This torah reading from Kedoshim, the Holiness Code, offers us so many topics to meditate on, to recognize that 2500 years ago and earlier, our ancestors were struggling with some of the same issues that we struggle with today.
This is not the traditional Yom Kippur afternoon reading: that one, from a chapter earlier in the torah, deals exclusively with sexual transgressions – whom one can and cannot know intimately. Our Reform ancestors thought it might not be the best topic for us, getting hungrier and hungrier, a little testier, to contemplate this late in the day, so they moved just a chapter later. The topics here could fill months of study, each verse.
But today, the one that speaks to me most powerfully is “You shall not hate your brother – achichah – in your heart. You shall surely reprove or rebuke your kin, but incur no guilt because of him.” (Lev. 19:17.)
First a small meditation on this word – hate. Some of us object to the use of the word, because it’s not a word that helps to promote positive images, positive pathways in our brains. However, it IS a real thing. And there it is in the text. And for those of us who have experienced it, it is a very very real thing.
I hope you will forgive me in advance for my repetition of this word.
You may have noticed that I changed my tallit since this morning, from my pure white one to this one: my Women of the Wall tallit. Anat Hoffman, one of the leaders of the organization, as well as the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, gave it to Sam to give to me. When I wore it to a Women of Reform Judaism regional biennial two years ago, the room was dotted, and the bima filled, with women showing their support for Women of the Wall – or WOW, by wearing this tallit.
I understand that Rabbi Persin talked about the Women of the World, so I will try to be brief in describing them: WOW are a group of women from all streams of Judaism who celebrate Rosh Chodesh (the monthly observance of the new moon, traditionally considered a women’s holiday) at the Kotel, the remaining wall of the Temple, the holiest site in Jewish life. When we liberated Jerusalem in June 1967, women and men gather there to pray together, seated or standing side by side.
However, as many of you know, the Kotel is now run by an ultra Orthodox rabbi, as an orthodox synagogue. Not only are women and men separated, but women are not permitted to wear tallitot or tefillin or read from a torah. This at the holiest site of Jewish life.
The Women of the Wall have been pressing the boundaries of this for more than 30 years. Despite winning in the Israeli Supreme Court, before their ruling could be implemented, the Knesset worked out a deal to appease the ultra Orthodox men who would be offended by the sight of a woman in a Tallit. No, despite the civil rights implications, despite the denigrating of women, the arrangement was made that 1) women could not wear a tallit, except as a scarf – like this; and could not wear tefillin, 2) could not raise their voices too loudly and 3) while they could read torah – they had to do so at Robinson’s Arch, around the corner and up the stairs. Where they would not offend the ultra Orthodox, who didn’t have to go somewhere else to chant our holy text.
The Women have done this for years. But lately they have been both more harassed and more willing to practice civil disobedience to challenge this indignity to women. Two summers ago, Anat Hoffman was arrested for carrying—not reading from, carrying their torah – with the torah in her arms. The Torah was arrested because a woman was carrying it. Recently there have been more arrests, each Rosh Chodesh, as women are held for questioning. No one has served time yet, but that time may indeed come.
Women can wear a tallit and read from the torah here in Tahoe, or elsewhere in the US. But go to Israel, choose to express your desire to wrap yourself in the symbol of spiritual light or read our most sacred texts at the site revered by Jews for millennia and you can be arrested, spat upon and yelled at by Jews who believe they are God fearing.
I don’t understand how this is possible. Yes, I understand issues of orthodoxy, and the misogyny built into our tradition; yes I understand making political deals. But I sit here with this verse – you shall not hate your sibling in your heart and I want to cry. Okay, it says brother. But it can’t really mean only brother, it has to be sibling, doesn’t it? How can you be a God fearing person and hate your sister so much that you spit on her for wanting to be closer to God?
But the Kotel is NOT the only place where women face hatred in Israel: entire bus lines require that women must move to the back of the bus if a man, afraid of being sexually aroused, enters the bus. The Israel Religious Action Center – the IRAC – has organized Freedom Rides, where non Orthodox women and men ride the bus and invite Orthodox women to stay in the front with them. These women have often thanked them and taken the support as an opportunity to stay where they are. Recently an Orthodox teen girl went to the IRAC with her mother because she was deeply offended by being sent to the back of the bus. With the help of the IRAC staff, she successfully took the bus company to court and won the largest award one can win in small claims court. Dayenu!
V’lo dayenu. That this went to small claims court instead of a court that could declare the practice illegal makes me want to scream – I read the Israeli Declaration of Independence.
it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.
While the Israeli Supreme Court has stated that the Declaration, like ours here, does not have the force of law, the way our constitution does, it still represents the moral position and the principles of Israel, both ancient and modern. And Israel’s “Basic Law” captures both the egalitarian and religious freedoms components of their declaration.
But I want to be clear: for me, this is personal. For me, this is also a serious moral issue that is essential for a rabbi to address. While this is about my own personhood, it is even more about the personhood of my daughter, our daughters, our mothers, our sisters. No one should be forced to sit at the back of the bus because of their gender or their color or their religion. Who knows this better than we do?
But this attitude of women as lesser is almost making a comeback here in the US. When a commentator can actually say on television that maybe women should NOT have the vote; when it’s okay for employers to refuse to fund birth control methods through their company’s health insurance, but pay for Viagra; when we are actually debating legitimate vs. illegitimate rape; then we seem to be hating our sisters in our hearts.
The morning liturgy, where we offer our thanks for the blessings of every day life, traditionally includes a blessing that men would say (and the Orthodox still say): Thank for you NOT making me a woman. Progressive Judaism has removed it. I say Baruch Hashem.
The blessing women would traditionally offer when men were saying theirs was “thank you for making me according to your will.”
I used to cringe at that blessing, because it was the substitute, and sounded so mealy mouthed to me. But one day, I heard State Senator Mark Leno explain that when he was a gay rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College, this blessing – thank you for making me according to your will – let him know that people might think gay men and lesbians were deviant or sinners, but God had created them, like all of us, according to God’s will, and that could never be a mistake. I was moved to tears as he related this story.
Because that blessing – thank you for making me according to your will – is the reason we are not supposed to hate our siblings in our heart – or in our actions: because we are each of us made according to God’s will.
As we live in this moment, this crucible of fervor against women, I wear my Women of the Wall tallis with pride. And I ask each one of you to think about how you want your wives, your sisters, your daughters and granddaughters, your mothers and aunts, your women and girl friends, to think about themselves and what our options in the world are.
I want to be clear that Israel and the United States are by no means the worse offenders in terms of sexism and violence against women in the world. We know that women and girls and infants face much worse that having to ride in the back of the bus, and paying for their birth control method and being insulted by radio and television personalities. But we here, we are Americans and we are Jews, and it is our responsibility to speak up, especially when injustice is perpetrated by our people.
Everywhere we see injustice perpetrated by our kin we shall surely rebuke, or else their guilt rubs off on us… Let us stand up every time, every time, EVERY TIME, and stop it. We shall NOT hate our sisters in our hearts…
Come say it with me: We shall not hate our sisters in our hearts. Again..
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