The Crime of Wearing a Tallit

Empathy is never easy. As a man, I confess that I have struggled to be empathetic to the cause of the Women of the Wall (Nashot HaKotel). This group of women has been coming to the Kotel Hama’arivi (Western Wall) in the Old City of Jerusalem for close to a quarter century to pray in protest of the religious freedom they lack.

From thousands of miles away I have followed their plight after each Rosh Chodesh (new month) prayer service they conduct in the relatively small women’s section of the Kotel. In the past year or so I’ve read about the women who are detained or arrested for having the nerve to wear a tallit (prayer shawl) at the Kotel, which according to Israel law is to be treated as an Orthodox synagogue. While I took interest in their civil disobedience and was supportive of their efforts, I felt they were too focused on the Western Wall when in fact they were being allowed to hold their prayer services (women only or mixed) at the Southern Wall (Robinson’s Arch) which was historically more significant anyway.

Our group of male rabbis before heading down to the Kotel plaza

And then all that changed this morning. Together with about a dozen of my male rabbinic colleagues we woke up well before dawn and walked from our Jerusalem hotel to the Old City. I wrapped myself in my tallit, wound my tefillin (phylacteries) around my left arm and on my head, and joined my colleagues at the mechitza (dividing wall) next to the women’s section. Rather than holding our own separate service we joined the women in their prayers. Several of the women proudly wore tallitot and I even saw one woman wearing tefillin. It was exhilarating to watch the women begin to spontaneously dance during Hallel, the joyous, musical psalms for Rosh Chodesh.

Conservative Rabbis Robyn Fryer Bodzin and Debra Cantor at the Kotel 

Israeli police — both men and women — patrolled the women’s section. At first I thought this was to ensure their safety as angry protesters have thrown chairs at them in the past, but as I watched I could tell that one of the police officers was warning some of the women wearing tallitot. One female police officer videotaped the entire service, likely to prove that it was handled accordingly. A young man who works at the Kotel began moving shtenders (lecturns) and tables to separate us men from the rest of the men’s section, in effect creating three prayer areas.

At the conclusion of the Hallel service, I saw some people begin to exit toward the plaza behind the women’s section. I headed over there and saw two of the Israeli paratroopers who were in that iconic photograph at the newly reclaimed Kotel in 1967 after the Six Day War. The men were being interviewed by Israeli media and talking openly about how they liberated the Old City of Jerusalem so that all people would be free to pray there, not only the ultra-Orthodox. It was remarkable to see these paratroopers at the Kotel after seeing that powerful photo since I was a young boy. The Kotel immediately came to take on a whole new meaning for me. And a moment later I developed a much stronger connection to the plight of the Women at the Wall.

An ad hoc partition is created to separate our group in the Men’s Section

I turned around and saw two of my friends and fellow rabbis were being escorted away from the Kotel Plaza by a police officer. Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin and Rabbi Debra Cantor called me over as they were walking behind a female police officer. They told me that she had taken their passports and was going to detain them at the police station. Robyn asked if I would stay with them for as long as I could because they didn’t know what was going to happen. Immediately I began to feel concern for them. The officer wasn’t saying anything and wouldn’t explain where they were going. I was still wearing my tallit and tefillin and feeling guilty that my colleagues were getting in trouble for something that I take for granted.

Israeli paratroopers who liberated the Old City in 1967 with Anat Hoffman

Before coming to Israel, I traveled through Kiev, Ukraine with several rabbis including Rabbis Fryer Bodzin and Cantor. We spoke to Jewish people there who were forbidden from practicing their Judaism freely in the Former Soviet Union. They would have been arrested for being seen in public wearing a tallit during the Communist era. In Jerusalem this past Friday night we ate dinner with Joseph Begun, who was a Prisoner of Zion in the Former Soviet Union. He shared his amazing story with us, telling us of the years he spent in a Russian jail for the “crime” of being Jewish. This morning we met with former Refusenik Natan Sharansky on the 27th anniversary of his arrival to Israel. He has been charged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with coming up with a solution to this problem at the Kotel. Israel was intended to be a place of salvation for the Jewish people. It is the Jewish capital and no Jew should be refused her right to religious practice as our fellow Jews were in the FSU.

Rabbis Fryer Bodzin and Cantor have provided an important example of civil disobedience. To young girls about to become bat mitzvah, these rabbis have articulated why they shouldn’t take their Jewish identity for granted. They have demonstrated to me why it is so critical that women feel comfortable acting as Jews in Israel. I have tremendous respect for both of them and they should be applauded for their courage. After this morning, the Women of the Wall have my respect and my support. Religious freedom must be a priority for Israel. The alternative will have horrific repercussions for the Jewish people.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Rahm Emanuel’s Son’s Bar Mitzvah & Religious Pluralism in Israel

As I was preparing to board a plane home at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport a few weeks ago, I followed the news reports that Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s son’s bar mitzvah would be moved outside of Jerusalem for security concerns. Rahm Emanuel and his Hollywood agent brother, Ari Emanuel, brought their families to Israel on vacation and for their respective son’s Jewish rite of passage. Apparently, protesters were heckling the Emanuel family’s delegation as they toured Jerusalem’s Old City because of the Obama Administration’s purported views on Middle East affairs.

Ultimately, Zach Emanuel’s bar mitzvah went ahead as planned at Robinson’s Arch, the archaeological site along the remaining Southern Wall of the Temple at which Conservative and Reform rabbis are allowed to officiate at bar and bat mitzvahs. The two cousins had their b’nai mitzvah on a Sunday, perhaps to confuse paparazzi, and it was officiated by each family’s rabbi –Rabbi Jack Moline, of Rahm Emanuel’s synagogue (Congregation Agudas Achim in Alexandria, Virginia) and Rabbi Kenneth Chasen, of the Reform Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles where Ari Emanuel’s family belongs.

Having recently spent the early dawn hours of Shavuot at Robinson’s Arch, known as the “Masorti Kotel” since the Masorti/Conservative Jews can pray there freely, I was thrilled to read the op-ed in the Jerusalem Post by Masorti Movement CEO Yizhar Hess about the Emanuel boys’ b’nai mitzvah and the lack of religious pluralism in Israel, especially at the Western Wall (Kotel).

Hess took the opportunity of this newsworthy double bar mitzvah to focus on the Ultra-Orthodox control of the Western Wall, including the plaza. He writes:

The [Emanuel] family stood together, prayed together. There was no mehitza [separation between the sexes]. Some women donned a tallit [prayer shawl]. There was an abundance of Judaism, an abundance of Zionism and an abundance of love.

It is sad that one cannot pray in the same way at the main Western Wall Plaza. For a decade now, the Masorti Movement has been facilitating prayers at the Masorti Kotel. This is a forced arrangement. The majority of the world’s Jews pray without a mehitza, but when they come to Jerusalem, to the most symbolic site for Jewish prayer, they are forbidden from praying together. The Kotel, whose holiness has enthused Jews from all over the world, has been transformed into a haredi synagogue.

The Masorti Movement has never relinquished its right to pray at the Kotel, but has agreed, in compromise and with great pain, to hold its prayers at the [Davidson] archeological park.

With all of Israel’s international struggles right now, one would hope that it would strive to solve this matter of domestic disharmony. Here’s hoping that when Rahm Emanuel returns to Jerusalem for his daughter’s bat mitzvah, the family will be allowed to mark this rite of passage at any part of the Kotel they choose — and be free from protesters and paparazzi.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Samuel Freedman on Hechsher Tzedek

In today’s Jerusalem Post, Samuel Freedman, the author of Jew Vs. Jew, wrote the best article about the new Hechsher Tzedek that I have yet to see. Freedman does a balanced job of explaining the rationale behind Rabbi Morris Allen’s idea for a “new form of kosher certification, which reflect[s] a commitment to justice on behalf of kosher food companies rather than solely their adherence to the laws of kashrut in food preparation.”

What I liked most about Freedman’s article is how he returned to the civil rights era and Martin Luther King, Jr. to portray the history of what we now call tikkun olam (social justice) in Judaism. The Jewish men and women who joined the Civil Rights Movement were passionate about their activism but, for the most part, dispassionate about the basis for their activism in their Jewish heritage. Freedman writes,

One of the whopping paradoxes of the civil rights movement was that the Jews who comprised a disproportionate share of white activists and volunteers were largely ignorant of the theological roots of their idealism. With some rare rabbinic exceptions like Abraham Joshua Heschel and Jack Rothschild, they had to learn their own Bible from the black Christians in the campaign.

As Freedman understands it, there has long been a disconnect among Jews between the social activism that is practiced and the textual tradition that promotes such activism.

In the parts of the Jewish spectrum with the strongest involvement in tikkun olam, particularly among the secular and unaffiliated, there is the least awareness of the Judaic foundations of that concept. (In fact, there is often an antipathy to religion itself as mere superstition.) In the parts with the deepest knowledge of text and tradition, particularly the Orthodox sector, a formidable apparatus of charities exists almost entirely to serve internal needs.

Freedman points to the American Jewish World Service, led by social justice trailblazer Ruth Messinger, which has become such a phenomenon because it has “overtly connected activism to a disciplined, ongoing study of Jewish texts.” I agree. I would also add the work of two Conservative rabbis in two other Jewish organizations that are both successfully connecting their passion for activism with their devotion to Torah. Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, started by Rabbi David Rosenn (left), integrates work for social change, Jewish learning, and community building. Rabbi Jill Jacob’s work with Jewish Funds for Justice helps achieve social and economic security and opportunities for the poor in our country, but is deeply grounded in her scholarly and passionate Torah. Jill’s ability to mesh her Torah with her Jewish values of tzedek are often expressed on the jspot blog (although I disagree with her take on Thanksgiving).

The Conservative Movement, through the Hechsher Tzedek, is also bridging the divide between justice work and the Torah’s mandate to pursue justice (Deuteronomy 16:10). There is textual bases for the Hechsher Tzedek in our sifrei kodesh (the Jewish textual tradition from the Bible to the Talmud and through the rabbinic codes of law and modern-day commentaries). So rather than call Conservative Judaism a “wishy washy” branch on the American Jewish scene, I choose to look at it as the best of both worlds. We can have the commitment to social justice that is so prioritized in the Reform Movement while also having the commitment to Jewish law and lore (the Halakhic and Midrashic traditions), which is the primary focus of Orthodoxy.

Perhaps Samuel Freedman’s article serves as the best response to the comments posted to this blog regarding my thoughts on Rabbi Harold Kushner’s article in the recent Conservative Judaism journal.

How does the Conservative Judaism of today differ from an increasingly more traditional Reform Judaism? Conservative Judaism emphasizes a commitment to the system of mitzvot (Halakhah), while also emphasizing social justice and k’vod habriyot (human dignity). And while we’re at it, How does Conservative Judaism differ from Orthodox Judaism? Conservative Judaism wants its adherents to be committed to the 613 mitzvot and to engage in an ongoing ascension up the ladder of Jewish commitments (Shabbat and holy days, Kashrut, prayer, study, tzedakah, etc.) while still being able to brush their teeth on Shabbat without buying one of these.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu

Rabbi Mordechai EliyahuThe Jerusalem Post reported that the former Sephardi chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu explained in his book that “Reform and Conservative synagogues reek of hell and a Jew should not even come near their entrance.” I don’t think this rabbi will be invited to give a keynote address at any pluralism retreats any time soon.

Putting aside his deplorable comments, I found the story he recounts about having to enter a three-story building to attend a bris very comical. He describes the quandary he faced trying to get to an Orthodox synagogue on the third floor of a building in Israel where a Reform and Conservative synagogue occupy the first and second floor respectively. Hmmm… A three-story building with Reform, Conservative and Orthodox prayer services under one roof? Sounds like a campus Hillel building.

In response to his comments, the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel said that it would sue Rabbi Eliyahu for slander.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Noah Feldman-Gate

Now that Barry Bonds has tied Hank Aaron’s home run record and everyone will be talking about what the reaction will be when he actually breaks the record, perhaps the debate over the Noah Feldman NY Times Magazine article will die down!

It’s now been two weeks since Noah Feldman’s “Orthodox Paradox” diatribe was published and just about every rabbi has given a response to it either in print or in speech. Every Jewish newspaper editor and blogger has sufficiently analyzed it. The Orthodox Union is even calling Noah Feldman “the Jewish Jayson Blair” and calling on the New York Times to apologize for publishing Feldman’s article.

Noah Feldman - Orthodox ParadoxIt is somewhat humorous that what has made Noah Feldman a household name and the water cooler conversation is not any of his impressive career accomplishments, but rather his frank bashing of modern Orthodoxy.

Here are some interesting responses to Noah’s article (pro, con, and everywhere in between) with some quotes or my comments (in italics):

Gary Rosenblatt, Editor of The Jewish Week – New York
“Poor Noah, one may think on first read. How primitive and unfair for his former yeshiva to refuse to publicly acknowledge his successes. But as one continues to read Feldman’s essay, we see he is the one being unfair in expecting to be lauded by a community whose values he has rejected and in crafting an intellectually dishonest case for himself. Still, the implicit and more lasting question raised by the essay is how should the Jewish community in general, and the Orthodox community in particular, deal with Jews who have married out?”

Not all intermarried Jews are snubbed by the Orthodox (The Jewish Week NY)
Wait a second here. Aren’t there several Orthodox organizations out there that honor and glorify intermarried Jews? The answer is yes — especially if they are celebrities and/or wealthy. This article explains that while institutions like Aish HaTorah and Chabad might be opposed to intermarriage, they have no qualms about honoring intermarried Jews like Kirk Douglas, Barbra Streisand, Henry Kissinger or Ari Fleischer. Weren’t King Solomon and Queen Esther intermarried Jews? There are some very interesting quotes in this article by my teacher Rabbi Irwin Kula of CLAL who explains his organization’s decision to appoint an intermarried lay-leader as its new chairman. And while most Conservative synagogues wouldn’t publicly acknowledge an intermarriage, this article mentions a Modern Orthodox shul in NYC that invites the non-Jewish spouse to the bimah for life-cycle events.

Photo wasn’t cropped after all (The Jewish Week – NY)
Uh oh. Turns out that the Maimonides School didn’t actually crop or Photoshop Noah and his Korean gentile girlfriend (now his wife Jeannie Suk) from the group photo at the alumni event. In actuality, several people were left out of the published photo because there were too many faces to fit into one photo. But does it really matter? Noah still made his point.

Avi Shafran on Noah Feldman and Shmuley Boteach (Jerusalem Post)
“To my lights, it doesn’t seem extreme in the least for a Jewish school to make clear to an intermarried alumnus that, despite his secular accomplishments, it feels no pride in him for his choice to intermarry. I wouldn’t expect an American Cancer Society gathering to smile politely at a chain smoking attendee either. It is painful, no doubt, to be spurned by one’s community. It is painful, too, for a community to feel compelled to express its censure. Sometimes, though, in personal and communal life no less than in weightlifting, only pain can offer – in the larger, longer picture – hope of gain.

An Open Letter to Noah Feldman by Rabbi Norman Lamm of Yeshiva University (The Forward)
“True, we no longer ‘sit shivah’ for a relative who married out. But all of us experience poignant anguish when a brilliant and once fully committed son of our people, who earnestly believes he is not rejecting his upbringing, effectively does just that in justifying his transgression and holding us up to ridicule.”

Rabbi Benjamin Blech (Aish.com)
“Responding with no condemnation, the Jewish world would in effect be condoning. If we cherish Jewish survival, in this instance, that is an impossible alternative.”

“[Noah Feldman’s] words bring to mind Solomon Schechter’s pithy response to a plea for religious moderation: “It reminds me of the American juror who said ‘I am willing to give up some, and if necessary all, of the Constitution to preserve the remainder.”

Shira Dicker rips Noah Feldman (“Bungalow Babe in the Big City” blog)
Shira Dicker, married to Columbia University prof and author Ari Goldman, is a writer and publicist who handles the PR for the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

“By the end of the magazine piece, any sympathy I might have had for him had evaporated and in its place was sheer disgust. Reading postings on the blogosphere, I know that I am hardly alone.

Oh, Noah, you meander through childhood memories that are hardly unique to anyone who attended Orthodox Jewish day school. So the Maimonides School had to cloak their obligatory sex ed in the prohibitions of negiah, hauling out the philosophy of Feinstein in a multi-volume set to suppress your teenage hard-on. Big freaking deal. So you got reprimanded for holding hands with a girl? Been there, done that. So, your rebbes said stupid, parochial things about…goyim? Wow. I never heard of that happening.

There is a Talmudic debate about saving the life of a non-Jew on Shabbat? How fascinating that this took place so many centuries ago! Of course it is as dated as most of the discussions in the Talmud about women. Isn’t the proof of the pudding in the fact that Jewish doctors are a worldwide institution, saving the lives of Jews and non-Jews without discrimination on Shabbat, on Yom Kippur, on every day of the week????

Do you hope to reveal some ugly, hidden face of Judaism to your shocked readers who previously had such a positive view of Jews? A pile of gentile corpses outside of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, all the unlucky goyim in Upper Manhattan who had the misfortune to get sick on Shabbos?

Which readership are you writing for, anyway? The subscribers to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion?[Ouch!]

Andrew Silow Carrol, Editor of the New Jersey Jewish News (Jerusalem Post)
I once read an essay by a woman who said she “observes Shabbat.” On Saturday mornings on the Upper West Side, she sat on a park bench with her newspaper and “observed” her friends and neighbors going to shul. Her joke came back to me as I read the now infamous essay on modern Orthodoxy by Harvard law professor Noah Feldman[…]. I’ll leave it to others to debate the Jewish community’s treatment of intermarriage. I was less intrigued by Feldman’s relationship with his wife than I was by his relationship with Judaism.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Jewish Agency Prioritizes Acceptance of Reform & Conservative Conversions by Chief Rabbinate

This is an important Op-Ed from the Jerusalem Post about the Jewish Agency for Israel’s (JAFI) new push for the Israeli Chief Rabbinate to finally recognize conversions performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis. The complete article can be accessed here.

Politics hurts religion

The Jewish Agency for Israel, whose Board of Governors is meeting in Jerusalem this week, is expected to consider a resolution calling for official Israeli recognition of non-Orthodox conversions.

Speaking more broadly on the issue of pluralism in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, JAFI Chairman Ze’ev Bielski said: “The time has come for the government and the rabbinate to show the millions of people from the Reform and Conservative movements that they are a part of us.

“I don’t think that anyone can take the responsibility for losing out on so many people who might want to come on aliya and be integrated into Israeli society. … There are, after all, so few Jews in the world. We should not all be fighting each other and we should look for common ground.”

Orthodox representatives argue that it is the other streams that have compromised Jewish unity, by changing the standards for observance and conversion to such a degree that there is dwindling agreement over who is a Jew, let alone how to be Jewish.

Whether they are right or not, this response, together with Bielski’s explanation that pluralism is needed to encourage aliya, show that the discussion of the issue continues to miss the point. Israel’s Orthodox establishment has done more to discredit Judaism in the eyes of the non-observant than to advance it.

The Israeli rabbinate jealously guards its sole right to administer marriage and divorce for Israelis, so that even Orthodox rabbis who come from overseas to perform a marriage must stand beside – and pay – a representative of the rabbinate to gain official sanction for the wedding. It also holds the keys to kashrut certification and burial for all Jewish Israelis.

Yet this rabbinate, with its monopoly on life cycle events, expresses next-to-no view and offers little guidance on such deeply Jewish issues as social justice, the minimum wage, redeeming a captive soldier, the ethics of war, individual spirituality and much more besides. Where it isn’t trying to enforce its jurisdiction as an institution, the rabbinate is almost always, tragically, silent. Indeed, the only encounter most Israelis have with Judaism is with a disinterested rabbinate clerk paid by taxpayers to whom he does not see himself accountable.

It would be better, both for Jewish unity and for the advancement of Judaism in Israel, if the Orthodox gave up their official monopoly over religion in Israel. Even better, there should be no official rabbinate to monopolize. Far from compromising the Jewishness of the state, eliminating the rabbinate would enhance it, since rabbis from three streams would be free to serve their own communities in Israel as they do in Diaspora.

But it isn’t enough to call for a separation of religion and state. What’s needed is a specific type of separation.[…]

The mixture of religion and politics has been harmful to Judaism here. For the sake of Jewish unity and the advancement of a religious agenda, the link should be severed.

We hope the Jewish Agency’s Assembly and Board of Governors send this message to the Jewish world they represent. And we hope the Orthodox delegates, those who care deeply for the influence of tradition and ancient wisdom on modern Jewish life, courageously stand at the vanguard of this vital initiative.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller