Monday, October 22, 2012

Questioning Clal Yisrael

I just finished reading This post by Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu from CLAL, itself a response to this op-ed in the Harvard Crimson. The latter describes a student's attempt to find community at the Harvard Hillel and discovers himself the lone Reform Jew in a sea of Modern and Ultra-Orthodox Jews, and that sense of alienation and minimization that comes with such an experience. Sirbu, in turn, writes to emphasize that such alienation shouldn't lead us to oppose the other, criticizing how "Orthodox bashing has become vogue for many secular Jews" (The author of the Crimson op-ed bounces between 'secular' and 'Reform' as a self-descriptor, so I assume that's why she uses the term). She goes on to criticize this fear of the other and encourages a stance of curiosity

 I am not an Orthodox Jew. I too disagree with many political positions, and practices the Orthodox community engages in. But I am a pluralist. I believe there is space for many different kinds of Judaism. I can observe Judaism the way I choose to and you can too. Somehow this message is not being taught to our children. Each community is so concerned about educating our children about “our” kind of Judaism be it Reform, Conservative, Orthodox or other, and are so concerned with keeping the kids in their particular fold that the concept of “Clal Israel” of the entirety of Israel formed of different tribes and different ways of doing things has fallen by the wayside.  
I find myself struggling with this sentiment in light of what's happened with Women of the Wall, and recent encounters online (never a good start) where Anat Hoffman were called Extremists, and where it was suggested that my unmitigated support for them was extremist as well.

I love the idea of 'Clal Yisrael', that we are all one cohesive group, and there are times where that imagery is helpful. But too frequently, it is that very idea of "the entirety of Israel" that is used to quell dissent or the pluralism Sirbu holds dear. Instead of encouraging curiosity into the others' values, it promotes a kind of maximal-minimalism: rarely are progressive Jewish values taken into consideration, but Orthodox values are seen as 'acceptable to everyone' so they are encouraged. Instead of allowing a full-throated and meaningful conversation about Israel and the best policies to encourage a strong, diverse Jewish State, 'Clal Yisrael' is invoked to cast anyone who disagrees with the status quo out of the mainstream and out of the discussion. Rather than used to encourage liberal voices to speak up alongside traditional voices, it's used as a cudgel to keep order. Sirbu herself, albeit unintentionally (I assume) falls into this pattern herself: while she sympathizes with the alienation the college freshman describes in his article, she calls him to task for Orthodox bashing, rather than explore what might be at the root of the dilemma  why don't liberal Jewish students feel welcome in so many Hillels? Why is his experience minimized, the burden of open-mindedness placed on him, and not the Orthodox students at Hillel?

Worse, frequently 'Clal Yisrael' is used to create a moral relativisim: somehow a woman singing the Sh'ma in public makes you an extremist and provocateur no different than the Orthodox man who throws acid or ink at that woman. 'Clal Yisrael' was invoked when the Reform Movement began ordaining women (never mind giving them a full voice on the bimah), when we reached out to Interfaith families, when we recognized individuals as Jews regardless of parentage, when we advocated for a full voice for LGBTQ Jews in our community. Each time we were told that we were breaking with 'Clal Yisrael'. Each time peace mongers (to steal a phrase from Ed Friedman) insisted that we were being divisive and were causing the Jewish people harm. Advocates for peace with the Palestinians are routinely told the same thing today. "Clal Yisrael" has even been invoked by "post-denominationalists" (who I find are rarely truly post-denominational) as a way of saying that movements are dinosaurs, are part of the problem, and should shut up already. Guess what? Judaism is not only surviving, but thriving, with greater creativity than ever before, in part because of the advocacy of our movements, not in spite of that advocacy.

In a fantastic article, Rabbi Eric Yoffie talks about why most interfaith dialogue doesn't work.

Most of the time -- and it is painful for me to admit this -- it is terribly boring. Most of the time there is a tendency to manufacture consensus, whether it exists or not. Most of the time we go to great lengths to avoid conflict. Most of the time we cover the same ground that we covered last month or the month before. And far too often we finish our session without really knowing the people across the table and what makes them tick religiously.

Yoffie then spells out what works in good interfaith dialogue:

First, meaningful dialogue happens when the conversation turns to our religious differences. Platitudes are set aside when, as representatives of our faith traditions, we cease to be embarrassed by the particular; when we put aside the search for the lowest common denominator that most often characterizes -- and trivializes -- our discussions; and when we recognize that absent a clear affirmation of who we are, how we are different and what we truly believe, all our conversations are likely to come to nothing. 
Second, interreligious exchanges become compelling when my colleagues and partners give expression to their religious passions. I am drawn in when they share with me their deepest beliefs and strangest customs, no matter how radically other they are from my own. And the sharing of religious passions should lead to passionate debate, in which we struggle with the really hard questions: What happens when conflicting beliefs lead to conflicting interests? What do we do about those areas where differences cannot be bridged and must be dealt with?
Third, interreligious dialogue truly touches us when we can discuss what we all know to be true but what we rarely say: that, in some ways at least, we all believe in the exceptionalism of our own traditions. We all tend toward the conviction that there are some elements of our religious beliefs and practice that stand above and apart from what other religions offer, and it is liberating when we are able to acknowledge this and then explain why we think that way, without apology but open to the honest reactions of those around us.

What Yoffie argues for interfaith dialogue is just as true for intrafaith dialogue. I'm all for promoting "Shalom Bayit", peace in the home, but real peace comes from justice, and supporting your own beliefs, not appeasement and an attitude of "can't we all just get along". I'm all for curiosity and learning and openness, but too often that openness is shut down in order to avoid conflict. By all means, let's find common ground, but let's not make "kumbaya" moments for their own sake. Sometimes we disagree, sometimes we think--we know--the other is wrong. Good, let's fight it out in the marketplace of ideas, and let's allow that conversation to get heated. Let's get in each others' faces. Let's push. Let's challenge. Let's talk about who we are and what we do unapologetically, with nothing to prove to the other. But when we invoke 'Clal Yisrael", let's do so with caution, lest we find ourselves giving up on our convictions to make sure no one's offended.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Hannah, Henrietta and Anat: Women of the Wall and Real Zionism

This past Simchat Torah I left a scroll in the ark, as I've done the last couple of years. I started doing it when members of Women of the Wall (Nashot HaKotel in Hebrew) were arrested, and the police tried to take away their Torah scroll while they prayed at the Kotel, or the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem. The idea that women could not carry a scroll, could not have equal standing at a Jewish Holy site that should be open to all, was anathema to me. This year, when I made my announcement, it felt somehow trope-like, as liturgies and traditions often do, and I wondered if it was time to put that tradition away.

This week proved me wrong.

As many of you know, Anat Hoffman, head of the Israel Religious Action Center, was meeting with about 200 members of Hadassah at the Western Wall, when she began leading them in the Shema. For that act, singing "The Watchword of our Faith", was arrested , shackled, dragged across the floor of the police precinct, strip searched, and released only on condition that she not return to the Wall for 30 days. Two other Leaders of Women of the Wall were arrested leading services for Rosh Hodesh Cheshvan (the beginning of the New Month of Cheshvan).

Others have written more eloquently on the subject already, including at Jewschool and my colleague Wendi Geffen's piece at Huffpo. Hadassah has come out with a brief resolution supporting Hoffman and WoW as well, as have the Women's Rabbinic Network, Women for Reform Judaism, the URJ, USCJ, and a whole alphabet of Jewish organizations.

It simply boggles my mind that we're still having this conversation, that a woman can be arrested for reciting the Shema in public, that words of prayer can be called incitement. It conjures up images of Hannah, Samuel's mother, in the High Holiday haftarah, whispering her prayer, and being railed against by Eli the Priest for her drunken behavior. Only instead of stern words from a cohein, this version has Hannah dragged across the floor of the sanctuary, shackled and banned from the sacred precinct.

Perhaps it shouldn't surprise me: with young girls becoming targets of terrorists for wanting to learn to read, perhaps we should expect this behavior, where women in our own country make 72% less than their XY counterparts (the link takes you to a great interactive map showing exactly how disparate the wage gap is state by state). But Israel was supposed to be a place of Egalitarianism, has espoused itself as a place of equality, where women teach men how to serve in the army and serve as Prime Minister. Instead those principles are threatened so we can validate and placate an extremist minority.

I say 'we' because, as Zionists and supporters of Israel, we bear a responsibility. When we spend more time talking about Iran at AIPAC and external existential threats rather than the internal issues that threaten the Common Weal; when groups like Hadassah honor Prime Minister Netanyahu with the Henrietta Szold award when it is his government that perpetuates the "Status Quo", one that Szold herself would have rallied against, when we refuse to speak on the corrosive nature of these issues because we fear our reasoned and thoughtful discourse will be turned into antisemitic demagoguery by those on the right and left with an anti-Israel agenda, then we, bluntly, are the ones who are responsible. And unless we do more to raise awareness and speak out against this anti-egalitarian, backwards and shameful policy, we will continue to be to blame.

Fifteen Years ago, when Bibi was voted out of office, there was a placard that many protesters held up: "We don't want to become Iran". Sadly, that placard is still relevant, that slogan still ringing in my head. Real Zionism is one where we don't sacrifice our values to help support an Israel we cannot recognize. Real Zionism is where we fight for an Israel that believes in all Jews and Jewish expression. Real Zionism doesn't permit a woman to be locked up and strip searched for wearing her tallit and singing the shema. Real Zionism endorses the sentiments in this prayer 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.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Starting Fresh, letting go of grudges

Below is a modified version of this Shabbat's sermon, which will be given as this week's "The Rabbi Speaks" at WDEL. I've been thinking about this subject matter a great deal since the high holidays but even more as recent events unfolded in the life of my friends.

This weekend, I'm doing a wedding for longtime friends; specifically, the groom and I have been friends for 20 years. His group of friends (who have been my longest-time buddies since high school) go back nearly to the womb. At some point 10 years ago, one from the group, who had been there from the beginning, got into a fight with the others, which turned into a nearly 10 year grudge. He didn't talk to us, and we didn't talk to him (though there were occasional overtures . After a while the resentment gave way to just a sense that this was meaningless, the anger subverted by a sense of purposelessness. Which is why I was really glad to get this picture from the bachelor's party--The groom to the left, the 'missing man' in the middle, everyone reunited (the fourth member of the merry band, Stephen Day, is the one taking the shot).

So here's to the beginning Torah again, renewal, and letting go of grudges in the new year.