Rosh Hodesh--the New Moon--has long been associated with women (for obvious metaphorical reasons) and Women of the Wall use it as an opportunity to come together at the Kotel, usually resulting in some number (at the very least, founder Rabbi Anat Hoffman) getting arrested. Today, despite 300 men and women coming together including nearly a minyan of the 1967 Six-Day War Liberators of the Kotel, 10 women were arrested, including two American rabbis (one of whom happens to be Sarah Silverman's sister. Yes, that Sarah Silverman).
Ironically, today also saw the funeral of Rabbi David Hartman, founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute. An Orthodox rabbi, he became one of the great progressive voices in Halakha, writing several books, promoting a progressive valuing of women within Halakha, and bringing rabbis of all stripes together annually for intensive and transformative study. That might not sound like much, but remember, a rabbi is first and foremost a student and teacher of Torah. To come together with a diverse group of colleagues who, under other circumstances, might NEVER associate with one another, and study a page of Talmud together over weeks at a time in Jerusalem, was to create understanding that might not happen any other way.
I never studied with Rabbi Hartman; with his son Donniel, on one occasion. But I read his books, and looked forward to a time (perhaps a sabbatical) when I could bring my family to Jerusalem and take the time to study deeply with people different than me, be challenged by those people, and come back to my congregation renewed. Frankly, reading his works renewed in me the sense that we as Progressive Jews have as much claim to the Halakha--to the Torah itself--that others would want us to deny. While certainly there are times when rejecting Torah can be justified (or at least feel satisfying), Hartman was one of those who taught me that it is that much more powerful to root progressive values in text authentically that is no less radical than the rejection thereof, and in fact may be even more radical.
So to have Hartman laid to rest the same day when women are arrested for wearing a tallit at the Western Wall because the garment is STILL associated with men, to me, marks a great sadness.
Shmuley Boteach, in an op-ed for the Jerusalem Post, lamented the lack of a "Jewish Billy Graham" or "Jewish Martin Luther King":
But one searches in vain for the Jewish Billy Graham or the Jewish Martin Luther King. Where are the great spokesmen of our people to teach the world of Jewish charity, Jewish education and Jewish values? Why are we not training a generation of media and press ambassadors to expose and reverse the fraudulent accusations against Israel that are daily occurrences at the UN, the BBC and the Arab press? A few years ago I was to meet the Jewish head of a national television network. The producer who had arranged the meeting with a view toward the executive buying into my idea for a TV show said to me, “The man you are meeting is very influential and very secular. He’s going to be wary of you as a rabbi so whatever you do, don’t mention anything religious.”
I understand that idea; just the other day I was speaking to my dad of how once there was a generation of rabbis (Roland Gittlesohn, Ferdinand Isserman, Joseph Soloveitchik, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Levy Olan, Abba Hillel Silver, etc.) who commanded a national presence in a way that few do today. Some of that is our more fragmented world; as Lena Dunham quipped in an interview : there is no such thing as a 'voice of a generation' today. And while Graham and King commanded a national spotlight, neither were perfectly loved throughout their ministries. I feel as if we have lost such an individual; that Hartman was a kind of Jewish Graham, if not a Jewish King. In The God Who Hates Lies, Hartman writes:
I developed a theology, based on the concept of covenant, that understands the relationship between God and the Jewish people as one of intimacy and partnership. This covenantal model—in which God not only tolerates but demands and delights in Jews’ taking of responsibility for ever-increasing dimensions of our individual and collective lives, infusing every element of human endeavor and experience with religious meaning and purpose—describes a religious anthropology characterized not by slavishness and a howling sense of inadequacy in the face of an infinite commanding God. Instead it resurrects the vital and precocious religious spirit of the Talmudic Rabbis, who understood that the implementation of God’s will amid the complex considerations of human society and psyche requires, at times, the full and fearless assertion of our intellectual independence. The covenant struck between God and the Jewish people was not exclusively a call to unconditional obedience; it was equally a call to empowerment and an affirmation of human adequacy.
That theology could--should--influence us today. We should see ourselves as partners, not called to obedience, but empowered, affirmed, to see halakha not as boundaries but as a jumping-off point, an educational model, a way to struggle with the moral and ethical challenges of our day, which are legion. If only more people would have listened to Hartman. Then we might all see that the idea of arresting a woman for wearing a prayer shawl and giving thanks to God would be preposterous, and Rosh Hodesh Adar would be a time to rejoice indeed.