Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Women's Right to Pray in Public -- Background Part 1

You Shall be Holy … The Rest is Commentary
Sermon for Parshiyot Acharei Mot/Q’doshim – April 23, 2010
Rabbi Steve Weisman – Temple Solel, Bowie, MD

Twice this past week, we showed a remarkable documentary film here at the Temple. Entitled Praying in her Own Voice, the film takes a close look at the controversies in Israel over a multi-denominational Women’s Prayer Group’s desire to hold a single monthly worship service at the Western Wall. The issues are not whether they have a right to pray at the Wall – everyone agrees that the Wall, at least in theory, can and must be a place available for EVERYONE to be able to pray.

No, the challenges arise when the “Women of the Wall” insist on their right to worship as they see fit. It is this insistance on being free to follow the desires of their spiritual souls in their worship, which lead them to such outrages as wishing to pray out loud in a group, while some of them wear tallit and t’fillin, and wanting members of their own group to read from the sefer Torah or sound the shofar at the appropriate times, as part of their worship, that appears to be the source of the conflict.

This past week was perhaps the PERFECT time to show this movie. We were a little more than a week removed from Yom HaSho’ah, our annual remembrance of the victims and atrocities of the Holocaust – a commemoration which forces us to confront the issues of our own Jewish identity, and look for threats to our Jewish survival. We are blessed to live in a time when, thankfully, most of those threats to Jewish identity and survival are internal – with no one significantly looking to limit our freedoms as Jews, or to seek our destruction, it leaves our own behaviors as the biggest concerns. And frankly, this is how it SHOULD be!

We were a day and two removed from Yom Ha’atzma’ut, the annual celebration of the re-establishment of the modern State of Israel, now 62 years ago. Old enough in human terms to be thinking about retirement, but barely a babe beginning to crawl and recognize the world in terms of history and geopolitics, Israel on this anniversary confronts her own very real and serious issues of identity and survival – certainly more gravely than at any time since 1974, and quite possibly going back even farther than that. And we, as American Jews, as we have bemoaned in recent weeks, find ourselves more torn in our dual identity between competing forces than perhaps ever before at this critical moment in her history.
But also this – on the Shabbat following our watching and discussing this movie, we find ourselves reading the dual Torah portion Acharei Mot and Q’doshim. These portions are dominated by the “Holiness Code” – the ethical rules and boundaries placed on the ancient priesthood that allowed them to maintain a status distinct from and spiritually elevated above the masses who looked to them for guidance and leadership. Rules which remind us of the Ten Commandments, even as they move beyond those basics into more detail, and therefore remind us as well of God’s words to Moses in preparing our ancestors to receive the Law – that we are to be a “people of priests, a nation of qodesh.”

And that connection obligated our ancestors, even as it ought still to obligate us, to take those same guidelines for priestly service and ethics, and attempt to live up to them in our own lives. In the case of such details as the physical defects which disqualified our ancestors from service to God, perhaps we need to find more philosophic than literal ways of applying those limitations. But in those aspects that deal with how we treat our fellow human beings, looking at the headlines and sound bytes that scream for our attention daily and hourly, it is clear that we need to strive to at least reach the Levitical levels of behavioral expectations, if not move beyond them.

We could do a lot worse than looking at the case of Women of the Wall to understand how challenging these issues of Jewish identity, survival and obligation can become when we try to move from the parchment of the sefer Torah to the reality of our lives. Because in order to understand the honest dilemma their authentic and legitimate desires present within current Israeli society, we need to go back and look at the history of how worship patterns evolved and how the Wall became what it is today; we need to ask basic questions about modern Judaism, such as who gets to decide what is and is not acceptable, and what the role of the individual is in relation to the occasional need to defer to the needs of the community for the sake of Jewish unity; and we need to ask ourselves how we view ourselves, our role(s) in life, and the expression of our Jewish identity. In other words, we need, to a certain degree, to challenge ourselves and our assumptions about ourselves and our Jewish lives, just as these women are challenging the society that seeks to limit their voices.

Let us start with the group. Women of the Wall is a group that has evolved over the last 21 years and longer, which seeks, by, of, and for its own members, who come from every form of Judaism imaginable, to create meaningful Jewish spiritual experiences within the framework of halacha – traditional Jewish religious law. Included as part of that expression of authentic Jewish spiritual yearning, the group has sought monthly, since August, 1989, to hold, in the women’s section of the Western Wall, a women’s minyan on Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon, traditionally viewed as a “women’s holiday,” and therefore a most appropriate day for a public group expression by women of their spiritual and religious selves.

The group has met for 21 years and more, motivated by religious and spiritual need, hunger, and searching. In the process, a number of obstacles have arisen, owing to the unique challenges that traditional Judaism faces, particularly in the form of gender roles, and in relation to communal (public) worship. The members of this group respect that tradition even as it limits them; they recognize its significance not only to Israeli society, but within their own lives. They do not seek its overturn. They have, on their own, whenever possible, been willing and able to compromise their authentic needs with the realities of that tradition and the equally legitimate rights and needs of others around them. They continue to exist, still, first as a religious and spiritual entity, and only secondarily, and mostly against their will, as a protest group fighting for civil rights.

Halacha very clearly EXEMPTS women from all positive timebound mitzvot – that is, commandments to DO something (as opposed to those which forbid certain acts) that have to occur at a particular time. The reason for this exemption was the realities connected to the historic “women’s role” as mothers raising children and homemakers, keeping the home – many of which cannot be permanently placed onto a schedule that would guarantee the ability of the pious woman from fulfilling these mitzvot in timely fashion in all circumstances. Expressed accurately this way, such exemptions are a classic example of Judaism’s ability to act to take pressure off its adherents, when reality interfered with the idealized goals we all sought to achieve.

Sadly, however, there have been two MAJOR changes in this original approach. First, the concept of exemption, in many cases, especially those connected to public religious and spiritual behaviors, changed to prohibition instead. Difficult as it may be for us as modern liberal Jews to recognize, the truth is that even most of the steps in this unfortunate evolution are both understandable, and benignly necessary as Jews and life evolved; this change was neither deliberately engineered or made with malice towards women.

Second, but far more obviously, in modern times, gender roles and responsibilities have changed dramatically as feminism and other modern and post-modern phenomena have changed our world in ways the tradition could never have imagined. The more liberal streams of Judaism have begun to catch up with those societal forces. But even mainstream Orthodoxy has seen its share of pressures leading to more subtle changes within the limits of what the system will allow. The very existence of women’s study and prayer groups within the Orthodox world, shows just how much change has occurred.

In short, the changing behaviors have moved quicker than the ability of the systems that are being changed to keep up – this is true in general in our world today every bit as much as it is within the unique realities of both traditional and modern Judaism. This is just one of many places where the pressures of modernity challenge the very fabric of Jewish unity – and this, less than 70 years removed from the unifying trauma of the Holocaust, and the unifying joys of the rebirth of Israel and her myriad accomplishments!

And, there is one more historical piece to this puzzle that needs to be better understood before we can delve into the very real issues of the Women of the Wall. And that is the nature of the Western Wall itself, as part of the role of Jerusalem and Israel to a Jewish world that, for over 1875 years could only dream of their physical and political rebirth. The area that we call the “Western Wall,” which used to be known as the “Wailing Wall,” is part of the outer restraining wall, built around the Biblical Mt. Moriah, which allowed first Solomon, and later the Roman governor Herod, to build the Temple on its man-made flattened peak. In fact, it is a SMALL part of that boundary wall, only about 10% of the western retaining wall, one of the four walls that served this vital engineering purpose.

When the Temples stood, this edifice was essential to Jewish worship, as three times a year every Jew needed to bring their festival offerings to the altar at the Temple. Full Jewish identity and involvement was not possible without a physical journey to Jerusalem, and the altar at the southeastern corner of the upper district of the city. Even after the Second Temple was destroyed, and the Rabbis, out of necessity, had replaced sacrifice with prayer as the individual and communal form of worship; even after the physical journey to Jerusalem had been replaced, in the Diaspora, with a metaphyscial hope of going up to Jerusalem again; Jerusalem, and the Temple precinct maintained their centrality within the individual and communal Jewish soul.

After the Romans violently put down the Bar Kokhba Rebellion in 135 CE, Jewish access to the Temple area was legally suspended. As a compromise, born out of necessity, and the needs of the Jewish soul, a small portion of the Western restraing wall became a focal point for Jewish pilgrimage – a place where Jews were, even for a brief instant, so close to being where they wished to be, but unable to go any closer, that they instinctively shed tears of both joy and frustration, thus earning the name “Wailing Wall.” It had no religious significance save that which the visitors bestowed upon it by their presence, no previous spiritual significance beyond that established by their falling tears.

But that was enough to ensure that this small area became the central spiritual focal point and religious destination for Jews throughout the Diaspora for as long as travel to what we again call Israel was physically, economically, or politically impossible for most. A compromise location replaced a no-longer existing one, and then became spiritual and philosophical symbol of our people’s yearning for a home. Even the re-establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 did not end this substitution, as the Old City of Jerusalem and the Wall were in Jordanian control – still out of bounds to Jews. That, and the construction many years earlier, of 2 significant Mosques – the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa – on the Temple Mount!

When General Moshe Dayan, still in fatigues, led the procession to the narrow area that was the Wall in June of 1967, and brought Jews back to the Wall, only then did reality change. But instead of terminating the need for the Wall, now no longer called Wailing (a pre-existing case of political correctness!), but Western, its re-absorption into the political and spiritual life of the Jewish community merely changed its significance. The government, looking to capitalize on the era of good feelings that followed the miraculous victory in the 6-Day War by establishing tourism as a major industry, had no better symbol available to exploit than the Wall. The area around it was improved dramatically, to handle the crowds. Instead of being returned to historical footnote, the Wall became a d facto house of worship, not just for Jews of every denomination, but for all visitors to Israel, regardless of their religious affiliation.

And therefore it was only a matter of time before the question of who decides what is acceptable at the Wall as a religious site would need to be addressed, along with who would be in charge of such decisions – just the next in a long series of existential dilemmas about the nature of the modern state’s soul. Democracy? Or theocracy? Here again, the Rabbis were given control.

And with that, we have all the background we need in order to look at the issues raised by the Woman of the Wall. And I am at the top of page 6 of my written copy of this sermon, which means I am past the point of needing to stop, even before we look at the issues! But this should not really come as a surprise – if these issues were easy, if there wasn’t so much history and emotion to be unwrapped around them, they would have been amicably resolved long ago!

For us, however, that exploration will need to be held. For those who cannot wait, I will continue this discussion tomorrow morning at services at 10:30. For those who can, or need to wait, because they will not be here tomorrow, we will pick this back up in 2 weeks’ time – next week being the SOSTY service and celebration of our graduating high school seniors.

Either way – don’t wait for me. Take this background information, which will be on line on my blog early next week, and go see the movie, if you haven’t already. Listen carefully to both sides, and see if we can, on our own, begin to peel away the next several layers of confusion and emotion that still stand in the way of total understanding and solution. And, as we do, realize that the process we have begun tonight is the quintessential Reform Jewish approach to all challenges in our lives that occur at the intersection of our religious and spiritual selves with reality, the point where individual and communal needs cross, and think about where else we can apply this method, and how, in our own lives, as we seek to achieve the dual, yet seeming contradictory, goals of fitting in as part of the larger society, and maintaining that which is qodesh – unique and holy – as our authentic Jewish selves. KYR