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July 10, 2013

How best to honor diversity?

Parashat Devarim - Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:22

http://www.jewishjournal.com/torah_portion/article/how_best_to_honor_diversity_parashat_devarim_deuteronomy_11_3221

Rabbi Laura Geller

Rabbi Laura Geller

This is the week of Tisha b’Av, the 9th of Av, when we mourn the destruction of the Temples. Why are we still mourning when Israel has been reborn? 

Tal Becker, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, puts it this way: “Why should our pain and memory be marked in the time of our national rebirth in the same way it was marked during our national dispersion? This question is usually presented as a challenge to the way we continue to observe Tisha b’Av, but it perhaps reflects an even larger question about what place longing should have for a people that has come home.” He then goes on to speak about different ways of longing: the longing for a safe Israel, the longing for normalcy, or  “a longing for a particular kind of Zion: one in which the Temple has been rebuilt, one in which we are finally at peace with our neighbors, or one in which the best of Jewish values and traditions are reflected in the public life, culture and policy of the state.”

It is this third kind of longing that feels urgent now, as we approach the 25th anniversary of Women of the Wall in November, and the heating up of the public debate about what kind of prayer should be permitted at the Kotel, the remnant of the Temple walls. The debate is ultimately a dispute about how the best of Jewish values and traditions should be reflected in public life. For me and so many others who support Women of the Wall, the best values are manifest when the diversity of the religious practices of Klal Yisrael can be honored. 

But how? Eicha?

This week’s Torah portion, Devarim, which is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, begins the final address of Moses to the Israelites. In it he remembers how hard it was to manage the responsibilities of a leader. “How [eicha] can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering!” (Deuteronomy 1:12). 

That word, “eicha,” links us to Tisha b’Av when we read the Book of Lamentations, which begins with “eicha” (“How does the city sit solitary, that was full of people?” [1:1]). Just in case we miss the connection, this verse from Torah is usually chanted in the same mournful trope as the Book of Lamentations. The haftarah comes from Isaiah, who also cries out “eicha” (“How the faithful city has become a harlot! She once was full of justice” [1:21]). Here, too, the tradition is to read most of this haftarah in the trope of Lamentations.

Eicha? How? Three different contexts, the same word. What can these different contexts teach us about how to navigate “the longing for Zion in which the best of Jewish values and traditions are reflected in the public life, culture and policy of the state.”

The “eicha” of Moses, when he is overwhelmed by trying to manage his people’s problems, at first appears rhetorical — “How can I do all this?” But in asking the question, Moses hears an answer. He listens to his father-in-law and creates a system of courts. So this first “eicha” presents the possibility of action to change a situation. What is the action needed at the Kotel? Coming to a compromise. Let’s support the Sharansky plan to expand the Kotel plaza so there is room for mixed prayer and also a men’s section; a women’s section big enough for women to pray with tallit, tefillin and a sefer Torah in women’s minyanim; and room for women who wish to pray without tallit, tefillin and sefer Torah. And until that plan can be financed and implemented, let’s figure out some kind of timesharing so that the needs of all Jews can be accommodated. 

If not compromise, then what? On Rosh Chodesh Av earlier this week, there again was  violence at the Kotel as some Charedi Jews challenged the Women at the Wall. This calls to mind the eicha of Isaiah, “How could you do it, you people of Jerusalem? Our city was supposed to be filled with justice but instead it is filled with violence!” In articulating the question, the prophet is suggesting that it isn’t too late. There is a better way. Violence could  be averted through compromise and recognizing that there is more than one way to be a Jew.

 Without compromise, all that is left is the “eicha” of Lamentations, a cry of pain. Tradition tells us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of “sinat chinam,” hatred between and among Jews. “Eicha” — for the city of Jerusalem and the Jewish people exiled from each other because of sinat chinam, baseless hated, which overwhelms ahavat Yisrael, love for the Jewish people. 

If we don’t choose compromise in which the best of Jewish values can be reflected in the public life, culture and policy of Israel, then all that will be left for us is to  grieve. 

Join me and groups of Jews from all over the world to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Women of the Wall on Rosh Chodesh Kislev, Nov. 4, 2013. E-mail me at rabbigeller@tebh.org for more information.

Laura Geller is a senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (tebh.org).

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