Women of the Wall: a historic Torah reading

This past Rosh Hodesh (Rosh Hodesh Iyar), Noah and I went to the kotel (the Western Wall) for a Rosh Hodesh service. Rosh Hodesh = literally, head of the month, refers to the beginning of a new month in the Hebrew calendar. 

Yes, in theory it would be nice to attend a Rosh Hodesh service at the kotel for any reason, but we were going with the particular aim to participate in and support Women of the Wall. For those who are not familiar with the political situation at the kotel, here’s the break down:

The kotel is divided into a men’s section and a women’s section, divided by a mechitza (a partition used to separate the two genders, customary at Orthodox prayer services). While many people who go to the kotel do not necessarily feel the need for a mechitza and are not necessarily members of communities that use a mechitza as general practice (including myself), the mechitza is generally accepted as a reasonable standard at the kotel to make it accessible to the most number of Jews possible. YET, the mechitza has enabled the development of discriminatory practices against women and their ability to worship freely at the kotel. For example, it is illegal to bring a Torah into the area of the kotel (for all genders in any circumstances). For men, however, this poses no problem because there are over 100 Torahs at the kotel for public use. BUT, all of the Torahs are kept on the mens side – not a single one on the women’s side. Traditionally, women do not read Torah, receive aliyot (recitation of the blessings before and after Torah readings), or lead services, and the set up at the kotel reinforces these traditional restrictions. YET, all Reform and Conservative as well as a growing number of Orthodox communities have adapted this traditional practice to be more welcoming towards women and their full participation in services and Torah leading. Thus, there are MANY, MANY women who regularly participate in and read at Torah services, but they are not able to do so at the kotel. WHY, then, you may ask, do women not have access to Torah at the kotel? Answer: The ultra-Orthodox (haredim) have political control over this area and they maintain the status quo.

Women of the Wall is a group that fights for Jewish women all around the world to be able to worship fully and equally at the kotel. Their hallmark event is a monthly Rosh Hodesh service at the kotel where they hold a complete service led by and participated in by women – including, to whatever extent is possible, a Torah reading. Prior to the first of Iyar a few weeks ago, the group (which has existed since 1988) has never successfully been able to read from a full size Torah scroll at the kotel. Full size scrolls had always been confiscated in the past, although there were successful instances of bringing in mini-scrolls.

So now that you know the background…

Noah and I headed to the Old City for Rosh Hodesh Iyar:

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The service went smoothly and interrupted for all of Pesukei DeZimra and Shacharit, but then it was time for the Torah service…

A male supporter (of whom there are many) got a Torah from the men’s side of the mechitza and handed it to the women by quickly opening up a space in the partition. The partition was quickly closed (and the man was thrown to the ground and injured by an angry ultra-Orthodox man).

Full size Torah in the women’s side – check! Celebration ensues:

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Meanwhile, one of the group leaders prepared the table to open the Torah scroll and read:

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As these events transpired, more and more ultra-Orthodox men were standing on chairs and looking over from the other side of the mechitza (there are also many Women of the Wall male supporters standing and looking over from the side and the back – where Noah was). When the Torah was opened and started to be read, a few ultra-Orthodox men opened the mechitza and tried to push their way into the crowd of women and take the Torah back. One of them was yelling, “zeh sefer sheli!” (this is my book!). The women reading tried to continue as naturally as possible while some of the male supporters tried to create physical blocks to prevent the ultra-Orthodox men from reaching the women. Other women tried to scare the men away by getting close to them and yelling, “I’m a woman! I’m a woman!” – utilizing the ultra-Orthodox practice of not looking at or touching women that they are not married to. Look at the center left in the photos below to see where the main action is happening:

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After some tense moments and an overall joyous Torah reading, it was time to wrap the scroll back up!

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And dance!

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It was a shehecheyanu moment (a prayer said to celebrate special occasions – particularly something happening for the first time):

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Who knows what will happen at the next Rosh Hodesh Women of the Wall service (which is coming up on May 19th). I’m not sure if I will attend, but either way I suggest you check the news afterwards! For a write-up in the Times of Israel about the historic reading outlined above, see here.

Mishpatim: Who’s in my window?

I wrote the following post for the Pardes student blog about this week’s parasha (section of the Torah designated for this week). So…enjoy some Torah learning. 🙂
(previous blog post on parashat Vayera here)

This week’s parasha, Mishpatim, is essentially a long list of laws laid out for the Jewish people following the revelation at Sinai. Often, the laws seem understandable (if a man leaves their animal with a neighbor for safekeeping and the animal is killed/hurt/disappears, the neighbor must make an oath that he had no hand in the damage done, v. 22:9). Sometimes, the laws are not only understandable but, also, feel comfortable and positive from a modern mindset (if you lend money to a poor person, do not act as a demanding creditor, v. 22:24). Sometimes, the laws are a bit uncomfortable (if a pregnant woman is hit and miscarries, she should receive monetary payment for the worth of the lost child, v. 21:22). Side note: What made me uncomfortable here was the notion of assigning monetary worth as recompense for a lost child. Yet, my Chumash teacher, Meir Schweiger pointed out that insurance companies assign monetary worth to lost life as a general practice.

By and large, I read the laws outlined in this parasha as positive measures to protect those who are disadvantaged, vulnerable, or likely to be mistreated. This notion is explicitly stated in a Rashi commentary on pasuk 22:21 – “you must not mistreat any widow or orphan.” On this pasuk, Rashi states, “the same applies to any person, but the Torah speaks of what is usual, for they are weak and are frequently mistreated.”

One scenario, however, stood out to me from this lengthy account of laws as particularly worthy of additional thought. The scenario is as follows: a thief is found breaking in [to an unspecified location]. After being caught, the thief is struck and killed (v. 22:1).

The Torah continues on to evaluate the appropriateness of the thief’s death. If the situation aligns with the baseline narrative that the thief breaks in, is caught, stuck and killed, then the person who kills the thief has no liability. Rashi’s commentary states that the killing of the thief should not be considered murder, and it is from here we derive the legitimacy of killing as a form of self-defense.

YET, the Torah states, “if the sun shone on him, there is liability for his blood.”

What does that mean?!?!

Back to my favorite French commentator on the Tanakh…

Rashi says that “if the sun shone on him” is an allegory. The phrase is ultimately saying that we must determine if the thief has come with the intention of taking a life. The sun represents peace, and perhaps the thief has come with peace on him (ie, he just wants to steal something – he doesn’t really want to hurt you!).

So now, as if often the case, doing what is ‘right’ stops being something we can determine by following a guidebook and can only be done by using our powers of intuition and rationale. On the one hand, heaven forbid the thief be given the benefit of the doubt and the person being robbed is murdered. On the other hand, how can we justly assume that someone wants to kill us just because we see them sneaking in our window? Maybe they are like Jean Valjean and are simply trying to steal some bread to feed a starving child! (Les Miserables reference for those not up on the Broadway scene.)

This philosophical merry-go-round called to mind an NPR story I heard several years ago (story online here). The story goes that a social worker in New York City was heading to his favorite diner when a teenage boy approached him with a knife and demanded his wallet. The man handed over his wallet…and also his coat. Saying, “if you’re going to be out here all night, you might as well be warm.” The man then proceeded to invite the teen to join him at the diner for a bite to eat. Although shocked, the teen agreed. At the end of the meal, the teen returned the wallet and also (on the man’s request) handed over his knife.

Maybe the teen got a new knife the next day. Maybe he robbed someone right after he left the diner. Maybe someone killed him in an act of self-defense.

Or, maybe the social worker was the first person to ever treat that kid with respect. Maybe the teen still remembers that meal at the diner – remembers how it turned his life around. Maybe he started an organization to help disadvantaged youth in New York City find ways to make ends meet without theft and violence.

Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

And maybe that’s the point. The point is that we don’t know. We don’t know if that person climbing in the window wants to kill someone…or if they really need something and don’t know any other way to get it. Yes, the Torah says, you can defend yourself. Of course, you can defend yourself. But you better be pretty darn sure that you are actually in danger! This creates a burden of certainly that is hard to determine and even harder to prove, indicating to me that our mandate here is to be careful: careful of our assumptions, careful of our actions, careful of how we treat other people. Yes, all people. And hey, maybe you can swing it to just give the guy a loan (but, don’t forget, if he’s still poor when he’s supposed to pay you back, don’t embarrass him by asking for the money back, v. 22.24).

*all pasukim references refer to the book of Shemot

Vayera: looking for understanding

There is a Pardes student blog called These and Those, and I wrote my first post for the blog today. Although it’s not the typical sort of post I write on Treasure Your Being, I thought I would post it here too in the off chance that any of my readers are thinking to themselves right now, “You know what would make my day a little better? Some Torah!”

A quick word guide for anyone who may be unfamiliar:

Hebron: a city southeast of Jerusalem that has been the location of much conflict, violence, and political argument due to the division of control within the city between the Israeli military and the Palestinian authority, negative relations between the Israeli settlers and Palestinians living in the city, and the holy Tomb of the Patriarchs that lies within the walls of Hebron. 
parashat: the weekly section of the Torah, read in full on Shabbat. Over the course of a year, every parashat will be read, comprising the entirety of the Torah. 
Pardes
:
 an egalitarian Yeshiva in Jerusalem where I am studying for the year

pasuk: verse (ie, specific verse within a chapter of the Torah)
Rashi: a medieval French Rabbi and author whose commentary on the Torah has become a primary focus of modern-day Jewish study

tiyul: Hebrew word for trip
Vayera: The name of this week’s Torah portion. B’resheit (ie, Genesis) 18:1-22:24

Writing this blog post comes directly on the heels of a Pardes tiyul to Hebron. This was my first visit to Hebron, although far from my first difficult confrontation with or conversation about the current political situation in Israel. The soul searching, questioning, despair, and hope that inevitably follows this sort of trip (and – at least for me – essentially any contemplation on this matter) were all swirling around in my head when I read this week’s parashat, Vayera. As a general plot overview, Vayera gives the account of Abraham welcoming three visitors (secretly, angels) into his home. From these visitors, Abraham learns that his wife, Sarah, will conceive a child despite her old age and that Sedom is to be destroyed. Other highlights of the parashat include Abraham claiming Sarah to be his sister in the presence of Avimelech, Yitzchak being born, Hagar and Ishmael being banished from Abraham’s home, God calling on Abraham to sacrifice his son, and the divine intervention that substitutes a ram instead of Yitzchak for sacrifice at the last moment.

Clearly, this is a parashat with intrigue, scandal, questions about justice, and plenty of juicy things to write a blog post on. Rather than focusing on a particular plot point or large question of meaning, however, I would like to draw attention to one relatively small and easily overlooked piece of the text.

Towards the very beginning of the parashat, in 18:2, “Abraham lifts his eyes [from the opening of his tent] and saw three people standing near him. He saw and ran to greet them from the opening of his tent…” The identical form of the Hebrew verb is used twice, וירא, he saw. Why the repetition? It seems repetitive and unnecessary to repeat the verb a second time – especially within the same pasuk!

Rashi interprets the repetition to mean a change in what it means to ‘see.’ With the first וירא, Abraham literally sees the angels approaching. The second time, however, means understanding. With the second seeing, Abraham understands that the approaching angels (disguised as people) mean him no trouble, enabling him to run and greet them and welcome them into his home.

Thinking about this commentary in combination with the recent trip to Hebron that I spoke about, I am struck by how we (meaning human beings) can see so differently. What we see – and, also, what we cannot see – weighs heavy on how we greet other people, welcome or reject them, and open both our homes and our hearts to the stranger that approaches. I wonder what it was that Abraham saw that allowed him to see a second time – this time as a seeing of understanding. I wonder what we (meaning human beings invested in peace in the land of Israel) can see in each other than can move us toward understanding. I wonder what Palestinians can see to find understanding beyond anger. I wonder what Israelis can see to find understanding beyond fear.

I regret to say that I don’t have answers (or even any great suggestions). I can say, however, that I am looking inside myself. I am seeking to, like Abraham, see beyond what is right in front of me and, instead, to see something below the surface, to find a different perspective, and to be open to second (or third, fourth, fifth…) seeings – each one as another opportunity to see with full understanding.