Striking at Holy Rocks: On Chicago and Israel

This was my sermon from Friday night June 30, 2017. Many of you have asked for a copy. Here it is.

 

Shabbat Shalom

Tonight I had a different sermon.  A sermon to celebrate our 25 years of our Congregation and to imagine together the next 25 years.  But that will wait for another Shabbat because the events of the past week cry out to us. Affect us.  Right in our kishkes—at our core.  Two pivotal events one in Chicago and one in Israel speak to the nature of our communal identities and also to the core of what our congregation values are all about.

For 25 years Kol Ami has given voice to values of inclusion and diversity. Long before it was fashionable. Before even Macy’s changed their logo for June to a rainbow.  Long before any other synagogues marched in pride events, Kol Ami stood for LGBTQ Equality.  Our original vision of our congregation was to be a place truly where gay and straight people together could create a dynamic Jewish home. 25 years ago most synagogues had no real place for Gay people –even Temple Israel up the street—wouldn’t let gay people have a commitment ceremony in their sanctuary.  I know I officiated at the first one there for our temple members.  Same thing at Steven S. Wise synagogue.  I officiated there for two of our members.  The rabbis didn’t or wouldn’t back then.  Many day schools were not prepared to handle the children of Lesbian and Gay parents. And the larger Jewish world, Federation, AJC, Jewish National Fund wouldn’t touch gay equality issues.

Even in our own Reform Movement 25 years ago- better than Conservative Judaism and of course Orthodox Judaism each who were anti-gay at the time, our own Reform Movement wasn’t always so embracing.

But this congregation and our work together helped make that change.

Lots of change. Quickly. Because we together imagined a synagogue where we could let all the different parts of who we were come together.  Gay and Jewish. Straight Ally, Lover of Israel, Lesbian parent, Person with HIV, intermarried husband and wife, Single parent, single person, married, long term relationships, whatever your status in the safety of Kol Ami we created a synagogue a Jewish place of meeting, study, spiritual celebration, arts and social justice that helped us bring all of the parts of our identity together under one banner.—The Kol Ami banner.

And we have had a false sense of security in some ways.  But this week was a wake- up call.

First in the Midwest- when Jews went to celebrate Pride.  Nothing remarkable in 2017 that a Jewish lesbian should want to march in the Dyke March in Chicago.  Nothing remarkable that they should march with a pride flag with a Magen David in the middle.  Simply a lesbian Jew displaying her pride at bringing all of her identities together.  And evidently something that she has done in previous years.  But this year prior to the parade a woman who works for the organization A Wider Bridge—which brings together the gay community in the US and the Israeli gay community (and who we have hosted and worked closely with at Kol Ami) was asked to leave and remove her flag because it was making others uncomfortable.  Uncomfortable because it was a symbol of “Zionist oppression”.  “The star of David was a Zionist symbol,” they say –“like the Israeli flag.”

Make no mistake this is a familiar trope.  Anti-Semitism and Anti-Israeli hatred all wrapped into one.   The Magen David, yes appears on the Israeli flag—but as you and I know was a symbol of Jews and Judaism long before the creation of the modern state of Israel.  The Yellow Star was the ultimate symbol of oppression by the Nazi of the Jews. The organizers were striking out at the Rock identity, the Jewish foundation of their core.

The Organizers of the Dyke March believe they acted justly.  After all their official position supposedly is anti-Israel anti-Zionist.  They claim they are pro-Palestinian.   But not anti- Jewish.

They like many gay organizations are being held ransom by the far left.  By those who so believe in an idea called intersectionality that they have lost their ability to think.

Intersectionality is an idea invented by Kimberle Williams Crenshaw an important civil rights advocate to describe overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression.  This can include gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, nationality, sexual orientation among others. And asks that a person is linked with all the other oppressions throughout society.

Thus the difficulties the Palestinians experience become the same oppression that Gay people suffer.  But here is the problem with that thinking and in the Chicago case in particular—they believe Jews aren’t oppressed but rather do the oppressing.  Israel is described as the white, European power mongers- which I might add is an old Anti-Semitic canard—of Jews and power.  In some places this is expressed as Jews controlling money and media.  And it confuses things in the world of identity politics.

The actions of the Chicago Dyke March are inexcusable essentially denying a person legitimate right to express all of their identity.  Let alone the fact that dykes marching down the streets of Ramallah would be murdered. There is no free expression of LGBTQ identity in Palestine or anywhere else in the Arab world.  Iran throws us off of roofs.Egypt gay men are rounded up and shot. Saudi Arabia lesbians are raped; Turkey we are imprisoned.  Yes, Dyke March Chicago-you have lost your minds.  The ability to think.  And the only place in the Middle East where LGBT people can celebrate, and have their marriages recognized—yes-Israel. One of the largest Pride celebrations in the world.  But when we mention things like this… we are all accused of Pink washing—meaning trying to negate Israel’s evil status as colonial oppressor by uplifting the safety and security of the LGBTQ community in Israel.  This is another problem with intersectionality.

But this isn’t new in the LGBT world.  It was only last year at Creating Change—the signature conference of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force that a riot ensued when a group of far left anti-Israel queer people shut down a Shabbat oneg reception hosted by A Wider Bridge. Again under the so called banner of anti-Zionism the rioters chanted “Death to the Jews”.  “From the River to the Sea Set Palestine Free”,—which of course means destroying Israel.

This is common in the LGBT world in San Francisco, New York and other places that it is no longer safe to be pro-Israel and gay.  And we have seen it in Chicago now.  (A place where there no longer is a gay synagogue I might add)

Here in Los Angeles we have avoided this by the work of our synagogue. I have built strong relationships with our LGBT leaders and elected officials Our synagogue and you our members have in your work in other parts of the community proudly shown your love of Israel.  We as a congregation in our mission statement say that we love and are committed to Israel.  And we work toward and support an Israel that we dream of –a strong and democratic Jewish state. We believe that An that we don’t have to turn a deaf ear to the pleas of the Palestinian people either. We together with others can be proud of Israel’s achievements while holding in tension the parts of Israel we saddened by. And we can work to support and change our homeland –through the organizations we support—working for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

But the far left can’t seem to hold two complex thoughts together. Hence a Jewish Dyke is asked to not march with her Jewish pride flag.  Because someone might mistake the symbolism.  Excuse the treifa comment, this is hog wash.

The problem with any idea that becomes so rigid is that you lose your ability to discern reasonably or to exert judgement and as a result you oppress others.  And that is what the Dyke March did-oppress Jews from expressing their true selves.

Empathy is what we all need. The ability to see the human being across from us.  That is how we know racism is wrong.  That is how we know Islamaphobia should be stamped out.  And yes we need to work for the day when Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in peace.  But the dangers of Intersectionality is that it can be just as intolerant. And that is as bad as the oppression it seeks to mitigate.

Which leads me to the second problem this week—and that was from Israel itself.  From the Prime Minister and the Cabinet who voted to quash the compromise deal that was negotiated to create egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, the Western Wall.  The Prime Minister gave this bone to the Charedim, the black hats to keep them in his government and to stay in power as they have threated to withdraw from the very fragile coalition that is the current government of Israel.

Even as we love Israel and work to defend her right to exist we also see that it isn’t all roses.  Our identities as Reform Jews were attacked again. The compromise plan negotiated over 5 years, was reached between the Israeli government, the Reform and Conservative movements and the group the Women of the Wall which for more than 20 years has sought to have women’s public prayer at the Kotel.  The compromise reached last year was to build out a section of the Kotel near the Robinson’s arch area—which would connect to the current Kotel Plaza which has become an Orthodox synagogue.  But most importantly and this is the main sticking point, where the PM is backtracking in his bow to the Charedi right wing, is that it scrapped a commission that would oversee the newly built area that included representatives from our movement and Conservative Judaism and Women of the Wall.  And this is really what the Charedim objected to.  Because in their minds it means de facto recognition by the Israeli government of other streams of Judaism.  Never mind that this was court ordered.  The Israeli Supreme Court ordered the government to find a solution.  Never mind that the deadline was approaching because the Netanyahu government has literally dragged its feet and purposely delayed over the last year so he can keep his grip on power and the PM’s office.

 

There is a fundamental problem.  The betrayal of the PM to Diaspora Jewry with this decision is of crisis proportions.  And here is why.  The Kotel is not just Israeli—it is Jewish.  It was for generations the symbol of our longing to return to the land—an expression of our Jewish yearning. It is why it used to be called the Wailing Wall because we still mourn the destruction of the Temple and our sovereignty as a nation. And in 1967 when Israel unified Jerusalem and captured the Old City and the Temple Moun and the cry came – “Har Ha Bayit b’yadenu-the Temple Mount is in our hands”,  the whole Jewish world rejoiced. Jerusalem was one and the Kotel—the place of our collective longing. symbol of our people was in Jewish hands for the first time since the year 70.

Yes, you heard that—since the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in the year 70.

Reform and Conservative Judaism are second class citizens in Israel.  The corrupt Chief Rabbinate in Israel excludes Reform and Conservative rabbis from marrying people, converting people, burying people. Our synagogues receive no state funding in Israel as do Orthodox ones. Our schools do not receive funding as do orthodox schools.

And for decades we have worked to change the status quo-growing our movement without the government.  Suing in the courts when necessary.  Seeking change through the political system. And the Kotel compromise was a significant and symbolic change.

In February 2016 at the CCAR convention in Israel during my presidency we held the first service at the site of the egalitarian prayer space.  It was the first service following the agreement. 350 Reform rabbis davened the morning service and we read Torah there.  I will admit most of the time the Kotel has left me cold.  I was always uncomfortable in the women’s section. Trying to pray. It felt unfamiliar when I was separated from other members of my family.  It felt inauthentic when the guards would look at me in pants with a disapproving eye.  But that service with my colleagues brought tears to my eyes and joy to my heart-to pray our melodies, aloud, men and women together next to the Kotel—next to the symbol of our people’s journey and history was a spiritual highlight I will cherish.  This is what should be available to anyone who comes to the Kotel; To pray as a Jew with their authentic identity.
Whether from the Right or left of the political spectrum—orthodoxies and rigidity create problems because human beings smother if held too tightly.  Judaism knows this. It is unfortunate the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate doesn’t.  It instead, like the PM, is desperate to hold on to power in a changing world.

The outrage in the Diaspora world has been swift.  Our own Rabbi Rick Jacobs and the Conservative movement leaders were on the ground in Israel.  For the first time in 30 years AIPAC leaders went to Israel to meet with the PM in an emergency meeting to tell him the fallout from this was too much and to reverse course.  American Jewish Committee condemned the PM’s action as well as the powerful Jewish Federations of North America.   The Orthodox former chief rabbi of England condemned it,Lord Jonathan Sacks. Even a group of 200 Modern Orthodox rabbis here in the US condemned this.  The holy rocks of the Kotel carved and placed so long ago must continue to be a place of gathering for ALL THE JEWISH PEOPLE  to pray, not just some.

Symbols do matter. They speak to us of who we are and what we stand for as individuals and the community. The Pride flag, the Magen David, The Kotel, Kol Ami, not the building but our congregation. Each of you -the people are the symbol of a set of values that we cherish.

Those values include being all of who we are-Jewish and proud of all our identities.  Comfortable in our own shoes.  Gay and Straight, Queer and Bi and Trans, Jewish, Lovers of Israel, lovers of our non-Jewish family and friends, committed to erasing, racism, and Islamophobia, and most of all doing what we Jews believe—Seeing everyone as created in God’s image.  B’tzelem Elohim.

This week’s Torah portion is Chukat in the book of numbers. Moses has encounter with a different set of holy rocks.  He is to speak to the rock to quench the thirst of the Israelites in the desert.  In his frustration he strikes the rock.  Waters come gushing forth—but as the Torah describes it—they are like flood waters—overwhelming.  The PM is no Moses, but he too has struck out at the holy rocks of the Kotel.  And he will not be able to stop the copious waters of outrage, and protest around the world from his action. Already he is backtracking. And the brief filed in the Israeli Supreme Court will be heard July 30.  But striking out at holy rocks doesn’t work.  And in fact it didn’t end well for Moses who as a result of his actions, disobeying God’s request that he speak to the rock—not hit it, he is not allowed to finish his mission to cross over into the Promised land.  Perhaps the PM should have paid attention.

I hope that soon-we together as a congregation can stand at the Kotel together—in the newly refurbished egalitarian prayer space and sing out together just as we do here on Shabbat. And sing of our joy and love of being Jewish. And sing of our joy and love of being all of who we are.

Then we will know a taste of that true freedom that God has given to each of us.  Ken Yehi Ratzon.

 

Yesterday I met a Hero

Yesterday I met a hero.  I had coffee with my friend Alden Solovy who is a poet and liturgest from Jerusalem.  You can read his work on his website www.tobendlight.com.  We had this meeting set up to discuss a workshop he will lead for my temple group in Israel this summer.  But who knew that I would be meeting with a person the Haredim (the fantical religious Orthodox) in Israel called “a man of wickedness”?  Alden is not wicked at all but my hero.  IMG_2454

On Rosh Chodesh Iyar on Monday Alden helped defend the Torah at the Kotel. The Western Wall in Jerusalem. As usual on the first day of the new month Alden and many others go early in the morning with Nashot HaKotel Women of the Wall to celebrate the new month.  Nashot HaKotel, Women of the Wall led by the amazing Anat Hoffman has been working for more than 2 decades to create women’s equal prayer space at the Kotel.  The Kotel through the years has become an Orthodox synagogue. There is a mechitza, a dividing wall separating men and women worshippers and over the years the women’s side has gotten smaller and smaller.  Egalitarian prayer and women’s prayer leadership-hallmarks of Reform and Conservative Judaism isn’t allowed but Nashot HaKotel has been trying to institute that. Women led prayer including reading from a Torah scroll has been forbidden even by the Supreme Court.  But a few years ago-a Jerusalem judge ruled that women must by allowed equal access.  The Women of the Wall have been sneaking in a small mini-Torah at times.

But on Rosh Chodesh earlier in the week, a group of supportive men passed a full size Torah (one of the 100 state owned Torah scrolls at the Kotel) to the women’s side. There Nashot HaKotel danced and prayed with the Scroll.  But as the gate pass through opened several of the state-paid ushers and few Haredi men rushed the men’s group.  My friend Alden and another man Charlie Kalech who was also part of the supporters were beaten by thugs.  Both sustained injuries and rather than arresting the thugs at the Wall, Charlie was arrested.

These men and the men who supported the Women of the Wall are heros! They believe in the equality of men and women in spiritual Jewish life and became warriors for Torah.  Sometimes in civil disobedience there is violence, even when we try to live by the code of non-violence. It certainly wasn’t the Women of the Wall or their supporters that engaged in violence. They just wanted to read from and pray from and dance with the Torah.  But rather the so-called Orthodox who threw punches, and stomped on others. This kind of Jew against Jew brought our Temple down according to the Talmud.  As another great Jewish thinker, Bob Dylan said: “When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?”

But I got to have coffee with a hero yesterday. Thank you for taking a punch for Torah, justice, equality and women’s prayer.  May you heal quickly from the bruises to your body and your soul and may you never know violence again.alden on the ground

Reform Movement Responds to Kotel Plan – URJ

This is very important.  Sunday word of the Mandelblit Commission’s plan was leaked to the press. This was a commission appointed by PM Netanyahu in Israel to follow up on the grand compromise arrived at by Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency and Diaspora Jewish leaders on prayer at the Kotel, the symbol of Jewish Unity.  But the Mandelblit plan pushed forward by Cabinet member Naftali Bennett would decimate the grand Compromise achieved and the delicate balance.  Click below to see the unified Reform Movement Response… As a result of Reform Movement outcry and other groups-the Prime Minister announced that no conclusions have been reached.  Seems like a slight delay in announcing their plan.

 

Reform Movement Responds to Kotel Plan – URJ.

Anat Hoffman arrested again

My friend and colleague Anat Hoffman director of the Israel Religious Action Center and one of the founder of Women of the Wall (www.womenofthewall.org.il) was arrested last night at a Rosh Chodesh celebration with the Hadassah Women from around the world. The women of Hadassah are in Israel celebrating their 100 year anniversary of this wonderful Jewish women’s organization known for its philanthropy  in the United States and in Israel.   Anat has been arrested at the Kotel before.  The Women of the Wall group gathers each Rosh Chodesh at the Western Wall for a morning service to celebrate the new month. This half holy day associated with women is a time for women of all denominations to come together to pray and read Torah.  But they are not allowed to read the Torah in the Kotel Plaza area.  The Rosh Chodesh group continues to point out the inequities at the Wall.  Men have most of the area near the wall for prayer and meditation and reflection and the women’s section is small. An Israeli Supreme Court ruling said that they could gather but this group had to read Torah in a different section near the southern part of the wall.  Not in the main prayer place.  They also arrest members of the group and detain them for wearing a tallit which is common among women in Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism.  Tallito have to wrapped around like a scarf not in the traditional manner of wearing a prayer shawl.

Anat was arrested for reciting the Shema-the prayer that unifies the Jewish people world wide.  She was detained overnight and although a familiar site to the police who guard and protect the wall was evidently treated very poorly by the police.  Now is our time to strengthen our support for Women of the Wall and the values of equality-even in Israel.   We must stand for our place and our Jewish ideals too.

Take some time to donate. To visit their website.  And the next time  you are in Israel at Rosh Chodesh go and take part in the service.  Men stand on the men’s side near the divider to protect the group of women praying from flying objects on the men’s side over the Mechitza and pray together with the women and then all proceed with the Torah to the site for reading of the Torah.  This is for equality for all people and all who believe that the Holy Sites of Judaism should be open and available to all Jews.

A prayer for Rosh Chodesh and the Women of the Wall

Rosh Chodesh-the New Month- is this weekend.  It begins tonight and continues through Monday -the first of Kislev..

The Women of The Wall gather monthly on Rosh Chodesh to welcome the New Moon.  This is traditionally a day associated with women.  Tradition teaches it was a reward for resisting Aaron’s command to part with jewelry to make the Golden Calf.  The women resisted sin.

How sadly ironic that the Women of the Wall in efforts to pray and welcome a holy time associated with women resisting the greatest sin of the Jewish people, men, specifically the Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbi of the Wall, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitz  continue the sin of exclusion and misogyny.

Below is a prayer for Rosh Chodesh and a prayer for the Women of the Wall at this Rosh Chodesh Kislev.

Remember the month of Kislev is the month of Chanukah; A time of light, miracles, rededication of the Temple.  It is a month of Maccabean strength.  As you pray keep these intentions in your mind and heart.

Prayer for Women of the Wall

May it be your will, our God and God of our mothers and fathers, to bless this prayer group and all who pray within it: them, their families, and all that is theirs, together with all women’s prayer groups and all the women and girls of Your people Israel. Strengthen us and turn our hearts to serve You in truth, reverence, and love.

May our prayer be as desirable and acceptable before You as the prayers of our holy foremothers Sarah, Rivkah, Rahel, and Leah.

May our song ascend to Your Glorious Throne in holiness and purity, like the song of Miriam the Prophet and Devorah the Judge, and may it be as a pleasant savor and sweet incense before You.

And for our sisters, all the women and girls of Your people Israel: let us merit to see their joy and hear their voices raised before You in song and praise. May no woman or girl of Your people Israel or anywhere else in the world be silenced ever again. God of Justice, let us merit justice and salvation soon, for the sanctity of Your name and the restoration of Your world, as it is written: Zion will hear and be joyful, and the daughters of Judah rejoice, over Your judgments, O God. And as it is written: For Zion’s sake I will not be still and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be silent, until her righteousness comes forth like great light and her salvation like a torch aflame.

For Torah shall go forth from Zion and the word of God from Jerusalem. Amen, selah.

Prayer by Rahel Jaskow is from Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site, copyright 2003 by Phyllis Chesler and Rivka Haut. Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock VT, www.jewishlights.com.