Categories
Israel Social Justice

In Solidarity with Our Israeli Colleagues Part 2: The Interrogation of Rabbi Dubi Hayoun

The following is the response of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, issued by our colleague Rabbi Gilad Kariv, after the police interrogation of Rabbi Dubi Hayon of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement. We stand in support of our Reform and Conservative colleagues in Israel against these outrageous and shameful actions, and reaffirm our longstanding belief that the stranglehold of the Orthodox monopoly in Israel must be broken.

At 5:30 am this morning: Rabbi Dubi Hayoun, Rabbi and leader of the Masorti Conservative community in Haifa, woke up to police officers hammering on his front door, questioning him on the “charge” of holding a chuppah (marriage ceremony) based on a complaint filed by the rabbinical court of Haifa. Today, Rabbi Hayoun will speak at the President Rivlin’s event in honor of Tisha b’Av, alongside key figures and leaders from the entire spectrum of Jewish streams. Never before has the battle waged over the spirit of Judaism in Israel been more pronounced.

The Reform Movement in Israel is outraged at the interrogation of Rabbi Hayoun, of the Conservative Movement.

The summons of Rabbi Hayoun to a police investigation is a disgrace! We are certain that this investigation will not bear fruit – Rabbi Hayoun, along with hundreds of other Reform and Conservative Rabbis, hold weddings in Israel every day. However, the very essence of this investigation is crossing a red line! We demand that the Attorney General intervene immediately and order an end to this outrageous investigation which is not only against Rabbi Hayoun, but against hundreds of Conservative and Reform rabbis in Israel, and against the tens of thousands of Israeli couples who chose them to officiate their Jewish ceremony of marriage.

This investigation is yet another expression of the aggressive behavior of the rabbinical establishment in Israel, supported by government authorities, against Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism. We will not be deterred by this behavior, and we believe that we will eventually succeed in breaking up the Orthodox monopoly on religious affairs in Israel.

We will continue to officiate at marriages of marry thousands of couples each year. We will continue to accompany tens of thousands of Israeli families in moments of sorrow and joy. We will continue to fight this ugly wave of fanaticism. And we will continue to fulfill our promise as expressed in Hatikvah our national anthem: “Lihyot Am Hofshi b’Artzenu” – to be a free people in our country.

Later today there will be demonstrations in Jerusalem and Haifa against the Orthodox chief rabbinate monopoly on marriage.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv serves as the Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ)

Categories
Social Justice

Why I Do Not Mourn on Tisha B’Av

Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month Av, is a Jewish day of mourning associated with the Babylonian Destruction of the First Jerusalem Temple in the year 586 BCE. It is also the day when the Second Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. And, it is said, the Jewish expulsion from Spain took place on the 9th of Av, 1492.

I do not observe Tisha B’Av; I do not fast or mourn on that day. Events associated with Tisha B’Av may be considered disasters for some, but, to me, those events all demonstrate the remarkable resiliency of the Jewish people and the historic opportunities that might never have been realized without exile.

This year, I happened to be in Berlin the week of Tisha B’Av, and I found myself visiting the Pergamon Museum — specifically the Gates of Ishtar, the monumental gates to the ancient city of Babylon.

I stood at the Ishtar Gates in the Pergamon Museum. I imagined my ancestors in 586 BCE led into captivity from the modest backwater of Jerusalem, marching their way in the barren desert from the Jordan River to the Euphrates. Suddenly in the distance they saw in the intense sunlight, a brilliant blue, massive structure shimmering and rising out of the sands. They were led along that triumphal processional boulevard lined with walls decorated in brilliantly colored bas relief of mythical wild animals.

These gates were the first things the exiles of Jerusalem 586 BCE must have seen as they entered the great Capitol city of Babylon. Surely they were mourning their fate and doubting their future and the future of their people and faith. They had worshipped the Hebrew God in the Temple of Jerusalem. God “resided,” if you will, in the Holy of Holies built upon the Temple Mount. But all that was destroyed. To the conquered defeated captives it must have seemed that Judaism had come to an end at the hands of the mighty Babylonian army. But Judaism didn’t die. Instead, it was re-born.

Though they were in Exile from Jerusalem, it would be in Babylon that Judaism would undergo one of its earliest creative transformations. They discovered that the personal, tribal God of Judea could be encountered anywhere. God was universal, not limited to one earthly location.

Babylon was where they also developed major concepts of Jewish religion. There, Judaism began the slow transformation from Temple sacrifice to Torah, study, and synagogue. Rabbis and teachers would eventually replace a dynastic system of priests.

I was struck by the idea that here I was, 2,700 years later, standing at the reconstructed ruins of a mighty civilization, the Babylonian Empire of Nebuchadnezzar. In 586 BCE, one could stand at the mighty Gates of Ishtar and imagine Babylon lasting forever. A Judean exile from destroyed Jerusalem would have been justified to put on sack cloth and ashes and assume that Judaism had come to a dead end. Yet here I was, a rabbi of Judaism, 2,700 years later, representing a vibrant culture and civilization. History allows for irony.

Many destructions and exiles would follow. Tisha B’Av marked the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in 70 CE and the exile from Spain in 1492, but in every case, Judaism adapted and responded with creativity and innovation. Eventually the experience of exile brought much of the Jewish world to the shores of America.

The story of American Jewish life is truly remarkable.  There has never been in all history a more vibrant, dynamic, creative Jewish community than this one. This is not just the most prosperous and successful Jewish community, but America itself has achieved much of its own success due to our contributions—and the contributions of all its immigrants over these 600 some years. We have fully adopted the words of Jeremiah: “Seek the well-being of the city of exile. If it prospers, so too will you prosper.”

Exile has brought us to America. With its many flaws, this country has truly been a place of blessing, and, like Abraham, the Jewish people have blessed America with talent, energy, loyalty, and creativity. That is why I do not mourn on Tisha B’Av.

Let me now return to Berlin and the second week in August. I had a specific purpose for being in Germany this summer. A group of fifteen Reform rabbis went on a very short study mission organized by IsraAID, a remarkable organization focusing on disaster relief throughout the world. In Berlin, they are engaged in continuing aid and support for the refugee community and for those who serve them. This is perhaps the greatest humanitarian crisis of our generation.

It was a privilege to get to know the people from IsraAID. They were uniformly young, most under 30. They were Israeli Jews, Palestinian Citizens of Israel, Druze Israelis, Christians, Jews, and Muslims. We met American college kids spending their gap year as volunteers working with IsraAID on programs for the refugees as well as for German children learning about the stories of the exiles. There were some Jews of Berlin and Israelis living in Germany. There was one 85 year old Jewish Holocaust survivor who spends one day a week at a community center teaching German to Syrian children.

IsraAID workers are training others, teaching German, computer skills, helping with job searches, and childcare, offering much needed psychological support for those who have experienced the trauma of war and terrifying escape. We visited a community support center for LGBTQ refugees.

Who were these Syrian refugees? Our assumptions, prejudices, stereotypes were often wrong. Many of them are middle class and educated. Many spoke English or German. Nearly all of them hoped to stay in Germany or Europe. While the Germans hoped the war would end and the Syrians could eventually return back home to the Middle East, most of these exiles wanted to begin a new life. Their greatest desire was to escape the terror and war.

Why do we care? Why would a bunch of young Israelis – Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze – care about Syrian refugees? Why did a group of American Reform rabbis, from throughout the US, care about the refugees? It is our narrative, our story, our memory, our teaching. How do we remember our own past? Why do we remember our past? We were exiles. We were strangers in a strange land. We were outcasts in the Land of Egypt, and in countless lands since then. We remember the plight of exiles, dispossessed, and refugees. We are commanded to fight for the rights of the stranger, to protect the outcast, to provide for the homeless, the landless. We knew Egypt and Babylon, Rome and Spain.

And we must also remember our own experience in America. We know the results of fear and xenophobia which shut the gates to America after WW I and in the early 1920’s, and we are profoundly aware of the tragic consequence when America was not a shelter for the Jews of Europe about to be sent to their death. The arguments that were made then might seem familiar to us today. The echoes resonate in today’s headlines. There were those then who claimed that there might be dangerous spies or terrorists among the refugees from Europe. In the early years they pointed to Emma Goldman among the Jews, or Sacco and Vanzetti for Italians. The anti-immigration forces raised fears of organized crime or Irish terrorists. They said: Lock the gates. Turn inward. America First. In the late 1930’s, Charles Lindbergh, Henry Ford, and Father Charles Coughlin claimed that German spies might be hidden among the Jewish refugees attempting to escape Hitler and the Nazi death machine. They claimed that Jewish refugees were a danger to American security.

We are the children of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel. We trace our roots back to Babylon and Ur and Nahor, Aram Naharaim –the birthplace of Abraham and Sarah. Nahor is today a place where South Eastern Turkey meets Northern Syria. It is the region that today is Aleppo. It is now a place facing destruction, genocide, and death.

We too were wandering Arameans, outcasts and strangers. Let us never forget who we were and what we have been called to do and become…in order to remain partners with God in repairing the brokenness of this world, freeing the captive, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger. Abraham was commanded: “Lech lecha.” Leave Nahor, your land, your birthplace, the land of your fathers, and go to a new land. There I will bless you, and you shall, in turn, be a blessing. Today’s refugees from Nahor, Aleppo, and elsewhere must be rescued, welcomed, and resettled. May they too become a blessing.

Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon serves Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, IL.

Categories
News

Sinat Chinam

We have just observed Tisha B’Av- the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. One of the least understood of the Jewish holy days, Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, the release of the edict of the expulsion from Spain in 1492, and other terrible events in Jewish history. Jewish tradition asks: Why was the second temple destroyed? The rabbinic answer? Sinat chinam— baseless hatred. The rabbis believed that hateful speech can destroy a temple, can destroy a community, can destroy a nation.

I remember when I first was studying the amendments to the United States constitution in 7th grade. Our teacher, Mr. Buncis, taught us a profound lesson one day: that even our most dearly held rights have limits. When we challenged him on that statement with regards to the 1st amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech, asserting, as 7th graders are wont to do, that freedom of speech is absolute, he said, “not according to Oliver Wendell Holmes.”

At that time, we didn’t know who Oliver Wendell Holmes was, and, Mr. Buncis being who he was, wasn’t about to make it easy on us. He cancelled class, sent us to the library, and told us to not come back until we knew whom Oliver Wendell Holmes was, and why Mr. Buncis would reference him in this context.

So off we went to the library, unaccompanied. Off we went to look at actual books. If we had only had Wikipedia back in those dark and hormone-filled days, we would have been back in a flash. But we had to wade through actual tomes, card catalogues, biographies. I made my way to the World Book Encyclopedia, selected the volume for the letter “H,” and began to read what you may already know.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was an associate justice of the Supreme Court from 1902 to 1932. As I began to read about him, someone else from my class, from deep in the recesses of the stacks of the Brookwood Intermediate School library, shouted out “clear and present danger!” I didn’t know what that meant, so I went back to reading about Holmes. There is so much to say about him; he was a veteran of the American Civil War. Among other things during his long tenure on the Supreme Court, he advocated broad freedom of speech under the First Amendment. Reading this, I wondered why Mr. Buncis pointed us in his direction? Wouldn’t Holmes have agreed with us 7th graders– that there should be no limits on freedom of speech?

It might seem that way, but it turns out that even Oliver Wendell Holmes, champion of free speech in America, understood that there were limits.

In 1919, Holmes wrote for the majority in the Supreme Court in a case called Shenk v. United States. In the opinion he writes, quote:

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. […] The question in every case, [Holmes writes] is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.

Shouting fire in a theater– I’d heard that phrase before, but didn’t know where it came from. Clear and present danger– I loved that movie, but I didn’t know that Oliver Wendell Holmes had coined the phrase.

So it turns out that our right to free speech isn’t unfettered; when our speech is designed to cause panic, when it seeks to incite evil, we are not free to utter those words, and more, we must be held accountable for our language, lest the walls of our temple coming tumbling down.

There are moments when words bother me, when a person says something I simply abhor, but I choose not to pick that fight, because I know that the person has the right to speak their mind, even if I think they’re wrong. It’s the First Amendment at work, just like Oliver Wendell Holmes would have suggested.

And then there are other moments- times when I can’t stay silent, when, I believe, people of faith and conscience can’t stay silent, because what is going on in society is so seismic, so utterly inconsistent with our values, that silence becomes consent. There are moments when someone is shouting fire in a theater, and we have to recognize it for what it is– intentionally panic inducing, evil inciting, creating a clear and present danger.

This is such a moment. This is a moment when I wonder what I would tell my children if they later asked me why I said nothing.

Let’s be clear. There are deep differences in political philosophy in this congregation and in this country. There are those who believe that government should be minimally involved in the lives of American citizens, and those who believe that government has a larger role. I respect those differences; they stem back to the founding of our great nation, to the room where it happened.

As a rabbi, I want to foster healthy, respectful dialogue about these political differences; I intend to help my community be perhaps one of the few places in our modern lives where we can disagree without being disagreeable. I intend, too, for the community I lead to be proudly political without being partisan: I believe that Judaism demands both things of us. What I am addressing here is not about partisanship. It is about about is how we should treat, approach, respond to a person– any person, of any political persuasion, who falsely shouts fire in a theater to cause panic, to incite evil.

There’s a long and inglorious history of American politicians saying things that are vile and reprehensible. But even against that, the current political climate is extreme.

With which shouts shall we start? There is a candidate for President who implied that gun rights fanatics might consider taking the law into their own hands should the wrong presidential candidate be elected or the wrong judge be appointed. That any presidential candidate of any political party might speak in such a way that leaves it open to interpretation and the debate of talking heads whether or not he meant to advocate for the assassination of his political opponent is morally, spiritually, ethically, and religiously irresponsible at best, and criminal at worst. I condemn this furor-whipping, and I look forward to seeing the condemnation of his words by peoples of all faiths and no faith, by people from every political persuasion. The first amendment right to free speech is limited in certain ways, and this rhetoric steps way over the line.

Yes, the first amendment gives anyone the right to say vile, reprehensible things– denigrating women, mocking people with disabilities,  berating war heroes and their families. That is their first amendment right, as hard as that is to believe, as much as it makes me angry as a Jew, as a human being.

But when a presidential candidate uses his or her pulpit to expound racial hatred over and over again; when they consistently vow to ban an entire group of people from entering this country based on their religion; when a person proudly proclaims they can shoot people on the streets of New York with impunity; and when they imply that violence against someone they disagree with might be warranted, such a person has gone beyond the realm of politics and political party. They have gone beyond what our founders meant when they crafted the 1st Amendment. Mr. Buncis taught me that. Oliver Wendell Holmes taught me that. And our vast Jewish experience teaches us this lesson as well.

When a candidate for the most powerful elected office in the world speaks in this way, they are falsely shouting fire in a theater. They seek not to convince us of their perspective, but rather, they intend to incite panic and fear. They seek to sow seeds of anger. They seek to fan the flames of hatred. When they do this, they are not even pretending to expound a particular political philosophy; they skip right over that legitimate endeavor to incite mistrust, to dehumanize races and classes and genders and ethnicities. Sinat chinam— baseless hatred– is such a person’s stock in trade when they use this language. And, as we see over and over in videos from rallies this election cycle, these strategies work. People who are fed angry, hateful messages are whipped into an angry, hateful frenzy.

I urge you to take time now to consider the sinat chinam, the baseless hatred, that is being spewed in our nation today. Consider well whether you will be silent, for fear of being accused of violating the right to free speech, or whether you will speak out. The walls of the temple of American democracy are trembling.

Rabbi Joel Mosbacher serves Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City. 

Categories
News Reform Judaism Torah

Tisha B’Av: Modern Destruction

As I write this, Jews around the world are preparing to commemorate Tisha B’Av. On Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed not once, but twice: first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and again by the Romans in the year 70 CE.

Tisha B’Av is a day of communal mourning. It is similar to Yom Kippur in its observance – Jews fast during Tisha B’Av and refrain from doing anything enjoyable. Since the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 CE, Tisha B’Av also commemorates the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, numerous pogroms, and other tragic events that have befallen upon our people.

Of course, it is quite doubtful that each of these events transpired on the actual 9th of Av. But by placing our communal tragedies and misfortunes onto this one date, we have the chance to mourn together. gives us a chance to heal together. During my first year in Israel at HUC-JIR (1999), Paul Liptz suggested that the 9th of Av becomes a spiritual bucket for our misfortunes in order for us to get on with our lives the other 364 days a year.

During the recent months, there have been many days of mourning. In many ways, today is Tisha B’Av. Our world seems to be rampant with racial tension, political discord and senseless violence and death.

A few weeks ago, over 80 people were mowed down by a truck driver in Nice, France. In our communities, each of us have mourned deaths in Turkey, Dallas, Brussels, Israel, Baghdad, Orlando, Baton Rouge… the temple is getting destroyed again, and again.

On Tisha B’Av, as we mourn the destruction of the temple, we read from the book of Lamentations:

How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave.

The very name of this book, Lamentations, reminds us that we must learn how to lament – how to mourn. Too often in our communities, mourning turns into anger or blame. Instead of mourning the loss of a child, some blame parents. Instead of crying at the loss of life due to gun violence, many (myself included) turn to Facebook and act as “armchair lobbyist.” But Lamentations teaches us differently: Instead of proposing solutions, or laying blame, the most appropriate response to tragedy is to be together to bear witness, to mourn, to lament.

Just before its conclusion, Lamentations offers us a bit of hope:

Restore us to yourself, LORD, that we may return; renew our days as of old.

This reminds us that we are never so far astray as to remove all manner of hope. But the onus is not upon God to restore us. The responsibility is on ourselves.

Generations after the destruction of the 2nd Temple, our rabbis taught us that the reason for the destruction of the Temple was Sinat Ha’Am – the hatred amongst people.

We still have not learned the lesson. Sinat Ha’am is very easy to find these days. When we are able put an end to this senseless hate, we will be renewed as in days of old. Yes, the onus is indeed on us. Until then, God laments and mourns alongside of us.

2000 years ago, our 2nd Temple was destroyed. I continue to pray for the day within our lifetimes that our communities do not add even more tragic events to the commemoration of Tisha B’av.

Rabbi Eric Linder serves Congregation Children of Israel in Athens, Georgia. 

Categories
Reform Judaism

Reclaiming Tisha B’Av

If Pesach is the Jewish holiday most celebrated by American Jews, Tisha B’Av is the most second-guessed. Modern Jews don’t know quite what to do with it. Most Jews and probably all Reform Jews do not yearn for the Temple to be rebuilt or for the priesthood to be restored. We are followers of Rabbinic Judaism, not the Israelite sacrificial cult. So the question naturally arises: Why mourn what we don’t miss?

 

One early American Reform leader, Rabbi David Einhorn, went so far as to make Tisha B’Av a happy celebration in his siddur, Olat Tamid (1896):

“The one Temple in Jerusalem sank into the dust, in order that countless temples might arise to Thy honor and glory all over the wide surface of the globe… The true and real sanctuary, They imperishable testimony, remained ours, untouched and undimmed… In this our hope, this day of mourning and of fasting hath, according to the word of Thy prophet, been turned into a solemn day of rejoicing in view of the glorious destiny of Thy law and our high messianic mission which had its beginning with the historic events which we recall today” (Olat Tamid, Rabbi David Einhorn, trans. Emil Hirsch, S. Ettlinger: 1896, Chicago, pp. 144-145).

This transformation of a day of ancient mourning into a modern universalistic festival spoke to the classical Reform principle of being a light to the nations by spreading ethical monotheism to the world. The Diaspora, made possible by the Temple’s destruction, enabled our noble mission.

Notably, Einhorn’s liturgical innovation predated both the modern state of Israel and the Reform Movement’s support of Zionism. Einhorn’s solution to the Tisha B’Av question does not work for us today because it lacks balance and because the Jewish world has changed dramatically.

A fitting Tisha B’Av rite for the postmodern Jew should embrace the themes of loss, destruction, and weakness while also acknowledging the unprecedented prosperity and security of most Jews today. There is haunting beauty and spiritual richness in sitting on the floor in a dimly lit sanctuary, hearing the cantor chant Eichah. Not to mention that the themes of destruction and exile resonate today in so many places around the world. Tisha B’Av can be an opportunity to cultivate our capacity to care. (As I write this, a refugee team is competing in the Rio Olympics. Look no further than those champions to learn about exile and resilience.)

A balanced Tisha B’Av would include mention of our people’s triumphs as well. We should emphasize what makes the Jewish reality today so different than in 586 BCE (the Babylonian exile) and 70 CE (the Roman destruction). The state of Israel exists as an economic and military powerhouse, and the American Jewish community is more prosperous than ever. Neither is without its challenges, but our crises pale in comparison to our ancient forebears’. Let us feel gratitude for our blessings even as we pledge vigilance in the face of our challenges.

If nothing else, Tisha B’Av is a chance to retell part of our people’s story. The power of storytelling creates a sense of belonging and shared purpose, and even a sense of responsibility to carry on the story. Psychologists who study family storytelling have determined that the most powerful family narrative type is the “oscillating” narrative: We had struggles but we overcame them together. So many of our historical holidays touch that theme. Tisha B’Av is often a missed opportunity to retell part of that story – the ups and downs and everything in between. With some intentional planning and thoughtful implementation, we can honor Tisha B’Av’s origin and make it matter again to the Jews of today.

Rabbi David Segal serves Aspen Jewish Congregation in Aspen, Colorado. 

Categories
Social Justice

A Lamentation and a Journey

עַל אֵלֶּה | אֲנִי בוֹכִיָּה עֵינִי | עֵינִי יֹרְדָה מַּיִם כִּי רָחַק מִמֶּנִּי מְנַחֵם מֵשִׁיב נַפְשִׁי הָיוּ בָנַי שׁוֹמֵמִים כִּי גָבַר אוֹיֵב: פֵּרְשָׂה צִיּוֹן בְּיָדֶיהָ אֵין מְנַחֵם לָהּ

For these things, I cry out.  My eye, my eye pours down water, because the comfort that would restore my soul is far from me. My children are desolate, because the enemy has prevailed. Zion spreads open hands, but she has no comfort.         Lamentations 1:16-17a

Churches are burning again in the United States, and I am swept back two decades.

It was June of 1996 and I had just arrived back on the East Coast and was trying to integrate into my community at Hebrew Union College in New York.  I received a note from Rabbi Nancy Wiener, one of the faculty at HUC, who invited anyone who was interested to travel with her and some other student volunteers to Boligee, Alabama.  There, working out of a Quaker Workcamp, we would volunteer for a week to help re-build some of the churches burned in a wave of hate-filled arson that had swept through black churches in the South.

The experience was transformative.  Travelling with cantorial and rabbinic students, I felt proud that this could be my job – to travel with my congregants to place ourselves and our hands in service of others in need. The hospitality was humbling. The church women refused to let us bring our own food the jobsite – they insisted on cooking for us, every day.  They said it was the least that they could do.

I felt good about the spackling and sanding that I was doing, but I did not quite understand until Tisha b’Av.  Named after the date at which we are told that the Babylonians destroyed the first Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE and the Romans burned the second Temple in 70 CE, it is the only other full day of fasting and mourning in the Jewish tradition, besides Yom Kippur.  As a Reform Jew, the holiday had been of historical interest to me, but I failed to grasp the visceral impact of losing one’s house of worship – until our group decided to hold our Tisha b’Av commemoration at the former site of the church we had come to rebuild.

These churches were small – hardly more than a central room for worship, an office, and a kitchen.  We stood on the blackened ground of the sanctuary and, as the sun set, were surrounded by the grave markers of at least a century of parishioners.  These local churches were small in population as well – only a few families, who had been members for generations, whose families were buried surrounding their worship home.  The law did not allow this community to build in what had become a cemetery, and so their new house of worship – although strong and clean, would stand alone several miles down the road, without the presence of loved ones.

For me, that was when it hit home.  I thought about how I had felt when I lost the synagogue that I grew up in – the loss of a place to come home to at the High Holy Days; the place that I had known I would see the same faces (a little older), in the same seats.  But, that Temple still exists, I was just no longer a member.  How much more the loss by our ancestors, with no place to travel to at each pilgrimage holiday, no direction to turn when praying, no high hill to stand on and look out over the capital, the graves of ancestors, the history of generations, the promise of a people.

Three years later, in my first year at my present congregation, we learned of a fire set at a friend’s congregation.  That Tisha B’Av, I asked each congregant to find a place in our building where they had a special memory.  We travelled from room to room, picking up people and hearing their stories, building a mental map of our Temple.  Finally, we each made a fabric square, illustrating and completing the phrase, “A Temple is a House of….” which were sewn together into a quilt which we sent to Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento.

We see Tisha b’Av as a grand historical moment – the transition from animal sacrifice to prayer and rabbinic Judaism.  Our Reform forebears saw it as a moment to be celebrated – the beginning of our mission into the greater world, to be a light among the nations, not apart.  And yet, there is the personal sense of loss that we have forgotten: the pew no longer present; the yahrzeit plaque melted into slag; the prayerbooks scattered and burned.

In reaching out to others, I rediscovered the loss of my people.  In feeling that loss, I was able to see not only what they had lost, but what it meant to them for us to be there, just to show with our physical presence that they were not alone, not abandoned, that not everyone wanted to wipe their home of worship from the earth.

On Tisha b’Av, we read from what is called in English, Lamentations, in Hebrew, Eicha.  Eicha is a barely articulate cry – “How?”  How can this have happened?  How can I deal with this loss?  How can I face a new reality, when my rock has been shattered?  We may have no answers to this plea, but we have actions to share the burden.  We will walk from Selma to Washington, DC with the NAACP’s Journey for Justice and we will say: Tell us of your pain.  We may not be able to fully understand it, but we can listen; we can try to carry some of that weight.  We can say, we will not let someone do this to you again, without putting ourselves in their way.

Eicha – how?  How can we do anything else?

Rabbi Joel N. Abraham serves Temple Sholom of Scotch Plains/Fanwood, NJ. 

Tisha b’Av (July 25-26) is considered the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. It is the day when we mourn  our various destructions and exiles, and in many communities is marked by fasting, reading the Book of Lamentations, and the rituals of mourning. For the last several years, Reform CA has used this holiday as an opportunity to gather to reflect on the brokenness and alienation still present in society and recommit ourselves to the sacred call to repair.  Wherever you find yourself this Tisha B’Av– alone or in congregation, at camp or at home– we hope this resource, about the urgent need for racial justice helps you refocus and rededicate yourself, firmly rooted in our Jewish tradition.  This was created by Rabbi Jessica Oleon Kirschner of Reform CA and Rabbi Joel Simonds of RAC-West.

Categories
Israel News Prayer Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

I Am The Egg (Wo)Man: Reflections on Rosh Chodesh Av with Women of the Wall

“Jerusalem has greatly sinned, therefore she is become a mockery. All who admired her despise her, for they have seen her disgraced;and she can only sigh and shrink back.”

–Eicha (Lamentations) 1:8

The first 9 days of Av are seen in traditional Judaism as days of, if not mourning, then solemnity. We do not feast, we do not celebrate; we are once again living through the days leading up to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. And, as many have already noted, one of the most significant statements the rabbis make about that destruction is that the blame cannot be placed on Roman shoulders. Why, they ask, was the Temple destroyed? Because of sinat chinam–baseless hatred. And so Monday morning, as I looked at the faces of the Haredim crowding the Kotel plaza, as I looked at the faces of these men and women who are supposed to be my kinsmen (and women), I felt not anger and not hatred, but deep, deep sadness.

It seems that the same cannot be said from the other side. It is not sadness that compels one Jew–one human being!–to call another Jew a Nazi. It is not sadness that sent a hard-boiled egg flying through the air as a projectile, landing solidly (and not comfortably) on my neck. And it is not sadness that raised male voices to drown ours out.

Talking with a mentor last night, I asked. I asked about the deep anger, and hatred. I said: I just can’t understand. Why? Why such deep anger and hatred? And she, who comes from a far more traditional world than I do, said two things. First, the part I know but hate to acknowledge. There are people–and I refuse to paint the entire Haredi world with one brush, just as I wish they would not paint all liberal Jews with one–in that world who truly believe, to the depths of their soul, that I come to Jerusalem, I come to the Wall, I come to the world, to destroy Judaism.

But, she said something else that, rather than enrage me, gave me some hope. She said that their anger came from a place of fear. That these men and women are looking around and seeing a changing world. They are seeing a world that is increasingly adapt or die, and they choose–time and again–not to adapt. And so I thought back over the faces I saw in that space. And I thought to myself–maybe there is one girl, or one boy, there who looked at us and saw not rodfim, those who seek to do harm to Judaism and the Jewish people, but who saw something new. Maybe there was one boy–or one girl–who looked up and saw in my face, or the face of someone standing next to me, something familiar. Maybe there was one girl–or one boy–who heard in my prayers something exciting. Maybe someone there looked up and saw new possibilities, a different way to live, a living and breathing Judaism.

I happened to be standing next to one of my mentors during the tefillot, and she later shared with me the conversation she had with a little girl standing near her–a rabbi’s daughter. This little girl asked the simplest–and of course most difficult–question to answer. Why, she, asked, were the men on the other side of the barricade trying to drown out our prayers? “The women sing so beautifully,” she said. “Why would they do that?”

IMG_2645The men on the other side of the barricades alternated between screaming and blowing whistles to disrupt us, or simply trying to pray louder. I preferred the latter. Because there was a moment, maybe just before the egg jolted me back to reality, where I was able to live in a different reality–a vision of a Jerusalem that is truly ha-banuyah (rebuilt). In that moment, the voices of women were raised in prayer and song, and the voices of the men were raised as well. And I imagined–just for those moments–that together the voices of Israel, the voices of the Jewish people, reached straight up to heaven.

There is much to be said, and much anger to be shared, over the erasure of women’s voices and women’s bodies from the public sphere in Israel, over what seems to be a campaign by the Haredi community to silence women. There is much to be said, and much anger to be shared, over the role of the Haredi community and the rabbanut in controlling religious life in Israel. There is much to be said, and much anger to be shared, that even despite a clear court ruling, we were barred from the Kotel itself for the first time in 25 years. Others have and will say it better than I can. Because on Monday, for me, anger was not the predominant emotion coursing through my veins. Hatred was not the overriding feeling of the day. Sadness was.

But, that being said, I have to point out the feeling is NOT mutual. Only one side has interest in listening to the other, only one side speaks of shared space, and only one side uses vehement hate speech and physical violence to stake its claim. And the government, despite the progress in court, continues to cater to only the one side, the loudest side. And with all of my idealism, all of my hope–I simply don’t know what to do with that. I don’t know where that can go.

As a Reform Jew, I have long struggled with the meaning and ritual of Tisha B’Av. I have learned and studied over the years; this week at the Hartman Institute, we wrestled with the notions of and texts on communal mourning. I do not wish to see the Temple rebuilt speedily in my day, and so what do I do with this holiday?

Yesterday might have given me an answer. I mourn not for what was, but for what could be and isn’t. I mourn for the fact that I, by virtue of biology, am denied full access to the Kotel. I mourn for the fact that this land that I love, this place whose vision was to be a home for the Jewish people, cannot get itself past a single definition of Judaism–even as its people define themselves in all shades of grey. And I mourn, perhaps most of all, for those voices, male and female, that could be rising up to heaven (or wherever I believe the Divine resides) together, indistinguishable by gender or religious definition, simply united in hope and in comfort, in petition and in praise, in sadness and in joy.

The next Rosh Chodesh we will usher in will be Elul, the month of penitence and preparation for the High Holy Days. I will be back in the United States, though my prayers and heart will be with Nashot HaKotel, the Women of the Wall. And as they–and we–pray the words of Psalm 27:

Only this do I ask of God,

Only this do I seek: to live in the house of Adonai all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of Adonai, to frequent God’s  Temple.

I will be praying that that house, that beauty, is wide and rich and imaginative enough to hold all of us—male, female, Haredi, Reform, and everywhere in between–in one room, with one voice and one vision.

For the sake of Jerusalem I will not, I cannot, I must not be silent.

rabbi_sari_laufer_headshotRabbi Sari Laufer serves Rodeph Sholom Congregation in New York City.