Yom Kippur 5774 – Trouble in the Family: The Challenges of Modern Israel – On Yom Kippur we confess to a litany of ways we may have missed the mark and hopefully resolve to do better in the coming year. We confess to complacency, to closing our eyes to the plights of others, to ignoring the dangers facing our Jewish brothers and sisters abroad, and, in the next few minutes I will tackle some aspects of these particular issues, in the context of the challenges currently facing Israel…and, by extension, k’lal Yisraeil, all of the Jewish people.
A colleague of mine recently noted that a sermon on Israel can be a loser for a Rabbi, but, what kind of a Rabbi would I be if I didn’t address some of the most important issues of the day? What kind of Judaism would we have if we didn’t give deep thought to our relationship with Israel, her challenges from within and from without, and our responsibilities to her? On this Day of Atoning, we ask review our actions of the past year, ask for Divine forgiveness, and pledge to do better in the coming year. Today, I ask you to think about what Israel means to you, to us, to the world. To think about the promise of Israel, what she has accomplished, and the challenges she faces. I ask you, as your rabbi, as one whose father, and eight generations before him dwelled in the land that is Israel, and I ask you, as one who speaks from her heart, as a Zionist who cares deeply– to my roots— about the existential viability of Israel…
The precarious situation of the only viable democracy in the Middle East, being surrounded by regimes on many sides immersed in the throes of civil war or economic strife and civil unrest brought about by the upheaval of the ongoing Arab Spring, may seem overwhelming to us, viewing it from across the oceans. Let’s face it: Israel lives in a tough neighborhood.
The current Syrian crisis, with its political interplay on the world scene and the heartbreaking evidence of a regime that has turned on its own people, brings us to tears and has, once again, divided this nation on how or if to intervene.
But, today, I am focusing on our brothers and sisters in Israel….How can people live with such stress? How can people go about their daily lives, with their newly furnished gas masks close at hand? And, the truth is, they are living life, as usual.
I asked my cousin, Rabbi Jonathan Porath, those very questions. ( Jondy, as I’ve called him since our youth, is a Conservative Rabbi who left one of the highest paying pulpits on the East Coast and took his family to make aliyah over thirty years ago. He lives in Jerusalem.) I asked him several questions about the challenges from without and the challenges from within and this is how he replied: “Let’s start with the ‘easiest’,” he laughed, “ that’s how it is over here in the Holy Land.” Referring to the security situation regarding Syria and Israel’s neighbors: “There is deep sense of quiet confidence in the army and probably in Bibi as well (though he was not my choice),” he interjected, “there is no question that he is a vigorous defender of Israel and the Jewish People]. There is NO panic–there was a rush to pick up gas masks [on August 27th], but most folks in Jerusalem, for example, [including me] don’t have ours. We just feel secure. Obviously the various scenarios are very unsettling—but less Syria and more potential downturn in Egypt and of course Iran, which is entirely unpredictable.”
He added: “There is great concern here re: the US Administration and the President. He was received very well during his March visit, but we are not sure over here if he is weak or so deliberately thoughtful [and even calculating]–he is just a hard guy to figure out [which I would imagine lots of Americans share as well, even those who supported him and want to believe in him…but that is another story]. That sense of ‘a diminished or withdrawing America’ concerns many people around the world, not only in Israel.”
While we, here in the States, we hear the impassioned words and see the speeches of staunch support for Israel from members of the government, I sometimes think that we, too, (with memories of how ships were turned back during the Shoah) secretly wonder if the USA would indeed stand by Israel if push comes to shove. Please, G-d, may we never need to test that mettle.
I asked my cousin, Yehudis Spero, a modern-orthodox wife of a clinical psychologist, mother, and grandmother, who lives in Bet Shemesh, a suburban community outside of Jerusalem, how she deals with the “mezeg avir,” climate in Israel, and she responded: “Here is my life’s philosophy in a nutshell. I cannot do a thing about Iran or Syria or President Obama’s dithering back and forth.” (Her words, not mine) “I certainly don’t know what John Kerry wants from us, as we have already let out the prisoners … so… I am cooking up a storm for Yom Tov; I have invited people who need invites for the meals and am giving tzedakah. I moved my family here” (meaning to Israel) “30 years ago, and then had two more kids here. They did the army and national service- They are G-d fearing and contributing to society….so the rest I leave to G-d! I am sure He will figure it out for us.”
Jondy and Yehudit are just two Israeli citizens. Allow me to share what some of the leadership of Israel has said, specifically about the recent use of chemical weapons by the government of Syria:
Defense Minister Moshe (Bogey) Ya’alon: “This is not the first time that
Assad has used chemical weapons and it now looks like he may be losing and decided he has nothing to lose… the question is will the world react?”
President Shimon Peres (in Yediot): “The world cannot accept genocide and slaughter of children and women… Assad is not his people’s leader – he is a murderer of children.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu: “The events in Syria prove that the world’s most dangerous regimes must not be allowed to gain possession of the world’s most dangerous arms.”
Ha’aretz veteran analyst Ari Shavit: “What’s happening in Syria proves
the validity of Netanyahu’s warning that the greatest danger to world peace in the 21st century is the combination of unconventional weapons and unconventional regimes. Lunatics really are insane. Barbarians are really
barbaric. Huns will be Huns. Those who act mercifully toward Huns bear direct responsibility for the fact that nuclear weapons are being built in Iran, chemical weapons are being used in Syria, and doomsday weapons threaten the future of the Middle East. … Those who underestimate the inherent danger of the Huns, bear direct responsibility for the deaths of today’s victims, the Syrians, and tomorrow’s victims, the Israelis, Europeans and Americans. It’s time to break free of the moral relativism, multicultural hypocrisy and political correctness that prevent us from seeing our evil neighborhood as it really is. A terrible warning siren is being sounded in Damascus. Do we hear it? Does the world hear it?”
Yediot columnist Eitan Haber (Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s bureau
chief): “It is often said that if during World War II the mass media had been as developed as it is today, some of the atrocities committed against the Jewish people and the world as a whole would have been averted. And yet… since the pictures began to flow out of Syria showing bodies wrapped in white sheets… the world wasn’t startled, it wasn’t shocked, it did nothing…..It is incumbent upon us in Israel to learn the sad lesson of the Syrian story. The world was silent back then, during World War II, and the world will also be silent even if a new doom is upon our doorstep. We are alone. The decisions need to be made by the isolated Israeli government, and preventing disaster from striking will also lie on the shoulders of an Israel that is surrounded by enemies, and abandoned more and more by its friends.”
The newspaper Yediot defense analyst Alex Fishman: “There is no chance of the horrific footage in Syria changing American or European policy towards the bloody struggle. Syria’s tragedy is that it is not a sufficiently important country insofar as concerns Western interests… The Syrian army uses chemical weapons against Syrian civilians because it can, and because it has the support of Russia and Iran. While chemical weapons aren’t its first choice, it uses them when it feels that its back is against the wall. And that is the lesson that the world needs to learn from the turn of events in Syria – there is no crime and punishment, countries do not go to war for humanitarian purposes, and the only thing that counts are their cold interests.”
They are there, and we are here. You can agree or disagree with their outlooks, but are we so removed from the situation that we turn a blind eye to it? My colleague, Rabbi Fred Guttman, comments: “Our indif-ference on this, seventy years after Jewish children were gassed in the Shoah, is very sad. Have we not learned anything? “
When the British parliament vetoed Britain’s joining the United States in selected military strikes against Syria as a warning that that regime had crossed the international red line, where was the hue and cry from the public? There was none. We’ve been observing how our own government is cautiously moving….attempting to get public backing and legislative approval for a selective shot across the bow at Syria, and it is now working with a powerful but questionably reliable partner in Russia to promote a diplomatic solution, engaging another questionably reliable partner in the United Nations. Please G-d let these measures be effective, but if they are not, let us not simply turn a blind eye.
We are living in an unfolding history, but we have the strength of our pens, computers, and voices to let our opinions be heard. And we must let them be heard…..as diverse and divergent as they are in our pluralistic society, for to be silent would not be complacency, but complicity.
Elie Wiesel, famously has said: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. ….There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
And, if the Syrian conflict, the upheaval in Egypt, the tenuousness of Lebanon, the newly resumed peace talks with the Palestinian authority, and the looming threats of Iran’s growing nuclear power were not sufficient tzuros for Israel, there are also troubles internally.
Last year, on Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, Anat Hoffman, the chairwoman of Women of the Wall and the leader of I.R.A.C., the Israeli Religious Action Committee, was arrested for saying the Sh’ma aloud while praying at the Kotel, the Western Wall, with her tallit on. Many of you were with us when Anat spoke to us at Congregation P’nai Tikvah last November and then with the greater Las Vegas Jewish Community at the Federation Annual Meeting.
Although the Women of the Wall have been trying, for nearly 25 years, to secure the ability of women to wear tallit and tefillin if they wished, to pray aloud, and to chant from the Torah at the Wall, as we do in synagogues throughout the world and especially here in the United States, it was really not until this particular arrest and the brutal way in which Anat was treated that the issue of the stronghold on the Kotel by the ultra-orthodox Chareidim came to a head.
A little bit of history: Women of the Wall , or WOW, as it is known, is a women’s prayer group that includes Orthodox and all streams of non-Orthodox women and their male and female supporters. From December 1988 to April 2013, WOW prayed in the women’s section at the Kotel with women leading and with men on the other side of the mechitza.
But let’s go back a bit in our timeline. For centuries, a small section of the Kotel, a part of the plinth that in ancient times had supported the first and second Temples, was accessible along a narrow passage, with homes just meters away. From 1948 to 1967, the Kotel was in Jordan. In 1967, during the Six Day War, Israel re-captured East Jerusalem and removed Arab homes in the area and created the Kotel plaza. Years later, they removed shops and more homes to expand the plaza.
Tunnels were dug to access lower portions of the Kotel north of the plaza and archeologists excavated south of the plaza. The southern section is known as Robinson’s Arch after an arch that used to span the entrance to the area.
In 1967, Israel adopted the Protection of Holy Places Laws that state that a person may be imprisoned for seven years for desecrating or otherwise violating a Holy Place. This law was held as a threat over the heads of Women of the Wall from its inception until 2003 and in certain instances, right up until April 2013.
In 1968, the ultra-Orthodox convinced the Israeli government to install a mechitza (a separation between men and women’s prayer sections) at the main plaza of the Kotel, in an effort to prevent Rabbi Alex Schindler z”l from leading 2000 Reform Jews in egalitarian worship during a Reform convention that year.
Since then, Israel has never allowed egalitarian worship in the Kotel plaza, and for the past twelve years, the Conservative movement has held egalitarian worship at Robinson’s Arch. Negotiations have gone on for years between the government and the Reform and Conservative movements about the proper refurbishing of Robinson’s Arch for dignified egalitarian prayer 24/7 and free of charge.
Somewhere along the way, the government built the small platform at Robinson’s Arch for Women of the Wall to read to be able to Torah and davven musaf. Now, it is important to understand the Women of the Wall
is not an egalitarian prayer group. When they read Torah at Robinson’s Arch, women stood around the Torah and men stood separately.
WOW davvened pesukei, shacharit and hallel in the women’s section, sometimes peacefully, but frequently under unpleasant circumstances with Charedi men hurling chairs and spouting epithets and Charedi women physically and psychologically confront the Women who merely wanted to davven in their own manner. So the WOW group would then walk to the small platform at Robinsons’s Arch to read Torah and davven musaf. In February 2013, the famous six paratroopers who helped liberate the Kotel and had been pictured in that iconic photograph of the 1968 liberation of Jerusalem, joined Women of the Wall on Rosh Chodesh. Women of the Wall announced that they would no longer go to Robinson’s Arch and would read Torah from a chumash in the Kotel Plaza instead.
Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, was brought in by the Israeli government to fix the situation, as it had begun to tear away at the fiber. His solution was a compromise, expansion of the plaza to include a section for egalitarian prayer. The proposal, one reached after months of deliberation, would have marked a dramatic acknowledgment by the State of Israel that the Wall—long regarded as Judaism’s holiest site—should include non-Orthodox practice in which men and women pray together.
But WOW felt left out of the Sharansky Plan because, although the plan provided for egalitarian worship in a new plaza and it also promised continuing Orthodox worship in the present plaza, however, there was no plan for a women’s prayer group to be able to wear tallit and tefillin, read from a sefer Torah or blow shofar in a women’s section. WOW is adamant that they do not want to pray in an egalitarian section, unless they can create a separation between men and women during their service.
Notwithstanding all this, WOW leaders applauded Sharansky for his plan and pledged to work with him.
From April 11 to April 24, 2013, they were in limbo because April 11, a court dismissed charges against five women for wearing tallit and tefillin in the Kotel Plaza. But on April 24th, this year, Judge Moshe Sobel ruled definitely that women may wear tallit and read from a sefer Torah in the main Kotel Plaza.
This may be seen as a double-edged sword and that WOW is using it to drive a wedge in the plan for two sections, one Orthodox and one egalitarian, in order to force the issue of women being allowed to pray with women as women with tallit, tefillin, reading from a sefer Torah and blowing shofar in the Orthodox plaza.
About two months ago, suddenly it seemed as if the Sharansky Plan was being shelved or shredded altogether. Avichai Mendelblit, Cabinet Secretary, was asked to put together another solution, and on August 25th, less than three weeks ago, Naftali Bennett, the Minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, announced that a temporary platform for non-Orthodox prayer was being built at Robinson’s Arch, adjacent to the Kotel Plaza. It was meant “as an interim but primary place of worship for Jewish egalitarian and pluralistic prayer services.”
Would this mean that non-Orthodox will be barred from the main plaza Wall section? What about the validity of the ruling passed upholding the right of women to pray with tallit and tefillin?
Sadly, the Israeli government is trying to avoid offending the ultra-Orthodox by finding a solution for egalitarian worship while leaving out WOW. The new platform was built right on the site of the old small WOW platform because WOW doesn’t want to use it any more.
The Conservative and Reform movements intend to use the new platform. They just don’t want it to be the permanent platform because they want a plaza that will hold thousands and have the same dignified type of look as the Orthodox plaza and have a shared entrance, as envisioned in the Sharansky Plan.
Is the Sharansky Plan dead? Will this “temporary” platform become permanent, as facts established on the ground frequently have in Israel. Will the issue of women’s prayer be, once again, compromised or pushed to the back of the bus, as have women themselves in parts of Jerusalem? Will women’s voices, kol isha, be stilled by those who feel it is unseemly to hear them?
Will we ever have “one wall for one people,” establish a true commitment to pluralism in Israel? Do the people of Israel even feel the imperative to include those of us who have a secular and spiritual approach to Judaism, as well as the various shades of religious approaches to Judaism? Can there be multiple pathways for all of us, as Rav Kook himself envisioned?
Sharansky says that there are no villains in this scenario; that we are all involved; yet, what might happen if we reach across the denominations to share, to collaborate, to cooperate? Wait, am I talking about Israel or about here in Las Vegas?! Is there something in this discussion that is much deeper than the situation at the Kotel.
We may actually feel the pains of the struggle over the Kotel more acutely than most Israelis. The disaffected Israeli secularists are less interested in the Wall, and more interested in other issues. The Women of the Wall are, therefore, symbolic of the other related issues, including civil marriage and a Jewishly diverse Israel that lives up to its declaration of independence, granting all its citizens equality, religious freedom, guided by justice and living in peace.
The injustice of those who threaten Israel’s existence from without and those who threaten Israel’s moral fiber from within are not to be compared to one another, of course, but as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in April, 1963, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
O G-d, Ashamni…..we have sinned for our complacency. We have turned a blind eye to the dangers affecting our brothers and sisters. We have been slow to act. For these sins, O G-d of compassion, G-d of action, forgive us, pardon us, restore us. Help us change. O Guardian of Israel, help us be more compassionate. Help us vouchsafe the security of Israel from without and from within. Ken y’hi ratzon.
G’mar chatimah tovah….May you be sealed for a very good year.
Rabbi Yocheved Mintz
Congregation P’nai Tikvah
 With assistance from Rabbi Pam Frydman, co-Chairperson of Rabbis for Women of the Wall.
 MLK, April 1963, Birmingham, Alabama.