In the Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) we read, “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” (Chapter 16, Verse 20)
The month of Elul is drawing to a close with a sudden wave of heat, as if to intensify the High Holiday process of doing teshuvah, taking steps to correct mistakes made in the year that is ending. As well as our individual soul searching, we turn our attention to the Jewish people as a whole, those fifteen million men, women and children with whom we share ties of heritage, and whose destinies are intertwined with our own.
Before we gather for Rosh HaShanah, I want to draw your attention to two important initiatives undertaken by our national Reform Movement leadership in an effort to redress injustices in Israel, one situation impacting our rights as Jews, another impacting the rights of our Palestinian neighbors.
One of the most impressive sites in Jerusalem is the Western Wall, Ha-Kotel Ha-Ma’aravi. This massive retaining wall is a remnant of the lavish rebuilding and expansion of the Temple undertaken by Herod, who was appointed King of Judea by the Roman Senate in 39 BCE (Before the Common Era). Herod ruled for nearly forty brutal and bloody years during which time he earned the censure of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish legislative and judicial assembly) for oppressive taxation and the murders of his own family members.
Despite these origins, the Kotel has become a place of Jewish pilgrimage and prayer for hundreds of years. In the past quarter of a century the Kotel also has been the focus of controversy within the Jewish community over worship customs, especially the practice of women wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) and reading from the Torah. The activist group Women of the Wall provides a concise history of this drama at http://www.womenofthewall.org.il/legal-struggle/.
In 2003 an Israeli Supreme Court ruling prohibited women from wearing a tallit or reading from the Torah at the Kotel, but the court also mandated that the government provide an egalitarian worship space at a nearby site known as Robinson’s Arch. This site was rejected by both the Orthodox women activists and Reform leaders who sought unrestricted access to the traditional prayer area. After years of negotiations, court rulings and steps toward compromise, this January the government passed a resolution with detailed plans for construction of a spacious new plaza for egalitarian prayer, to be administered by a pluralistic group that would include non-orthodox rabbis. This month the Israeli Supreme Court admonished the government for failing to move forward on implementation of the resolution.
It is at this juncture that Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism has called members of Reform congregations to action on this issue. Please take a few moments to peruse these brief articles:
It is helpful to keep in mind that the vast majority of the world Jewish population belongs to either the Reform or Conservative movements in the US, or identifies as “secular” in Israel. The political power wielded by the ultra-Orthodox in Israel is greatly disproportionate to their small (but rapidly growing) numbers: https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/essays/demographics-of-judaism
Another instance of non-Orthodox exclusion pertains to recent restrictions on Jewish access to publicly funded mikvaot, ritual baths: https://www.urj.org/blog/2016/07/25/netanyahu-government-subverts-supreme-court-court-favor-haredi-parties
At this point you may be wondering, “A few days before Rosh HaShanah, why is the Rabbi talking about retaining walls and bathing facilities? Isn’t there something more important or inspiring to address?”
For those of us who came of age in the 50s and 60s, drinking fountains, bathrooms and seats on the bus are serious matters. We know that depriving segments of the population of access to public places and resources must be vigorously opposed.
The Reform Movement also recently has taken a stand on another very serious controversy in Israel – the government plan to demolish homes of 340 ethnic Palestinian citizens of Israel in the village of Susya. Please see Rabbi Jacobs’ letter to Ron Dormer, Israeli ambassador to the United States: https://www.urj.org/blog/2016/08/11/urj-president-israel-protect-village-susya. Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel has championed the cause of Susya and provided background material on the situation: http://rhr.org.il/eng/save-susya/
When we reflect deeply we see that these two seemingly separate themes – restrictions of freedom at the Western Wall and demolition of Palestinian homes – are connected by a common thread. The stunning victory of Israeli forces in 1967 allowed Jews access to the Western Wall after nineteen years of Jordanian control. The famous photo of young Israeli paratroopers gazing up at the Kotel is etched on a generation of Jewish hearts. And yet we must soberly remember that in just a few days following the victory an Arab neighborhood dating back some 700 years was demolished to make room for the spacious plaza, now itself a locus of controversy.
As a people who have been driven from our homes countless times throughout history, surely we Jews should have compassion for others threatened with such losses. Rabbi Jacobs is to be commended for providing leadership on this difficult issue. The Union of Reform Judaism and the Women of Reform Judaism support numerous social justice initiatives in the US and abroad. Our Temple Beth El “Weekly Update” regularly includes links to the Reform affiliated Religious Action Center (www.rac.org) and the Israel Religious Action Center (www.irac.org).
A project for the New Year at Temple Beth El is the redesign of our website. Among other improvements, we will make it easier to learn about and take part in social and environmental justice efforts underway in progressive Jewish communities around the world.
Two thousand years ago the rabbis of the Talmud observed: “The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied.” (Pirkei Avot 5:7)
May the holiness of the Days of Awe inspire us to work together to counter injustice wherever it arises.
Wishing you all a New Year of goodness and blessings,
24th of Elul 5776 ~ September 28, 2016