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Etz Chayim – the ‘Tree of Life’ – is the Hebrew name of Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue.
Bar Mitzvah of Sam Finkelstein
You would think that the Rabbis of the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple of Jerusalem, would be delighted that way over 5000 people thronged into the holy space to mark Rosh Chodesh the beginning of the Hebrew month of Sivan, many thousands more than would ordinarily be in attendance. Indeed, they would have been delighted that the vast majority were haredim, ultra-orthodox Jews. The majority had been shipped from seminaries, were female and organized by a new organization, Women For The Wall to oppose the rights of women to pray as they wish, wearing religious garments. They came with good intentions to peacefully protest.
Unfortunately, they were joined by males, mainly teenagers from seminaries who had only come to hurl abuse and in some cases objects including water bottles, chairs and stones at the hundreds of women who had dared to gather to pray at the Kotel. Many of the Women For The Wall stood to protect those who had gathered in tallitot and tefillin even though sharply disagreed with the practice.
Women of the Wall have been gathering to mark Rosh Chodesh for quarter of a century. So why on this occasion did thousands come to pray or protest rather than the usual handful?
Firstly, this event marked the first such prayer service since a Jerusalem District Court ruled in April that the Women of the Wall members are not violating the law which requires respect for the ‘local customs’ of the site, by donning religious symbols. In past prayer gatherings, whilst haredi men directed verbal invectives and physical objects at hand towards the Women of the Wall, the police arrested women wearing tallit and tefillin and reading a Torah scroll. This time, they arrested 3 haredi males who acted violently towards the women.
Secondly, this occasion was one that reflected an outcome of the January elections, the absence of religious political parties from the new coalition government. The wider Israeli population is waking to challenge the hegemony of the haredim over Judaism in Israel. The inequalities were tolerated when it only affected a few women who wanted to pray in tallitot and teffilin. When segregation began to proliferate outside of Jerusalem and began to enter middle Israel, a response was demanded. Rosh Chodesh at the Kotel will continue to be a symbol of that struggle, the newly formed Women For The Wall a recognition from the haredi world that they face a formidable challenge. For 25 years they could afford to let the Women of the Wall relatively untouched because they were protected by their control of government agencies, today they know that their authority is under threat.
As a Liberal Jew inclusivity and equal rights are cornerstones of my theology and philosophy and yet I have to admit that Women of the Wall challenge me. They do so not from the ultra-orthodox viewpoint of concern for the desecration of a holy space by women because of course I scratch my head and say, ‘how so?’ Rather I am challenged because they need to be there at all, being the radical liberal Jews (small ‘l’ because they are actually cross-denominational) who need to shout and scream at the top of their voices to wake me up.
I am a conflict avoider and therefore this unseemly physical jostling for spiritual space is just not me: Of the exegetical rule kal v’chomer, an a fortiori argument whereby a less significant statement leads to a more serious example or vice versa, give me the less serious position to work with. Let me campaign for State funding of Progressive Jewish synagogue buildings, rabbis and education just as there is for the orthodox and maybe one day we can have an egalitarian section at the Kotel. Women of the Wall works to say if we can have an egalitarian section at the Kotel, all the more so should the State fund religion equally.
I am also challenged by the focus on the Kotel, the vestige of the Temple of Jerusalem whose restoration we Liberal Jews do not pray for. Let me work to develop Progressive Judaism in Israel, in its synagogues and schools. Why do I need the right to pray at a place that is not the focal point of my religion.
Indeed, why is it my concern at all? I am a British Jew and let the Israelis work it out for themselves!
Yet two comments this week from colleagues provoked me, nudged me into writing letters to the relevant agencies in Israel, to make a donation to Progressive Jewish causes in Israel and also to write expressing concern for the position of Jews in Hungary, where the third largest political party is blatantly anti-Semitic, anti-gypsy and many others who were targeted in Europe in the last century.
Firstly, my co-Chair of the Rabbinic Conference of Liberal Judaism, Rabbi Shulamit Ambalu returned from the World Union of Progressive Judaism Conference in Israel and said to me that now she got why my father had devoted so much of his rabbinate to the cause of Progressive Judaism in Europe. She met Rabbis who had no colleague within a 500 mile radius of them. She heard of the struggles of Rabbis and their communities in France and Hungary. She met those who were maintaining or resurrecting Judaism in parts of Europe obliterated by the Holocaust.
Secondly, my colleague, Rabbi Josh Levy stated in a class of first year Student Rabbis that we co-facilitated this week at Leo Baeck College, “Surely our job is to comfort the agitated and agitate the comfortable.” I wish I had thought of that line but it is so true. This Liberal Jewish community is so incredibly good at comforting the agitated. We care and nurture and see it as our task to do so. Yet we have not been so successful at agitating ourselves out of our comfort zone.
Sam, you rightly identified p’kudat – responsibility - as a key word from your parasha and expounded on it astutely. There is a role for each one of us as the People of Israel, as members of the human family. For some it is to stand at the breach and be an Israeli Pankhurst and for others it is to act as a Founder of Liberal Judaism in this country, Lily Montagu did, by word and deed to comfort, nurture and then motivate righteous action. It is not so important which method one chooses or feels most comfortable with; what is vital is that we each play our part acknowledging that we are all concerned with the same endeavor.
May this worship service have been of comfort to those who are agitated but may it have been a catalyst for our action, in our own ways to not only be concerned about the world around us but to act upon those concerns. Today I feel as if I am holding hands with the Women of the Wall and standing side-by-side with the Jews of Hungary. I am taking responsibility: And it feels good.
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