Pop Quiz: what is the very first sentence spoken by a man to a woman in the entire Hebrew Bible? Give it some thought From the Garden of Eden to Noah and the flood, all the way through Genesis … when was and what was the first line of dialogue on record shared between a man and a woman? The answer is not Adam and Eve. They were the first “he said/she said,” speaking to the snake and to God but never actually to each other. The answer is not Noah and Mrs. Noah. They were too busy talking to the animals. For all the babble of the Tower of Babel, no actual dialogue in that story either. The answer is in this week’s Torah reading. The first line of dialogue between any two people for that matter (Cain never actually said anything to Abel), the first chatter is – not surprisingly – shared between two Jews, the first two, Abram and Sarai. They are setting out on their journey, with life’s highs and lows ahead of them, and in the midst of it all, Abram turns to Sarai and declares: “I know what a beautiful woman you are!” As a father of daughters, husband to my wife, son to my mother, I find it remarkable that at the core of our sacred tradition, the DNA of our people, there are words that bespeak the dignity of all women. Before Abraham speaks to God, before Abraham says anything else, the very first thing he does is turn to the very first Jewish woman with words of praise. I know, I know, he could have said, “Now I know that you are smart and beautiful,” but for the moment let’s not quibble about the details. What a message, that from the very foundation stone of our faith, our multi-millennia journey begins with a proclamation of the honored place of Jewish women.
If you’ve been following the news, then you may have heard that this inspired journey of Jewish women begun so long ago took a serious detour this past week, at least in Israel. Last Tuesday evening Anat Hoffman, the director of Israel’s Religious Action Center, was arrested for leading a group of Hadassah women gathered to recite the Sh'ma at the Western Wall. As you may well know, the Western Wall falls under the authority of the Israeli rabbinate and thus functions within the jurisdiction of the state. Hoffman, or any woman for that matter, is not allowed to do at the Wall what any woman may do here – gather in a group to pray wearing a prayer shawl. And because she did so last Tuesday, she was arrested. Significantly, nobody on either side is really disputing what happened. Hoffman was ordered to stop reciting the Sh'ma. She did, but other women continued to say it. Hoffman was arrested, taken to a police station and shackled. Dragged on the floor, Hoffman was strip-searched and put in a cell with other prisoners, left overnight to lie on the floor covered only by her tallit. It is a horrifying story, made even more bitter given that it occurred in the context of the one-hundredth anniversary celebration of Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization. Imagine what Hadassah’s founder Henrietta Szold would say, a woman who in her own day refused to let a man say kaddish on her behalf upon the passing of her mother. To those like myself, fiercely committed to Israel and fiercely committed to feminism, the incident, its reverberations and what it bodes for religious pluralism in Israel merits our outrage, indignation and response.
I know what some of you may be thinking. Rabbi, this is the Western Wall, it’s not Manhattan. The rules are different. How can you, a liberal-leaning egalitarian rabbi, ask that our standard of religious practice be imposed in a different place and different context, a place which, not insignificantly, we don’t live in?! And besides it is not as if Anat Hoffman didn’t know her actions would be provocative. She knew that if she sang just loud enough, wore a tallit just bright enough, this would be the response. I readily acknowledge these counterclaims among others. I acknowledge them, but for the most part, I reject them. I reject them, first and foremost, because I believe that more than anywhere in the world, the Western Wall belongs to all Jewish people. I reject them, because I believe that Hoffman’s actions, no different than Rosa Parks' decision to sit in front of the bus that December day in Montgomery is of equal moment whether it was premeditated or spontaneous.
But the real reason I reject them, the real reason Hoffman’s arrest should not be dismissed is because it exists in a bigger context. It is but one of a variety of data points collectively painting a worrying picture not just about feminism but about a balancing act critical to the health of Israel society. Just two days ago, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, one of Israel’s most senior religious Zionist leaders, stated that women should not run for positions in the Israel Knesset, because a woman’s involvement in politics is unbecoming to her modesty; her presence is best expressed in the home. Or if you wish, consider the harassment this past year of girls on their way to an Orthodox school, who in their school uniforms were deemed insufficiently modest for an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. Or the religious buses in Jerusalem, with segregated and separate seating for men and women. Or if you like, the restrictions placed on women’s voices in the IDF. The list goes on, the trends are worrisome and the implications are more significant than the composition of an IDF choir or who gets to pray on what piece of real estate. The challenge –in a sentence – is whether Israel can and will be able to balance its dual heritage, the central tension coursing through it as both a Jewish and Democatic state.
Let me explain.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence provides that “The State of Israel … will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex” and “will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture.” Inspiring as it sounds – and it is – embedded in this very statement is also Israel’s perennial challenge: how to balance its commitments to both Jewish and democratic values. As you may know, Israel does not actually have a constitution. The closest thing it has is what is called its Basic Laws, laws in which Israel is defined as being both a “Jewish and Democratic state.” It is not such a simple thing. We all may agree that as a homeland for the Jews, Israel should have a Jewish character. It is appropriate to the point of being self-evident that it has Jewish state symbols like the Menorah, the Star of David, the Israeli flag modeled on a tallit, Hatikvah as the national anthem and so on. And yet, as a democratic state, it also lays claim to universal values, including the right of all its citizens to self-determination – men and women, religious and secular, Jew and Moslem – all citizens with equal status before the law. Every day of its existence, Israel struggles to find the Archimedean point between the two. As Yair Sheleg of Israel’s Democracy Institute wrote, like a child who is the product of two parents, each with his or her own worldview, Israel struggles to embrace both traditions, even in their contradictions. And because Israel, unlike America, has no separation between church and state, and its religious offices are left to the devices of an Orthodoxy only growing more rigid by the day, Anat Hoffman at the Wall presents a particularly prickly test case for our near 65-year-old experiment in Jewish democracy.
It is an ironic and bitter pill to swallow, to acknowledge that it is in the Jewish state, of all places, that a Jew can be discriminated against for practicing Judaism the way she or he desires. For a Diaspora Jewish community that is a proud stakeholder in Israel’s future, not only is there nothing wrong, but there is everything right in advocating that the Judaism we practice here should be recognizable and recognized in the Jewish homeland. Certainly in this day and age when the relationship between Diaspora Jewry and Israel must be stronger than ever, it is critically important for us and for Israel that the common language of our faith serves as a bridge of contact, not a source of alienation. As a flagship Conservative synagogue we have a responsibility to support our own Masorti movement in Israel, which is on the front lines every day, 24/7, in the struggle for religious pluralism in Israel. To frame it more directly, if you care about the relationship between Diaspora Jewry and Israel, that concern is expressed not merely by way of political advocacy, but also – dare I say, especially – by way of the thing American Jews and Israelis have in common, our Judaism. And while there are some thorny questions on Judaism and democracy for which I lack the answers, when it comes to the story and status of Jewish women, for me there is no contradiction between Jewish values and democratic ones. Both traditions teach me the equal and infinite dignity of women in the eyes of the state and certainly in the eyes of God. When it comes to Israel’s security, you may not rank matters of feminism up there with Iran or the need to resolve the Palestinian conflict. But make no mistake about it, questions regarding the status of women are – if you will – the canary in the coal mine. How Israel resolves these issues is about far more than feminism, rather it signals the degree to which Israel will negotiate its loyalties to its Jewish and democratic principles.
Israel is a start-up nation in more ways than one. Approaching its 65th birthday, as a unique experiment in our people’s history, Israel can justifiably claim to be a miraculous success. But in its seventh decade it also remains more fragile than ever, externally and internally. In keeping with the promise made so long ago to Abraham, the Jewish state was founded on the hope that at one and the same time, we could serve both our parochial and universal aspirations. Our commitment to our faith can serve to amplify our commitments to humanity. So too, in redoubling our efforts towards our common humanity, our Judaism can be elevated in our eyes and the eyes of others. This is the promise of Israel, this is the challenge of Israel, this is the sacred charge and responsibility shared by all those in Israel and the Diaspora, stakeholders alike in our people’s future.