Posted on October 24th, 2012 2 comments
I remember when I first seriously looked into the textual basis of “Kol Ishah.” I used my computer concordance of all of rabbinic literature (here defined as Mishnah, Tosefta, Yerushalmi, Bavli and midrash collections) to look for the term. I expected to find a long list of sources. I found three hits. I thought, “Well, I must have looked it up wrong.” So I tried “kol ha’ishah”, “kolot nashim” and other variations. No matter what I tried, I still I came up with just three hits in all of rabbinic literature. And each of those citations is a repetition of just one statement. So the prohibition comes down to this single statement:
If one gazes at the little finger of a woman is it as if he gazed at her secret place!? No, it means in one’s own wife, and when he recites the Shema.
Rav Hisda: A woman’s leg is a sexual incitement, as it says, “Uncover the leg, pass through the rivers (Isaiah 47:2)” and it says afterwards, “Your nakedness shall be uncovered, yea, your shame shall be seen (Isaiah 47:3).”
Shmuel said: A woman’s voice is a sexual incitement, as it says, “For sweet is your voice and your countenance is comely (Song of Songs 2:14).”
Rav Sheshet said: A woman’s hair is a sexual incitement, as it says, “Your hair is as a flock of goats (Song of Songs 4:1).” (B. Berachot 24a//B. Kiddushin 70a//Y. Hallah 2:1; Shmuel’s saying)
This passage talks about things that might distract a man while reciting the Shema. I think reasonable minds would agree that a man might be distracted by seeing his wife naked before him while he was attempting to recite the Shema. But what comes next is, in essence, a list of what different sages find most enticing about women…a sort of sidebar to the main conversation. Since Shmuel’s statement is included in this sidebar, later generations took it to mean that hearing a woman’s voice is as distracting as having one’s wife sit naked before him.
When I realized this, I contacted one of my mentors and asked, “Is this really the entire basis for not allowing women’s voices to be heard?” He told me it was. I must admit, I was flabbergasted. We had been hung out to dry on the flimsiest of pretexts. I asked a fellow teacher what he thought of this and he said, “Well, when I was 15 I’d have been distracted by a woman’s voice.” To which I replied, “Why should I have to shut up for the rest of my life because you used to be 15?”
The prohibition is all the more surprising because Scripture and rabbinic literature assume that women sing publicly. Of course, Miriam and the women sing at the shores of the sea (Exodus 15:20-21). Women are public musicians (Psalm 68:26) and take part in loud public rejoicing (Nehemiah 12:43).
In Mishnah, it is assumed that women sing professionally, publicly and liturgically:
Women may raise a wail during the festival [week] but not clap [their hands in grief]; R. Ishmael says, those that are close to the bier clap [their hands in grief]. On the days of the New Moon, of Hannukkah and of Purim they may raise a wail and clap [their hands in grief]. Neither on the former (i.e., the festival week) nor on the latter occasions do they chant a dirge. After [the dead] has been interred they neither raise a wail nor clap [their hands in grief]. What is meant by “raising a wail”? When all sing in unison. What is meant by a dirge? When one leads and all respond after her. As it is said: And teach your daughters wailing and one another [each] lamentation (Jeremiah 9:19). But as the future [days] to come, [the prophet] says: “He will destroy death for ever and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces. (Isaiah 25:8)” (M. Moed Katan 3:9//B. Moed Katan 28b)
So, weighing our evidence, we have Biblical, Mishnaic and Talmudic testimony that women sing publicly and liturgically as opposed to a single statement by one sage which does not, in context, ban women’s voices at all. I believe there is far more textual support affirming the right of women to sing in public and at services than there is for banning it. “May the the sounds of joy and salvation be hear in the tents of the righteous (Psalm 118:15)!”
This week’s author, Rabbi Judith Abrams PhD., is the director of Maqom an online center for adult Talmud study.
Posted on October 17th, 2012 1 comment
Having grown up in the segregated American South with its “no Jews, no Negroes” (and sometimes adding “no dogs,”) public signage, it was a relatively easy call for me to make about where I should be standing when anti-Muslim paid advertising began appearing in the Washington DC Metro System. These ads (which have appeared in NY and apparently are coming next to Portland, Oregon) read: “In Any War Between the Civilized Man and the Savage, Support the Civilized Man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” The image includes a Star of David on either side of the phrases which imply that Muslims and the enemies of Israel are savages.
Having also just completed reading the week’s Torah portion from Genesis reminding us that all human beings are created in God’s image, and fearing that the hate-mongers behind these ads might associate Jews and Israel with their bigotry, I felt I had no choice but to stand physically next to the ads and promote a different message. I am proud to say thatRabbis for Human Rights-North America (of which I was the founding Chairperson) has responded vigorously with a profoundly different message, one which has been placed in public places near these disgusting posters. The RHR-NA poster reads “In the choice between love and hate CHOOSE LOVE – Help stop bigotry against our Muslim neighbors.” I stood next to the Metro ad holding a copy of the RHR-NA poster, which has not yet made it to the Metro stops in DC. This also provided me with a challenging opportunity for Rabbinic service in a unique way as I interacted with passersby, fulfilling the mitzvah ofKiddush HaShem (sanctifying God’s name publicly) in the meaning of that obligation as described in the Talmud.
We all presumably know that “savage” is a loaded, stereotypical, and denigrating term that was once used to describe African American, Native Americans and other ethnic minority groups as mentally inferior and culturally primitive with animal-like attributes. It reeks of bigotry which has been directed at religious minorities in this country including Jews and Catholics. The implication that Israel is confronted by “savages” has a provenance and a perspective that is inimical to any amelioration of the tragic conflicts that prevent a peaceful resolution for the beleaguered State of Israel. The misuse of the word “Jihad,” by its linkage with savagery as a summary description of a rich culture virtually all of whose billions of adherents oppose violent extremism, is no more appropriate than the misuse of the word Zionism to signify racism.
The ad not only demeans Islam and links Jewish symbols and Israel to bigotry, but also abuses our American freedom of speech in order to stir hatred of peace loving fellow Americans. I am proud to associate myself with remarks delivered at a press conference in DC on October 15 by Rabbi Batya Steinlauf, Jewish Community Relations Council’s Director of Social Justice and Interfaith Initiatives and President of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington: “The placing of offensive, anti-Muslim, ads in the D.C. Metro system is an important opportunity to affirm our commitment both to free speech and to a society that deplores hate and hate speech. We are all part of one community. The Muslim community is part of our wider community and our neighbors. We live in the same neighborhoods, send our kids to the same schools, and volunteer in the same homeless shelters.”
Posted on June 12th, 2012 No comments
This week we hear from Rabbi Ruth Adar who reminds us why we should all be proud this June. -ed. Ruth Abusch-Magder.
It’s June. I’m feeling the gratitude again.
Flash back to my first Gay Pride Month, in 1988: I had recently come out in a cloud of cluelessness, a single mother. There was a parade over the bay in San Francisco, and I wanted nothing to do with it.
1988 was a different world: AIDS was a mystery disease chewing through the gay male population, rumored in some quarters to be a Punishment from God. Same-sex intimacy was a felony in Georgia, with the blessing of the Supreme Court (Bowers v Hardwicke, 1986). After I came out to the principal at my kids’ Montessori School, I was told our family was unwelcome. An attorney told me it was a good thing my divorce had become final in California, because in my home state the courts would regard me ipso facto an unfit mother.
1988 galvanized me, and by the time the following June rolled around, I was volunteering for the National Center for Lesbian Rights where I had the privilege of meeting some of the people who’d been fighting on my behalf: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, activists since 1955, and Donna Hitchens and Roberta Achtenberg, who founded NCLR in 1977. I met many other good people with names you won’t find in Wikipedia who had worked hard for many years. I learned what a deep debt I owed to those who had cut the rocky little path I was walking.
Flash forward to another June, in 2002: I emerged from the cheroot from Ben Gurion and walked into the Jerusalem campus of HUC for the first time. One of the questions in my mind was, how was this going to go, really? How much of a problem was it going to be, well, me? Because that’s the thing: being gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender is about identity. My orientation is an essential part of who I am that cannot be hidden or closeted or apologized for without twisting the truth.
I am happy to say that while I was at HUC-JIR (2002-08) I never felt that anyone on faculty or in the student body ever consciously slighted me on account of my orientation. I was proud to attend classes in the building that houses the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation, first of its kind in the Jewish world. There is still plenty of work to do in the Reform Jewish world, but at least at school I felt welcome.
I owe my good experience to the pioneers who went before me: men and women who did the heavy lifting, who out of love for Torah and a sense of destiny persisted in pursuing this sacred work during the years when the Movement was not yet ready for us. Some of them suffered the pain of the closet. All persisted in the face of a particular interpretation of passages in Leviticus 18 and the slipperier “ick factor” that makes LGBTQ freedom work so challenging.
To those people, this June, I say todah rabbah. You are a blessing to us all. I know some of you, but by no means all of you. I hope that someday I’ll hear your stories. And just as this year we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of Sally Priesand’s ordination, I hope in some future year, we’ll be celebrating yours: you are my heroes.
Posted on May 31st, 2012 No comments
When a good teaching session crosses over and becomes a good study session then it sticks with you.
According to the description in the brochure, I was teaching about the ancient view of non-Jews, and I did. But it was also much more than that. With the caveat that recent scholarship has brought into question the theory that book Ruth was written as a counter polemic to the book of Ezra, I set out for the group the ways in which the books are both similar and different. Addressing the similar theme of exile and redemption, return to the land, geneology and proper inheritance there is much in common between the two.
Yet stylistically they could not be more different. Ezra is a book of history, dry and systematic. Ruth is a family story that focuses primarily on the experiences of women.
Making my theological point, that the choice to read Ruth on Shavuot, speaks to a welcoming vision of community that is not a modern Reform choice, but an ancient rabbinic one, was simple.
But we did not stop there. Building on the comparison that I had introduced the group moved into a conversation about policy and personal experience. As, they saw it, Ezra portrays the reality he sees from a bird’s eye view. Not once does he stop to look at the effect his directives will have on individuals. Nowhere does he consider the emotional devastation that being sent back to their mother’s houses will have on the women he demands be divorced. He sees all the foreign women as one common threat, not as individual women with stories and varying degrees of commitment or connection to Judaism.
By contrast the book of Ruth focuses on the personal, getting to know the real story and understanding the complexities that lie below the assumptions of the selfishness, debauchery, and malevolence associated in the Bible with the Moabites as people.
In endorsing gay marriage, President Obama cited his personal relationships with LGBT couples as essential to helping him make the transition. As a rabbi working with an organization that celebrates racial and ethnic diversity in the Jewish community, I meet Jews have encountered Ezra’s approach when they attempt to access the Jewish community. But I also meet Jews, who have been seen by rabbis, educators, teachers and congregants as full people with complex stories and experiences. The former need much reassurance and often question their place as part of our people. The latter wear their Judaism with pride, often like Ruth, they become leaders and spokespeople for our community.
As I write there are riots going on in Israel against African and foreign workers. In the United States there are still those fighting against gay marriage. Big ideas and policies are important, but listening to the stories of the individuals affected by those policies is important too. If we really listen, it will likely complicate our assumptions and challenge our hatreds.
Posted on April 20th, 2012 38 comments
Volumes have been written about the State of Israel. But in honor of Israel Independence Day, Yom Haatzmaut, this week we are looking for just six words about what you love about Israel, what makes it special, extraordinary!
Add your own thoughts by replying in the comments section. The more the merrier. Send in more than one! Encourage your friends to share their own.
Here is some of what we have so far: - Click on comments to read more!
Bowls of humous with warm pita – Josh Weinberg
Feel more at home than anywhere -Lori Sagarin
Cool water, warm people, hot neighborhood -Lori Sagarin
Too important to leave to Israelis -Lisa Levenberg
Nearly Zero emissions on Yom Kippur - Josh Weinberg HUC-JIR Jerusalem
Like family. Not perfect, but loved. - Lisa Koppel
My son lives in Tel Aviv. Mindy Portnoy
להיות עם חופשי בארצינו ארץ ציון – Josh Weinberg HUC-JIR Jerusalem
The Dry Bones live in Israel – Reuven Werber
Three faiths in one holy city – Ruth Abusch-Magder
Hebrew alive, Torah real, people real-er -Paul Kipness
I love Israel’s flaws and aspirations – Jeremy Burton
Israel my second home. Libi bamisrach – David Young
Jews in every size shape color -Kari Hofmaister Tuling
Lo yisa goy el goy herev – Laura Novak Winer
Walking in Israel I found myself -Anonymous
National Liberation Of The Jewish People – Mark Hurvitz
Land, peoples, histories, emotions, hopes - Amy Greenbaum
ההרים,החול,הירק והים במקום אחד -Lori Sagarin
Eretz zavat chalav u’dvash. Oooh Ah. -Jason Miller
Gave my grandparents renewed life post-war -Yonah Kliger
SEE COMMENTS FOR MORE WONDERFUL SIX WORD ENTRIES!
(Keep it short, keep it simple. We are serious that missives of more than six words will not be included. And as it is a day for celebration we are focusing on the positive. We reserve the right not to post all entries.)
Posted on April 10th, 2012 No comments
Music always offers a wonderful way to connect to Israel and the diversity of Jewish life. As we look toward the marking of Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut, we offer this tour of ancient and modern music as seen through the eyes of Cantor David Berger of Congregation Tikvat Joseph of Manhattan Beach CA.
This year I have the unique privilege of spending nine months in Jerusalem studying at the Hebrew University and teaching at the Hebrew Union College. Within a few blocks of my apartment in Jerusalem there are more synagogues than you can imagine.
Situated right between the old alleyways and courtyards of Nachla’ot, and the bustling shopping of Ben Yehudah, my temporary home is just about a block away from the first Reform synagogue in Israel, Kehilat Har-El, on Shmuel Hanagid street. Bouncing between all these different types of Jewish communities gathered together in such close proximity, I am continuously reminded that the sounds of Judaism are so much more diverse than any one community can ever contain.
Some of these places preserve melodies that have been sung for hundreds of years, accompanying the community through different historical eras and geographical locations. Other places experiment with new types of musical expression, reaching out to the “secular” Israeli population by following the words of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook – “May the old be renewed and may the new be holy.” I wish that I could personally take you with me on a tour of the exciting Jewish sounds all around my Jerusalem apartment, but instead, I’ll share some of those sounds and sites with you using Youtube.
We’ll start at the “Great Synagogue Ades of the Glorious Aleppo Community.” This stunningly beautiful building in Nachla’ot is the center of the Syrian Jewish cantorial tradition. Every Saturday night, from Sukkot until Pesach, members of the community gather at 3:00 AM and sing piyutim (liturgical poems) and psalms for four hours in a ritual called “Bakashot.” After a whole night of singing, the community starts their Shabbat morning service at 7:00. It is quite the undertaking to visit, but the spirit and joy of the community makes it all worth it. Check out this video to get a sample of this Bakashot ceremony (filmed in 1976, but things haven’t really changed much).
Moving from Nachla’ot to my favorite music store on Ben Yehuda Street, Hatav Hash’mini (The Eighth Note), I would love to share some of the newest Israeli popular music that takes Jewish texts and melodies once limited to the synagogue and gets them on the radio.
Sagiv Cohen has combined traditional Yemenite melodies with contemporary pop arrangements on his new album Hal’lu. Listen for his Yemenite pronunciation of Hebrew on this recording of the 150th psalm.
The New Jerusalem Orchestra released a live recording of their inaugural concert, lead by the incomparable Rabbi Haim Louk, the leader of the Moroccan cantorial world. This unique ensemble brought together Jazz, Arabic music, Classical music and modern Israeli music – something that has never really been done before. Listen to their recording of “Ya’alah Ya’alah,” a classic Moroccan festive song.
Etti Ankari has been a major figure on the Israeli popular scene for 20 years. After six albums of beautiful, secular songs, she went through a religious transformation, and recently came out with an album of original melodies to religious poetry by Rabbi Yehudah Halevy (1075-1141). On this extraordinary album is a touching setting of Psalm 23 – watch her in a live performance here.
Going back up Ben Yehuda Street, there is a new major Jewish institution on King George Boulevard, right next to the Jewish Agency building. Beit Avi Chai (bac.org.il) is a center that offers an unbelievable array of concerts, classes, programs and exhibits around issues of Israeli culture, Jewish tradition, food, music, theater… It is impossible to keep up with everything that goes on there. Check out this small sampling of exciting videos on their Youtube channel.
Guy Zuaretz (an Israeli TV star) singing “Cuando El Rey Nimrod” in a concert of Ladino music:
Here is a group performing the text “Even when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” from Psalm 23 to an Arabic melody:
Here is a jazz ensemble performing a classic, nostalgic song made popular by North African Jewish singers about the city of Barcelona:
Look around their Youtube channel – it is a tremendous treasury of the newest and coolest Jewish culture coming out of Israel today.
For one more synagogue visit – I want to take you to an exciting new place called Nava Tehila
This relatively new community meets once a month for Friday night services and offers continuing classes on Jewish spirituality and kabbalah. Mostly using their own melodies, this community reaches out to Israelis in a musical and spiritual language that feels natively Israeli. They post videos of their musicians performing many of their new melodies so that people can come to synagogue prepared to sing. Check out this melody for Psalm 98, part of the Kabbalat Shabbat service (and then look around the rest of the site)
I wish that I could bring you into more places – but for now this taste will have to suffice. Jerusalem is alive with Jewish music and Jewish prayer that never ceases to amaze. Just when I think I’ve heard it all – I wander into another place and find myself enthralled with something I’ve never even imagined. As I enter my last few months of time here in Jerusalem, I wonder how I will be able to bring this music back to my synagogue in California. As Reform Jews, we are committed to an ever-expanding vision of Judaism. This year at your Passover seder, when you recite the words “L’shanah Haba’ah Birushalayim” – “Next year in Jerusalem” – and you think about the sounds and sites of the holy city, may you be inspired with a vision of Judaism and Jewish music that celebrates all the diversity and excitement Jerusalem can bring.
This piece originally appeared on the American Conference of Cantors blog and was reprinted with permission.
Posted on March 15th, 2012 No comments
This week we have the honor of Rabbi Leigh Lerner’s experience riding the buses for civil rights in Israel. Rabbi Lerner is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El-Beth-Shalom in Montreal. He is on sabbatical in Jerusalem and volunteering time with the IRAC on their Freedom Ride project.
“Git to the front of the bus, bwah, or else!” That was the end of my first freedom ride, but I was only 13, just a kid boarding the bus from downtown Atlanta to Buckhead. Segregation reigned in 1958 Atlanta, and having arrived from the integrated north, I just knew it was wrong and wanted to make a statement, so I sat in the “colored” section on that Peachtree St. trolley. The driver would have none of it and threatened to throw me bodily off the vehicle.
Now flash to Jerusalem, 2012 – 5772, and a different kind of freedom ride. Come aboard an Egged bus in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-Orthodox section dotted with yeshivot and a perfect copy of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe’s home in Brooklyn. Buses in this area of Jerusalem and in many other areas of Israel had, over the last 12 years, become segregated: women in the back and bidden to enter by the back door, and men in the front. “Mehadrin” bus lines grew to 50 in number, despite the ill-feeling they engendered.
Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, brought the law suit that re-integrated Israel’s buses, but on January 12, Anat, James Cherney, a URJ board member from Chicago, and I took a short ride to make sure the law was being obeyed and to open the front of the bus to Haredi women.Anat sat in one of 4 seats facing each other in the front of the bus. Except for three women, every female either boarded from the back and remained there, or boarded from the front and went to the back. Both ends of the bus became quite full, but not a single Haredi man would occupy any of the 3 seats in the vicinity of Anat Hoffman.
One woman boarded the bus and sat by Anat, who exchanged a hello with her. She stayed in that seat for one precious minute, then went to the back. Why? Did she sit there to make a statement momentarily? Or did she lose courage and resign herself to the back, as all the men around her expected her to do?
Another woman rode but three stops. She stayed near the back door, which is just before the women’s section, then left with her heavy case. A third woman boarded with a stroller and stood in a space at the back of the “men’s” section, where Egged provides extra space. It was a double stroller, and she needed the room.
When Anat, Jim Cherney and I left the bus, the area where Anat had been seated filled quickly with black hatted men.
Segregation exists in Jerusalem. Until IRAC won its case, it existed with the assent of the government, the very government that subsidizes the bus companies. Now it is sustained by social pressure. Still, many Haredi women bless IRAC for opening the front of the bus to them again. Only by sitting where we please will Jerusalemites and other Israelis keep their buses integrated. Separate can never be equal.
Be a freedom rider yourself. When you visit Jerusalem, take 2 hours of a morning to hear IRAC’s story and ride a Jerusalem bus as an observer. Your eyes will open not only to parts of Jerusalem the tour buses never go, but to people, issues, and struggles that too often remain hidden from our view of the Jewish State of Israel.
Postscript: For those interested in support the IRAC effort, Rabbi Lerner adds the following note -Commitment is really just for the time period — takes about 2 hours to 2.5 hours, which involves prep talk, getting to bus stop in one of the outer ring Haredi neighborhoods, riding the bus into the city, taking a cab back to IRAC, meeting for 30 minutes to debrief and get further legal background. Cost is 6.30 shekels, about $1.50, for the bus ride, and usually IRAC takes care of everything, including cab back. It is very safe. If there’s a problem on the bus, the IRAC person will handle it, and problems do not involve actual physical threats, but sometimes shaking of seats, being told to go to back of bus, several individuals standing over a woman and glaring at her. Of course they don’t sit near her themselves. These things do happen, but not that often, and IRAC personnel know what to do. We’re hoping that people will talk/write about their experience in their congregational blogs or bulletins, etc., and tell what IRAC is doing to keep buses integrated and make sure that “unser yidn,” liberal Jews, secular Israelis, etc. can sit wherever they please in public transport and at public meetings.
Posted on March 8th, 2012 No comments
A brief report by Dr. Michael Marmur:
In honor of International Women’s Day and Purim, a group of about 200 people congregated in Ben Yehuda to hear women read the Megilla (it’s the day before Purim in Jerusalem). The Megillah was read by a group of women including Rabbi Ada Zavidov of Har El Congregation, Rabbi Ma’ayan Turner, and Rabbi Naamah Kelman, Dean of HUC-JIR in Jerusalem, among other Jerusalem women. Men attending were asked to come dressed as women, and some of us obliged.
The background to this is the struggle over the role of women in public spaces in Jerusalem, Bet Shemesh and elsewhere. In recent weeks the question of whether women will be seen and heard in our streets in the spirit of open societies has been raised, following some high-profile examples of intolerance, most of which originate in the Ultra-Orthodox community.
Kol Haneshamah Congregation and other liberal forces in Jerusalem are engaged in a series of symbolic acts designed to emphasize the need to stand up for the kind of society we want our kids to grow up in, and your kids to feel at home in.
Our colleague Rabbi Darah Lerner was spotted in the crowd, along with HUC-JIR students and others.
Posted on December 7th, 2011 No comments
By Ruth Abusch-Magder
Recently there was a little bit of an uproar in our community; a family was hosting a party for the 9thgrade alumni of our Jewish day school. Many parents were shocked that the host parents were not planning on staying home to supervise. Talking with a concerned friend, I suggested that someone speak with the mother who might have a different cultural context adding, “after all she is an immigrant.” The response, “She’s not an immigrant, she is an Israeli.”
Last week, only days after it’s launch, the Israeli government cancelled an advertising campaign targeted to Israelis living in the US and aiming to get them to “come home” to Israel. The cancellation was a response to the outcry which was led in part by Jeffery Goldberg of the Atlantic and echoed by many American Jews. The objections for the most part centered on the negative tone that the ads took towards the quality of American Jewish life. Yet it seems to me that missing from much of the conversation that I was privy too, was a discussion about what it means to define Israelis as a group distinct from American Jews.
I had to laugh when my friend told me that the Israeli mother hosting the party was not an immigrant. I grew up in exactly the kind of mixed household derided in the ad about Israel’s Memorial Day. My father is third generation Canadian and my mother was born in Tel Aviv. Hot dogs in my home were served in pita with tehina on top and tabuleh on the side. In addition to attending a Jewish day school, I was tutored in Hebrew after school to assure fluency. July was spent hiking Massada not at a summer cottage paddling canoes. I was different than the other children I knew growing up because being Israeli is not the same as an imagined universal Judaism, nor is it the same as the Canadian Judaism I learned at school.
The Judaism I learned at school was built around prayer and religious ritual, using Torah as our guide. At home, we celebrated the same holidays but with very different meanings and points of reference. At home, history and nationalism replaced Torah as the touch stone for our identification.
Recognizing elements of Israeli culture as distinct from generalized Jewish identity challenges the concept of a singularly unified Jewish people, an idea that the organized Jewish community on both sides of the Atlantic has long been invested in. It challenges the idea that American Jews will feel naturally at home in Israel. This reality is fundamental to understanding what it will mean to be a Jewish people going forward. We cannot assume, as my friend did, that we understand each other.
As Reform Jews, we have long recognized that some of the unique elements of Judaism as we have constructed it in North America have a great deal to offer Israelis. Our ability to engage creatively with prayer, text and ritual can serve as a model as Israel continues to grapple with what it means to be a modern Jewish state. Conversely, if we can figure out how to connect with Israelis, both here and in Israel, we have the potential to broaden the paradigms for Jewishness with regards to community and language with the possibility of opening new paths for defining the our sense of ethnic heritage.
Growing up one foot in Canada, one foot in Israel, I struggled to figure out how to make sense of what were significantly different frameworks for being a modern Jew. Though often spiritually challenging, what I learned from both rooted my sense of self more deeply than either could on its own. I arrived ready to enter rabbinical school drawing not only on a depth of Hebrew language skill but with an understanding of how Israelis use the texts of the past in all manner of cultural construction. In becoming a rabbi, I was able to see beyond the limitations put on me by the Orthodox vision of religion I learned in school because I had Golda and chayalot as role models. There is no single way to put together modern Jewish life but if we want to move forward, we would be foolish to ignore the differences and what we can learn from them.
Posted on November 29th, 2011 No comments
Thinking about what we eat is not a new for Jews but the questions we ask today are different, organics and local were given for the rabbis of old. This week we have a special guest visitor to the blog who write powerfully about the intersection between our responsibility to Israel the land and people and the food we eat. Ruhi Sophia Motzkin Rubenstein is the daughter and granddaughter of Reform Rabbis, who is pursuing her own rabbinical studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She credits her Reform upbringing with inseparably linking Judaism and social justice for her, and with teaching her to engage critically with tradition.
In his now famous poem, “Tourists,” Yehuda Amichai lamented,
Visits of condolence is all we get from them
They squat at the Holocaust Memorial,
They put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall
And they laugh behind heavy curtains
In their hotels.. . .
Amichai’s snapshot shows the quandary that any caring visitor faces when they come to Israel: How to really engage with this place with integrity? What do I need from Israel? What does Israel need from me – particularly when I’m only here for a very little while?
I struggled with this question when I came on Birthright trip in 2004, and again when I came to spend a semester of college here in 2005. When I came back last year as a rabbinical student, I found that this tension only become more sophisticated the more time I spent here.
I will probably live with that tension forever, but I have found at least one small point of resolution. I was eating lunch at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies last October when I heard a presentation given by the director of Bema’aglei Tzedek , a Jerusalem-based non-profit that focuses mostly in workers’ rights and handicap access, based on Jewish values. She described the situation of the working poor in Israel, and the ways in which her organization works to create grassroots, structural change in the Israeli socio-economic reality.
She focused on a project that relies on the active participation of non-Israeli Jews. This is the Tav Chevrati, the social justice certification for restaurants that respect their workers’ rights and provide handicap access to their customers. The Tav Chevrati draws all of its strength from consumers excited about social change. The involvement of American and international tourists and residents is especially valuable, since restaurant and cafe owners feel it is in their best economic interest to cater to the interests of the international English speaking population. Indeed, since the Tav’s founding in 2004, around a third of the restaurants, pubs and coffeehouses in Jerusalem have adopted the Tav, thanks to consumer pressure, particularly from English speakers.
Since the day I heard that presentation, a little over a year ago, I have made sure to eat only at Tav certified restaurants when I go out in Jerusalem, and I always leave a card telling the business owner that I’m there because of the Tav. It’s so very easy. The Tav ensures that the rights of all workers, of whatever background, ethnicity or legal status, are protected. By eating according to the Tav I can encourage a more equitable Israeli society, even as a non-citizen. Even a participant on a 10-day trip can make that choice and be effective, if they let the business owners know that’s why they are there.
I think the Tav is so smart that I now work with it almost full-time. Towards the end of my rabbinical year in Israel, last spring, I decided to stay another year. I received a fellowship through the New Israel Fund/Shatil. I accepted placement with Bema’aglei Tzedek, working as Tav Chevrati Community Coordinator, trying to make Jerusalem a more just city, one tour group, one restaurant at a time.
There are so many ways the Tav could grow. Imagine if Rabbis coming on congregational trips educated all of their participants about the Tav, or if tour groups coming to Israel requested from their tour providers to eat only in Tav-Certified restaurants. Imagine if movements in the US or Europe made public resolutions encouraging their member congregations to eat only at Tav-Certified establishments. Imagine how quickly more restaurants would sign on – and how many lives of dishwashers and waiters and souschefs would be changed.
Amichai’s “Tourists” poem concludes:
“I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,
“You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it,
left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”
Choosing to eat according to the Tav is a delicious way to support all of the men and women here trying to buy vegetables for their families.