Shofetim: authority cannot be taken it must be given, so stop the bullies and stand up for diversity in the Jewish world and beyond

“This parashah, more than any other in Deuteronomy, is concerned with what we would call authority: rightful action in a world full of wrongdoing; power that is right and not merely effective; rule by those who have a right to rule. A parade of authorities is delineated, starting with the word that opens the parashah and gives it its name—magistrates—and followed by officials, judges, priests, prophets, elders, kings, and, of course, the immediate and ultimate authors of the book who are the sources of its authority: Moses and God. We need authority desperately, the Torah teaches, because our very lives depend upon doing what is right—and that is difficult for us.” (Professor Arnold Eisen, chancellor, JTS. 2011)

I have been thinking about the whole idea of authority recently. Defined in dictionaries as being the ability to make decisions, to have power and control politically or administratively, to give orders and to enforce obedience, authority has a different meaning in Judaism – or at least it used to have.

Authority was always multifaceted – there were different groups who could wield only one part of the whole – the monarchy, the priesthood and the prophets all held authority, and in biblical times they kept each other in check.   The most dangerous of these was generally held to be the monarchy, God had not wanted the Jewish people to have a monarch at all, but acceded to the request in the book of Samuel after Samuel had warned the Israelites of how a king would exploit them if they insisted on having one but “Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, ‘No, but we will have a king over us; that we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles’. (I Sam. 8:11-21).. and so began the unhappy monarchy of King Saul.

In Judges 9:7-21 we have the mashal of Jotam, a story that is sometimes told on Tu B’Shevat and reads a bit like a fairy story, but is in reality a biting allegory against monarchy:
Jotham, the youngest son of Gideon is the only one left alive after his older brother Abimelech has murdered all the other brothers and anointed himself as king. He escapes to Mount Gerizim, near Shechem and recounts the story of “the trees who went forth to anoint a king over them.”

The trees first ask the olive tree to be their king, but it refuses. “Should I give up my oil which honours God and people, in order to have power over trees?” The trees then ask the fig, and then the vine, both of which turn down the offer of sovereignty over the trees because they are already producing good fruits which honour God and people and each tree repeats the idea that they cannot do the good work they already do in producing fruits/oils/wines which benefit society at the same time as holding the monarchy.

Finally the trees ask the Atad – a bramble or thorn bush – to be their monarch  and this plant which produces nothing and has nothing to offer society except some shade, agrees to reign – and at the same time it issues a threat: ‘If you really want to anoint me sovereign over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, then let fire come out of the Atad and consume the cedars of Lebanon!’ (Judges 9:15).

The Atad is a thorny tree, its shade is patchy, it has a wide ranging root system which drains the water and nourishment from the soil around it. It produces no fruits and has no benefits whatsoever to anyone else, though it is well adapted to survival in difficult terrain.

The allegory is clear in its context – the good people either do not want to be sovereign because they are already contributing greatly to society and this would suffer, or they see no point in acquiring a pointless status. The thorny unpleasant and selfish person/plant not only accepts the power with alacrity, but begins its reign with bullying and threats in order to keep the power.  Abimelech is the thorn in the context of the parable, but we see so many who take over power undeservedly or with bullying in our own world.

Leaving aside the current world political situation where leaders who are Atadim are grabbing power and manipulating and bullying others, I was thinking of our own Jewish world, where the mansplaining, the power grabbing over women’s bodies and voices, the conferences on women’s health or activities which are led by men, the advertising or even news stories where pictures of women have been edited out or the women completely disappeared – these are the Atadim grabbing power they should not have, and certainly there needs to be other power bases who can challenge and contain them, as in the biblical model of the three separate strands of authority.

Who will challenge them? There is “Flatbush Girl” who photoshops pictures from the frum community, there is the hashtag #frumwomenhavefaces ; there are Women of the Wall at the Kotel and there is attorney Batya Kahana-Dror—who petitioned the high court and is currently vying for the position of Rabbinical Courts director, and these all do good work. But where are the voices from the rest of the Jewish world? Where are the people challenging the Israeli Government demanding equality for all the citizens, male and female, Jewish and non-Jewish, as the declaration of Independence proclaims. Where are those people who can promote and defend a halachic system that is multifaceted and diverse?

The problem is with the word “authority” which has come to mean a singular, all powerful monopoly that cannot be challenged and that does not need to explain itself.

This is a modern phenomenon. Heck, even I am older than it, I can still remember the norm of rabbis being independent thinkers, of different regions having different and equally valid customs and practises, of vibrancy and creativity and innovation in the responsa literature. Now I meet people whose only approach is that that someone else told them the line they are taking and it cannot possibly be challenged.

Authority ultimately is seen as coming from God. We have in Talmud a series of blessings upon seeing leaders – In Berachot 58a we read :

The Rabbis taught: ‘On seeing sages of Israel one should say: “Blessed be the one who has imparted  wisdom to them that have awe of God.”

‘[On seeing] sages of other nations, one says: “Blessed be the one who has given wisdom to flesh and blood.”

‘On seeing kings of Israel, one says: “Blessed be the one who has imparted  glory to them that have awe of God.”

‘[On seeing] kings of other nations, one says: “Blessed be the one who has given glory to flesh and blood.”‘

It is clear from this that the wisdom and the glory that leaders have are divinely given, and in the context of Jewish leadership there is a relationship of awe and perspective between the human beings and God.   It is also clear that leadership exists in a number of different contexts and that different populations have different and valid leaderships. And it is abundantly clear that each leader must make of their leadership what they can, from their own skills, creativity and perceptions and that each is only a Jewish leader if they are not out for themselves but out to increase God in the world.

Sadly we seem increasingly in the orthodox world to have leaders who are more thorn bush than cedars, whose fruits are only about increasing their power and control over others and not about honouring God and people or about developing a thriving society where everyone can take part. Whether it be newspapers editing women’s faces (or whole selves) out of photographs, so that even Angela Merkel or Hillary Clinton have disappeared from recorded images, or adverts where apparently men only households eat the cereal or whatever is being advertised, or women being refused access to work positions, or women not being allowed to sing…… this is getting more and more ridiculous and the parable of Jotam increasingly relevant. We don’t need a centralised leadership in Judaism and up till now we have never had one. We don’t need the people who want to be powerful to take power over us – indeed we want them NOT to have access to the levers of power. And if we are stuck in a position like Yotam where it is happening anyway, then we must protest, we must raise our voices and say “not in my name” and most of all we must mistrust anyone who claims to have this authority and be clear that we are not about to cede it to them.

Authority ultimately must be consensus driven and agreed or it is bullying and oppression. And any threats from the Atad claiming their power or else there will be trouble must be faced and faced down.  We have history and authenticity on our side, let’s take our own authority too

#frumwomenhave faces #allwomenhavefaces #maleandfemalecreatedequal #halachahisdiverse

 

 

 

Terumah: the Shechinah dwells amongst us but are we driving Her away?

There is no woman in parashat Terumah. Indeed there is barely any human presence at all as the bible instructs the people via Moses about the materials needed to build the tabernacle that will travel with them in the wilderness – the mishkan, and all its vessels and accoutrements.

There is no woman, but there is God, and it is this aspect of God that I would like to focus upon.

In Chapter 25 v8 we read

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָֽׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם:

And they shall make me a mikdash/special place and I will dwell among them/in them.

The notion of God dwelling among/within the people of Israel is a powerful one, one that removes God from any ties to geography or history, but allows God to move freely wherever the people may be. And this idea of God is given a name, one not found in bible itself but found extensively in rabbinic literature post 70CE – Shechinah.

The Shechinah is an explicitly feminine aspect of God. Whereas many of our other names for God imply transcendence, a God-beyond us, the Shechinah dwells right here where we are. Talmud reminds us that “When ten gather for prayer, there the Shechinah rests” (Sanhedrin 39a, Berachot 6a). That “The Shechinah dwells over the head of the bed of the person who is ill” (Shabbat 12b).  It tells us that wherever we go, this aspect of God goes with us – “wherever they were exiled, the Shechinah went with them” (Meg 29a), and yet this aspect of God also remains in Israel waiting for our return “The Shechinah never departs from the Western Wall” (Ex.Rabbah 2:2)

The Shechinah is experienced by people engaged in study or prayer together, and by people who engage in mitzvot such as caring for the poor and giving tzedakah. It is said that She is the driver that caused prophets to prophesy, that enabled David to write his Psalms. She is the enabler of translating our feelings into words and actions, a conduit to relationship with the immanent God. She is associated with joy and with security. It is no accident She makes an appearance in the bedtime prayer for children – the four angels Michael, Gavriel, Uriel and Raphael invoked to protect the four directions, and the Shechinah to be at the head of the sleeping child.

The Shechinah is the constant presence, the nurturer of the Jewish soul. She is with us in times of joy and she is with us in times of suffering and pain. She connects Creation with Revelation – the universal with the particularly Jewish, the sacred with the mundane.

This week as I was mulling over the sacred feminine embodied in the Talmudic and mystical traditions, I joined in the prayer of the Women at the Wall for Rosh Chodesh Adar, albeit by ipad from thousands of miles away. I sang with them and followed the prayers as best I could, for there was a terrible cacophony picked up by the technology that sometimes threatened to overwhelm this joyful female prayer. Some in the men’s side of the area had turned their loudspeakers directly towards the praying women in order to drown out their song. Some in the women’s side (an artificially inflated crowd of seminary and high school girls bussed in for the morning by their institutions in order to prevent the Women of the Wall getting anywhere near the Wall itself) were blowing whistles loudly in the direction of the women – including the young batmitzvah – who were praying with grace and with joy.

The spectacle – for it was a spectacle – was painful in the extreme. Jews were determinedly drowning out the voices of other Jews in prayer and seemed to think that this was authentic religion, rather than a particularly vile form of sectarianism with little if any connection to any Jewish custom or law.

And it made me think of the Shechinah who never leaves that Western Wall, the remaining stones of the Temple. The Wall itself was built as part of the expansion of the area surrounding the second Temple in order to artificially create a larger flattened area for the sacred buildings above.

According to the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 21b), the Second Temple lacked five things which had been in Solomon’s Temple, namely, the Ark, the cherubim, the sacred fire, the Shechinah and the Urim and Tummim.

It is easy to see that the Ark of the Covenant, the Cherubim, the sacred fire, the Priestly and mysterious Urim and Tummim were lost by the time of the second Temple – they were artefacts which could disappear. But the Shechinah – that fascinates me. The redactor of Talmud, clearly anxious about the statement, continues the narrative by saying that they were not gone, just less present than before.

It is clear to me that the artefacts are gone and lost to history, replaced by our system of prayer and study. But I wonder so about the Shechinah in the light of the events that are now almost normal at the base of the remaining Western Wall.  For while the midrash may tell us that the Shechinah is there, waiting for us to return from our exile; While it may say that She is waiting to be among us, to welcome us, never departing from the Western Wall, waiting to connect us to our deepest selves, to link us to a God of comfort and compassion – if she was, she must have had her head in her hands and been close to despair at what She saw.

When people pray and study together, when they enact law to help the society, when they are sick and frightened and when they are doing mitzvot that bring joy and comfort, there the Shechinah will be. But when they abuse their power, ignore the other, hold only disdain and triumphalism as their values, it is no wonder that the Shechinah finds it hard to hang around. She wasn’t there in the Second Temple, rife as it was with political machinations and abuses of power. And I only caught a glimpse of her yesterday at Rosh Chodesh Adar when so many Jews were at the Wall, but so few were there to pray from the depths of their hearts in joy. I saw her flee from the shrieking women and men determined to drown out prayer. I saw her flee from the passivity of a police force refusing to intervene to protect those who needed their help.

But I saw her in the faces of the group of women celebrating a bat mitzvah together in song and dedication, in the sounds of a young girl reading Torah with grace and mature sensitivity.

http://www.jta.org/2017/02/27/news-opinion/israel-middle-east/hundreds-of-yeshiva-seminary-students-disrupt-women-of-the-wall-service

Bein HaMetzarim: The Days of Distress to which we are still contributing

The three weeks that separate the fast of the 17th Tammuz, the date that the walls of Jerusalem were breached, and the 9th Av, the date on which we commemorate the destruction of both the first and second temple are known as “bein ha’metzarim – בֵּין הַמְּצָרִים – within the straits.” It is a phrase taken from the third verse of the book of Lamentations which speaks of the desolation of post destruction Jerusalem, and of the exile and wanderings of her surviving displaced people.

The three weeks have become a discrete period of time, characterised by mourning customs and by an increasing sense of danger, and have their own flavour and liturgical reminders – the three haftarot of rebuke which take us up to Tisha b’Av are related to the date rather than the Torah reading for example, and many Jews forgo eating meat or drinking wine and eat more simple meals. The idea is to immerse in the mourning, to give up the ordinary joys of good meals or new clothes. Instead we are supposed to be reflecting on our mortality, on the limited time we have to act in this world. We are supposed to be finding a way through all the busyness of life to the core business of being alive – to connect to each other and to the world, to make the world a better place for our being in it.

The quasi mourning customs for the three weeks increase in intensity up till Tisha b’Av itself, from 17th Tammuz till Rosh Chodesh Av, from Rosh Chodesh Av till the end of the 8th day, and then the black fast itself. There are different traditions in different parts of the Jewish community to signify the mourning period, but an awareness of the period of bein ha’metzarim thrums in the background. In a time of mourning for the unity and safety of the Jewish people in their ancestral and promised homeland we are all that bit more thoughtful, aware of each other and their sensitivities, aware of the Talmudic description (Yoma 9b) of sinat hinam – that Jerusalem was destroyed because of Jewish disunity and the baseless hatred the Jews of the time had for each other.

So here we are bein ha’metzarim, in the days of distress, the narrow straits of danger and fear where we are supposed to be reflecting on our own contributions to sinat hinam. And it comes as no real surprise that the disunity in Israel is growing, that the gap between rich and poor, haves and have nots, men and women, Jews and others, Haredim of all hats and footwear, Dati’im (people very strict in Jewish law) and those who have other ways of being a religious Jew, Religious and secular – the gap is widening; There is quite the opposite of a physical bein ha’metzarim growing in Israeli society – there is a gulf between people and peoples, but sadly the sinat hinam is still there and flourishing, contributing to that abyss that separates the human beings.

On Rosh Chodesh Av, the women of the wall went, as they do every Rosh Chodesh except that of Tishri, to pray at the foot of the wall that retains and supports the Temple Mount, the Kotel. They have been praying on Rosh Chodesh there, early in the morning, for over a quarter of a century. Women who come together from the very orthodox through the religious spectrum through to the cultural and feminist women who support their sister’s needs. For the last few months, having been forbidden to use a Torah scroll from the many that are kept at the Kotel, they have brought in their own. They have had to smuggle their scroll into the Kotel, as now no one is supposed to bring their own scroll for their own use, an exercise of power and control by the ultra-fundamentalist group currently in charge of the Kotel plaza. There is no religious meaning behind this rule – women can read from scrolls and do so all over the world.

And on Rosh Chodesh Av this year, Rachel Cohen Yeshurun, a board member of Women of the Wall, was arrested not at the checkpoint, but after she had entered the Kotel Plaza with a scroll in her backpack. The arrest warrant reads: “The suspect was arrested on 17.07.2015. From her hands was confiscated a Torah scroll in the colours of blue and gold which was involved in the conducting of the crime. Also confiscated was an orange and grey rucksack.”

On Rosh Chodesh Av, the date on which the mourning intensifies for the nine days that lead to Tisha b’Av, a woman was arrested and handcuffed and taken to the police station at the Kotel, and the warrant also apparently arrested the Torah Scroll “which was involved in the conducting of the crime”

Words fail me at this point. We are truly bein ha’metzarim, in the days of distress, of narrow vision, of causeless hatred.

We managed, with the help of God, to leave Mitzraim – the place of slavery, the doubly narrow place, the slavery in Egypt. But having left Egypt and having returned to the Land, we have brought the narrowness of vision, the narrowness of self-interest, the narrowness of a failed empathy and imagination with us.

Will we be able to leave it again?

photo of Rachel Cohen Yeshurun with her arrest warrant taken from facebook wall of Women of the Wall Nashot haKotelrachel cohen yeshurun with her arrest warrant

Leading up to Tisha b’Av, the choices we make

women against women

Today is Rosh Chodesh Av, the month we will see the commemoration of the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, which we will remember on Tisha b’Av, the culmination of a three week period of mourning, which began with the Fast of the 17th Tammuz, commemorating the first breach in the walls of Jerusalem which led to the destruction of the First Temple.  

In the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:6) we read that “Five things happened to our ancestors on the 17th Tammuz, and five on the 9th Av (Tisha B’Av). On the 17th of Tammuz the tablets [containing the Ten Commandments] were broken; the daily sacrifice was discontinued; the walls of Jerusalem were breached; Apustamus, a Greek officer, burned a Torah scroll; and an idol was erected in the sanctuary of the Temple. On the Ninth of Av it was decreed that the generation of the desert would not enter the Land of Israel; the first temple was destroyed; the second temple was destroyed; Betar, (the last Jewish stronghold after the destruction of Jerusalem), was conquered; and Jerusalem was ploughed under. When the month of Av enters we diminish our joy.”

It is quite a list. The tradition is to cluster bad things together on one date, rather than to spread the pain of Jewish history throughout the year, colouring all our days with mourning. So there are texts that tell us that on Tisha B’Av the First Crusade began, Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain, and to bring us more up to date the First World War broke out on Tisha b’Av. There is a good case for observing Yom HaShoah on this date in years to come, adding the cataclysm of our times to the tragedies of our ancestors.  Others would like to explicitly add Kristallnacht, which took place on the 9th of November, the ninth day of the eleventh month, a sort of secular resonance with the 9th day of Av.

We need a day to focus on our mourning, a day for remembering the violence and pain of our history. And one day each year is really enough, it contains what would otherwise be uncontainable and which could overlay our national narrative and suffocate us with grief. As a Reform Jew for whom the traditional yearning for the return of the Temple with its associated priestly and sacrificial system of worship is problematic, I find the best way to deal with Tisha b’Av is to place it in the context of the three weeks of increasing sadness known as “bein ha-metzarim” – being within a narrow and constrained place, and then to reflect on our history, remember, acknowledge, and move on. It is no surprise to me that the 7 weeks of haftarah readings from Tisha b’Av towards Rosh Hashanah are all about hope, about return to God, about opening out to possibility and the future – we move from between the straits (bein ha-metzarim) into the wide open space of freedom to think, feel, remember and explore . Then comes Rosh Hashanah, time to make a new start, a new promise to our best selves, a new commitment to the future.

The Talmud asks the question: “Why was the First Temple destroyed?” and it answers itself thus: “Because of three things that occurred in it: Idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed…” But then it goes on to develop its thought -“the Second Temple, where they occupied themselves with Torah, Commandments and acts of kindness, why was it destroyed? Because there was a prevailing practice of baseless hatred (sinat chinam). This teaches that baseless hatred is equated with three sins: idolatry, immorality and bloodshed.” (Yoma 9b)

Sinat Chinam is equivalent to three huge sins together. It caused the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of the Jewish people from their land for almost two thousand years. So what do we do about the hating without cause, the prejudging of others, the gratuitous dislike of the other.

This is not necessarily an overpowering feeling that we are in thrall to, a visceral and ancient reflexive response that we can do nothing about. The responsa indicate that sinat chinam can be about simple ignoring of the humanity of the other, about not bothering to talk to them, to meet with them, to find out about them. Through sinat chinam we diminish the goodness in the world, as we refuse to recognise the goodness in each human person, to see them as valuable and possessing intrinsic worth. We have just over eight weeks now to reflect on how we treat others, both those we know and those we share our living spaces with – be it on the daily crowded train commute or the queue at the till, the person at the other end of the telephone or member of our own circle.

Today is Rosh Chodesh Av, and in Jerusalem this morning right on the site of the Temple precinct we have truly seen a demonstration of “sinat chinam” leading literally to “bein ha-metzarim.” Women of the Wall, a group who come together to pray together each Rosh Chodesh at the Western Wall that retains the Temple Mount, have once again found themselves the target of those who try to prevent them praying in tallit, speaking and singing their prayers out loud, and reading the Torah scroll in their service.  Ultra Orthodox girls were bussed in to the area on the orders of their rabbis in order to crowd out other women who come to pray there. These girls were used as bodies in order to create a physical shortage of space, bein ha-metzarim. They were not primarily coming to pray, though some of them may well have done so, they were coming primarily to deny others their chosen prayer. Early photos and video show some faces contorted with hatred and anger, some comments on the Facebook page are vitriolic, for me the saddest photo is of an older woman, all her hair modestly covered in a blue scarf, blowing a whistle while staring balefully at the Women of the Wall in order to disrupt their prayers.  

We have seven weeks after Tisha b’Av to try to notice the humanity of each person we meet, and so to think about how we behave towards them. This is good work of teshuvah, for in meeting the other and recognising the spark of God within them, we become ready to face the spark of God within ourselves, the voice that reminds us that on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we will stand in the presence of the heavenly court as we judge our lives so far, and the perspective of that court will be mediated with our own attempts to be the best person we can really be.

 

Wearing Tallit

When I place my tallit around my body and say the blessing “lehitatef batzitzit – to wrap myself in the tallit”, a number of feelings wash through me changing my sense of self. To begin with, putting on tallit is a marker in time – with this action I am letting go of the mundane, of the worries and the niggles of my ordinary life and I am entering demarcated and focussed prayer time. Secondly, there is a marker of change in my emotional state – The feeling of being wrapped in the tallit provides a sense of warmth, comfort, separation from surroundings and connection to a different sphere, as the weight on my shoulders reminds me of the expectations and obligations I have taken upon myself as a religious Jewish person. And finally, the putting on of tallit creates a marker in space – my tallit provides a tangible boundary between my internal world and the outer one.

The tallit is so much more than a shawl traditionally worn while praying the morning service. It is a both creator and signifier of disconnection and reconnection.

I have never known a barmitzvah boy think twice about receiving and wearing his tallit. It is just something that they do, something they expect to do, for them it is a right and an obligation to wear the symbols of obligation and rights. I have never known a batmitzvah girl (or any woman) take on tallit without much soul searching and some anxiety. Are they ready to take on all that tallit means? Does the wearing of tallit give the proper statement about their religious observance and worth? Is it saying something more than they are able to do or be?

While it is often said to be that the tallit is a male garment, this view dates only from medieval times and came into being as a way of underpinning the growing move towards prohibiting women from wearing it. And women did, we know, wear tallit and they were explicitly permitted to do so in a number of early rabbinic responsa and even Talmud (Menachot 43a) tells us that “Our Rabbis taught: All must observe the law of tzitzit, priests, Levites, and Israelites, proselytes, women and slaves” and gives us two examples of Sages who attached tzitzit to the clothing of the women in their households – Rabbi Judah ( Menachot 43a) and R. Amram the pious (Sukkah 11a). The reason given for women being exempt from this mitzvah (not, note, prohibited) is that it is a positive time bound mitzvah and the rule of thumb was understood to be that women were exempt from having to perform mitzvot that were bound to fixed times – except of course, when they were not exempt, such as lighting the Shabbat candles, making Shabbat kiddush, lighting the chanukiah, prayer….. And the idea of the garment to which tzitzit are attached being strictly male – well, Bedouin to this day wear the four cornered cloak described in our texts (the abaya)– and both men and women wear it.  

Only in the thirteenth century did Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg begin to overturn the practise of generations and his view was promulgated by Isserles in the 16th Century who wrote that the wearing of tallit by women might be a sign of religious arrogance or self righteousness (Yuhara), although even he admitted that a woman could wear tztitiz, it was her intention that mattered, not the wearing per se . But since this medieval onslaught against the presence of women in the public space, the practise has dwindled to the point where it is barely remembered, until in our days a critical mass of women have once more decided to take on the wearing of tallit as a mitzvah.  

The variety of journeys that women take to adopt for themselves the mitzvah of tallit is extraordinary and salutary. I know of women who choose to wear the tallit of a deceased husband, father or grandfather as a mark of respect and love, and a desire to be close in prayer to those who gave meaning to their lives. I know of women who studied hard in order to make their own tallit and who choose to weave extraordinary moments and memories into the fabric, building a sort of physical memory of their spiritual life into the tallit. I know of women who wear the tallit of Women of the Wall as their choice of garment in order to additionally show their support for other women practising this mitzvah wherever they may be in the world. I know of women who wear ‘feminine’ tallit and women who wear ‘traditional’ designs always for particular reasons, and of women who wear both at different times in their prayer lives. I have never yet met a woman who thoughtlessly puts on tallit, or who sees it as her religious right that she must display to others, or sees the wearing of it as an act of rebellion or arrogance or in-your-face piety.

The arguments against women wearing tallit seem to hang on either it being a male garment (easily circumvented should one buy this argument by the plethora of feminine talliot that can be purchased) or that exemption should be extended to prohibition on the somewhat shaky ground that women only wear tallit to be arrogant (something that can be easily disproved by talking to -and listening to -women who choose to wear tallit.) The arguments for women wearing tallit is that we find it an aid to prayer, a ritual that increases our kavannah – our focus and concentration on our relationship with God as we pray. It creates special time, special space, a deposit of memory on which we can build and from which we can grow, a custom that deepens and warms our religious attachment. It provides a much needed boundary between the mundane and the sacred in our busy lives, it signifies our detachment from the unimportant and our attachment to our Creator in prayer.  If you haven’t yet explored the possibility of this mitzvah, I encourage you to do so. Male or female, we all have much we can gain from it.

 

 

 

Hear Our Voices

The wonderful Anat Hoffman was arrested  recently at the Kotel, for the crime of saying the Shema out loud there with a group of women who were in Israel celebrating the Hadassah centennial birthday. Even to write this sentence seems surreal – how much more so for the people who experienced this event and what followed. Anat was handcuffed and her legs shackled, she was strip searched, dragged along the floor, and finally left in a cell with a young woman accused of prostitution who herself was the target of lewd remarks from the staff.  She was not allowed to call her lawyer.  There was no bed in the cell where she was held overnight. Anat, who describes herself rightly as “a tough cookie” was frightened and miserable.

No charges were made and the next day a court released her on condition she did not go to the Kotel for 30 days.  Why was this allowed to happen? As Anat herself says “What is the purpose of arresting a woman, interrogating her, collecting video footage of her every move, questioning witnesses and spending hours writing reports, if at the end charges are never made? I believe the purpose of this harassment and treatment is to wear down the leaders of our women’s prayer group, to exhaust us into giving up our struggle for these rights.”

I consider myself to be one of the Women at the Wall and am part of their Chevra. I daven with them on the rare occasions I am in Israel on Rosh Hodesh – they actually only go to pray the  morning service once a month, early in the morning, and in accordance with constraints imposed upon them take their torah scroll around the corner to the Robinsons Arch area to read it. (Bizarrely the perceived holiness of the wall appears to the ultra orthodox ‘minders’ to be only where it meets the Kotel plaza.)  Like thousands of men and women around the world, I care about what happens to this relatively small group of women from across the religious community who choose to pray together at the site of the Temple in Jerusalem.  I care because they are looking after some of the most important values in my Judaism – of mutual respect, of sensitivity both to prayer and to the complex differences in prayer that are the signature of the Jewish world, that all people are able to pray in peace and community, that every voice is heard.

Why are women’s voices being suppressed in some ultra conservative Jewish communities, and why is the State of Israel complicit with this suppression when its founding principles state the exact opposite?

The phenomenon is known as “Kol isha erva”, which could be translated as “a woman’s voice is licentiousness” and even a cursory study of this concept shows an increasingly narrowing of interpretation over time until it becomes the exact opposite of the original biblical statement. In Song of Songs we read the verse O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely.’ (2:14) “let me hear your voice “Ki kolech arev” for your voice is sweet”. Whoever wrote that beautiful book which is found in Tanach clearly believed that women’s voices should be heard and that they are sweet (arev). In the Talmud, in a discussion specifically about saying the Shema in the presence of a woman who may be sexually alluring, one rabbi uses this verse and puns upon it – a woman’s voice is no longer sweet (areiv) but nakedness (ervah) [Berachot 24a].  This particular pun does not seem to become codified into halachah at the time – it develops over time and in hardens only in the sixteenth century – the great codifier Joseph Caro makes this clear when he writes “but it is, in any event, good to be cautious before the fact not to see hair and hear the voice of a woman singing during the recitation of Shema.”[Beit Yosef, Orach Chaim 75]. This language makes clear that there is no general existing prohibition at the time of writing.

So a biblical verse used to describe the sweet voices of women singing is reinterpreted in the third century to suggest an intentional sexual provocation that might happen if a woman were to sing in the hearing of a man intent on praying Shema, and then by the sixteenth century the solution seems to have been not to get men to concentrate harder on their prayer but to quieten women’s voices – and this then hardens into the view that women’s voices should simply not be heard.

Let us be clear. Women pray in the bible. Their voices are heard. Rebecca goes to enquire of God when her pregnancy is hard. Hannah prays in the Temple itself – and ironically is accused of mocking prayer because she is speaking only in her heart and moving her lips soundlessly – The priest expects her to make a sound and is suspicious when she doesn’t. There is nothing pious or authentically Jewish about suppressing the voices of women at prayer. For every source that demands this kind of modesty from women, there are other sources that say quite the opposite. The responsa literature has always taken into account context, culture and norms when judgements are decided and this has historically happened even in the discussion about women’s voices. It seems that the reverse process is now happening – context, culture and norms are being created by the decision to criminalise women’s voices at prayer, and the history of women’s prayer is being buried by a modern kind of fundamentalism.

So if this prohibition is being used more and more in the modern world to shut women out from the public domain, we have to ask ourselves why – what is going on in some parts of the Jewish world that the men want to assert such a misogynistic power? What are some men so terrified of living alongside that it has come this week to the arrest and violent treatment of a middle aged woman for singing the Shema in prayer?. Why should the Kotel, remnant of the Temple and focal point for Jews across the world, become de facto the most orthodox of synagogues, rather than a place of prayer for all Jews? Why when Judaism has a strong tradition of recording all opinions rather than only the majority decision, should all voices that are not part of one world view in Judaism be silenced? And why when the declaration of Independence states that : “THE STATE OF ISRAEL will,, foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” are the police involved in arresting the women who are trying to pray, rather than the men who are throwing chairs at them from the other side of the mechitzah?

Women have been arrested with increasing frequency for praying at the Kotel just like women pray all over the world. Their voices and even their images are being denied, suppressed, removed from public discourse by a fanatic few who claim that theirs is the authentic Jewish response. It is not. And we cannot sit back and let it become by default the assumed voice of Jewish authentic tradition.  This must be challenged every time and everywhere  it happens. In the words of the prophet Isaiah “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not keep my peace (62:1). Anat and the Women of the Wall will not. I will not. Will you?

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild October 2012