Torat Ha’aretz – “Tamar Bamidbar”

tamarAt Ein Hazeva junction on Road 90, 20 km south of the Dead Sea and 150 km north of Eilat, sits a little-known site known alternatively by the names “Biblical Tamar” and “Ir Ovot”.  Although, as we shall see, neither of these names may be accurate, the site is very interesting nonetheless.  It is easily accessible to anyone traveling to Eilat on this road, and is worth visiting if you are ever in the area with a few minutes to spare (especially because there is no entrance fee required).

Deep in the heart of the Arava region, we are currently in an area that was throughout history completely isolated and far from civilization.  Nevertheless, there are some remains of small outposts here from different time periods, due to the proximity of the site to several major roads and the abundant Ein Husub spring that flowed here until recently (the spring has been largely dried up because of drilling for ground water to support local agriculture,

Ein Husub - jujube tree

Ein Husub – jujube tree

but the large jujube tree that still grows there is testimony to its existence).

Let’s go down into the archaeological site layer by layer.  As we descend, we’ll be able to peel away thousands of years of history, and ultimately connect with a few of the key figures described in the Bible from the First Temple period.

We’ll start at the top. The first building we see here is a white modern structure, less than 100 years old.  This was used during the British Mandate by the “Camel Police” who patrolled the desert.  Twice each week, an officer stationed here would set out on a patrol on camelback, traveling south on the road until he met an officer he who made the journey north from Um Rashrash (today’s Eilat), and then return to his post.  Apparently, even in the not-so-distant past, this site was very isolated!

As we descend into the older remains, we find remnants of settlement in the early Moslem period, a Nabatean outpost that formed one of the stations on the desert Spice Route, as well as some earlier Roman ones dating from the era of the Emperor Diocletian.

Beneath these ruins, excavators uncovered remains from at least two separate points during the First Temple period.  It’s important to understand that the borders of Jewish settlement were usually much further north (the Biblical phrase “from Dan to Beer Sheva” comes to mind – Beer Sheva is over 50 km north of here), so if a Judean king established a fortress or outpost here, this means he was a powerful king who had both the interest and the ability to reach deep into the Negev desert towards the Red Sea port of Eilat.

12 - תמר מקראית בית ארבעת המרחבים

Israelite four-room house

The later remains at the site include this typical Israelite house, dated to the time of King Yoshiyahu.  Fascinatingly, nearby there are remnants of an Edomite pagan temple. The idolatrous figurines that were found here (some of which are on display at the Israel Museum) show signs of deliberate destruction. This may well be physical evidence of Yoshiyahu’s heroic campaign to stamp out pagan worship from among the people, in his desperate attempt to prevent the approaching destruction predicted by the prophets (see II Melachim 23:4-15).

Beneath this layer there are even older remains, dated to either the time of King Amatzia, who fought a war against the Edomites who lived here (II Melachim 14:7),  or King Uziyahu, who built a port city at Eilat (II Melachim 14:22).

Although no remains have yet been found here from his time, we know of an earlier king who also built a port at Eilat – none other than King Shlomo himself (I Melachim 9:26)!  Some researchers believe that this site is the place called “Tamar Bamidbar” (literally, “a date-palm in the desert”) built by Shlomo (I Melachim 9:18).   Others have suggested identifying this site as Ovot, one of the places that the Israelites camped in during their 40 years of wandering in the desert (Bamidbar 21:10, 33:43), although this association is problematic.  If it is correct, though, then we are touching an even earlier period in our history, and that would mean Moshe Rabbenu himself was here.

There’s also one more time period associated with Jewish settlement in this area, and that is our own generation!

Today, although still somewhat remote, this region is far from deserted.  The agricultural settlements of the Central Arava Regional Council, home to just over three thousand Jews, are in this immediate vicinity.  These small settlements, whose exports provide Europe with substantial quantities of certain types of vegetables and make up 60% of Israel’s total agricultural exports, represent one of the most amazing examples of Israelis “making the desert bloom”. The water for those settlements and farms comes from the same source as the Ein Husub spring that supplied the outposts here.

As in the times of the Bible, Jewish presence here deep in the desert is a sign of a particularly successful period of connection between Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel) and Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). Coming to this spot and learning a bit of Torat Yisrael connects us with our past and present, and helps us build our future.

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Torat Ha’Aretz (New Blog Feature)

Jerusalem mountainsI’m pleased to announce a new feature on this blog, which will appear in addition to the type of posts I’ve been writing until now.  The new feature is called “Torat Ha’aretz” (the Torah of the Land), and will be dedicated to exploring the unique and wondrous Land of Israel from a Torah perspective.

In mind, there are actually two different aspects to the “Torah of the Land”.

First, there is the fact that the opportunity to live in and explore the Land of Israel (and to conduct archaeological excavations and other forms of scientific research) enables us to understand the Torah better.  There are numerous examples of this phenomenon, and one that I am fond of quoting is from the Torah portion we read last week in the Synagogue.

When our Patriarch Yaakov sent his son Yosef on the ill-fated mission to see his brothers in Shechem, it says that he sent him “Me’Emek Chevron”, from the Valley of Hebron (Bereishit 37:14).  The great medieval commentator Rashi expresses puzzlement at this expression.  What, asks Rashi, is the Valley of Hebron??  “But we know that Hebron is on a mountain, since it says (Bamidbar 13:22) ‘they ascended from the South…to Hebron’!”

Unable to reconcile the apparent contradiction between those two verses, Rashi concludes (based on a Midrash) that the phrase “Emek Chevron” must be a metaphor, referring to the “deep counsel of the righteous one who is buried in Hebron”. According to this interpretation, the expression indicates that Yosef’s journey to the North, which set into motion the descent of the Children of Israel to Egypt, was the fulfillment of the Divine prophecy previously revealed to our forefather Avraham.

bet menachem

Bet Menachem-Tel Chevron

When I take people to Hebron, I am fond of bringing them to the rooftop of a building known as “Bet Menachem”, in the Tel Chevron/Tel Rumeida neighborhood. This apartment house is built on top of excavations revealing ruins over 4000 years old.  This is the city where Yaakov lived, and as indicated by the verse in Bamidbar, it is indeed on a mountain.  From atop the roof, one has a clear view of Ma’arat HaMachpela/the Cave of the Patriarchs, in the valley below.  That’s the “Valley of Hebron” referred to in Bereishit.

emek chevron

Valley of Hebron

Rashi never had the privilege that we have, to stand in this spot.  Doing so enables us to gain a deeper insight into the Midrash that Rashi quoted; Hebron is on a mountain, and there is also a Valley of Hebron.  That valley is where “the righteous one” who received the “deep counsel” is buried.  When the Torah says that Yaakov sent Yosef from the “Valley of Hebron”, the expression has two levels of meaning. Yaakov apparently escorted Yosef out of the city to the valley below, and it was from there that he sent him on his journey. Unbeknownst to Yaakov at the time, though, he was not merely sending him on a routine trip beginning in the Valley of Hebron, but on a meta-historic journey into exile and redemption from which the People of Israel would ultimately emerge, fulfilling the “deep counsel of that righteous one who is buried in [the Valley of] Hebron”.


There is also a second aspect to the Torah of the Land.  In addition enabling us to better understand the texts of the written and oral Torah, the land also teaches us Torah on its own.

The Land of Israel is an extremely fascinating place. It is geographically situated at the crossroads of three major continents, and in an extremely small space contains unique geological phenomena, a rich variety of topographical and climate zones (where else can you go skiing in the snow, swimming at a beach and hiking in a desert all on the same day, without using an airplane?), providing habitats for a wide variety of plants and animals (many of which are the basis of images used in the Bible) and some of the world’s most ancient civilizations. It’s also been the destination of pilgrimages by people of various faiths, battles of armies and empires, and the forum for the incredible story of the rebirth and renewal of the Jewish people in the State of Israel. The Land itself has lessons to teach us, and by studying it, we can learn a different form of Torah Ha’aretz.

Each of these posts will briefly examine a site or aspect of the land of Israel, and point to aspects of Torat Ha’aretz we can learn from them.  The first one is coming, b’ezrat Hashem, later this week.  I hope you enjoy!

When Rabbis Sin

NOTE: As can be seen from the date below and the content of the post, I wrote this originally in November 2013.  In October 2014, a few days after the arrest of Rabbi Barry Freundel, I posted it again on my Facebook page.  An intense conversation ensued with a number of my friends making some very salient comments.  As a result, I realized that the original post was not nuanced enough – so I have now added a few additional sentences.  Those added sentences appear below in this green color.

Today was a sad day for anyone who cares about the honor of Torah. This morning’s news reported that former Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger was arrested on suspicions of accepting bribes, and of a list of other serious offenses including fraud, money laundering, breach of trust, obstruction of justice and witness tampering.

Of course, the rabbi has not even been indicted yet, and certainly not convicted, so we must be careful about drawing conclusions. In addition (and this is itself a sad statement about the current state of the rabbinate), I don’t know too many people who actually viewed Rabbi Metzger as any type of halachic or spiritual leader. Nevertheless, the sight of someone who represented Torah to Israel and the world being led away into police custody is extremely disturbing.

This incident comes on the heels of a number of other disturbing incidents in recent months and years involving high profile rabbis caught committing various types of sins – some of them criminal offenses, and some not. Unfortunately, the list is not very short, but a few that come to mind are Rabbi Michael Broyde of Atlanta, a prominent rabbinic judge on the Beth Din of America who was caught using fake internet identities to dishonestly promote himself and his scholarship; Rabbi Mendel Epstein of Brooklyn, who was arrested a month ago on accusations of charging women tens of thousands of dollars in order to help them receive a get by hiring thugs to torture their recalcitrant husbands; and Rabbi Motti Elon here in Israel, who was convicted this past summer of indecent assault against two minors.

These extremely unfortunate incidents cause a huge amount of damage, in a number of different ways. Besides the direct damage they have caused to specific individuals, and the general element of Chilul Hashem (desecrating God’s name) they cause, there is something else that often escapes attention. Many of these discredited rabbis were talented leaders, and their indiscretion robs the community of the opportunity to continue benefitting from their scholarship, leadership and whatever else they did that brought them to their exalted positions in the first place.

Of course, the responsibility for this tragic state of affairs rests on the shoulders of the offending rabbis themselves – through their violations of halacha and ethics, they brought about all of this destruction, and they must be held accountable.

The question, though, is whether the damage can ever be reversed.

Must every scandal always be a career ender? Hypothetically, if these disgraced rabbis would apologize and express remorse, could it ever possible for them to be forgiven and continue to lead us? Can someone who has committed serious offences ever regain our respect and admiration?

At first glance, the answer should be no. Although we believe in the power of repentance and might be able to overlook past indiscretions on the part of our friends and neighbors, we expect more from our leaders. They have to be people of impeccable character; this is what makes them worthy to lead us. Indeed, this seems to be the view of Rabbi Yochanan, quoted in the Talmud (Chagiga 15b) as saying that in order to be worthy of teaching Torah, a rabbi must be comparable to an angel of God.

On the other hand, a different statement of Rabbi Yochanan (Avodah Zara 4b-5a, in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai) tells us otherwise. If someone is unsure of the power of repentance, he says, he should look to the example of King David, who “raised up the yoke of repentance”. According to the Bible (II Shmuel 11-12) King David was guilty of some of the most severe crimes possible – adultery and murder. [1] He was accused of these crimes by the prophet Natan and sentenced to multiple punishments involving very severe suffering for many years.

But he wasn’t removed from his position. In fact, not only did he rule the Jewish People for the rest of his life, but he was promised that his descendants would continue to rule forever. And he leads us not only in spite of the fact that he sinned, but to a large extent because of it. Some of his most inspiring psalms were written as a result of his feelings of anguish for what he did (e.g., Tehillim 51) and of the tragedies he suffered as a result (e.g., Tehillim 3).

Yes, Rabbi Yochanan teaches us that our rabbis must be like angels, but he also teaches us that King David is our role model because he sinned and repented. Apparently, one can become like an angel even after committing very serious crimes.

Therefore, I would like to call upon each and every one of these rabbis who have been found guilty of any type of wrongdoing, to follow David’s example, admit his guilt and accept responsibility. This is not going to be easy. Among other things, it will require them to publicly accept guilt and apologize, and to make amends to the offended parties as much as possible. Very often, it will also require at least temporarily being removed from positions of honor and influence.  In cases where they have committed criminal offenses, they must also cooperate fully with law enforcement and – after due process – accept the justice of whatever sentence they are given, and serve it with dignity. 

The rabbi will need to convince the community that he is serious about repenting, and is willing – like King David – to pay the price for his offences, doing whatever is necessary, for as long as it takes, to convince us of their genuine sincerity.

If and when that happens, though, I suggest we make clear that we will be willing to take them back as rabbinic leaders, but only if we are confident that appropriate safeguards are in place to make sure they don’t repeat their crimes. Many times – certainly in the case of sexual offenders – they must permanently remove themselves from any position involving direct contact with students or congregants.  But if they have done everything described above, even they could still contribute in other ways, for example by writing articles.

Sadly, I don’t see too many instances of disgraced rabbis acting this way. They generally continue to maintain their innocence or at most acknowledge some minor errors of judgment. Undoubtedly, this is largely because it is very difficult for anyone to publicly admit guilt and suffer the huge embarrassment this entails. But perhaps it’s also because they know that their only chance of salvaging their careers is if they could somehow convince people that they aren’t guilty at all. In our current culture that expects our rabbis to be perfect saints, there’s simply no room for public repentance.

If we make clear as a community that we are willing to be led by those who follow in the footsteps of King David, maybe we’ll be able to encourage some people to take those difficult steps. If they do, then when a great rabbi makes a great mistake, we won’t necessarily have to lose a great leader. Maybe at least one of them will rise to the challenge and own up to his errors.

If he does, perhaps we’ll be able to continue learning from his Torah. And more importantly, he’ll teach us all an important lesson about how to repent.

[1]I am well aware of the various rabbinic interpretations suggesting mitigating circumstances according to which David was not actually guilty of those specific offences. There are also other views in the Talmud that say that in fact he was guilty of exactly those crimes, and of additional ones as well. But since that discussion is not the focus of this post, I began my sentence with the phrase “according to the Bible”. The plain sense of the Biblical text is certainly that David committed adultery with Batsheva and then sent her husband to his death in order to cover up his crime. If he did not actually do these things, the Bible apparently wants us to understand that whatever he did do was, in his case, just as bad.

Social Torah and the Aguna

For the past week, like many others, I have been closely following the tragic story of Gital Dodelson and Avrohom Meir Weiss, since the story of their troubled marriage and divorce proceedings was publicized last week in the New York Post. The story, and efforts to help Gital receive a get, have spread far and wide largely due to facebook and other social media, and in just a few days seems to be producing results. An immediate focus of the campaign was to pressure Artscroll Publishers to fire Weiss’ father and uncle, who occupied prominent positions in the company and also supported Weiss’ refusal to give a get to Gital. It seems this effort has produced some results as Artscroll released a copy of a letter by these two individuals yesterday, suspending themselves from their positions “until the situation is resolved”. From the perspective of Gital and her supporters, this was an important victory.

Because of their desire to harness public opinion to support their respective positions, both sides have published detailed arguments and supporting documentation on the internet. Avrohom Meir’s primary argument and documents are available here, and there have also been updates in several posts on this blog, and Gital’s can be seen on her website (see the “Documents” and “Refuting” sections).

By reading these materials, we can all understand the details of their dysfunctional marriage and the legal battles they are waging both in New Jersey secular courts and in rabbinic courts (battei din). While it is unfortunate that such painful and private matters have been revealed to the public, this affair does give us a rare window into an actual case of an aguna/mesurevet get , and I think there are some important lessons to be learned from it.

Here are three conclusions I have drawn:

  1. Gital is right and Avrohom Meir is wrong. He needs to give her a get immediately and unconditionally, and without any connection to any other ongoing disputes between them. Until such time as he does, any (non-violent, legal) measures any of us can take to pressure, embarrass and humiliate Weiss and his supporters to get them to comply are legitimate. This is sad, but it is the clear, indisputable and halachically correct conclusion.

    Some people feel that ANY woman who wants a get is entitled to it immediately, no matter what the circumstances, and that the husband is automatically wrong in such disputes. Personally, I think things are more complex and would not make a blanket statement like that. In this particular case, though, she is in fact completely right and he is completely wrong.

    I make this claim first of all because it is clearly stated in a letter (English translation here) signed by many extremely prominent American rabbis. Contrary to implications by the Weiss camp, the rabbis signed on this letter (with the exception of Rav Hershel Schachter) are not affiliated with Yeshiva University, but rather with the “right-wing/yeshivish” community to which both Weiss and Dodelson belong. Additionally, there is an official ruling by a prominent rabbinic court that declares Weiss in contempt of court.

    And finally, after spending a few minutes reading the arguments and documentation of both sides, it is absolutely clear that the Weiss camp is spreading lies and misinformation, and even submitted a forged halachic document to the court. It isn’t hard to see that. They have made a number of claims that are clearly and plainly refuted by documentation published by the Dodelson camp, and in at least one case by a Hebrew-language document that they posted themselves (document “F”).

    The most recent example of this is the resignation letter mentioned above, in which Weiss’ father and uncle assert that “we had agreed to arbitration”, implying that there had been an agreement. They also released a letter from the supposed arbitrator claiming to back up this claim. However, the Dodelsons then obtained and publicized an email from that same individual clarifying that they had never agreed to arbitration at all!

  2. These situations have to stop! The publicity generated by this case, and the revelation of details and documents, enable all of us to get an “inside look” at the anatomy of an aguna case, perhaps more than other high-profile cases have done. Even after, with God’s help, Gital receives her get and moves on with her life, we will still be left with many other such cases, and with a system that enables this to happen again and again. This is a tragic situation, and as a community, we should not allow it to continue.

    Some Orthodox rabbis and spokespeople throw up their hands and say “what can we do? This is God’s law, and there’s nothing we can do to change it.” On the other extreme, there are also voices in the Orthodox community arguing that (to use Blu Greenberg’s famous phrase) “where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachic way”, and that if rabbis really cared, they would solve this problem once and for all.

    Both of those extreme statements are partially true, but also partially false. It is, in fact, the case that according to Torah law, the only way for a married couple to be divorced is if the man gives his wife a get, and that can’t and shouldn’t be changed. And this means that, tragically (for reasons that I for one cannot understand), there may always be situations in which a woman who is no longer living with her husband may be unable to remarry. But at the same time, there are many halachically acceptable solutions that can greatly reduce the frequency of these tragedies, and can deprive recalcitrant husbands of the ability to abuse their wives by withholding a get in defiance of a bet din. This is not the place (and I am not the person) to discuss various innovative halachic devices that have been suggested, but one thing that any couple getting married can and should do is to sign a halachic prenuptial agreement (available here for couples living in the USA, and here for Israel). If Gital Dodelson had demanded this agreement she probably would have had her get years ago. If every couple getting married, without exception, signs one, this problem will be virtually eliminated.

  3. Social Torah? As stated above, I hope and pray that Gital Dodelson receives her get very soon. Based on early impressions one week after this story went public, I think there is a decent chance that she may actually win this one, with the help of God.

    It is quite instructive to contemplate how she accomplished this. Apparently, the Dodelsons hired a professional consultant to maximize use of the internet and social media to gain support for her cause. We are already seeing the results of that effort.

    I don’t blame the Dodelsons for taking this approach – when your opponent is using illegitimate methods against you, you have to use any legitimate tools that you have. At the same time, though, as a community we ought to consider how much and under which conditions we want to allow the use of social media to determine policy and results. The internet and social media are powerful tools that have made incredible contributions towards the dissemination of Torah – but like all media, we need to be careful how we use them.

    Social media’s power is its breadth of reach, but its weakness is its lack of depth. I wrote above that I concluded that Gital is right and Avrohom Meir is wrong because I read all of the documentation available in the case. Due to the internet, I was able to find and read all of the relevant arguments and documents from my own living room, and the whole thing took me about 15 minutes. But how many other people read all of those documents? Judging from comments on various websites and from the Weiss’ very flimsy (yet apparently somewhat effective) use of misinformation, it seems most people don’t read anything beyond the headlines.

    If we’re going to use social media, we need to use it responsibly. I urge ANYONE who wants to take ANY action on this case (including signing a petition or joining any sort of protest, or even clicking “like”) to NOT take my word for it. Take the 15 minutes I did and read the information available at the links above, and then draw your own conclusions (if you are unfamiliar with halachic and/or legal terminology some of the technical terms may be confusing to you, but it isn’t very hard to get the basic gist of what’s going on).

    Also, we must realize that social media can enable the quick and efficient mobilization of significant masses of people supporting a cause, and can be harnessed by common people just as well as (and sometimes more effectively than) rabbinic or other leaders. On the one hand, that can be a blessed phenomenon to empower people like Gital Dodelson who are otherwise powerless and vulnerable. But on the other hand, this same power can and is easily be misused by people with less righteous and holy agendas. I don’t think we want halachic policy and Torah decisions in our community to be determined by whoever is able to muster the most likes on facebook (or whoever hires the most sophisticated media consultant).

    Social media is an important tool, but we must remember that as a halachic community, our rabbis are still our leaders and halachic decisions, particularly ones on such complex and sensitive matters, must be rendered by qualified poskim (halachic decisors/experts). Discussions of complex halachic matters can take place on the internet, but this has to maintain the high level of sophisticated discourse among Talmidei chachamim, and must not be reduced to blog posts and facebook statuses.

    We can – indeed must – make our voices heard. Just not too loud to drown out more substantive conversations.

Kol Mevaser – the Voice of the Herald

Jerusalem March Feast of Tabernacles צעדת ירושלים

Jerusalem March, Sukkot 5774 – צעדת ירושלים תשע”ד

Something amazing occurred to me this morning in the Synagogue, during Hoshana Rabba prayers, as I recited the last of the liturgical poems, just before beating the willow branches against the ground. The poem begins with a declaration, repeated emphatically by the congregation after each stanza:

!קול מבשר, מבשר ואומר
The voice of the herald, announces and proclaims!

The image of the mevaser, the herald who announces the coming of the final Redemption, is based on a number of verses in the book of Isaiah (for example see 52:7). The poem we read this morning anticipates the coming of that Redemption by poetically describing what that future world will look like, and invites us to hear the voice of the herald announcing its arrival.

As I recited a few lines from this poem, I thought about some of what I saw and experienced yesterday in Jerusalem. We went into the city as a family to take part in some of the holiday festivities. As always, being in Jerusalem on chol hamoed is an exhilarating experience. The streets are packed with tens of thousands of visitors from around the country and around the world. There are Sukkot on every block and people carrying the Four Species everywhere you turn, restaurants are packed and there are street festivals and music playing throughout the city…and of course when you enter the Old City and approach the Western Wall, you can get a taste of what it must be like to fulfill the commandment of aliya laregel – ascending for the pilgrimage to the bet hamikdash.

With that image in mind as I recited the following lines, I realized that today, to hear the “voice of the herald” announcing the coming redemption, all one needs to do is to come to Israel, and particularly to Jerusalem on Sukkot:

!קול מושיעים יעלו להר ציון, כי חלה גם ילד ציון – מבשר ואומר
!קול נשמע בכל גבולך, הרחיבי מקום אהלך – מבשר ואומר
!קול שימי עד דמשק משכנותיך, קבלי בניך ובנותיך – מבשר ואומר

The voice of the saviors ascending Mount Zion, for Zion has given birth to her children – announces and proclaims!
The voice that is heard throughout your borders, as the place of your dwellings extends [in all directions] – announces and proclaims!
The voice of your dwellings extending and approaching Damascus, in order to receive your [returning] sons and daughters – announces and proclaims!

As I said these words, I remembered walking yesterday afternoon through the Old City gate on what is today called Mount Zion – a gate marked by the bullets of the Jewish saviors who indeed “ascended Mount Zion”. I was surrounded by my fellow Jews, those whose homes today extend in all directions from Jerusalem (even approaching Damascus) and those who are currently returning from exile. Indeed I can hear the voice of the herald announcing the approaching redemption. That voice, which just a few decades ago was faint and barely perceptible, is today very loud.

However, the most amazing part is actually in the earlier verses of the poem. Those verses make reference to the prophecy recorded in Zecharia chapter 14, which we read in the Synagogues last week on the first day of Sukkot. That prophecy of the End of Days includes the following verses:

…והיה ה’ למלך על כל הארץ, ביום ההוא יהיה ה’ אחד ושמו אחד
והיה כל הנותר מכל הגוים הבאים על ירושלים ועלו מדי שנה בשנה להשתחוות למלך ה’ צבאות ולחוג את חג הסוכות. (זכריה יד:ט,יז)

And Hashem shall be King over the entire earth, on that day Hashem will be One and His Name will be One…
And then all who remain from all the nations who rose up against Jerusalem shall ascend every single year in order to bow before Hashem, and to celebrate the Festival of Sukkot. (Zecharia 14:9,17)

One of the things we did yesterday was to watch the annual “Jerusalem March” parade through the streets of downtown Jerusalem. The parade began with groups of soldiers, police and other security forces, followed by groups of Israelis representing various towns and villages, companies and organizations. But the most moving part of the parade were the groups that followed after that – non-Jews from all over the world who come to Israel every year on Sukkot to show their support for Israel and to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. I don’t have the full list handy, but there were groups from every continent on earth (among the countries I recall seeing are the USA, Bolivia, Brazil, Norway, Slovakia, China, Korea, Thailand, Kenya, Nigeria, Botswana, Australia and New Zealand). They come in colorful native costumes, waving their own flags and Israeli ones, carrying banners in many languages (most of which also have Hebrew on them) and proclaiming their love for Israel and the Jewish people.  Just as Zecharia promised they would.

Jerusalem March Feast of Tabernacles צעדת ירושלים

As they walked down the streets of Jerusalem, they proudly waved at the Israelis who stood on the sidewalks watching them. Many greeted us excitedly, saying “Shalom” and wishing us a “chag sameach“- they all seemed to have learned the words for “happy holiday”. My children, who were excited to see so many different cultures, approached some of the more exotically dressed visitors and asked to take a picture with them. The marchers from around the world not only agreed readily, but many asked if they too could take a picture, probably to show off to their friends back home that they met some “real Israelis”.

Jerusalem March Feast of Tabernacles צעדת ירושלים

To be sure, the final Redemption is certainly not yet here. In case we were unsure of that, the tragic murder of one of our soldiers in Hebron on Sunday – as thousands of Jews were celebrating Sukkot there – provided a chilling reminder. And of course, my “pilgrimage to the Temple Mount” yesterday ended abruptly with Mincha at the Western Wall and not at the bet hamikdash, because although the city of Jerusalem has been magnificently rebuilt, its most important site remains in ruins.

So no, the Redemption is not here yet. But as we declared this morning in the Synagogue, the Voice of the Herald announces and proclaims! And those announcements are getting louder all the time.

Jerusalem March Feast of Tabernacles צעדת ירושלים Jerusalem March Feast of Tabernacles צעדת ירושלים

Jerusalem March Feast of Tabernacles צעדת ירושליםJerusalem March Feast of Tabernacles צעדת ירושלים

Jerusalem March Feast of Tabernacles צעדת ירושלים

Jerusalem March Feast of Tabernacles צעדת ירושלים

Jerusalem March Feast of Tabernacles צעדת ירושלים Jerusalem March Feast of Tabernacles צעדת ירושלים

A Religious Person or A Good Person – What’s More Important?

As we try, during these Days of Repentance, to improve ourselves, an important question arises: What’s the most important thing – to be a “religious person”, or a “good person”? Meaning, is it better to be someone who prays to God and tries to worship Him, or to be a kind and ethical person, someone who’s very careful about how he/she treats other people?

Believe it or not, this question is so important that it’s at the heart of most of the major military conflicts that have threatened the world in recent years. For us here in Israel as for the majority of the Western world, our most vicious enemies these days are the radical Islamists, be they the Shiite groups led by Iran, or the Sunni groups organized under the banner of Al-Qaeda. While these groups disagree about many things (and are currently fighting and killing each other in Syria), they both agree that the most important thing is for the world is to worship God in the correct manner (as they understand it), and they are willing to do anything necessary – including killing their enemies’ or their own children – to bring that about.

These groups are opposed by the Western world, who believe (to quote the US Declaration of Independence), that all people are “created equal” and are entitled to “certain unalienable rights…among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” One of the most important “unalienable rights” the Western world believes in the freedom to worship God (or any other god or gods) in any way one sees fit – or to not worship at all.

So those are the extremes – the Islamists believe that serving God takes precedence over treating people with kindness and sensitivity, whereas the West believes the exact opposite – being ethical comes before being religious.[1]

What does the Torah say?

The obvious answer is “both”! The Torah clearly addresses our relationship with God as well as our relationship with other people, and gives us many commandments relating to each of these concepts. These twin ideas are represented by the two tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were inscribed – the first one lists commandments “between man and God” and the second lists commandments “between man and man”. So the Torah clearly says that you need both.

But that doesn’t really answer the question. After all, the Islamists also believe in the values of kindness and justice, and the Western world values (or at least respects) religion. The question isn’t whether you need only one or whether you need both – the question is which one comes first and which second?

There is a certain philosophy currently being promoted by various individuals and groups within the Jewish People, which argues that the essence of Judaism and of Jewishness is to be a good, kind and ethical person.[2] Numerous rabbinic sources, such as “דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה” (sometimes translated as something like “ethical norms come before religious law” – although it may very well mean something else) can be quoted to support this position. Speakers advocating for this approach do not suggest that prayer, ritual and other ways of serving God aren’t important; they agree that “you need both”. Just that the “laws between man and man” come first and “between man and God” second. These people often criticize other philosophies within Orthodox Judaism, who they accuse (correctly or not) of prioritizing ritual over ethics.

So, who is right? Is “religion” the first order of priority and “ethics” a close second? Or the other way around?

I think an intriguing answer can be found in the mitzvah of Shabbat. If we look at the short text of this mitzvah in the Ten Commandments as they appear in the book of Shmot and compare this to the parallel text in the book of Devarim, something very interesting emerges.

According to the text in Shmot (20:10), Shabbat is a religious law whose purpose is to bear witness to the idea that God created the world:

“For in six days the Lord made the heaven, the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the day of Shabbat and sanctified it”

But the text in Devarim (5:13-14) says something entirely different:

“…in order that your man-servant and maid-servant may rest [just] like you. You must remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore, the Lord your God has commanded you to keep the day of Shabbat.”

According to this, Shabbat is a social law designed to bring a measure of equality into a very unequal relationship. All week long there are slaves who do the work and masters who order them around. On Shabbat, though, all work ceases, so the slaves get to rest just as the masters do. The master is commanded to allow his slave this weekly respite out of empathy, and also as a result of the realization that he was once a slave himself – so he should know to treat the slave in an ethical and compassionate manner.

Is there a contradiction between the two Biblical texts? Are there competing traditions as to the reason for the mitzvah of Shabbat?  Of course not.  The two passages not only complement each other, but in fact they are one and the same.  And understanding how and why that is can help us answer our initial question.

The text in Devarim says that we must observe Shabbat in order that our slaves will be able to rest, just as we do.  This is not only presented as a matter of ethics and kindness, but also because “the Lord your God brought you out from [Egypt] with a strong hand and an outstretched arm”.  Thus the idea in Shmot – that Shabbat testifies to the idea that God created the world, leads directly to the idea in Devarim – that He also continues to rule the world.  He decides who is on top and who is on the bottom, who is wealthy and who is poor, who a master and who a slave.  If you are a master today, that is only because He wills it as such – once upon a time you were the slave, and the situation could change tomorrow as well.

The master who internalizes these messages realizes that he must allow his man-servant and maid-servant to rest just as he does because indeed, all people are equal.  God is the true master and we are all His slaves.  So the theological message emphasized in Shmot leads directly to the social message emphasized in Devarim.

And perhaps, therefore, the answer to our original question – is it more important to be a “religious person” or an “ethical person” is that the Torah teaches us that the two are actually one and the same. The only way to truly be an ethical person is to be a religious person, and a truly religious person will by definition be ethical.  Any philosophy that argues for one over the other misses the point.

May we all reach true religiosity, true ethics and true kindness, and may we all merit to be sealed in the Book of Life.

[1]This particular point is actually crucially important. The two cultures that currently dominate the planet and are involved in a huge confrontation actually each represent an interpretation of part of the Torah’s message. I hope to elaborate on the significance of that in a future post.

[2]The more extreme formulations of this idea can be found in radical movements like Humanistic Judaism and Reconstructionism – which have redefined Judaism as an essentially cultural and philosophical system whose most important tenet is to make the world a better place and which don’t involve worshiping (or perhaps even believing in) God at all. Of course, one could argue that these groups do not represent authentic Judaism at all; they are merely expressing the ideas of secular Western culture using Jewish terminology. But a very similar idea, in a more mild form, can also be found among Orthodox Jews who follow halacha scrupulously. These groups affirm the necessity of serving God – just say that this is secondary to being an ethical person.

A Nation Like None Other

The fundamental principle of the Am Levadad Yishkon philosophy is that, simply put, we Jews are just different.

We share in the human experiences of the rest of mankind, struggle with many of the same questions, celebrate similar triumphs and suffer similar anguish, and we can even cooperate with other nations to find solutions to our common problems. But still, we’re just different. We’re different because we are God’s Chosen People, and whether we like it or not, we represent Him to the rest of the world. For thousands of years when we lived in exile, this point was perhaps easier to see. Today in Israel we once again have a country of our own, and in the public discourse here there is much talk about how we’re always trying to be “a normal country”.

But the thing is, we will never be normal. Even when we deal with seemingly normal things, the unique aspects of the Jewish State always come through – for better or for worse.

Looking at the news from this past week (a fairly ordinary week here in Israel) four items jumped out at me, each of which illustrates how completely unusual it is to live in the Jewish State:

1. This past Wednesday, a once-in-a-decade event took place. Israel chose two new Chief Rabbis. Of course, that itself makes us pretty unique – there aren’t all that many countries that have Chief Rabbis. But there are others as well (like the United Kingdom, which has also recently inaugurated a new rabbi of its own). As the world’s only Jewish country, though, Israel is the only one to have chief rabbis in quasi-governmental positions.

The Chief Rabbinate was Rav Kook’s brainchild. He wanted to create an institution that could serve as the spiritual leadership of a Jewish State. In the century-plus since Rav Kook’s time, the Rabbinate has accomplished much in the realms of kosher supervision, standards of Jewish law in marriage, divorce and conversion and other matters. But its governmental nature, powers of coercion in certain fields and control of significant budgets have also led it to become a highly divisive force that many people blame for alienating masses of Israeli Jews from Judaism.

In fact, the very process of electing a chief rabbi (by a 150-member panel that nobody seems to understand and that seems to have made its decisions on the basis of political backroom deals in proverbial smoke-filled rooms) is extremely distasteful. Some rabbis have increasingly suggested abolishing the rabbinate or removing many of its powers to achieve a separation of “synagogue and state” that they feel will address this situation. I am increasingly understanding the benefits of such a suggestion, but am still very concerned about the negative repercussions it could have: it risks undoing many of the rabbinate’s accomplishments. At the same time, though, the Rabbinate needs to be changed, as soon as possible.

In a previous post, I expressed my support for Rabbi David Stav, who wanted to implement some very important reforms in the rabbinate. Rabbi Stav did not win the election. I hope the new Chief Rabbis, who have pledged support for at least some of the issues Rabbi Stav raised, will move to save the Rabbinate from itself and build confidence and support among a public that desperately needs genuine religious leadership.

2. Last Monday, the Knesset approved a preliminary reading of the bill to remove the blanket draft exemption granted to yeshiva students. I’ve blogged about this before also, and won’t go over the points here – but will just mention that the bill’s provisions for criminal sanctions against draft dodging yeshiva students is probably a big mistake. The prospect of mass arrests and prison sentences for entire communities full of haredim who would refuse to serve is a frightening prospect and one that is almost certainly unenforceable. On the other hand, as I wrote there, simple financial incentives in the form of conditioning government benefits to individuals and institutions on complying with the draft rules are easily defensible and likely to be highly effective (the bill contains those provisions as well – I would leave them in but remove the criminal penalties).

In any case, though, the difficulty of this issue is another unique feature of life in our country. Many countries still have compulsory military service and some even offer exemptions for those engaged in religious study – but nowhere that I’m aware of is this such a divisive issue affecting such a large percentage of the country. Of course the centrality of this issue is due to two very unique aspects of the Israeli experience: the very severe and ubiquitous threats to our existence on the one hand, and on the other, the desire of such a large portion of the population to engage in the study of Torah and the willingness of the country and government to support that even as we argue about the details– this is Am Levadad Yishkon at its finest.

3. Turning to other matters, this morning the Cabinet will vote on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s plan to release 104 Arab murders from prison, as a “good will gesture” to the Palestinians in order to encourage them to return to the table for another round of peace negotiations. Personally, I pray for peace every day and would love to make genuine peace with the Palestinians. I would even be willing to make some types of “painful concessions” under the correct theoretical conditions – but I am extremely against this prisoner release. Why should we have to violate principles of universal justice by releasing terrorists from jail? And why should we have to bribe the Palestinians for the privilege of talking to us? Is there any chance that negotiations started under such circumstances could actually lead to real peace?

It seems I’m not the only one who feels this way. A poll published in Friday’s Israel Hayom newspaper reported that an incredible 84.9 percent of Israelis are opposed to the prisoner release! Last night, however, the Prime Minister announced that he intends to go through with it anyway. In a letter to the public, Netanyahu said, “From time to time, prime ministers are called on to make decisions that go against public opinion – when the matter is important for the country.” I’m not convinced. But it doesn’t look like I will get a say in this matter, although Netanyahu does intend to promote a law giving me and the rest of the citizens the chance to vote in a referendum before any eventual agreement is carried out. That’s a law that I support completely in principle, though I would like to change certain details.

Regardless of what you think about all of this, though, this entire issue highlights just how unusual our nation is. Peace negotiations are not unique in today’s world, but Israel’s are unlike any other. Nowhere else is the entire world obsessed with the negotiations, and only in Israel does the entire world seem determined to force us into agreements with no chance of success. I’m convinced that this obsession with the Jewish People, including the often very negative bias so unfairly employed against us, are because the entire world recognizes something that we often wish to deny – that we are just different. We represent God and His Torah, and the world therefore expects different things of us. And sometimes they oppose us because they are opposed to what we represent. This is Am Levadad Yishkon.

4. And finally, a more upbeat news item: The Maccabiah games are currently underway here in Israel. Often known as the “Jewish Olympics”, this remarkable event is bringing together 9000 athletes from over 70 countries – all of them Jewish. I can tell you that my family has been enjoying these games and the festive spirit they create (it’s great that admission to all of the games is free. Particularly, my three sons were very excited to see New York Knicks star Amar’e Stoudemire who is here coaching the Canadian team – we watched the Israeli team beat them on Friday, and managed to get Amar’e’s autograph on a basketball.) So perhaps at least this is something normal after all? No religious debates, no politics, no security issues – just a great set of competitions in the universal spirit of fun and sportsmanship.

But actually, these games also highlight very clearly the absolutely unique nature of the Jewish People. Think about what it is – a gathering of athletes from diverse countries with different cultures and languages, very much like the Olympic Games. But there is one difference. All of these athletes know that all of their opponents as well as their teammates are their brothers and sisters.

And unlike the Olympics, this international event doesn’t move from country to country, but always takes place in the one place that unites all of the competitors: their ancient and future homeland. And the competition is named not for ancient pagan gods but for a band of heroes who fought to ensure our great nation’s spiritual survival (the choice to name an Olympic-style competition after the Maccabees is actually very ironic – but we’ll leave that discussion for another time). I’m not a big sports fan, but sitting in the stands watching these games, and talking to a few of the athletes afterwards was quite inspiring to me.

So there it is, four news items from a fairly ordinary week, each one of which reminds us that whether we like it or not, we are different from the rest of the world. Life in Israel can be quite challenging and quite inspiring, but the one thing it will never be is normal.

The Paradox of Tisha B’av

This morning, as she was getting ready to pray, my daughter asked me if we recite the Tachanun prayer today.   I was confused by her question: Tachanun is omitted on happy occasions, and today, the eve of Tisha B’av, is anything but.  Right now, we are in a period of intense mourning.

Of course, though, as she quickly pointed out, her question actually made a lot of sense.  Tomorrow, on Tisha B’av itself, there is no Tachanun.   So while the answer was that Tachanun should be recited today (in the morning, though not in the afternoon), her question was really very logical.

The omission of Tachanun on the saddest day of our calendar has always intrigued me.  It seems so out of place, especially in the Synagogue – on Tisha B’av morning the men pray without tallit and tefillin, the curtain is removed from the Ark and we sit on the floor.  One gets the feeling that we’re saying the prayers because we are obligated to do so, but that God is so angry with us that we’re not even sure if He’s listening.   And in the midst of all of this, when we come to Tachanun we skip it, just as we do on the happiest of days.

The source of the custom (codified in Shulchan Aruch OC 559:4) is a verse in the book of Eicha (Lamentations) which refers to the day as a Moed – literally an “appointed time” but a term usually used to refer to holidays.  So since it’s called a “holiday”, we skip Tachanun.  I’ve always assumed, though, that there must be much more to this than simply an inference based on word in a Biblical verse.

Our Sages also tell us (Rosh HaShana 18b) that in the future Messianic Era, Tisha B’av will be a day of rejoicing and celebration.  The custom of refraining from Tachanun, therefore, seems to be a precursor, in the midst of our crying and mourning, of that future celebration.   It’s as if we can, by listening very carefully, hear the faintest hint of the future echoing back into the present.

It is worth pondering the significance of this concept.  It is one thing to say that in the future we will no longer need to fast.   But a celebration?  Perhaps, though, the key to understanding this lies in another Rabbinic adage: whoever mourns for Jerusalem is worthy to rejoice in her celebration (Taanit 30b).  Jerusalem was destroyed due to our sins, and when we mourn for her, long for her, and consequently work to correct our ways, we bring about the reversal of the destruction and exile.   And so, quite fittingly, the day which marks the destruction will one day mark the Redemption.  And although that day has not yet arrived, we anticipate its arrival even in the midst of the darkest moments – so no Tachanun on Tisha B’av.

In recent years, I’ve noticed Tisha B’av observances becoming much more popular. Communities around the globe organize Kinot services and learning programs focusing on the limited parts of Torah we are allowed to study on Tisha B’av (I’ve been privileged to participate in such programs on three different continents over the past few years).  The power of the Internet has been harnessed for this as well – if you want to, you can spend the entire day watching quality lectures on video and live webcasts to help bring meaning to the day.  (Once I’m mentioning it, I’ll put in a plug for my neighbor Izzy Broker who produced a video with his own money, featuring a number of prominent rabbis talking about the mitzvah of living in Israel and connected to Tisha B’av.   He made one last year as well.)

Here in Israel, the secular community participates as well – across the country there are readings of Eicha and discussion group programs under the interesting title “Tonight We Don’t Learn Torah“.  And of course the hub of it all is at the Kotel – the plaza is packed with tens of thousands of people both at night and in the afternoon.

All of this together, quite paradoxically, has begun to give Tisha B’av a festive feel.  I’ve occasionally even heard people absent-mindedly refer to it as “Yom Tov” by mistake.   And to me, this is very significant.   The way I see it, as we approach the Redemption, the echoes of that future celebration are getting louder.

At the same time, though, we are far from ready to actually celebrate.   The Temple Mount remains in ruins, and our enemies are all too ready at any moment to make sure we don’t forget that the Redemption is not yet here.  In case we needed reminders, this week’s news highlighted for us the ongoing threat from Iran and her proxies closer to home, antisemitism around the world, and the painful fact that we still suffer from the “baseless hatred” the rabbis tell us was the cause of the Destruction.

So we’re not celebrating yet.  Today we are preparing to sit down on the floor as we have for thousands of years and read the book of Eicha in the traditional mournful tune.  As we do, though, let’s also try to listen to the sounds and see the signs of the approaching Redemption.  Let’s allow those realizations to increase the pain we feel at all that is not right, and resolve ourselves to each do our part to fix that which is broken.

May this be the the last time we fast on Tisha B’av.

Women, the Wall, and Jewish Unity

Ten days ago, on Rosh Chodesh Sivan (Friday, May 10), there was an angry, hostile and even somewhat violent confrontation at the Kotel (Western Wall). Unfortunately, such incidents have taken place from time to time in the past, usually prompted by Moslems rioting on the Temple Mount above the Kotel. But this was different. This time, tragically, the hostility and violence was between Jews and their fellow Jews.

The impetus for the disturbances was a Rosh Chodesh prayer service conducted by a group called the Women of the Wall. The service itself, while non-traditional (the women wear tallitot and tefillin and sometimes read from a Torah scroll), was hardly unusual; the group has been doing pretty much the same thing at the Kotel every single Rosh Chodesh for approximately 25 years. However, even a few days in advance, everyone knew that this month was going to be different.

Routinely, when the Women of the Wall would come to pray on Rosh Chodesh with their tallitot and Torah, they would be met and confronted in the Kotel plaza by a small group of haredi Jews who are offended by what they view as an extreme violation of Jewish law and an affront to their sensibilities. In response to this and with the backing of legislation and court decisions, the police had been restricting the activities of the Women of the Wall, allowing them to pray as a group but only if they were wearing “female-style” (colorful) tallitot. Women found  wearing traditional “male-style” black-and-white tallitot would be detained by police. However, in a dramatic ruling several weeks ago, the Jerusalem District Court overturned previous decisions and declared that the women were to be allowed to pray as the wanted, without any police interference.

The Women of the Wall announced that they would return on Rosh Chodesh Sivan to pray according to their beliefs, and the police confirmed that they would respect the court decision and allow the service to proceed unencumbered. In response, a new organization called “Women FOR the Wall” was formed to create a counter-presence of traditional women at the Kotel. Backed by a number of rabbis, the new group issued a call for busloads of women and girls to arrive at the Kotel early in the morning that day, in order to pray in a traditional manner.

Many thousands showed up, so that the women’s section of the Kotel was completely filled when the Women of the Wall arrived and they needed to conduct their service in the plaza behind the prayer area. Although most of the traditional and haredi Jews at the Kotel refrained from direct confrontation, a small number verbally and physically assaulted the women, and the police struggled to maintain order. People who were present described the scene as exceedingly chaotic and disturbing.

This incident seems to be part of a larger battle that may be emerging between the religious and secular camps in Israel. Just last week we heard of a court decision preventing mikveh attendants from enforcing the halachic ban on single women immersing, read about a large haredi demonstration that turned violent, and were informed that Justice Minister Tzipi Livni is planning to introduce legislation banning many haredi practices of gender-seperation. And then yesterday’s paper announced that Finance Minister Yair Lapid is hoping to legalize non-halachic and gay marriage in Israel.

Assumedly, the reason this is all coming to a head now is because of the recent change of power in the government – for the first time in many years we have no haredi parties in the coalition. The secularists thus sense an opportunity to make changes, and the haredim are feeling attacked and defensive: a recipe for an explosive environment. We saw the potentially devastating results of this tension on Rosh Chodesh, and I fear that if we don’t take steps to control the situation, it can become much worse.

What can we do about this disturbing reality?

There are a number of different aspects to this complex question.   [One issue raised by the Women of the Wall that I will not discuss now is a halachic question: how much room does Jewish law allow for diversity and egalitarianism? I will not discuss that point in this post, but have done so in the past. If you are interested, you can follow these links to listen to a talk I gave last year evaluating (and disagreeing with) the strict rules of tzniyut (modesty) that are currently standard in haredi communities in Israel, read an article I wrote a number of years ago regarding “Orthodox egalitarian minyanim“, and/or listen to my discussion of “Women and Halacha: Tradition and Innovation“.]   For now, I would like to discuss the practical side of the current situation, and to briefly address three points:

1. What happened that day at the Kotel (Jews fighting with Jews at the foot of the Temple Mount) was a huge Chillul Hashem – a desecration of God’s Name. And the timing was particularly bad, coming as it did just a few days before Shavuot, the anniversary of the great Assembly at Mount Sinai, where we stood “as one man with one heart” (Mechilta, Rashi, Shmot 19:2). This past Rosh Chodesh, we seemed particularly far from that exalted reality.

Of course, each side in this confrontation blames the other for causing the terrible desecration. I blame them both, equally.

Those haredim who insulted and assaulted the Women of the Wall committed an unjustifiable sin. There is absolutely no excuse for that type of conduct, regardless of how the women were conducting themselves. And although the overwhelming majority of haredim present that day did not participate, the lack of condemnation from haredi leaders is quite disturbing. Even Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the rabbi of the Kotel, was able to articulate sharp criticism of the women who came, but somehow couldn’t find any words of rebuke for the reprehensible behavior of those who attacked them. This is unacceptable.

At the same time, the Women of the Wall also deserve strong condemnation for deliberately fanning the flames of controversy in this holy site, and for cynically appropriating rituals of prayer for the sake of feminist protest. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with their demand to be able to pray at the Kotel in the manner they choose, it is reprehensible to come month after month, accompanied by reporters and politicians in a deliberately provocative manner. (Some may believe that all they are trying to do is to pray according to their beliefs, but a brief look at their website makes their activist agenda clear. The main headline on the homepage clearly defines the goal of “fighting for women’s rights”. They also have the offensive audacity to refer to themselves as “liberators” of the Kotel, comparing themselves to the heroic paratroopers who fought there in the Six Day War.)  Political protest is of course legitimate – but not at the Kotel.

Regardless of my own opinions on the issue, I can respect people who sincerely believe non-traditional prayer should be allowed at the Kotel, and I can also respect people who are genuinely offended and hurt by such activities. But I cannot respect anyone – on either side – who defiles a holy site for the sake of self-aggrandizement or political protest. It is simply unacceptable, and the entire Jewish people should join in demanding an immediate end to this provocative behavior, from both camps.

2. This, of course, leads directly to the heart of the issue itself – what, in fact, should be allowed at the Kotel? If we want a country that is both Jewish and democratic[1], we need to ask: what is the proper balance on issues of Jewish law and religious diversity?

This is a very thorny issue, but I believe the key word is “balance”. On the one hand, there are certain matters (like marriage, divorce, conversion and burial) that must be governed by a halachic authority, according to the standards defined by halacha. Failure to do so could split the nation irreconcilably. Furthermore, certain mitzvot (like Shabbat and Kashrut) are very potent Jewish symbols that should be observed in the public sphere – even at the cost of some limitations on personal freedom. These concepts were once part of the consensus in this country, and even many Jews who do not live a halachic lifestyle still recognize and respect them. We should work to restore the consensus and promote it as a national value.

In order to make this happen, though, it is of paramount importance that the religious groups recognize that we are not the majority in the country, and that others see things differently than we do. Asking the secular community to respect halachic regulations of certain matters as well as certain symbols in the public sphere means asking them to compromise on values that are important to them. This is a legitimate request – but only if we can do the same. Unity cannot be bought through coercion.

Sensible and sincere religious leaders have worked for compromise with secular Jews, and there are sincere and reasonable people on that side who are interested in such dialog as well. For example, around six years ago Rabbi Yaakov Medan (now Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion) met with Professor Ruth Gavison of Hebrew University and composed a proposal for a “covenant” between the religious and secular communities based on these principles.  One need not accept their particular proposals, but something of that nature is essential.

In a few weeks, the country will have a once-in-a-decade opportunity to take positive steps in this direction. A few weeks from now, two new Chief Rabbis will be elected. Anyone who cares about both the religious character of the country and the unity of the Jewish people should support a change in attitude at the Chief Rabbinate. It is essential that the Rabbinate make major changes in policy to reach out to the secular majority, while continuing to steadfastly uphold halacha. This can happen, if Rabbi David Stav is elected to the position of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi. The keys to that possibility currently seem to lie with Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett, so members of the public (particularly those of us who voted for his party) should let him know we support Rabbi Stav’s candidacy.

3. Finally, as a follow-up to the above points, I would like to just say that it is important that everyone be reasonable. Returning to the particular issue of prayer at the Kotel, there is a very reasonable compromise that has been suggested by Natan Sharansky: to create a third section at the Kotel for egalitarian and non-traditional prayer, in the area of Robinson’s Arch. The truth is that the proposal is not completely new – in fact egalitarian services have already been taking place in that spot for several years – but Sharansky’s proposal addresses some of the limitations in the current arrangement. For example, since the area is currently an archeological park, egalitarian worshippers need to coordinate their visits in advance and pay an entrance fee. Sharansky’s plan would change that and provide 24/7 free access to the area, just as exists in the current men’s and women’s sections.

This is an excellent proposal which has been accepted by many secular groups and also (amazingly) by Rabbi Rabinovitch and the haredi establishment. However, Sharansky’s plan is meeting with strong opposition from an unexpected source: the scientific community. This is because his current proposal involves building a huge elevated deck over the entire area, which would obscure and possibly damage exceedingly important archeological remains. Therefore leading archeologists such as Eilat Mazar and even the director of the Israel Antiquities Authority have vigorously opposed the plans.

They scientists are absolutely right. The Robinson’s Arch area is one of the most important archeological sites in the world, and it would be a terrible mistake to damage it. These concerns, however, can reasonably be met by making some fairly modest modifications to Sharansky’s proposal: making the proposed deck significantly smaller and/or allowing free open access to the lower street area where the excavations are.  An additional benefit of these modifications would be that this somewhat more modest proposal could be implemented much more quickly than Sharansky’s current plan.

The main opponents to those modifications, though, are the Women of the Wall and their supporters. Insisting on complete and total equality, they demand that the new egalitarian area be equal in size to the current men’s and women’s sections, even though the actual needs of the public do not by any means require that (on Rosh Chodesh Sivan, for example, the Women of the Wall and their supporters numbered approximately 300. Estimates say there were about 10,000 traditional worshippers in the women’s section at the same time). They also insist on an elevated platform at the same physical height as the other two sections, which would require building the huge platform over the archeological remains. Neither of these demands is reasonable, and therefore they should be opposed and rejected.

Compromise on essential ideological principles is a very difficult thing for anyone to do, particularly when dealing with matters of religious faith. Understanding this requires a major paradigm shift, where both sides realize that if either one “wins”, we all lose. This paradigm shift must happen, however, because the alternative is unthinkable. Those who wonder what this means need only look at what happened on Rosh Chodesh to see an ominous harbinger of where the tensions could lead.

[1]Although this may be a very uncomfortable thought for some, it could be that this combination is ultimately impossible.  It may very well be the case that the country cannot be both completely Jewish and completely democratic, because these two concepts may in fact be somewhat mutually exclusive.  If so, then at times one of the two values will need to yield to the other.   We will then need to decide what we want – a Jewish state with many democratic aspects, or a democracy with some Jewish symbols.  But that is for a different blog post!

Slavery and Freedom

Americans love Passover. And not only American Jews (for whom the Passover Seder is perhaps the most popular of all Jewish rituals); even non-Jews love to get into the act.

Last year, in anticipation of the “fourth annual White House Seder”, President Obama spoke of his excitement about that upcoming event. As a non-Jew preparing to celebrate a Seder led by Jewish members of his staff, he said he was expecting to be inspired with the “common hopes and common sense of obligation” that he sees in the themes of Passover.[1] The President said Passover reminds us that “throughout history there have been those who have sought to oppress others because of their faith, ethnicity, or color of their skin”, and that it allows “Jews around the world” to “renew their faith that liberty will ultimately prevail over tyranny”, and to “give thanks for the blessings of freedom while remembering those who are still not free”.

Undoubtedly, the reason that Passover is so popular in America has a lot to do with the fact that its themes – freedom, liberty, triumph of the human spirit – seem to fit so well with the American narrative. From the Founding Fathers who saw themselves in Biblical terms, to the traditional slave song “Go Down Moses” (which expressed the slaves’ struggle for freedom in Biblical terms – “Tell all Pharaohs to Let My People Go”), to the American Jewish Committee’s “interfaith, interracial, interethnic Thanksgiving reader” – available as a free download to all Americans who want celebrate a Thanksgiving meal modelled on a Passover Seder – Americans of all religions see Passover and its messages as a historical precedent for the American story.

There is only one problem with this idea: inspiring though it may be, it is simply not true.

For one thing, Passover does not express a universal message. The Exodus from Egypt is the foundational narrative of Jewish history, and therefore Passover is actually the most parochial of all Jewish holidays.  We do have holidays with universal messages, but Passover is not one of them. Two good examples would be Rosh Hashana (which is filled with prayers for all of humanity even though it is often inaccurately referred to as “the Jewish New Year”) and Sukkot (during which 70 sacrifices are brought in the Temple, according to the rabbis, in honor of the 70 nations of the world).[2]   So if President Obama wants to participate in a Jewish celebration that he can genuinely identify with as a non-Jew, Passover is the wrong holiday to choose.

In addition to that, though, there’s something even more surprising.  I know this will sound strange, but Passover is actually not about freedom from slavery. In fact, we actually celebrate slavery on Passover.

Yes, you read that sentence correctly. I said that on Passover we celebrate slavery, and not freedom from slavery.

Of course I am aware that the rabbis refer to Passover as zman cherutenu – the time of our freedom. And I am also aware that we declare during the Seder that we were slaves to Pharaoh, but now we are free. But a closer look at the Biblical story (in its original Hebrew) shows that freedom was not the goal of the Exodus from Egypt – at least not in the classic sense of the term.

As we all know, Moses was sent by God to demand freedom for the Jewish people. The exact Hebrew phrase, used in four different places in the book of Shmot (7:16, 7:26, 9:1 and 9:13) is: שלח את עמי ויעבדני – “Send forth My people so that they may serve Me“. The Hebrew word ויעבדני (“so that they may serve Me”) has the same root as the word עבד – slave.  In other words, it is true that on Passover we were released from slavery to Pharaoh. But we were not set free! On the contrary, we were simply transferred from one master to another. Prior to the Exodus, we were slaves to Pharaoh.  Afterwards, we became slaves to God. [3]

So where did the identification of Passover as the holiday of freedom come from? Why, in fact, is Passover referred to as zman cherutenu? I believe the answer to this question can be found in a fascinating passage in the Mishnah (Avot 6:2):

והלחת מעשה א-להים המה והמכתב מכתב א-להים הוא, חרות על הלחת – אל תקרא חרות אלא חירות, שאין לך בן חורין אלא מי שעוסק בתלמוד תורה

This somewhat well-known rabbinic adage is actually shocking. Utilizing a play on words, the rabbis homiletically interpret a Biblical verse describing the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. The Torah describes the writing on the tablets as “charut al haluchot” which literally means engraved on the tablets. The rabbis read it as though it said cherut al haluchot – freedom is on the tablets!  In other words, the tablets which contain Divine commandments – the essence of our slavery to God – are paradoxically identified as being the key to freedom. And in fact, the Mishnah goes on to explain that true freedom is only experienced by one who involves him or herself in the study and practice of Torah.

So indeed, Passover is about freedom – but not exactly the type of freedom revered by Americans.  The freedom we Jews celebrate on Passover is something much more sublime than simply “the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.  Rather, we celebrate the capacity of human beings to voluntarily choose (as we did at Sinai) to enslave ourselves to Will of God, to scrupulously follow His commandments and through that to redeem ourselves, our people and ultimately the entire world.

As Jews, we can certainly identify with the American story.  The great country of the United States of America – and the entire democratic world that it leads – are among history’s most noble accomplishments. The victory of freedom over slavery and the advent of a society which really does believe (to quote the Constitution again) “that all men are created equal”, and treats them as such – these are great events that we Jews should support and solute.

But at the same time, when we sit down to the Seder next week to celebrate our own unique zman cherutenu, we must remember that ultimately, freedom must be used for a higher purpose. As Am Levadad Yishkon, this is the message that we must ultimately bring to the world.

[1] He also admitted looking forward to “a good bowl of matza ball soup”. I hope he actualy did enjoy the menu last year, because it turns out he’ll be keeping an exclusively Kosher for Passover diet during his stay at Jerusalem’s King David hotel later this week.

[2] In fact, the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 8a) tells us that whereas the years of non-Jewish kings are counted with years beginning in the month of Tishrei (which includes Rosh Hashana and Sukkot), Jewish kings years are counted beginning from Nissan (the month of Passover).

[3] Many other Biblical passages make this point as well. One good example is Bamidbar 15:41, which we recite every day in our prayers as part of kri’at Shema, affirming our obligation to follow God’s commandments because He took us out of Egypt.