Sunday, January 8, 2012

Responding to the Situation in Beit Shemesh

Note: My apologies for the sparsity of posts in 2011 -- a very productive but busy year in other parts of my life. I WILL be working to add in the missing sermons over the course of the next few weeks (so check the internal dates on those posts, and NOT the posting dates!), as well as making a better effort in 2012 to be timely in adding new material...

I Tawt I Taw a Torah Text!
Sermon for Parshat Vayiggash – December 30, 2011
Rabbi Steve Weisman – Temple Solel, Bowie MD

Tonight presents us with opportunities and challenges. It is rare that I would be absent from this pulpit for successive Shabbatot, except in summer. And in fact, events conspired to make sure that did not happen as planned, although not in a good way, and not in a way that allowed, or even obligated me to preach last Shabbat. So it has been 3 weeks since I had to prepare a sermon – actually 4, since that last service before Biennial was a family service, at which I tell a story rather than preach a sermon.

So, tonight was already going to be an evening with too many choices, too many opportunities for preaching. That during the hiatus, we celebrated both Chanukkah and Christmas, attended an amazing URJ Biennial, and more just adds to the possibilities. That tonight marks the last Shabbat of 2011 could easily spark a look back at the year in review.

But among the many remarkable and powerful lessons that I learned and affirmations I received at the Biennial, there was one that I wish to share with you tonight. It is the wisdom of a very wise young woman, shared with participants by her very proud father. This young woman, now becoming expert in the ways of various Rabbis as she attends the Bat Mitzvah services of many of her private school classmates (and, no doubt, a few Bar Mitzvah services as well!) across the area, gave her father, President Obama, the following advice before he addressed the Biennial: When in doubt, start with the Torah portion!

I have certainly tried to do that whenever possible over the last 23 years. Otherwise, I might have to question the Jewish validity of the message that I ultimately preach, no matter how central to my world view it feels or how obvious it seems. Rabbi Yoffie was correct when he taught us, early in his tenure, to keep Torah at the center.

And tonight we have a remarkable piece of Torah to focus our thoughts upon, perhaps one of the 5 most dramatic of the entire Torah. We read of the moment at which, overcome by his brother Judah’s plea to spare the life of Benjamin for his/their father’s sake, Joseph finally ends the charade and reveals his true identity to his brothers. His poignant words: It is me, Joseph; is my father really still alive?

Sometimes, as Jews, we focus so much on the obscure and the difficult passages, that we fail to learn the lessons of the obvious ones. I had the chance to study with Rabbi Marc Rosenstein at Biennial. Marc was my Confirmation teacher, the leader, along with Rabbi Yoffie’s younger brother, of my first trip to Israel. Now he directs HUC’s Israel Rabbinic program, teaching Israelis to be Reform Rabbis.

Over Shabbat lunch, he pointed out what happens AFTER the dramatic reveal. According to the text, Joseph sends his brothers home to tell Jacob/Israel that he, Joseph, is still alive; to let him know that the famine will continue for several years, but he, Joseph, can provide for the family, and they should come down to Egypt; and that all will be okay.

What Rabbi Rosenstein pointed out to us is what Joseph didn’t say and do. Namely “I need to see my father’s face with my own eyes, so I will come back with you, so he believes you.” 17 years later, when Jacob died, Joseph was allowed to do exactly this – leave to bury his father back home. If he could do it in death, why not in life? He could have gone back with his brothers, to make sure Jacob believed their report, to supervise the move to Egypt, and then returned to his responsibilities and position in Egypt with his family. He didn’t. He remained in diaspora, and brought the family to him.

L’havdil, tonight, I feel like I am doing a similar disservice to the text – dragging it to the level of my message, rather than paying full homage to its intrinsic messages for us by raising myself up to meet it. I am confident Joseph meant no disrespect to his father by not going up to see him personally to invite him to Egypt in order to survive the famine. Similarly, I mean no disrespect to a remarkable text in using it to lead into my real message tonight – even moreso, ironically, on the night when I have, for the first time, had the privilege of publicly asking birthday blessings for my father in his presence, having helped him to move here earlier in the year!

But what it appears we have here is a temporary myopia on Joseph’s part, an almost involuntary, if momentary paralysis. Yes, we know Jacob and his sons must come to Joseph in Egypt… both the dreams of Joseph’s youth and the future needs of the Biblical narrative – that we find ourselves in Egypt to be enslaved before we can be redeemed – require it. But he could have brought them down himself, rather than by sending a message with his brothers, and done no damage to the story.
I share that analysis because, I believe, it is essential to understanding a truly difficult and disturbing story that has jumped to the forefront of our awareness in recent days. I speak, tonight, about the abuse, at the hands of some haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) Jews in Beit Shemesh, of a 7- or 8- year old Modern Orthodox school girl for dressing and behaving “immodestly,” and the response to this abomination in Israel and here in America. And assuredly, to get from Torah to the depths of this story requires us to drag the Torah down to this level.

However, if we are honest, our gut-level revulsion at this story stems from exactly that truth… we see the behavior of this small group of fundamentalist, extremist religious thugs as dragging Torah, and all of Jewish law and life, down into the gutter. We see it as an utter perversion of the values of love and respect and tolerance that we claim to learn from OUR reading of Torah.

However, there is a deeper truth that we have also already acknowledged tonight that we learn from our Torah portion. For us, as liberal American Jews, to understand the behavior and motivation of a group of Ultra-Orthodox Jews living in Beit Shemesh, twice requires us to acknowledge that we live in a different world and therefore have a different world view than they do – first in our religious approach, and second in the larger cultural influence of America vs. Israel. In order for us to fully understand, or understand as fully as our sensibilities will allow, their behavior, which ought to be a necessary prerequisite to any effort on our part to speak out against it, we need to do what Joseph did not… make the journey to their world, in order to help them find their way to ours.

And this is extremely difficult, both because of the enormity of the differences between us and them, between here and there, but also because most of us are so turned off by such a story, that we have no desire to make the effort to try to understand those who would behave in such a way. We, many of us who mark our Jewishness first and foremost with the yardstick of social action, prophetic Judaism, the desire to bring tiqqun olam, cannot imagine any way that our religious tradition could possibly justify such inhumanity, such exclusion, such abuse. OUR tradition welcomes and honors; it does not degrade or render others powerless of second rate.

Yet, no matter how difficult it is for us to accept, those who are guilty of the inexcusable behavior in Beit Shemesh honestly believe that they are acting to UPHOLD that same Torah and tradition that we see them throwing in the gutter and trampling upon, acting to save Judaism, rather than subject it, and themselves, and us, to ridicule. It is the exact equivalent feeling experienced by peace-loving Muslims like our friends Khalil and Imam Dawud when they are forced to explain the abuses perpetrated in the name of Islam by al-Qaeda and other fundamentalist, extremist, terrorist Muslims, who practice an Islam totally different from their own. I get this, but I do not like it. And that is okay… sometimes in life, this is the best we can hope to achieve!

It seems clear to me, to us, that we need to stand up and say and do something. We need to make clear that THEIR Judaism is NOT our Judaism, for it is not. But honestly, we need to do more… because if all we do is make the distinction between them and us, then we are merely protecting ourselves from the claim of guilt by association. What we fail to do is improve an intolerable situation.

And the truth is that what is happening in Beit Shemesh is NOT an isolated incident. Ultra-Orthodox Jews across Israel are insisting on segregated buses, even after the Israeli Supreme Court has said they have no right to them, to the point of verbally abusing and assaulting a young Israeli soldier when she refused to move to the back of a bus in Jerusalem. They are refusing to participate in public ceremonies in which women are singing. They have been implicated in attacks on Arabs and on Israeli military installations in the territories. All in the name of Torah.

And their political leaders continue to hold seats in the Knesset and in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Cabinet that protect them from investigation and punishment in many of these cases. This, despite many of their religious leaders’ refusal in part or in whole to recognize the legitimacy of the State of Israel, for the failure of Messiah to bring it into being. Yet these same leaders are more than willing to play the political system, extorting millions of dollars and major concessions about their lifestyle through coalition agreements calculated to allow the main parties to have their way in the areas they find most important.
In other words, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu has no real reason to resolve these issues with the Ultra-Orthodox, save the possibility that they might recognize the weakening effect they are having on Israeli society as a whole. In fact, they have strong motive not to act at all, letting these hooligans continue to subvert Israeli law, attack Israeli citizens, attempting to create a fundamentalist religious state, ruled by THEIR reading of Torah, and reinstituting a caste system in which we are all second class citizens compared to these haredim.

For several years, many of us have been preaching that there was already a cultural war being waged for Israel’s societal soul. And for those years, we have been subjected to responses that we sounded like Henny Penny, running around and proclaiming that the sky was falling. Tonight, I take absolutely no pride that events are proving that I, and we, have been correct all along. The revelation, not of Joseph’s true identity, but that of the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel, rather than creating unanticipated joy, brings continued and growing heartache.

It casts a larger shadow over other troubling issues as well. It now seems more likely that the recent effort at using the Internet to reach Israelis abroad and guilt them into coming home to Israel with a series of slick commercials may indeed have had a secondary goal – to delegitimize the Diaspora Jewish community’s voice in general. But where, not even a month ago, we would have been tempted to accuse Netanyahu himself of seeking that goal, as the American Jewish community in particular has become more questioning of government efforts (or lack thereof) toward a lasting peace, now it is clear that his haredi partners had as much or more to gain from delegitimizing the vast majority of Diaspora Jewry whose basis they reject completely.

This is why, during the Biennial, I had a rather remarkable conversation with our good friend, Doug Cotler. Remarkable, in that it had almost nothing to do with music, as most of our discussion naturally do. This one was about his growing frustration and concern that we cannot even talk about what is happening in Israel anymore, because the subject no longer unites us, but divides us. Without knowing he was doing so, he echoed language that I have used from this pulpit, comparing the situation in Israel today to what was happening here in the 1960s.

So, what can we do? It is complicated, but anything worth doing is worth doing right. First and foremost, we must continue to support the State of Israel, now more than ever. For those who say, again echoing the 60s, that the government must be supported unquestioningly, I remind us all that there was a legitimate counter-point to that approach, that believed that criticizing the government out of love and respect, with the hope of correcting the perceived mistakes, was equally valid, and in many quarters, seen as being more necessary.

With the outside world, we need to retain our vigilance, and continue to make positive statements in support of Israel. We need to object appropriately if and when the media use too broad a brush to paint the picture of what is happening in Israel, or compare the behavior of some Ultra-Orthodox Jews to attempts to impose Sharia law, even if we recognize the legitimacy of the comparisons. We need to continue to speak publicly of the values upon which the modern State of Israel was created, those enshrined in her Declaration of Independence, as well as those taught by our understanding of Torah, even as we work privately to insist that the government live up to those documents. We need to work to help her once again become “a light to the nations,” so that once again Torah may go forth from Zion, the word of God from Jerusalem.

But, we also need to learn from Joseph. We need to get up from the comfort of Diaspora, and go to see for ourselves what is happening in Israel. We need to deliver in person -- loudly, clearly, and positively – the message of American liberal Judaism, to an Israeli society that now more than ever, needs to hear that such a view of Judaism has equal or greater legitimacy and vibrancy than the only form with which they are familiar. We need to help them to see that the emperor is, in fact, morally naked, and in need of their help to become clothed.

That message cannot be preached effectively from overseas, or sent by messengers. It needs to be demonstrated by our example, delivered face-to-face in words that we will all understand, through relationships that will continue to feed the currently unresolved need in Israel for an alternative voice to the Ultra-Orthodox – one that is not purely secular. We are the ones who can best provide that message in this way. It is up to us to do so.

And with that, I wish you all a happy Sylvester. If you aren’t sure what that is, or why I do so, please ask me at the Oneg Shabbat! ☺ KYR

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