I am crying. Really crying. Appropriate for Tisha B’Av. Last week’s news coming out of Israel for liberal, progressive Jews makes me very, very sad.
First on Rosh Hodesh Av, the start of the nine days leading up to Tisha B’av when tradition teaches that both temples were destroyed, Anat Hoffman, who heads the Israeli Religious Action Center and Women of the Wall, was arrested at the Wall. Her crime: carrying a Torah. I have already written about this. But seeing her manhandled by Israeli police and soldiers for trying to celebrate Rosh Hodesh is very troubling. Troubling is not strong enough word. The next day, Anat Hoffman went to Knesset and was not allowed to bring in her tallit into the Knesset. It was deemed a security risk. Really, fabric a security risk?
Her arrest does not even conform to halachic guidelines as laid out by the Talmud and subsequent law codes. There are some myths—let’s set them straight. A woman can not defile a Torah by handling it. A woman is permitted to handle a Torah and to read from the Torah. A woman is permitted to wear tallit and tefilin.
Second, the Rotem Conversion Bill passed its first reading in Knesset. Much has been written about this in the past week. I urge you to sign one of the many petitions and to write directly to members of Knesset. Passing this bill will greatly change the status of Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora. Conversions and marriages recognized in the Diaspora will not be recognized in Israel. Why is this so troubling? Two reasons. First, during World War Two, a person was subject to arrest and death if only one grandparent was Jewish. No one was checking conversion papers. If the reason for the State of Israel is in direct response to the atrocities of the Holocaust, then Israel cannot deny status morally to Jews who were persecuted in the former Soviet Union for instance. Second reason, most relevant for Tisha B’av, is that we are told that the temples were destroyed because of sinat chinam, senseless, blameless hatred, not of an outside enemy, but internal strife and division. This is exactly what is happening now in Israel. The haredi, the ultra-Orthodox feel that only their understanding of halacha is correct and it must be preserved and protected at all costs. That is not my reading of halacha. The Talmud artfully preserved many arguments and positions. There is even a term, d’var achar, another opinion. Rabbi Akiva taught that there were 70 faces of the Torah, 70 correct interpretations of scripture. In fact, while we have been taught about the Pharisees, the Saducees and the Essenes during the Second Temple period, there may have been as many as 70 different sects, including one, celibate like the Shakers, comprised entirely of women. Like the Shakers, with no way to reproduce, they eventually died out.
What drives these two events? Ultimately fundamentalism. The belief that only the haredi, the Orthodox, understand true “Torah Judaism”. There is much beauty in Torah Judaism, in following the mitzvot, in celebrating the holidays, in the community that they create.
I loved studying texts at a deep level when I was in Jerusalem and at a yeshiva. I loved seeing everyone dressed in white to welcome Shabbat. I loved the home hospitality and the sitting around singing songs and discussing texts to the wee hours of the morning. I loved the sense of safety and peace walking through the quiet streets of Jerusalem. I didn’t like the stones that were thrown at women, the daughters of Israel, who were not dressed modestly or at people who were violating Shabbat as they defined it. I didn’t like them, even then, when my Jewish status was questioned because my name is Margaret (not very Jewish).
This is not a new story. It is one I have been concerned about for 30 years. These issues go back further. I watched the movie Exodus this weekend with my family. The roots are all there. I am not sure we are any further ahead then in 1947 which the events the movie portrays took place or 1960 when the movie was filmed. These concerns even go back to Biblical and rabbinic times, thousands of years.
Jonathan Kirsch in his book, The Harlot by the Side of the Road, in discussing the rape of Dinah contrasts the threat of the stranger, the other, with an internal threat. He asks about the difference between Jacob’s peaceful response and Simeon’s and Levi’s blood letting. He believes that it has more to do with protecting Israelites from intermarriage than defending Dinah’s honor. He contrasts it with Jews who couldn’t believe that Germans could perpetrate such atrocities in the Holocaust and went peaceably to gas chambers, sometimes even carrying a Torah with them versus those in the Warsaw ghetto that fought to defend themselves or the modern Israelis. It is a painful but important chapter. He concludes his chapter with very appropriate and controversial words, “The taunting words of Simeon and Levi—’Is our sister to be treated as a whore.’—may be blood-stirring and soul-shaking, especially in light of recent history, but it turns out to be the wrong question to ask at a time when men and women in what we still call the Holy Land are all too willing to raise a sword against each other because each one persists in regarding the other as a stranger.”
Today we are at a painful and important chapter in modern Israeli history too. When those who had been oppressed use that very oppression to justify oppressing others. When those who fear because of their own losses and terrors cannot see beyond and forget the dream, then hope can be lost. The images from this past week, this past month are haunting. A woman carrying a Torah, marched to a paddy wagon, denied the next day to even carry into Knesset a tallit. A bill passing its first reading in Knesset denying Jewish status to hundreds of thousands of Jews.
The first Shabbat after Tisha B’av is called the Shabbat Nachamu, The Shabbat of Consolation. Despite the images of the last week, there are glimmers of hope—just sparks that need to be fanned, a prime minister restarting peace talks and halting building of settlements, thousands who are signing petitions and making their voices heard both in Israel and in the Diaspora. I have to live in that place of hope.
So today I weep and mourn—both for the destruction of the temples long ago and for what is happening in Israel today. Tomorrow I act again. I stand for peace. I stand for pluralism, here and in Israel. I stand with the prophets who urged us to take care of the widow, the orphan and the stranger, 36 times, just as they urged us to have no foreign gods and not to marry foreign wives. I stand with Israel. Tomorrow I sign more petitions about the conversion bill and urge MKs to vote accordingly. I urge you to do the same.
Links to some interesting sources of information and oppportunities for action about the Rotem bill:
Information on the Proposed Rotem Bill
Reconstructionist Statement on the Israeli Rotem Conversion Bill
Monday, July 19, 2010