Rabbi Yair Robinson
Sermon Parashat Vayigash
“What is the price-current of an honest man and patriot today? They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect.”
These words, written by Henry David Thoreau, from Civil Disobedience, have been at the forefront of my mind in the last week, as protests rocked the State of Israel. Not over economic considerations, nor over peace (or the lack thereof), but because an 8-year old girl was spat upon. In Beit Shemesh a week ago, a dati—that is to say, religious—girl, was walking to her school. Her arms were covered, she was wearing a long skirt. She was observing tzniut to any reasonable halakhic observer, and a haredi—so-called Ultra-Orthodox—man spat upon her, and said she was dressed as a prostitute. Her crime? Her collarbone was showing.
This is, of course, not the first act of violence performed by the Harediim of late. Their war against women has been going on for decades, throwing ink at women reading Torah by the Western Wall, calling women who wandered into the wrong neighborhood shikses and worse. But in the last year things have gotten worse: rabbis calling for Orthodox Jews in the army to leave if a woman’s voice is heard at a secular, military event. There have been often violent attempts to ban women’s images in advertising in Jerusalem. There have been attempts to create segregated seating on public transportation, including just this past week a haredi man calling a woman in her military uniform, returning home on leave, a prostitute and trying to force her from her seat on the bus. Just capture that image in your mind: a woman in uniform, who is defending the Jewish state, a place of refuge for all Jews, is called a shikse and a whore by the very person that woman is protecting.
Thankfully, in the latter case, the individual has been charged with sexual harassment, but I’m sad to say that this is the exception, not the rule. Too frequently women on buses are left to fend for themselves, and too frequently the government says nothing, or little, but does encourage those same haredi political parties to join their coalition. Moreover, those same harediim, after years of having their misogynistic, racist and anti-Zionist idea of Judaism accommodated, chose to riot last night rather than admit that their idea—which resembles Iran more than the Halakha!—should be removed from the national stage.
And so, Secular and non-haredi religious Jews—including Progressive and Masorti Jews—rallied in Beit Shemesh for the madness to stop. Shimon Peres and Tzipi Livni called for the madness to stop. Binyamin Netanyahu asked his haredi partners in government to please kindly settle down. But my fear is that we will continue to coddle, continue to accept and accommodate, out of some mirror-world idea of what diversity means. That somehow our values of egalitarianism, of real pluralism, of a Judaism that recognizes the Godliness in all, should take a back seat to someone else’s bigotry, lest they be offended. Or because that’s the way it’s always been in the Jewish world. Or because we as American Jews don’t somehow have a right to speak Truth—real Truth—to those in the Israeli government who are distorting what a Jewish and Democratic state is meant to be.
This week’s parasha begins with Judah defending his brother Benjamin from the Vizier of Egypt—really Joseph in disguise. He doesn’t just bow and ask nicely—he speaks truth to power. He scolds. He chastises the most powerful man in the world because of the lack of justice he sees. Joseph forgives his brothers not just because they try to save Benjamin, but because they have been transformed from people who hesitated doing the right thing and then regret their decision to people who immediately act in pursuit of justice.
We would do well to do the same. Yes, signing online petitions is a good first step, as is sending money to groups like the Israel Religious Action Center and ARZA. And as I said at the high holidays, we need to go to Israel and stand in solidarity with our Progressive Brothers and Sisters fighting the good fight. But we need to fight here as well. We need to rediscover our voice, to find ways to advocate for the kind of Judaism and the kind of Israel we want, one that really seeks l’taken olam b’malchut shaddai, to bring about the repair of the world—an end to bigotry, an end to the use of religion to espouse bigotry, an embracing of all—for the sake of Heaven. Rabbi Jonah Pesner of the URJ has called for increased activism in our congregations and we must heed the call. And we must be unafraid to make mistakes, to insist on our vision of Judaism, a Judaism that belongs to all, as much as they insist on theirs, even if it means suffering under the false accusation of being anti-pluralistic.
Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, and an Orthodox Jew, wrote: “The truly righteous do not complain about evil, but rather add justice; they do not complain about heresy, but rather add faith; they do not complain about ignorance, but rather add wisdom.” It’s time to live up to our namesake Judah, to add justice, to add faith, to add wisdom, instead of hesitating and regretting and waiting for someone else to pick up the tab. Amen.