Sunday, May 19, 2013

Climbing the hierarchical ladder to the wall / B'haalotcha

The images from the Kotel Plaza in Jerusalem on Friday, May 10, 2013 are simultaneously wonderful and sad. Two weeks before, in a landmark ruling, Judge Moshe Sobel of the Jerusalem District Court ruled that women wearing tallitot at the Kotel do not contravene “local custom.” Prior to this ruling, the women who have convened monthly since December 1, 1988 to celebrate Rosh Chodesh, were subjected to disruption, heckling, and physical threats by the haredim. They were regularly arrested and harassed by the police and accused of disturbing the public order. Judge Sobel’s ruling put an end to this perversion of civil justice and religious freedom. This past Friday, the police protected the women, thousands of whom gathered to pray and sing and give thanks.

How have we gotten to the point where Jews charge into battle against Jews who want to pray?

In this week’s parashah, B’haalotcha, God instructs Moses to prepare and ordain the Levites to serve in the Tabernacle. Here we find a curious claim:

You shall bring the Levites forward before the Tent of Meeting. Assemble the whole Israelite community, and bring the Levites forward before the Lord. Let the Israelites lay their hands upon the Levites, and let Aaron designate the Levites before the Lord as an elevation offering from the Israelites, that they may perform the service of the Lord. (Numbers 8:9-11)

The Levites are themselves a sacrifice of sorts. Just as the priests will lay their hands on the animals designated for sacrifice, so the Israelites lay their hands on the Levites and designate them as the people’s sacrifice. Pretty heady stuff to be a levitical priest: God’s chosen among the chosen, intermediary between Israelites and God, the ones with the authority presented as mere animals for sacrifice.

Every society creates a hierarchy that lends power, authority, legitimacy, and privileges to those at the top. In the haredi world men run the show. Consider this charming passage from the Babylonian Talmud, which relegates women to the status of servants to men:

A heretic said to Rabban Gamliel, “Your God is a thief! As it is written, And God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the human, and he slept (Genesis 2:21).” [Rabban Gamliel’s] daughter said: “Leave him, for I will answer.” She said to the heretic, “Bring me an officer of the law.” He said to her, “Why?” “Thieves came upon us last night, took a silver vessel from us, and left a gold one in its place.” He said to her, “Would that he would come every day!” “And was it not favorable to Adam, that God took one rib from him, and gave him a maidservant (shifkha) to serve him?” (B.Sanhedrin 39a)

Many generations have had no difficulty recognizing the historical and social context of this passage and have refused to ascribe prescriptive authority to it. Haredim, in contrast, have enshrined it on their altar of regressive fundamentalism. Claiming that their views are the only ones God sanctions, they have done everything from attempting to force segregationon buses and sidewalks in Israel, to spitting on 8-year-old Naama Margolese, whom they deemed inappropriately dressed, on her way to school. (For the record, Naama’s family is modern Orthodox and she was dressed in long sleeves and a long skirt.)

And, of course, the haredim have claimed that their style of prayer, in which women have no role, or even presence, pertains in the public square, specifically the Kotel (the Western Wall).

The Jerusalem Post covered the Rosh Chodesh service last Friday, reporting that police formed a human barrier to protect the praying women, and three haredi men were arrested for disturbing the peace. Finally, basic human and religious rights are protected. How long it has taken the Israeli courts and politicians to begin to reject haredi misogyny and recognize the rights of half the population. While it is a wonderful step forward, it comes shamefully late.
The haredi are confronted with a new reality: Jews who no longer use Torah as a sledge hammer to elevate themselves to the pinnacle of an unjust and unrighteous hierarchy. They find themselves in pitched battled with Jews who refuse to allow an antiquated interpretation of Judaism to dominate in the Jewish State in the 21st century. Quoting directly from the Jerusalem Post article:

Rabbi Susan Silverman, comedian Sarah Silverman's sister who prays with the Women of the Wall, was at the protest where she said that haredi men spit globs of spit on her three daughters, she told The Jerusalem Post. Silverman also said that the haredim threw coffee at the Women of the Wall activists and that a little girl next to her was hit in the head with something hard.

Spitting? Throwing coffee? Pictures from Friday show men throwing chairs and stones, as well. To interpret Torah as countenancing such boorish and dangerous behavior is blasphemous. (Oh, and happy birthday, Susan! What a marvelous way to celebrate your 50th.)

Torah explains the elevation of the Levites this way:

Now I take the Levites instead of every first-born of the Israelites; and from among the Israelites I formally assign the Levites to Aaron and his sons, to perform the service for the Israelites in the Tent of Meeting and to make expiation for the Israelites, so that no plague may afflict the Israelites for coming too near the sanctuary. (Numbers 8:18-19)

In the twisted thinking of these fundamentalists, God has designated them the true Jews, the only ones who understand and follow God’s will, the only ones capable of interpreting God’s will. Rabbi Silverman is quoted in the article as telling the reporter that haredi protesters represent "a fundamentalism and a belief in a single and very narrow view of God that I believe is idolatrous."

Rabbi Silverman’s charge of idolatry is entirely fitting. The haredim expend their energies protecting and worshiping their prerogatives and privileges — their position at the top of a ladder they have skillfully built with countless perverse interpretations of Torah. They do not enlarge Torah, they narrow its scope of justice, righteousness, and kindness. They are concerned only about themselves, not fellow Jews who are not part of their insular community, and certainly not anyone beyond the Jewish community. This is not Torah; this is idolatry.

Men who do not work to support their families, yet expect their wives to bear 8, 10, 12 children and work while raising them, men who refuse to serve in the army that protects them and their families, men who live off the largess of society in the form of millions upon millions of dollars worth of Israel welfare — this is not traditional Judaism. This is a new and frightening fundamentalism. Rabbi Silverman is quite correct: it is idolatry.

The first time Women of the Wall came to daven and read Torah at the Kotel, on December 1, 1988, men screamed, cursed, and threatened them from the other side of the barrier, yet Kotel Administrator Rabbi Yehuda Gertz refused to shut down the service. At the time, he stated, that they are “not violating Halakhah.” The haredim are retreating further and further into misogyny and fundamentalism. It’s not that they’re going back in time. There was never a time in Jewish history when women were treated this way.

The verses the women can be heard chanting in the video that accompanied the article are prescient:

Or chadash al Tzion ta’air / a new light will dawn on Zion…
Od lo avda tikvateinu, ha-tikvah sh’not alpayim / We have not lost our hope, the hope of 2000 years…

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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