression as Jews.

Tonight, as we give thanks for that ancient liberation which enabled us to enter the holy land of Israel, let us remember that the process of liberation is not complete.  As the next verse of the Torah makes clear, this liberation was infused with obligation.  We were liberated in order to worship God for our lasting good.

When we celebrate what God did for us – us is neither male nor female, not Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform or Renewal.  It is simply us, the Jewish People.

Let us join our Jewish Voices Together and say that all Jews must be liberated to serve God and to worship each in his or her own true way, especially at the place that God showed us, where our ancestors united to worship – the Kotel/Western Wall.

Let us envision a next year in Yerushalayim/Jerusalem where women and men alike can worship at the ancient site of the Kotel, free from harassment or arrest, including those who wear tallitot and tefillin containing verses of Torah in order to be brought yet closer to God.

Let us see, this year, through our own eyes, religious tolerance and love for one another in supporting one another to each achieve our highest holy purpose

Rabbi Iris Richman Pesach/Passover 5773/2013

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Parshat Vayikra, Dedicated to WOW

by Sherree Beth KaneGraber

Rabbinic Intern, Newburgh, NY USA

Shabbat Shalom!

Today’s service & Torah reading is dedicated to The Woman of the Wall.
About 25 years ago,  in shul one Shabbas morning a man came up to me and told me that I should not be wearing a tallis.  He was rather unpleasant in his tone.

The man interrupted his prayer to approach me to tell me  what I couldn’t wear.

I was confused! Part of why I was confused was that I was wearing a scarf.

Rather than tying it, I wore the scarf on my head, loosely flowing onto my shoulders.  I loved my silvery grey fringed Shabbas scarf. Occasionally I wore a white linen hat, but most of the time I chose the scarf  because the enveloping feeling while praying  felt right to me.

It felt natural.  It became part of my Shabbas ritual. In Parshat Vayikra we read about ritual.  The parsha describes in graphic detail what, when and how the korbanot, offerings, are to be made.

Korban, the word for offering, is based on the Hebrew root koof  reish   beit, karav, which means   to draw close; the Hebrew word for  near  is based on this same root.

Our ancestors had ritual  which helped them facilitate feeling closer to Hashem.  There were many kinds offerings, which included  animals of various kinds,  oils,  as well as flours.

Today our rituals are different than those of our ancestors, however   we too   seek closeness to Hashem and pursue spiritual experiences.

When we put on Tallit, there is a ritual.  Some people first recite a prayer  as part of their preparation,  and also check to see if the tzittzit, fringes are all intact.

We hold the tallis in front of us  as we recite the b’rucha shel mitzvah, the blessing of commandment (Baruch…)  לְהִתְעַטֵּף בַּצִּיצִית ….

Blessed are You, our G!d, Ruler of the Universe, Who makes us holy with Your commandments,… and commands us to wrap ourselves in fringe
We kiss each side of the attarah;

We swirl the tallis around to cover our body /

Some people wrap only around their head / some of us wrap the tallis around our entire body and say a private meditation; and them lower to let the tallis rest on our shoulders.

This is but one of the many, beautiful rituals that we have.  And we have the right and the freedom to practice our rituals and to seek our own spiritual experiences.

Here In Newburgh   I can proudly,  and safely  wear my tallis.

The rules that are enforced at The Western Wall
הכותל המערבי    are as if the Kotel was an orthodox shul.
There are women in Israel   being arrested   for wearing tallitot; for carrying Torah,  and  for raising their voices in prayer.

What would it feel like to have someone say you can’t wear your tallis or your kippah when you pray?

What would it feel like to have someone rip the Torah out from your arms?

How would you respond to being shouted down when you were trying to sing the beautiful music of Hallel?

This is what happens  in our Israel  on Rosh Chodesh, when The Women of the Wall meet to celebrate the new month.

In honor and support of the Women of the Wall,  I would like to share with you a prayer written by Rahel Sharon Jaskow

May it be Your will, our God and God of our mothers and fathers, to bless this prayer group and all who pray within it: them, their families and all that is theirs, together with all the women and girls of your people Israel. Strengthen us and direct our hearts to serve You in truth, reverence and love. May our prayer be desirable and acceptable to You like the prayers of our holy mothers, Sarah, Rivka, Rahel and Leah. May our song ascend to Your Glorious Throne in holiness and purity, like the songs of Miriam the Prophet, Devorah the Judge, and Hannah in Shilo, and may it be pleasing to you as a sweet savor and fine incense.
And for our sisters, all the women and girls of your people Israel: let us merit to see their joy and hear their voices raised before You in song and praise. May no woman or girl be silenced ever again among Your people Israel or in all the world. God of justice, let us merit to see justice and salvation soon, for the sanctification of Your name and the repair of Your world, as it is written: Zion will hear and be glad, and the daughters of Judah rejoice, over Your judgments, O God. And it is written: For Zion’s sake I will not be still and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be silent, until her righteousness shines forth like a great light and her salvation like a flaming torch.
For Torah shall go forth from Zion and the word of God from Jerusalem. Amen, selah.

When I put on my tallis;  when I proudly carry our Torah around our sanctuary;  when I sing Hallel on yontef;  I think of the Women of the Wall.

Shabbat Shalom

Standing at the Wall of Liberation

by Anita Silvert

I started leading women’s Seders about 25 years ago, and I was late to the table, so to speak. My sister Jan Salzman, who is now a rabbi, got our family started with a homemade Haggadah, and my two sisters and I, our mother, aunts, and girlfriends left kids and husbands at home, and joined together for a third Seder, just for women.

In fact, our daughters weren’t allowed at the table until they had become bat Mitzvahs. This was a women’s Seder, It was a liberating experience to be without the men back then. We still prepared the meal, but we prepared and served it together. It was, for some of us, the first time we had all sat unrushed through an entire Seder.

I still lead women’s Seders today, although some of the language that refers to being equal in ritual practice may seem outdated in many communities. We are less and less fighting for our voices to be heard in Jewish life, at least in this country. There are still ritual issues to be addressed, such as the “agunah”, both here and abroad, the plight of the “chained wife”, whose husband refuses to give her a Jewish divorce, which keeps her chained to a marriage that may have already been ended through civil divorce, but from which she cannot leave in light of Jewish law. Sadly, the language about violence toward women, inequality in the workplace, and the glass ceilings are still apropos. Year after year, we still find something meaningful in the familiar words and rituals, even if it’s to remember how far we’ve
come from those decades ago.

Over the years, there have been new twists to the liberation story, as reflected in the number of themed Haggadot available: Soviet Jewry, Social Justice, Interfaith, LGBT, and so many, many more. Because the story is so powerful, because the story is so true and profound at its core, others who are under the yoke of oppression find inspiration in it, too. Passover is about an entire group of people who are finally allowed to take part in their own
destiny. Passover is about recognizing the continuing struggle for freedom. Passover is about telling and re-telling a story that still resonates through the generations, as we are told, “k’ilu hu yatza m’Mitzrayim”, as if we personally were brought out of Egypt. Passover is personal.

Recently, women have once again become the focus of another manifestation of the liberation story, and ironically, the struggle is taking place not only within the Jewish community, but at its heart, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. For over 20 years, members of an organization known as “Women of the Wall” have been gathering at the Kotel,on Rosh
Chodesh, the first of the month, to pray. I have davened with these women, and I have never known such elation, fear, uneasiness, and pride all at the same time. But the attacks on the Women of the Wall have been getting more and more violent, more and more humiliating, and more and more intolerable.

For Rosh Chodesh Adar, just last month, the Women of the Wall were joined by some other well-known liberators: the soldiers who liberated the Wall in 1967. Back then, they fought to make the Wall accessible to Jews. Now in their 70’s, with their presence, they are still fighting to make it accessible to all Jews. When these Israeli heroes joined the women, the police were not to be seen. But after they left, acting on the authority of the increasingly
radical Western Wall Heritage Fund, the police arrested and detained ten women who had the audacity to offer praise and gratitude to God while wearing the traditional garb of the prayerful – a talit. The police knew they couldn’t make these arrests in the presence of Israeli heroes, because the country would not have tolerated such an affront to
its deservedly revered warriors. But as soon as they were gone? All bets were off, and ten women were carted off.

Rosh Chodesh Nisan, for the month of Passover, seems to have gone more smoothly. Perhaps a tide is turning? Perhaps some of Israel’s leaders are beginning to pass through from their own narrowness, their own Mitzrayim, into a more open land? Just like the Israelites at the shore of the Sea, about to cross into an unknown land, perhaps the
leadership is also standing at the shore, and it will take the courage of Nachshon to step into the water. We wish for them to find that courage.

The struggle for liberation continues throughout the world, and Passover is the appropriate time to shine a light into those dark places. How much more so do we need to shine that light on our own community, for the right to pray and live as the Jews we are. The original Exodus took faith and action, and we need both again today. This year at your Seder table, may you be inspired and strengthened by the story of the struggle, and may we all work together to find the way to true liberation in our own time.

Hodesh HaAviv

by Natalie Bergner, Women of the Wall Intern

Two weeks ago I stood with Women of the Wall for our reading of the Meggilah. Women came in costume with smiles on their faces and graggers in their hands, ready to celebrate the strength of Ester and the Jewish people. For the first time since I have been an intern at Women of the Wall, there were no arrests. The Kotel was basking in the first rays of spring sunlight and the Women of the Wall were allowed to peacefully enjoy the peaceful Purim atmosphere.

Tomorrow morning Women of the Wall will gather to celebrate the coming of Rosh Hodesh Nisan. The month of Nisan marks the first Rosh Hodesh of the Jewish people. “The Lord said to Moses and to Aaron in the Land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.” (Exodus 12:1-3) It is also known as Hodesh haAviv, the month of Spring. For the duration of Nisan the Jewish people celebrate our exodus from Egypt and entry into freedom. We remember and honor the prophetess Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, for her bravery in saving the baby Moses and her gift of water that she provided the Jewish people in the desert. We sing to Miriam at the Passover Seder, proudly recalling the strength of our female ancestor.

In such a month of new beginnings and celebrations of liberation, I hope that this time of year will mark a new chapter for Women of the Wall—a time in which women will be liberated from having to hide their Tallit, their voices and their Torah. I hope that just as Miriam sang in peace with her brothers and sisters in the desert, the Women of the Wall will be able to read, pray and sing in harmony tomorrow morning, and that this morning becomes an example of peaceful Roshei Hodesh to come.


To Read or Not to Read – The Rabbis Say Yes!!!

By Rabbi Pamela Frydman, Co-Chair, Rabbis for Women of the Wall

In Mishnah Megillah[1] chapter 2, section 4 (see also Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah 19b), it states: “All are qualified to read the megillah except a deaf person, an imbecile and a minor. Rabbi Judah declares a minor is qualified.”

In the Gemara (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah 4a), it states, “Rabbi Joshua ben Levi (also) said: Women are under obligation to read the megillah, since they also profited by the miracle then wrought.”

There is a halakhik principle, which is derived from Mishnah Rosh Hashanah chapter 3, section 8, that a person who is obligated to perform a mitzvah may fulfill the obligation of others who are also obligated to perform that mitzvah.

Rashi, in his commentary on Arakhin (Babylonian Talmud Arakhin 3a) takes the position that women are obligated to read the megillah and they are fit to read the megillah and they may, through their reading of the megillah, fulfill the obligation of men to hear it. Rashi bases his position on Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:8 cited above.

In the Shulkhan Arukh (OH 689:1-2), it states that women are obligated to read megillah the same as men.

Rabbi Dov Linzer, Rosh HaYeshiva and Dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in New York, writes:[2]

“The Gemara states[3] that the phrase “all” is meant to include women, with the implicit conclusion that women have the same obligation in megillah as men, and can read for men.”

Rabbi Linzer goes on to write, “Rashi, Rambam, and many rishonim rule accordingly. Tosafot, however, quotes Hilkhot Gedolot who quotes a Tosefta that states that women are exempt. Rather than rejecting the Tosefta, it is reconciled with our Gemara to mean that women are exempt from reading the megilah, but are obligated to hear it. Thus, our Gemara which says they are obligated and can read, only means that they are obligated to hear, and can only read for other women with a similar level of obligation. This leads some Rishonim to even suggest an alterante brakha for women (lishmo’ah megillah).

“Shulkhan Arukh (OH 689:1-2) rules that women are obligated the same as men, but he does note the dissenting opinion.

“Rema rules like Tosafot, that woman cannot discharge men’s obligation, and even quotes the opinion that they must make a different brakha.”

Rabbi David Golinkin, President and Professor of Jewish Law at Machon Schechter[4] in Jerusalem, writes:[5]

“…Indeed, many if not most Orthodox rabbis do not allow women to read the Megillah in public or only allow them to read the Megillah for other women. However, if one follows the general rules of Jewish law it is clear that the Babylonian Talmud takes precedence over the Tosefta and the Yerushalmi (see Entziklopedia Talmudit, s.v Halakhah, Vol. 9, col. 247, note 108 and col. 250, note 147).

Indeed, this is exactly what the Or Zarua and the Meiri state explicitly regarding our topic. The Or Zarua (Part II, parag. 368, fol. 77d) says that since the baraita in the Tosefta is not mentioned in our Talmud, we do not rely on it, and it seems to me that the main thing is as Rashi explained: to include women who are obligated to read the Megillah and fit to fulfill the obligation of men.

The Meiri states (in his commentary to Megillah, p. 21):

And the main thing is not to push aside an explicit Talmudic passage in our hands by a baraita (i.e. the Tosefta) or by the Western Talmud (i.e. the Yerushalmi) and how much the more so by logic, but let us rely on the well-known principle that “all who are obligated in something fulfill the obligation of the public”.

Therefore, it is clear that according to the Babylonian Talmud and a large number of early authorities, women are required to read the Megillah and can therefore read the Megillah in public for a congregation which includes men. This is not some modern innovation but the most authoritative halakhic opinion on this topic. Furthermore, it also stands to reason as three of the Rishonim state that women may be counted in the minyan for the Megillah reading.”[6]

Based upon these and other sources, Women of the Wall gather on Shushan Purim to read Megillat Esther at the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem.


[1] All references to “Megillah” in this article refer to the Megillah of Esther read on Purim.

[2] “Arakhin 3 – Women & Megillah, Women & Zimmun, Minors & Zimmun” by Rabbi Dov Linzer, The Daily Daf, Thoughts and Insights on the Daf Yomi, January 16, 2012. <http://www.the-daf.com/talmud-conceptual/arakhin-3-women-megillah-women-zimmun-minors-zimmun/>

[3] Rabbi Linzer is referring to Mishnah 2:4 cited above.

[4] Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem, Israel

[5] “May Women Read the Megillah in Public?” by Rabbi Golinkin, Responsa in a Moment, Volume 6, Issue No. 4, March 2012. <http://www.schechter.edu/responsa.aspx?ID=64>

[6] Rabbi Golinkin dedicated this Responsa to the memory of his Mother Blume Devorah bat Esther z”l on the occasion of her shloshim, 28 Shevat 5772.

Shemot: They came to pray

by Anita Silvert, from her site Jewish Gems

uppity-women-of-the-bibleGood morning class and welcome to Civil Disobedience, 1:15 (Exodus chapter) , or as the saying goes, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

Today we meet two of those uppity women, Shifra and Puah, Hebrew midwives during the time of the Hebrew enslavement in Egypt.   Confronted with one of the most harsh and intolerant decrees possible, the murder of newborn baby boys, these two women said, “Enough.”  Quietly, but with great passion and purpose, they set about defying the government’s decree.  Pharaoh was afraid that the oppressed people would become too numerous, would join forces with other enemies of the State, and overthrow him.  So he set about hitting them where it hurt most – their families.

Shifra and Puah simply refused to carry out the Pharaoh’s decree.  They wouldn’t kill the babies, or allow them to die (depending on your perspective).  When they were called on the carpet, so to speak, to answer for the fact that there were still baby boys living past infancy, they simply said that the Hebrew women were so strong, they couldn’t get to the birthing fast enough to do what the law required.  Oops, Sorry Pharaoh, but not our fault.  And history was made when one of those baby boys grew up to lead the entire nation out of slavery.

Uppity women change the world, and they are still doing so.  As you have read in this space before, the battle for ritual equality continues in Jerusalem, supposedly the spiritual homeland of all Jews.  You would think, when we women travel to Israel, we would feel at our most spiritual, our most fulfilled as Jews.  To walk in the steps of our history, to see and sense our ancestors’ encounters with God, to pray at the sites of our ….oops. Sorry.  Forget that last oneS.

Still and still, worse and worse, the situation at the Western Wall is giving women something to wail about.  Still and still, more and more, women are required to feel less and less connected to this holiest site as active, participatory ritual-evolved Jews.

Women of the Wall (www.womenofthewall.org.il) leads the fight of uppity women, led by the uppityist of all, Anat Hoffman.  For over 20 years, they have gathered at the Wall to pray.  Simply to pray.  And for that offensive, outrageous desire to express praise and gratitude to God every Rosh Chodesh (new month), they are attacked, harassed, and arrested. Why? Because the government is “afraid that the oppressed people will become too numerous, and join forces with other enemies of the State, and overthrow [them]”.  Wait. Did I just write that?  Yes I did.  Indeed, women all over the world are joining forces to overthrow the oppressive, discriminatory rulings of the Israeli government-backed “Authority” at the Western Wall.

According to midrash (commentary/tale) after Shifra and Puah took their stand and made an impact on the Hebrew community, Miriam  convinced her parents to re-marry after the government had forced them apart, in another attempt to keep the enemy-population down, and their union produced Moses.  Where uppity women lead, others follow.

Last month at the Wall, uppity men “smuggled” in the contraband tallitot (plural of tallit, prayershawl)  for the women who came to pray. This is what it’s come to?   Check out the Women of the Wall  website for the latest round of decrees, as reported in the New York Times  The police/government, laying down and taking orders from the ruling Ultra-Orthodox “authority” of the Kotel (Wall) plaza, is forbidding women to bring in any religious ritual items…like a prayerbook, perhaps? Is that what’s next?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he has finally heard the voices of women and men around the Jewish world, and he has formed a committee to come up with a solution.  The Jerusalem Post reports, however, that the committee, headed by Natan Scharansky, hasn’t even been given a clear mandate for what he’s supposed to be heading up at all.

Shifra and Puah went before the Pharaoh and lied through their teeth, so that they could continue doing the work they intended to do.  They prayed with their hands, each time they brought another “contraband” baby into the world.  Today, Jewish men and women from all over the world are forced to do the same thing, lying and smuggling in “contraband” religious articles, just so they could pray with their hands and bodies, voices and souls.  The Pharaoh/Rabbi is afraid, but the people will rise up and be freed by those uppity women who have come to pray.  God will hear them as clearly as God heard the soul-cry of Shifra and Puah, leading them onward to liberation.

They come to pray.

Approach in prayer

By Rabbi Laura Geller is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, California

We approached the entrance to the Kotel Plaza a little before 7:00 A.M. on Rosh Hodesh Tevet. In my bag was my tallit, the beautiful purple and blue one that was hand woven as a gift from the students and faculty at USC over 20 years ago when I completed my time there as the Hillel rabbi. Several women were in line in front of me; the security guards checking bags told them they couldn’t bring their tallitot into the Kotel Plaza. As of 6:00 A.M. that morning, a new decree had been issued by the “Rabbi of the Wall”, forbidding women from entering the plaza with Jewish holy articles like tallit and tefillin.

This week’s Torah portion continues the story of Joseph. It begins: “Vayigash eilav Yehuda… And Judah approached him (Joseph)…” The midrash (Bereshit Rabba 93:6) asks what “approach” means, what are the different strategies one might use to approach those who hold power. It offers three options: one is to approach in conciliation; the second is to approach in battle and the third is to approach in prayer.

I wanted to approach in prayer. I learned long ago of the power of tallit and kippah to help me move from the secular to the sacred, spiritual tools that begin the transformation that opens my heart to prayer. I took my tallit out and wrapped it around my neck like a scarf. When it was my turn to go through security, a guard pointed to my neck. “Does that scarf have tzizzit? Take it off. You must leave it here.” I tried to explain: “But I am coming to pray. In the mornings I pray with a tallit. This tallit is very symbolic to me—it was a gift from the students I taught that there is more than one way to be a Jew.” But as he was going through my purse and holding my kippah in his hand, he didn’t seem interested in a conversation. “You can take this, handing me the kippah, but not that tallit”

I unwrapped the tallit and left it in the pile of tallitot other women had been forced to leave behind. Four women who R gellerkotelwore their tallitot under their coats were able to pass through security. When they reached the women’s section of the kotel and our prayer began, they put on their tallitot, and were soon summoned by the police and told they must take them off or leave the group. Subsequently they were arrested.

There is no halachic prohibition against a woman wearing a tallit. At most the prohibition is against saying a bracha that indicates she is fulfilling a commandment. We actually have evidence in rabbinic tradition that some daughters of certain prominent rabbis wore tallit and tefillin. So why is my wanting to approach the Kotel in prayer, the way I pray, a problem for the authorities who control the Kotel? If I can’t approach in prayer, in what for me is real and authentic prayer, the only options left are to approach in conciliation or in battle.

I could approach in conciliation. I could argue that Women of the Wall have been given what we need— we are “allowed” to convene eleven times a year in the women’s sections for public prayer, as long as we move to Robinson’s Arch for the Torah service. There we can wear tallitot and tefillin; there it is possible to have women and men pray together. But Robinson’s Arch, while technically part of the Western Wall, is not the “main” Kotel, not the iconic symbol that so many Jews consider sacred. The Kotel is sacred space that should belong to all Jews. It is in fact a national monument. The problem is that government legislation has turned it into an Orthodox synagogue where public prayer can only be led by men. It disenfranchises me along with the vast majority of Jews in the world. It says that my expression of Judaism is not authentic. Conciliation means giving up my own voice and my own truth.

So the only approach that is left is battle. Women of the Wall will continue to fight the battle, not only for reclaiming the Kotel as public space, but also for all the other issues of religious pluralism that are so important. We will continue to speak truth to power, raising our voices and our prayers to challenge the Orthodox monopoly on issues of personal status: marriage, divorce, burial and conversion, and to work for parity in government funding for non Orthodox religious and educational institutions and for recognition of liberal rabbis.



Testing the Waters—And There’s No Going Back

Sent by Chaia Beckerman, member of Women of the Wall International Advisory Board

Taken from a Dvar Torah given by Rabbi Joel Berman at Temple Beth Emet in Anaheim, CA, October 20, 2012

It’s Parshat Noah, when our thoughts turn to rain, and we read it around the time we start asking for rain every year. In reading the parsha this year I noticed something I hadn’t really seen before. You might remember that when the flood was over, Noah sent forth three birds. The first bird came back; it had nowhere to land. The second one came back with a twig in its mouth, indicating there was some dry land around somewhere. The third time a bird was released, it didn’t come back….The rain had stopped, and the bird had the sense to stay out.

What I noticed is that apparently Noah did not share this bird’s common sense.…Noah showed no initiative or gumption of any sort…. Four times we find Noah blindly doing all that the Lord commands him.  When the bird did not come back, indicating the earth could now sustain life, Noah, even though he had been on the boat for little over a year by some counts, did not get off the boat on his own steam. Maybe the thought of starting the human race over again almost from scratch was intimidating him? Maybe he had another reason? He is judged harshly for this in the Midrash. In Midrash Tanhuma we read:

Once the waters had abated, Noah should have left the ark. However, Noah said to himself, “I entered with Gd’s permission, as it says, ‘Go into the ark’ (7:1). Shall I now leave without permission?” The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “Is it permission, then, that you are seeking? Very well, then, here is permission,” as it is said ‘Come out of the ark. ‘”

Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai said: If I had been there I would have broken down the door to the ark and taken myself out.

….At least two of the animals on the Ark were dogs. Many of you know that our family recently acquired a dog…. I just saw a funny internet picture of a little pug with a really worried look, and the caption read, “I don’t know, man, what if I never find out who’s a good dog?”…What is a good dog? … A good dog is an obedient dog. Our dog is… in process. He’s got a touch of dyslexia, thinks he’s God. But a good dog, by most accounts, is an obedient dog.

Now, what is a good person? It’s not a person who is blindly obedient. In fact we are a people of commandments. How many commandment s are there in the Torah? Right. 613, plus all the thousands of detailed regulations and rules spelled out in such works as the Shulchan Aruch. Thousands of rules, regulations, and commandments. So what’s the biblical Hebrew word for “obey”?

The closest we come, and the word we typically find, is shma. LiShmoa. To listen, hear, attend, understand, internalize, or respond. It’s hard to translate all that into English. British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out (Covenant & Conversation 5767: Noach) that the King James version of the Bible had to invent a word for shma: hearken. And since we almost never use that word anymore, we’re kind of back to square one. But one thing I think it’s safe to say is, that’s not what Noah was doing. Noah did not internalize, or respond, or understand, or attend the word of the Lord; he anticipated the English language by five thousand years, and simply obeyed.

The tradition compares Noah to Abraham, who heard what Gd had to say, and had his own two sheqels to put in. Abraham protested, he argued vociferously with Gd if he thought Gd wasn’t living up to His own standards. We’ll see that in a couple of weeks when we read about Abraham pleading for the few innocent residents of S’dom and ‘Amorah. And it’s Abraham who the tradition holds up as a “good person,” not just relative to others at in his own time and place, as with Noah, but altogether.

Which brings me to a good friend of ours and something that just happened a few days ago.

Anat Hoffman is the chair of an Israeli organization known as Women of the Wall. Some of you are familiar with it. They’re a group of Jewish women from around the world who pray every Rosh Hodesh at the Western Wall, the Kotel, in Jerusalem, and they want every Jewish woman who chooses to, to be able to pray out loud, wear tallitot, and read from the Torah there. Right now there are prohibitions against doing any of that and a lot of opposition from the Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox Jews, when women try.

…Anat, with some Women of the Wall, was at Kotel with a large group of visiting Ladies of Hadassah during their convention in Jerusalem, and she was leading them in prayer when with no warning she was arrested, taken to jail, strip-searched, dragged on the floor in chains, put in a cell overnight—for praying and wearing a tallit at the Western Wall. The irony, to me, is that she was arrested for not blindly obeying the authorities at the Wall. For being more like Abraham, and not like Noah. If the closest the Bible comes to saying “obey” is “shma,” you should know that she was arrested just after saying the Shma.

I quote here from The Jewish Daily Forward from Wednesday:

“I was saying Sh’ma Israel and arrested for it. It’s just unbelievable,” she said in an interview from her bathtub, where she was soaking limbs bruised from being dragged by handcuffs across the police station floor and legs shackled as if she were a violent criminal. “It was awful.”

Hoffman has been detained by police at the Western Wall six times in the more than two decades that she has led Women of the Wall, a group which conducts prayer services in the women’s section at the start of each Jewish month. But on Tuesday night, when she was arrested for the crime of wearing a tallit and praying out loud, she was treated far more violently by police than ever before.

“…They dragged me on the floor 15 meters; my arms are bruised. They put me in a cell without a bed…I laid on the floor covered with my tallit.

I’m a tough cookie, but I was just so miserable. And for what? I was with the Hadassah women saying Sh’ma Israel.”

So I went to my rabbis’ listserve, where there is always an exchange of opinions on current events, and saw this posting by a colleague, David Seidenberg, aka NeoHasid, which I quote with permission:

I’ve been reading up on Anat Hoffman’s violent arrest at the
Kotel while leading Hadassah conventioneers in the Sh’ma, and guess
what? Hadassah has not made any statement nor is there any mention of the incident on their website. What can you find there? There’s an
article (actually photo-spread) titled “Hadassah Women Cause Chaos in Center of Jerusalem”–and it’s about the convention and Hadassah
women shopping. That’s at the top of their news feed. There’s also a
news feed from Haaretz which includes none of Haaretz’s articles
about the arrest.

So I went there, to the Hadassah website, and found that this rabbi was absolutely right that they had made no mention of Anat or her arrest. (He’s formed a “Wake Up, Hadassah” Facebook group in response.) But there were two things of note that were on the site. One was a rather bland statement—it had appeared in the meantime:

Hadassah Reaffirms its Support for Freedom of Worship at the Western Wall

In Jerusalem, at the National Business Meeting of the Centennial Convention of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, delegates unanimously approved a resolution reaffirming its commitment to and support for freedom of worship for women at the Western Wall.

And then I searched the site for mention of Anat Hoffman, and found a whole page of blog entries, people posting about the arrest, and the one that caught my eye was the following:

As a lifetime Hadassah member, as well as a Woman of the Wall activist during my 18 years in Israel, I’m glad to see a resolution. I urge you for Israel’s sake to take seriously the threats to democracy, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion exemplified by Anat Hoffman’s arrest. I appreciate that the political and religious diversity of Hadassah’s membership makes it hard to go beyond “pareve” statements. Nonetheless, I’m confident that you can find ways to represent all of us and also be forceful and direct, as you translate this resolution’s commitment and support into action.

There were many entries echoing this sentiment, but I chose to read you this one because it was posted by my wife Chaia. I had no idea that I was going to find it there.  I clicked on her little picture next to her comment and got to her Facebook page, which is covered with pictures of the kids and the dog.

Now, I support Israel, and on other occasions I have, and I will, deliver more positive stories. We are hoping to have a congregational trip to Israel this summer. And while I think it is important to let Hadassah know what you think through their website or just writing them, there are other considerations, and in the long run, our being aware of the situation and supporting our like-minded Jews through the Conservative Movement in Israel, known as Masorti, is one of those ways. We’ve worked very hard for thousands of years to have our own piece of land, our home, over where it belongs. We can’t let it be the only democracy on earth with laws that discriminate against Jews.

…I’ll close with one more statement taken from the Internet:

And when the Shma is recited in shul this Shabbat, every Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox rabbi should take a moment to express their outrage about what happened to a Jewish woman who just wanted to say the Shma out loud at the Kotel.

We’ve already said Shma Yisrael this morning. Some of us have said it twice. Let’s remember that it doesn’t mean just hearing, and it doesn’t mean obeying; it means the kind of listening we do before we make up our minds to do something. We say it one more time today, in the K’dushah for Musaf. Let’s put a little something extra into it then, and whenever we say it from here on out.

Shabbat Shalom.

Vayera: Speaking truth and questioning the power

By Anita Silvert from her blog Jewish Gems

Speaking truth to power takes chutzpah.
Questioning that the power really resides in who you’re speaking to takes it to a whole other level.

In this week’s parasha, Abraham speaks truth to God. God has decided to destroy Sodom and Gemorrah
because of their extreme immorality, and Abraham is understandably disturbed by this. He says, “Will
you sweep away the innocent along with the wicked?” (Gen. 18:23) And he continues: Far be it from
You to do such a thing…Far be it from You…Must not the Judge of all the earth act justly?”

That’s chutzpadik.

Abraham spoke boldly to God, bargained with God, and challenged God’s behavior – actually accused
God of acting immorally. Yet there was no argument but that God really did have the power. Abraham
challenged God on action, not authority.

It takes far more courage, but is far more necessary, to speak up against those that assume they have
the authority, and expose them for both their immoral actions and their inappropriate abuse of power.
Such is the case with Anat Hoffman, director of Women of the Wall. If you haven’t heard, WoW is an
organization of women who, for over 20 years, have gathered at the Kotel (the Western Wall) in Israel
on every Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) to pray. The Kotel plaza is segregated by gender, and the women’s
section gets smaller every year. Yet, these women, with whom I have had the honor of praying, show up
each month, carrying the Torah, some in tallitot (prayer shawls), prepared to sing, pray and get shoved,
harassed, pushed, sworn at, and sometimes physically attacked. Two weeks ago, Anat came to the
Kotel with reverence for Judaism and prayer, in her beautiful WoW tallit, and recited the Shma. She was
arrested. She was shackled at her hands and feet. She was dragged across prison cell floors. She was
strip searched. Read more here, if you can stand it.

Because she said the Shma in public, at the Wall. The statement of faith that has kept our people
together for thousands of years. And now, the few but shouting minority deem the Shma to be fightin’
words, pitting Jew against Jew? To say, “Shame!” doesn’t go far enough.

In an interview with Anat, she mentions that Israelis don’t seem as outraged by the situation as Jews
are around the world. Israel must import the outrage, and I for one, am truly outraged. I know that it’s
flat-out wrong for an extremist and sometimes violent minority to dictate who gets to act as a Jew, who
gets to “do” Jewish and who doesn’t. The Kotel is governed by the Western Wall Heritage foundation,
and has designated the Kotel an ultra-Orthodox synagogue, not a national monument. Actions that
offend the religious sensibilities of those in attendance are outlawed. Women of the Wall is trying
to dismantle the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which has ruled the Kotel with an iron, ultra-
Orthodox hand, and re-convene it with voices from all Jews who wish to pray at this most profound and
spiritual site. This is not just speaking truth to power, this is calling out the ultra-Orthodox as no longer
entitled to the “power” they wield, calling them out on immoral behavior. I am not equating these men
with Sodom and Gemorrah, but they are acting in a way wholly incompatible with Jewish values and
sensibilities. They have been given so much influence over the site that even the Kotel police think it’s
acceptable to treat someone in such a shocking manner.

The truth is Anat is not Abraham; we all are. We all must speak out against the unspeakable. How?
Listen and then share Fran Gordon Naomi Less’ new song, “Sh’ma Israel”. Support Women of the Wall
and IRAC, the Israel Religious Action Center, so they can continue their work on behalf of all Jews who
feel that no one can tell you how to be Jewish. No one can tell you you’re not “Jewish enough” to act as

a Jew in Israel, of all places.

When Abraham became outraged at God’s own plan, and said, “Shma”, God listened. Are you listening
to those who say it now?