10 September 2010

The Sustaining Wells: Rosh Hashanah Day One Remarks

***This is a paraphrase of my remarks on Rosh Hashanah morning***

Watching videos on-line this summer and reading about the controversy of Israeli religious activist Anat Hoffman's arrest for praying and carrying a Torah near the Western Wall was the genesis of the idea to have only women read Torah and Haftarah on Rosh Hashanah morning at CBE.   I try hard not to make political statements from the Bimah but to teach and poke and prod people along in their own thinking with different perspectives that might illuminate their understanding of complicated situations.   However, the act was so egregious and ran so counter to so many people's understanding of Zionism and what a contemporary Jewish state is meant to represent, that a small gesture on our part here in Brooklyn at least symbolically can convey a greater meaning.

Carole Gould, a Reform movement rabbinical student; Abigail Everett, a public defense lawyer; and Victoria Rosenblatt, a businesswoman, each read Torah beautifully on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.  In the Reform movement, the prayerbook offers an alternative reading for Rosh Hashanah, in this case, the story of creation from Genesis (since the Sages decreed that on Rosh Hashanah at the beginning of time the Universe was created) and so that's what we read.  The source was particularly evocative since the text from Genesis is quite clear that when the human is made in the Divine Image, God makes that human both male and female.  Before any kind of gender inequality can emerge, there is equality, it would appear, by design.  I wanted that early echo present in the liturgy for the day.  Our Haftarah reader was Deirdre Moskowitz, a young woman who grew up at CBE and is now an attorney herself.  She read the story of Hannah's prayer and about the birth of Samuel--a traditional Rosh Hashanah reading--that fit perfectly well with the theme of the role of women in the tradition.

So I used the controversy of Anat Hoffman's arrest as an opportunity to examine a particular aspect of the relationship between American Jews and Israeli Jews--that in fact there is in America a greater and more diverse expression of Jewish religious life than there is in Israel and how paradoxical it is that despite Zionism's more than one hundred year enterprise of returning Jews as a free people in its own land, certain forms of religious expression (to quote another critic of British colonialism) are more equal than others.  {And before this line gets misconstrued I want to be very clear:  I am referring to Zionists overthrowing British colonialism and the anti-colonialist British writer to which I refer is George Orwell.  Israel's contemporary critics who refer to Zionism as colonialism are wrong--it isn't.  I happen to think that settlement expansion is bad policy and is a hindrance to peace; but I also think the Jewish historical claim to the land is undeniable.  In this day and age, with the terms of the debate called  into question by an increasingly ignorant and deconstructionist intellectual tendency, sometimes we have to repeat and remind ourselves of the obvious.  Anyway, none of this is the point.}

My remarks on Rosh Hashanah morning focused on the great movements of 19th century Judaism--the mass wave of immigration to America and South America; those who stayed put and embraced the nation in which they lived, seeking an accommodation to European life and the hope that anti-Semitism would eventually be eradicated; and the smallest movement, Zionism, which rejected the diaspora in its entirety and sought to re-claim the Jewish national home in the Land of Israel.   Of course not all Zionist thinkers rejected the diaspora in its entirety.  Famously, Asher Ginzburg, known as Ahad Ha'am, believed that Israel should be the center of the Jewish world but that it needed to exist in relationship to a thriving Jewish life outside the land.  The two-thousand year diaspora had produced too much intellectual and creative genius in order to be rejected.

With that in mind, I shared some thoughts about the paradox of that dynamic relationship.  Where America represents an embrace of Jewish religious pluralism very much in keeping with the American notion of denominationalism and freedom of expression as a constitutional guarantee.  Additionally, American individualism (the good part, not the mostly bad part) adds to a creativity of expression in Judaism that is truly remarkable.  Finally, America represents a definition of Jewishness that is both authentically Jewish and authentically American, bringing into focus the incredible openness of American life.  As has been stated many times before, we Jews exist in the most open and welcome host culture in our history--so much so that America belongs as equally to us as to any of its citizens--a truly unique achievement in Jewish history.  Of course, that incredible openness has a dark side:  it means we can be so fully absorbed in American life as to completely and utterly disappear.  Some people think this is good; others think this is bad; most are perhaps ambivalent.

My experience of Israel, over and over again, affirms for me why Israel's continued existence and thriving life force at the center of the Jewish people is so important.  Because Israel represents for all of world Jewry the notion that as a people, we have a genuine claim to land, to an historical narrative in that land, and to the very archaeological evidence that allows one to physically connect with the deep rivers of peoplehood, allowing for a rootedness that extends back beyond one hundred years in America and even centuries in Europe or the East, and lay claim to a millennial tradition, a vast alluvial soil of meaning.  Israel represents self-defense--perhaps one of its more radical breaks with the two thousand year diaspora.  It employs an army and police force that guarantees the theoretical safety of Jews from the attack of others.   Israel also represents Jewish time, a Jewish calendar, and therefore a Jewish organizing principle for how one orients one's way in the world.  This has an unmistakably preserving effect on Jewishness.  The cohesive material of time binds like no other, especially when an entire nation moves along the spectrum together in time. 

And finally, there is the matter of the Hebrew language.  At a certain point early on in the Zionist enterprise, fewer than 50,000 people living in the Land of Israel spoke a modern Hebrew language.  Today, more than 6,000,000 Israelis and nearly a million Arabs speak modern Hebrew; modern Hebrew also is spoke by tens of thousands of diaspora Jews and the entire diaspora Jewish educational system--from day schools to Hebrew schools to summer camps (not to mention trips to Israel) are predicated on a mindful and constructive pedagogy based in large part on Israeli teachers and modern Hebrew.  This is not just a revolution but arguably one of the great miracles of Jewish life--the complete re-invention and revival of an ancient language.  Three of the day's Torah readers have spent significant time in Israel--specifically to be immersed in its language and time. 

The diaspora needs the center as much as the center needs the diaspora. 

It's one thing for us in the diaspora to talk about Israel or defend Israel against its detractors by talking about all of Israel's amazing achievements in high tech, medical and science research, irrigation systems, green technology--take your pick--but no achievement is as great or miraculous as its very existence and what this means for the preservation of the Jewish people.  Which is what makes the egregious disregard of women's rights to Torah so painful and outrageous.

On a recent congregational trip to Israel, we spent Friday night at Beit Daniel, the Reform movement's synagogue in North Tel Aviv and then we traveled across town to Mishkenot Ruth, the incredible community center also run by the synagogue.  Rabbi Meir Azari, an Israeli Reform rabbi, is transforming the religious landscape of Israel's largest secular city by combining Israeliness with classic American diaspora values of pluralism.  On Friday nights and throughout the week, Mishkenot Ruth hosts pluralistic dinners, musical programming, classes, and social action projects, actively engaging the Arab population of Jaffa and South Tel Aviv--like its ongoing projects with the Jaffa Institute.  Other such places with equally pluralistic missions are in full swing now as well, and one can see a new face of contemporary Judaism emerging that is deeply rooted in Israeli life but has also learned quite a lot from the American diaspora about embracing multi-culturalism and multiple forms of expression.

We make much of the two days of Rosh Hashanah about the narrative of Abraham and Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac.  And later in the year, as we read our way through Genesis, we encounter the well-known story about Isaac's re-embrace of Judaism, as it were, after Sarah and Abraham's death.  While the Akedah arguably scarred Isaac (a portent of bad future Hebrew school experiences--sacrificing a child on the altar of what kind of a Jew a parent wants a child to be?) Isaac eventually digs wells, including re-digging the wells that were first dug by his father Abraham.  It seems, later in his life, he is able to re-engage and re-connect with Judaism on his own terms.  A powerful message.

Similarly, one can see the productive ways in which we in the diaspora need Israel in order to dig wells of meaning for us, to preserve us with the deep rooted waters of Jewish land, history, time and language; and similarly, Israel needs the diaspora in order to taste from the waters of a pluralistic, democratic engagement with Judaism where men and women are truly equal and truly free.

May each well sustain us all.

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