By RABBI AMY B. BIGMAN
CONGREGATION SHAAREY ZEDEK
EAST LANSING, MICHIGAN
In 1987, a young woman from the Detroit suburbs entered rabbinic school. In 1991 she received her master’s degree from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati and in 1992 she was ordained and returned to her hometown for her first job. Even before she moved from Cincinnati back to the Detroit suburbs, both “The Detroit News” and “The Detroit Jewish News” wrote articles about her. You see, she was the first full-time female congregational rabbi in the state of Michigan.
When the new rabbi moved back home, she was inundated with requests for speaking engagements. The topic was always the same: “What is it like to be a female rabbi?” She accepted all of the speaking invitations with the proviso that, while she would answer any and all questions about women in the rabbinate, this was not to be the main topic of the speech. More often than not, she spoke about medical ethics, as she had written her rabbinic thesis on “Non-Halakhic Considerations Regarding the Treatment of the Terminally Ill Patient.”
Some of you know this story, but for those of you who are hearing this for the first time, I am sure you have already figured this out: I am that rabbi. And for as long as I can remember, being called a “woman rabbi” or a “female rabbi” has really irked me.
In those early years of my rabbinate, being the lone rabbi of my gender in the entire state, I received a lot of invitations to speak on the topic of being a “female rabbi.” I always explained, graciously I hope!, that I couldn’t speak about this topic because I don’t know what it’s like to be a male rabbi, nor do I know what it’s like for my female colleagues to be rabbis, so how can I possibly speak about that topic? To me, being the first full-time female congregational rabbi in Michigan really wasn’t such a big deal. I’m just me: yes, I am female (I’ve been that way my entire life!), and yes, I am a rabbi, but so what?
Since my ordination in 1992 (eighteen years ago!), I have not spoken about what many consider to be “female” or “feminist” topics. I have chosen to stay away from such topics – until today. And actually, my topic for this morning isn’t really a “female” or “feminist” issue at all. It is, rather, a human issue, an issue of equal rights.
This summer, Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the Israeli counterpart to the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C., was arrested for carrying a sefer Torah near the Western Wall in Jerusalem! Can you believe it?! Arrested for carrying a Torah scroll!!
In addition to her responsibilities to the Israel Religious Action Center, Ms. Hoffman is also the leader and founder of the Women of the Wall, a group whose “central mission [, as is noted on its website,] is to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, [and to] pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.” Women of the Wall meets monthly on Rosh Chodesh (“the new month”) to worship.
And so the Women of the Wall gathered on Rosh Chodesh Av (July 12th) at 7 a.m. for their monthly worship service. As is their custom, they gathered on the women’s side of the Western Wall. (Because Jewish practices in Israel are controlled by the Orthodox establishment, the wall is divided into women’s and men’s sections, just as you would see in an Orthodox synagogue.)
So here it is, July 12th, and 150 women are gathered to pray together. They did not read from the Sefer Torah, but Ms. Hoffman held it in her arms throughout the service. As the women left the Wall after their prayers, police confronted her and blocked the procession. They tried to tear the Torah scroll from Ms. Hoffman’s arms! Ms. Hoffman told the police officers, “Hu sheli, hu sheli – it’s mine, this [Torah] is mine!” As the police eventually took her into custody, Ms. Hoffman was still holding on to the Sefer Torah, and still singing songs with the other women, singing songs from our tradition, songs from the Bible, and songs from the Torah ritual which we sing whenever we read from the Torah (as we did earlier in this service).
The Israeli police claimed that a woman holding the Sefer Torah is against the law, that it is against an Israeli Supreme Court ruling. And so Ms. Hoffman was taken into police custody for breaking this law; she was interrogated for five hours! Members of the Women of the Wall stood outside of the police station, near the Jaffa Gate, in solidarity with Ms. Hoffman. Eventually, Ms. Hoffman was released from police custody and banned from the Kotel for 30 days.
At first as I sat at my computer watching videos of this horrifying scene, I was perturbed, annoyed. But as I watched more videos and read articles from magazines and newspapers from around the world, I went from being perturbed to being downright angry. This is disgusting! How can it be that in the modern State of Israel women are not allowed to carry a Torah? How can it be that I, as a Reform rabbi, am not recognized as a rabbi in the Jewish homeland?! (Neither, by the way, are my male colleagues. Male rabbis in the liberal Jewish movements are bad enough, according to our Orthodox brothers and sisters, but we female rabbis are even worse!) And don’t even get me started on what they think about female cantors!
In Medinat Yisraeil, the modern State of Israel, founded by Jews from around the world – a country which we hold near and dear to our hearts – in Israel today Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Jews are treated as second-class citizens. Our rabbis are not recognized and our synagogues are not funded by the government as are the Orthodox congregations.
Yes, as you may have read in the most recent issue of “Reform Judaism” magazine, Reform synagogues and groups in Israel have been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years, as have Reconstructionist and Conservative congregations. More and more Israelis are learning that to be religious doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be Orthodox. More and more Israelis, both native-born and immigrants, want their male and female children to be taught equally, for them to celebrate both Bar and Bat Mitzvah, to recognize the equality between the genders. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that as Reform Jews or Conservative Jews or Reconstructionist Jews, our right to worship as we see fit, our right to choose who our rabbis are, does not exist in Israel.
This is a shanda, a disgrace, and I am angry! Our brothers and sisters in Israel need our help. They need our support. If you haven’t seen the videos of Anat Hoffman’s arrest, do so. They are shocking. You won’t believe how she was treated; you won’t believe how the Torah she so lovingly carried was treated. You can find the videos posted on the Women of the Wall’s website (womenofthewall.org.il).
My friends, this really is not a feminist issue – this is about religious pluralism in Israel. It is about our “flavor” of Judaism being recognized as legitimate. It is about the rights of non-Orthodox Jews. It is about who we are and what we stand for.
We must take action: I urge the women in our congregation to join with Jewish women around the world in sending a photo of you holding or reading from a Torah scroll to the religious and government leaders of Israel.
Between now and October first, the Women of the Wall will be collecting photographs of women with Torah scrolls. The goal is 10,000 pictures to be sent to Israeli leaders. Simply download your photos at the Women of the Wall website and they will forward them to the appropriate Israeli leaders. From the conclusion of our final service today until October first, whenever our synagogue building is open, women and post-Bat Mitzvah girls are welcome to come into the sanctuary, take a scroll out of the Ark, and take a photograph. Let’s not allow Women of the Wall to stand alone in the struggle to pray and read from the Torah safely and rightfully.
My friends, both female and male (!), I urge you to join me as we fight for religious pluralism in our homeland. Join the Association of Reform Zionists of America (A.R.Z.A.). Join the World Union for Progressive Judaism. (If you’re not familiar with the W.U.P.J., it is the international umbrella organization of the Reform, Liberal, Progressive and Reconstructionist Movements. The World Union serves 1,200 congregations with 1.8 million members in more than 45 countries.)
You don’t have to be female to join the Women of the Wall. This tallit, which I am wearing for the first time on this holiest of days, is a Women of the Wall tallit. Every time I wear it, every time I look at it, I will be with all who are fighting for religious pluralism, for equality in Medinat Yisraeil. And when you see me wearing it, I hope you also will be reminded of our fight for religious pluralism. Better yet, buy a Women of the Wall tallit of your own! (They come in three different colors.)
I urge you – men and women of Congregation Shaarey Zedek – to stand up for our rights in the holy land, to support our brothers and sisters in Israel who are fighting this fight, to support the organizations such as the Association of Reform Zionists of America and the World Union for Progressive Judaism who speak out for our rights in Israel. Our voices must be heard if Israel is to truly be a homeland for all Jews.
G’mar chatimah tovah.
May you be sealed for a good year and may this year be a year of peace for Israel and the entire world.