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.

Leave a Comment

Skip to content