February 16, 2010
Seeds in the Wind
This is a time of year that I dread, when I have to write about my three days at LimmudLA, a smorgasbord of everything Jewish. It’s like trying to squeeze 10 or 12 columns into one.
Every class or event that I attended at LimmudLA was worthy of a separate story, whether it was Rabbi Michael Melchior’s outrage at the conversion process in Israel; Yoni Arbel, a student from Milken Community High School, telling us about the Jewish influence in jazz music; historian and BJE Executive Director Gil Graff mesmerizing us with the 12 questions that Napoleon used to challenge the loyalty of the Jewish community of France a couple of centuries ago; people lining up outside the Biale Rebbe’s hotel room to receive his blessings; storyteller Einat Lahav-Weitzman sharing her “chicken casserole for the soul”; Rabbi Ed Feinstein giving us the real scoop about the birth of Zionism; or simply the idea that a few hundred Jews were singing and dancing at the entrance of an Orange County hotel on a Saturday night during the Havdalah ceremony.
There was just too much going on.
This was my third consecutive Limmud, so I knew what to expect, and yet I’m still dizzy from the experience. The one thing I do know, however, is that because the experience is so concentrated and diverse, it will linger during the rest of the year. Limmud stays with you in a strange and disorderly way, maybe because so many different seeds are planted.
These seeds are not just cerebral or spiritual. They’re also visceral.
Take the story of Anat Hoffman, an Orthodox woman who served as a Jerusalem City Councilwoman for 14 years and is now executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, a group that fights for religious pluralism, Jewish-Arab coexistence and equal rights for women and minorities in Israel.
Hoffman gave several classes at LimmudLA, none of which I planned to attend. During her scheduled times, there was always another class or event that interested me more. But on the last day, as I was having trouble finding my intended class, I bumped into an acquaintance and asked her where she was going. She told me she was going to Anat Hoffman’s class and that I simply “couldn’t miss it.”
So I went in. The session had already started when I entered. There was a group of about 30 people, mostly women, seated in a circle. Hoffman was standing at the far end, wearing a gorgeous white and crimson tallit. Women wearing prayer shawls are a strange sight for me. You will rarely see one in Pico-Robertson, where I pray and where pretty much every shul is Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox.
But Hoffman wasn’t praying; she was making a point. She is a founding member of Women of the Wall, a group of Israeli women that seeks the right for Jewish women to do what men do at the Western Wall, Judaism’s most sacred site — conduct prayer services, read from a Torah scroll while wearing prayer shawls and sing out loud. I have read about this controversy over the years, and I knew it was explosive.
Hoffman described in detail how explosive it was. This is a battle that has lasted decades and has involved prominent rabbis on two continents, the Knesset, the Israeli Supreme Court, the Jerusalem municipality, the archeology community in Israel and, of course, advocacy groups and lawyers from both sides. It has also involved the police, because women who pray at the Wall need protection from ultra-Orthodox Jews.
There is now an uneasy and temporary truce in the battle, thanks to a creative police official who has worked out an “under the radar” compromise with Women of the Wall, whereby women can pray if the tallit is worn like a scarf, kippahs look more like hats than kippahs, the praying is not loud and any Torah reading happens at Robinson’s Arch, an archeological site not far from the Wall.
As Hoffman was describing her long and ongoing struggle, I felt a whirlwind of emotions. Although the idea of mixed prayer is not something I was raised with, I found it outrageous that the ultra-Orthodox community — most of whom are not even Zionists! — had the audacity to take ownership of a piece of Israel that clearly belongs to every Jew.
I also felt sadness and pride. Sadness at the humiliation that so many Jewish women have suffered in their efforts to do something so simple and natural — pray — and pride that they would still be so devoted to a Torah and a religion that in many ways has been the very source of their suffering.
It was almost enough to turn me into a liberal activist.
And it all happened in classic Limmud fashion — by accident, because I couldn’t find the class on the Book of Job and someone convinced me to pop into Hoffman’s class.
At the end of her session, Hoffman said something that perfectly connected to the Limmud experience of ideas traveling. Someone asked her what we in America can do to help her cause. Instead of asking us for money or giving us a Web site address, she responded by giving us a definition.
“A diaspore is a seed that travels in the wind and plants itself,” she told us. “You have seeds in the Diaspora that we need in Israel, like religious pluralism. Bring these seeds to us.”