Friday, September 22, 2017

RH Day I: The Unbearable Rightness of Being

Today, in lieu of an introduction, let’s just dive right into the text. Acharei HaDevarim Ha’eileh, after all these things, God tests Abraham. Why? Alas, the Torah is often bereft of details. God’s motivations for testing Abraham are not given to us, so we have to wonder, what was God thinking? Why did God feel the need to test Abraham to begin with?
Bear in mind, it was Abraham who willingly went along with God, when God told him to leave behind everything he knew for a new land. It was Abraham had proved his loyalty to the idea of tzedek, to justice, by arguing with God over the fate of Sodom and Gemorrah. It was also Abraham who even circumcised himself when he was 99 years old. This, as an aside, was the origins of the Yiddish word, “oy!” So we might foolishly think Abraham had proven himself by this point.
And yet, there is still something gnawing at God. Is God worried that Abraham will chose family over God? Is God concerned that Abraham would be willing to do almost anything, but in the words of Meatloaf, “he won’t do that?” All we know for certain is God said to Abraham, “take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering…”[1] Why?
To understand, let’s try a different reading of the text. Perhaps God is confident that Abraham, the same one who wrestled with God over the nature of justice and mercy would never, in a million years, even contemplate offering up Isaac as a sacrifice. God was certain that Abraham would past the test by not offering up Isaac. God believes Abraham will demonstrate his loyalty by saying, “no!” Abraham, who heeds God’s call, does what God asks of him. So, if this is the case, why doesn’t God stop him at this point? We’ll get back to this question.
Let’s turn our attention to Abraham. Abraham gathered his son Isaac, his two servants, his donkey, the firestone, and the wood for the burnt offering. Again, the Torah gives little insight here. What was going on in Abraham’s mind? And again, we have to speculate. Was Abraham so determined to be on the side of God that he was willing to do whatever God asked of him? Or was Abraham so assured of his relationship with God that he knew deep down God would never ask him to ever do such a thing as offer up his son? So sure was he, that he was willing to risk it all to prove his faith in God. Is it possible that Abraham was so certain that God would put a stop to this that he was willing to bet Isaac’s life on it?
And then there is Isaac. The midrash teaches us that Isaac was no mere boy but instead a man. He could have easily overtaken his father and walked away. And we gain insight from the text that Isaac must have had an inkling of what was going on when he asked his father, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”[2] These words drip with the deepest of concern as Isaac was anticipating the worst. But if he knew all this, why did Isaac go along with it?
The Midrash[3] provides us with an insightful story into Isaac’s thinking. As it goes: “Isaac and Ishmael argued over and over again as to who was more righteous. “And it came to pass after these words” that Isaac and Ishmael were in dispute.  Ishmael said: “It is right for me to be the heir of my father, since I am his first-born son.”  But Isaac said: “It is right for me to be the heir of my father, since I am the son of Sarah his wife, but you are the son of Hagar, the handmaid of my mother.”  Ishmael answered and said: “I am more righteous than you, because I was circumcised when thirteen years old; and if it had been my wish to refuse, I would not have handed myself over to be circumcised.”  Isaac answered and said: “Am I not now thirty-seven years old?  If the Holy One, blessed be He, demanded all my members I would not hesitate.”[4]
Ishmael argued he was more loyal because he allowed himself to be circumcised as a teenager. Isaac pushed further stating that if asked, he would allow himself to be offered as a sacrifice. So determined to best his brother, Isaac would die rather than be proven wrong.
So we have three determined characters, who are about to change the history of religion.
And then the scene unfolds. “Abraham built an alter there; he laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the alter, on top of the wood. Then Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son…”[5]
God was certain Abraham would not go through with it. Abraham was convinced that God would put a stop to it, and Isaac, for his part, believed nothing more important than proving his loyalty to his father. All three of them were certain they were right. Because of this, something terrible was about to happen. All because each person is so convinced of their sense of conviction, they perhaps could no longer see why they were even there atop Mt. Moriah.
It was only at that moment, when Isaac was about to die by his father’s hand that an angel stepped in and called out, “Avraham, Avraham.” And Abraham answered, “Hinei, I am here.” The angel went on to say, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him, for now I know you fear God since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.”[6]
It was only then, when another party interceded, do they all back down. It was only when the angel stepped in that Isaac was replaced with a ram, and no one, except the ram, was physically harmed. Emotionally … well that is a different story…
Now admittedly, we are having a little fun with the text, perhaps even reading a little too much into it. I will certainly grant you that. But when reading the Akeida this way, we can see the inherent danger of believing ourselves to be absolutely right no matter the circumstance. God was right. Abraham was right. Isaac was right. And if they were all so right, how did they end up all being so very, very wrong?
The lingering question is then: in our desire to be right are we willing to run the risk of offering up our own version of modern-day Isaacs?
To borrow from a recent article in Forbes magazine[7], “self-diagnose by asking yourself this simple question: ‘Do I think I’m always right?’ Give an honest answer – no caveats. You may not want to admit it, but if you catch yourself justifying it, then you have a problem. Always being right can be wrong. It can turn people against you, stifle conversations and ideas, and make people want to avoid you altogether.”
Now most of us know someone in our lives who always has to be right, who always has to have the last word. And this position can often lead to frustration, anger, failed relationships, and break downs in the greater community.
Instead of striving to be right for the sake of being right, is there a Jewish way we wonder? Of course. But to find the answer we first turn to the debate between two of the greatest rabbis in our tradition: Shammai and Hillel. Little is known of these two rabbis or their subsequent followers. What has transpired in their debates is the general belief that Shammai was the one more knowledgeable in the law, and more just in his decisions. However, when it came following the rulings, the rabbis almost always followed the arguments of Hillel because Hillel always erred on the side of compassion as is illustrated by the classic Midrash:
One famous account in the Talmud[8] tells about a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism. This happened not infrequently, and this individual stated that he would accept Judaism only if a rabbi would teach him the entire Torah while he, the prospective convert, stood on one foot. First he went to Shammai, who, insulted by this ridiculous request, threw him out of the house. The man did not give up and went to Hillel. This gentle sage accepted the challenge, and said: 
"What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the commentary--go and study it!"
Here we are beginning to gleam a different kind of approach to the most persistent debates of our times. We know many of them from the news: immigration, refugees, climate change, terrorism, dreamers, sexuality and gender, and so many more.
Now I could stand here and provide a Jewish perspective to each of one of these questions. For those of you who agree with what I put forth, you would say that, “Rabbi is right.” And for those of you who disagree, you would say either, “Rabbi has somehow managed to pick and choose from tradition” to “it doesn’t matter what the rabbi said, because I am right, and he is abusing the nature of the pulpit.” Each side would feel confident about their feelings, their opinions, and their thoughts, and none of us would leave with the opportunity for personal, spiritual, and communal growth.
I will side step this issue for the moment, and instead encourage you to maybe take a different look at how we approach these conversations.
I recently was introduced to a fascinating book entitled Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom. What Professor Bloom is doing with his book is attempting to challenge our very notions of how we let empathy cloud our decision-making process.
As Bloom described in a Wall Street Journal article, “When most of us talk about empathy, we mean what psychologists call emotional empathy. This goes beyond mere understanding. To feel empathy for someone in this sense means that you share their experiences and suffering—you feel what they are feeling … emotional empathy is a different matter when it comes to guiding our moral judgments and political decisions. Recent research in neuroscience and psychology (to say nothing of what we can see in our everyday lives, shows that empathy makes us biased, tribal and often cruel.[9]
What Bloom is arguing is that if we respond to core issues merely on an emotional level based on a perceived empathic connection; what we are doing is potentially setting ourselves up for failure. This is because when using empathy, often times, only one side can be right. And which side is the right one? Why the side I empathize with, of course.
For example, we can empathize with the immigrant or the coal miner. We can empathize with the black lives matter protestor or the police officer. We can empathize with second amendment advocates or with victims of gun violence. One side is right, while the other side is not only wrong, but potentially dangerous. In so many of these instances, what we have here is not a lack of empathy, but perhaps too much empathy when making our arguments. Or to put it another way, empathy makes it hard to see the validity in the arguments made by those who disagree with us.
So what is the answer? As Bloom argues in his book: “Moreover, when faced with more difficult problems, we think about them – we mull, deliberate, argue. This is manifest in the discussions we have with family and friends over the moral issues that arise in everyday life. Is it right to cross a picket line? Should I give money to the homeless man in front of the bookstore? Was it appropriate for our friend to start dating so soon after her husband died? What do I do about the colleague who is apparently not intending to pay me back the money she owes me? …
Our moral circle has expanded over history: Our attitudes about the rights of women, homosexuals, and racial minorities have all shifted toward inclusiveness. Most recently, there has been a profound difference in how people in my own community treat trans individuals – we are watching moral progress happen in real time.
But this is not because our hearts have opened up over the course of history. We are not more empathic than our grandparents. We really don’t think of humanity as our family and we never will. Rather, our concern for others reflects a more abstract appreciation regardless of our feelings, their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love.”[10] “Their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love.”
What Bloom is arguing, is for an approach more akin to Hillel. Rather than arguing simply to be right, we should instead be arguing through a lens of rational Jewish compassion. “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbor.” See the humanity in your fellow human being, even if you disagree with them.
The truth is, when it comes to complex societal issues, there are certainly more legitimate solutions than others. That when we approach these problems, rather than being self-assured in our rightness, we need to be willing to listen, to hear out other points of view, try to see differing perspectives, and to work to come up with compassionate solutions. And some of these solutions not every one will agree with.
For example, we as a congregation, have committed to working with HIAS on issues relating to refugees and immigrants. We have supplementary information on this effort outside our sanctuary in case you wish to learn more or get more involved. This effort is based on the Jewish value of welcoming in the stranger. Note this is the value our tradition embodies, but it does not prescribe the solution. This is because our tradition also argues that the strangers in our midst should also follow certain rules of the greater community as well. Therefore, the conversation should not be about whether or not we should be welcoming in the stranger and the refugee, but rather as to how.
Similar arguments can be made with regards to healthcare, the environment, and so many more. We should start with the question: what is the underlying Jewish value? Does Judaism believe healthcare is a privilege for those who can afford it, or an obligation of the community? Does Judaism believe we have thoughts on our responsibilities to leave the world better than we found it? The short answer is yes to obligations and responsibilities. But those are only the underlying values, not the solutions. Where a rabbi can get into trouble is through offering up political solutions leaving the teachings of Torah by the side. But there are Jewish approaches to wrestling with these modern day political, social, and societal challenges.
To find the answers we need to wrestle with the question of: what is the best rational, compassionate response? Recognizing that we will often disagree on how to apply the Jewish value or values. But hopefully we can at least begin the conversation on the basis of shared Jewish rational compassion. Then we can strive to see merit in alternative approaches, when they are based on the same Jewish values. The values that are embodied in the enduring lesson of that which is hateful to you, do not do unto others …
To argue in this way requires a sense of humility. After the Akeida, according to tradition, Abraham and Isaac never spoke again, and Sara, died shortly thereafter. So even though Isaac lived, nothing was ever the same even with regards to Isaac’s relationship with God. None of them was willing to humble themselves and let go of their righteous indignation over what transpired. And because of their quest to be right, rather than to be compassionate, everyone was hurt. Everyone was scarred. And no relationship was ever the same.
To borrow from famed Car Talk Co-Host, the late, great, Tom Magliozzi, who when discussing marriage, offered up the following rhetorical question: “would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?” A great question to be sure. But perhaps we can play with a little and instead ask: “would you rather be right, or would you rather be content?”
Because all too often, for us to succeed in this journey. We have to know there is no guarantee we can always have both.
Contentment is best illustrated in the words of Micah, “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid,”[11]
And now does one accomplish this great feat we wonder? Again, we turn to the words of our prophet Micah: “God has shown you … what is good: And what does God require of you but to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.[12]
In this New Year of 5778 may we find the commonality of shared Jewish values based on compassion. May we find the strength to overcome our desire to be right and instead work to be correct. And may we rediscover our ability to genuinely listen to each other especially in such challenging times. We may not agree on the solutions, but we should always start with the premise of seeing the humanity in each and every person. To do this requires a greater sense of humility and humbleness. And from these beginnings may God help us to bring a greater sense of justice and mercy in to the world, just as we seek greater mercy from God during these High Holy Days. And if we can, we may just be able to help seal the world into the Sefer Hayim, the Book of Life for a year of blessing, prosperity, and peace.
Cayn Yehi Ratzon, May This Be God’s Will
L’shana Tova



[1] Genesis 22:2
[2] Genesis 22:7
[3] Targum Pseudo-Jonathan (ca. 7th-8th centuries C. E.) on Gen 22:1
[4] http://thetorah.com/mitigating-the-akedah/
[5] Genesis 22:10
[6] Genesis 22:12
[7] https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidsturt/2016/11/02/why-always-being-right-can-be-wrong/
[8] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat 31a
[9] ttps://www.wsj.com/articles/the-perils-of-empathy-1480689513
[10] Bloom, Paul, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Harper Collins, 2016, pg. 239
[11] Micah 4:4
[12] Micah 6:8

Friday, August 18, 2017

On Idols, Idolatry, and Statues

New Orleans completes removal of Confederate monuments with take down of Robert E. Lee statue

http://www.theadvocate.com/new_orleans/news/article_40dccfac-3c91-11e7-8121-83e3757dd400.html

In this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, we find a continuation of Moses’ second sermon to the Israelites. A significant part of the conversation is focused on reminding the Israelites of what they are to do when they conquer the land of Canaan. This comes with a particular emphasis on not falling prey to the foreign gods of the Canaanites.

With this in mind, Moses tells the Israelites of the “laws and rules that you must carefully observe in the land that Adonai, God of your fathers, is giving you to possess, as long as you live on earth” (Deut. 12:1). 

To this end they are to, “tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name for that site” (Deut. 12:3).

There is a lot of emphasis on idolatry both in the Torah and in the Neviim, the prophetic writings. One might think that God has an inferiority complex because God constantly demands the destruction of idols.

But there is something else going on here. Idols are man-made objects. They are the creation of human hands designed to represent something. The problem with idols is that it is of our human inclination to worship the work of our own hands rather than celebrate God’s creation. It is not that God has an inferiority complex, but rather God is concerned that we will elevate our idols above all that is holy.

What seems to be clear is a warning against making the work of our hands into false gods. Statues too can fall into this category. This is the core of what we are wrestling with as a nation. The question is are some of our statues a demonstration of history or an idol representing supremacy? 

If one places the needs of statue above the humanity of a fellow human being, they have effectively made that statue into an idol. 

Tearing down idols is both a physical and metaphorical ideal. It is about placing God and divinity at the center of our world. Only when we tear down the idols of hate, can we truly make the land holy for what is good and decent. 

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Thoughts on Charlottesville


In the very first Captain America, created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby showed their new creation punching he-who-will-not-be-named in the face, a full year before the U.S. entered WWII. It was a deliberate decision as Simon and Kirby were "morally repulsed" by the actions of Nazi Germany. As Simon later said, "The opponents to the war were all quite well organized. We wanted to have our say too." The first issue of Captain America went on to sell over a million copies. We fight Nazis, that is what we do. We do not embolden them because we believe in taking on hate in all corners, at all times, in all places. 

Let's get a few facts out of the way. The Civil War was fought over the desire to own fellow human beings. General Robert E Lee was a traitor. The myth of General Lee may be lauded by many, but the man was no saint. His statue and other similar statues have been erected not to commemorate the Civil War but to intimidate. The US fought a war against the Nazis. Millions were killed by the Nazis and millions more died fighting them. These are facts, not beliefs. 

What transpired in Charlottesville this past week was not a one time event. It represented a corruption of history by some who believe their skin color and religion make them superior to their fellow human beings. Why they keep allying themselves with history's losers says much about their psyche.

As a result, one warrior against hate was murdered in an act of violence. Many more were injured including some seriously. And two law enforcement officers died while doing their duty to protect the public.

I for one am angry. I am angry that we have to keep fighting battles already won. I am angry we have to keep fighting hate. But I am also hopeful. For the dozens who stood up for hate, hundreds stood up against it. Clergy marched arm in arm. Fellow human beings, fellow Americans of all races, religions and backgrounds said, "No! Not in my back yard!"

When it comes to hate there are only two sides. The right side and the wrong side. To those who stand with Nazis and the KKK, you are on the wrong side. Plain and simple. 

Yes, we will need to keep having conversations and continue the hard work of coalitions to fight against the persistent, endemic, infections of racism and antisemitism in this country, but in my heart I believe love will defeat hate. Maybe not in our day, but one day. 

May the memories of our latest warrior against hate, Heather Heyer, always be for an abiding blessing. She did not deserve this. By all accounts she was a good and decent person. Yet we are reminded that when hate rears its ugly head, it is often the good and decent who suffer sometimes the most.

We will not remain silent. We will not equivocate. We will stand with the righteous of all nations and give hate no quarter. It will find no sanctuary. As long as we remain united, it will not win.

And then we shall one day see the vision of Isaiah come to fruition where all shall live under their one vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid.

Friday, July 7, 2017

It's Like Talking to a Wall

(http://www.timesofisrael.com/robinsons-arch-decision-exposes-women-of-the-wall-rift/)
On June 7, 1967, in the words of Michael Oren, former Israeli Ambassador to the US in his book Six Days of War, “men from both the Jerusalem Brigade and 71st paratroopers converged in the (Western) wall, ecstatic and all but oblivious to the persistent sniper fire. Rabbi (Shlomo) Goren (the IDF’s chief chaplain) broke free of the three soldiers (Lt. General Mordechai) Gur had designated to restrain him, and ran headlong to the wall. He (Goren) said Kaddish … blew his shofar, and proclaimed, “I, General Shlomo Goren, chief rabbi of the Israeli Defense Forces, have come to this place never to leave it again.” Crammed into the narrow space between the stones and the ramshackle dwellings of the Mughrabi Quarter, the soldiers broke into spontaneous songs and prayers. Above them, the Star of David was hoisted.”[1]
For the first time since 1948, Jews were able to pray once again at the retaining wall, the closest site to where the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple stood, in ancient days in Israel. And for the first time since Roman days, Jews had authority and control over the Kotel, the Western Wall.
There is a picture entitled: The Western Wall on a Friday which was taken some time between 1867 and 1914.[2] In this picture, you can see men and women in traditional garb praying side by side in a very cramped almost alcove. It is striking in part because there is no mechitza, and there must not have been a religious authority overseeing the site.
Speaking of which, as I mentioned, the Western Wall dates back to the second century BCE, though the bottom stones may be part of an even older structure dating back to the first Temple. The retaining wall was expanded upon by King Herod to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. When completed the Temple represented one of the great wonders of the ancient world, that was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 C.E. as commemorated in the Arch of Titus in Rome.
Though not part of the Temple, the Kotel or Western Wall has been viewed as one of the holiest sites in Judaism. One of the great ironies to this is that as a Diaspora people, we have been very reluctant to give places a sense of sanctity. Instead we tended to live by the words of Jacob after his dream of the stairway to heaven, “God was in this place and I did not know it.” Meaning, God can be found wherever we look for God.
All that being said, the Kotel nonetheless has become a vital symbol of Judaism and Jewishness, and no trip to Israel is complete without a visit to the Kotel.
However, following the Six-Day War, Orthodox religious authorities, funded by the Israeli government have taken control of all religious observances at the Kotel. They have erected a mechitza (a dividing wall) thus no longer permitting men and women to pray next to each other. As an aside, the tradition of the mechitza was not originally Jewish, we actually borrowed it from early Christian traditions.
And in more recent times the ruling Orthodox authorities have banned women from holding Torah scrolls, leading services, wearing a tallit and/or tefillin, or singing out loud at the site. They have also banned mixed gender worship services.
Egalitarian Jews abroad and in Israel have fought back. The most well-known group is the Women of the Wall which was formed in 1988 to fight for the rights for all Jews to be able to share in the sacred space.
As their mission states, “The Kotel is the only remaining wall left of the Second Temple- the place where our ancestors went to seek G-d. We aspire to do the same: with prayer, reverence, and joy. Freedom to worship at the KoteI is one of the most important outcomes of the Jewish people’s return to Jerusalem in 1967, but this great achievement is tainted by the fact that women are prohibited from praying freely at the holy site. The Kotel is a central symbol of Jewish unity to Jews around the world. 
If, as tradition tells us, the Temple was destroyed because of sinat hinam   baseless hatred – we dare to assert that allowing our voices to be heard would be no less than a tikkun, a mending, of the history of intolerance.”[3]
Many of you have seen the pictures and videos of the hatred and vitriol spewed towards the Women of the Wall, and some of you may have or may know of others who have supported their cause. It all came to a head in 2013 when Prime Minister Netanyahu tasked the Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky to come up with a compromise which would finally enable diverse Jewish practice at the Kotel.
“This kicked off several years of very intense negotiations. It involved the Jewish Agency, The Jewish Federations of North America, Reform and Conservative Movements, Women of the Wall, the rabbi of the Kotel, and representatives of the Israeli government. It also involved archeological authorities, the Waqf (Muslim religious authorities) and even the Jordanian government. As you can see, all invested and interested parties were invited to the table to participate in the negotiations.
An agreement was reached to upgrade and in essence create an egalitarian prayer space at Robinson’s arch, which is an underdeveloped section along the southern end of the Western Wall. The Knesset approved this agreement in January 2016.
Nonetheless, there was incredible pressure by the ultra-Orthodox to halt the plan. For close to 18 months, the Israeli government avoided moving forward with the plan. Then this past Sunday, June 25th, the Prime Minister and his government voted to formally freeze the Kotel Resolution.”[4]
As many of you undoubtedly know, outrage by the greater Progressive community has been swift. Rick Jacobs and the URJ cancelled a meeting with the Prime Minister. The JFNA condemned the resolution as a “threat to Jewish unity.” Even AIPAC, has approached the Prime Minister stating that this ruling could undermine support for Israel in Congress. Bibi in one fell swoop has done something not seen since the attempt to overturn the Law of Return some 30 years ago, which was to unify the non-ultra-Orthodox Jewish world. Sadly, he united it against the Israeli government.
In response the CCAR has issued the following statement, “Today's decision calls into question whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a man of his word. The Prime Minister, whose name is on the January, 2016 agreement on behalf of his government, has apparently caved in to the extremist views of his ultra-Orthodox (Hareidi) coalition partners. Moreover, this decision further strains the relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israel, and makes it increasingly difficult for our rabbis to make the case of support for Israel.
The prophet Isaiah, preaching of a messianic future about the Temple itself, prophesied, "Let my House be a House of prayer for all people." Our pre-messianic goal is more modest, that the Kotel could be a place of prayer for all Jews. The Kotel is a powerful symbol but unfortunately one that exemplifies the inequalities and indignities to which Reform, Conservative and other non-Orthodox Jews are subjected in the Jewish State every day.
Reform Rabbis join our Reform and Conservative Movement partners -- and our Orthodox partners, too, along with Jewish communities worldwide -- who will continue to struggle on behalf of Jewish religious equality at the Kotel and throughout Israel.”[5]
Locally, I have met with Gary Siepser and Lisa Green, the heads of our local federation as well as the Rockland Board of Rabbis. We will be issuing a joint statement against this ruling, and the Rockland Board of Rabbis will also be issuing its own separate statement as well. The plan is to continue to inundate the Prime Minister and the Knesset with our outrage and anger at this latest slap in the face towards the greater Jewish community and Progressive Judaism. Or as one commentator put it, “when you’re at odd with Natan Sharansky, that should tell you right away that you’re in the wrong corner.”[6]
But there are a couple of lingering questions: #1 – why should we care? And #2 – what can we do about it?
With regards to #1 – I will admit that I am not a big fan of the Wall. I have visited it many times. One of my favorite memories was going there after Kol Nidre Services where it serves as a place for all the young single people to meet and greet. Yes, I know, of all places for people to find potential dates. But the Kotel also represents a time of Judaism that I am thankful is long gone. We no longer follow the sacrificial cult, and I, for one, am in no hurry to return to it.
All that being said, if the Kotel is one of the central symbols of Judaism, then there needs to be a space for all Jews to be able to approach it according to their understandings of tradition rather than just for a select few. This fight is more than just about a wall, it is about the ultra-Orthodox hegemony over religious life in Israel, which in a way represents a de-legitimization of religious life outside of Israel as well. So yes, I believe we have a vested interest in this fight.
Also, one of the foreboding elements of the Pew Center Poll is that more and more young people are feeling not only disinterested in Israel, but even antipathy towards it. Yes, Birthright has helped to fight this. But it makes it all the more difficult to make the case for Israel, especially to those who do not have the modern historical connection like those of us who were witnesses to 48, 67 and 73. Why should they care about Israel if Israel doesn’t care about them?
Also, this is one issue we can do something about. The Jewish world is divided about issues like the security wall, the peace process, and the like. Part of the reason for this is that these issues have more to do with Israel’s security and national agenda. However, the Kotel is all about Judaism and Jewish observance, something by which we not only have a right to participate in the conversation, but I also feel, we have an obligation to make our views known as well.
Which leads us to question #2, what can we do about it? One response is disengagement. There are some out there who are saying, enough already. I no longer have any desire to be involved in Israel, to travel there, or to donate to Israeli causes. There are many problems with this approach, least of which, it will not further our cause.
Instead, we should get more involved, if anything. But more specifically involved. Yes, we are still planning our trip to Israel next spring. Even before the issue of the Kotel came to a head, the trip was planned to focus on progressive life in Israel where we were and are scheduled to meet with heads of the Reform movement and the Israel Religious Action Center in Israel. So if you are on the fence, please come and join us on the trip.
Secondly, I am hoping we can, as a congregation, focus more on our support of ARZA (Association of Reform Zionists of America), the WUPJ (World Union for Progressive Judaism), the Israel Religious Action Center, and the AJC. I have already been in contact with some of these organizations, and will continue to explore what we can do as a community to help support their efforts on behalf of Progressive Jews here, abroad and in Israel.
You are also encouraged to write letters to the Knesset, to the Prime Minister and even to Natan Sharansky (thanking him for his efforts). But most importantly, we are not give up hope. Israel is the only Jewish Democratic State that is supposed to represent the best in Judaism and Jewish tradition. It fails in this endeavor just as much as it succeeds. Our voices matter! If we wish to see Israel represent the homeland for all Jews, we must be part of the conversation. For it would be a shame if a wall is what ultimately came between us.





[1] Oren, Micahel B., Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, pgs. 245-246.
[2] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/fouad-debbas-western-wall-pictures
[3] http://www.womenofthewall.org.il/who-we-are/
[4] JFNA Background: Israel Government Decision Regarding the Kotel
[5] http://ccarnet.org/kotel-statement/
[6] David Horovitz “He broke it, he must fix it.” Times of Israel