Sermon: Shabbat Chukkat – One People, One Kotel

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 1 July 2017

For Moses being the Leader of the Jewish people, as we wandered across the wilderness on the way to our Promised Land, eventually became too much.  As we heard in out Torah portion, when the Israelites began to complain again about the lack of water and again said to him that they wanted to return to slavery in Egypt and stop marching forwards, he lost his temper and in anger swore at them and violently hit a rock that he was only meant to speak to.

Rashi said that Moses was dismissed from leadership because he disobeyed God publicly, an example that God simply could not allow to continue.   Maimonides says that Moses simply lost the characteristics of a good leader.  He, so to speak, lost his cool in front of the Israelites in his accusatory anger and so could no longer have the credibility needed as a leader of hundreds of thousands through difficult terrain and military campaigns.  God’s judgement that he was no longer able to be the leader to take the Israelites into the Promised Land feels just and right in these circumstances.

Benjamin Netanyahu is currently the second longest serving Prime Minister in Israel’s history after David Ben-Gurion.  If Bibi’s current government serves a full term he will be the longest serving.   Not for forty years yet, like Moses, but for many years already. Netanyahu’s current term as Prime Minister began eight years ago.

It is a tough job.   As Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir said to then American President Richard Nixon in the early 70’s (Economist March 15th 2015):  “You are the president of 150 million Americans.  I am Prime Minister of six million Prime Ministers.”   Being Israeli Prime Minister is a constant juggling act of please a myriad of different interests.   There may be a strong concept of unified Jewish peoplehood but it is not mirrored in the sectional, factional, fractured world of Israeli politics.

This past week Prime Minister Netanyahu decided to listen to only two of the now 8.4 million prime ministers of Israel.  The ultra-Orthodox Israeli Chief Rabbis.  Through the political parties which represent their interests the Israeli Chief Rabbis insisted upon and Bibi Netanyahu agreed to halt the change to the Kotel, the Western Wall prayer space in Jerusalem, which would have created egalitarian prayer space properly accessible and properly signposted so that Progressive and Conservative Jews, secular Jews, and visitors of all kinds are not forced to segregate by gender.     At the same time, Prime Minister Netanyahu continued to assert that the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate would have complete authority over conversion to Judaism – meaning that if you do not choose to be observant of Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law you will be excluded from many institutions in Israel including religious marriage, divorce and burial.

Over decades world Jewry struggled for Jews to be free to leave what was the Soviet Union in order to be Jewish in Israel.  Now up to 5000 babies per year will be born to former Soviet Union parents in Israel with no way to be recognised as Jewish by the religious authorities unless they choose to be observantly Orthodox.  Its not on.

As the week comes to a close Prime Minister Netanyahu ordered a halt to the process of the conversion bill which was poised to confirm Israeli Chief Rabbinate authority due to pressure from  non-Orthodox Israel and the diaspora but nothing is happening on the Kotel issue.

Why do these issues matter?   As Gershom Gorenberg, Israeli author and Journalist wrote in the Washigton Post (June 29th 2017):

You could hardly find a better way to drive a wedge between Israel and the world’s Jewish community. Netanyahu, though, decided to treat the Western Wall as a purely domestic issue. In Israel, the ultra-Orthodox are a major constituency that vote as a bloc. The Reform and Conservative movements are small and politically weak. As for [diaspora] Jews, they don’t vote here. Netanyahu treated them as kibitzers, not stakeholders.

Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Jewish Agency, said “The message that the Government has sent to world Jewry in its decisions is that you are not part of us.”

From the UK this may seem hyperbole – here we have a pretty good set up.  Thriving Synagogues of all denominations, the ability to marry Jewishly as we wish with the British state enabling these weddings to be legal in UK law, the choice of where we wish to be buried according to our own religious principles and, when it sadly happens, the ability to divorce through the same religious denomination as we married.

None of these freedoms are  possible for Jews in Israel – only Orthodox weddings are recognised by state law, only Orthodox Rabbis may officiate at funerals on state land and only Orthodox gittin are considered valid for divorce.

Eight percent of Israeli Jews identify as Reform or Conservative Jews, it’s a minority but not a tiny minority, and more than 250.000 Israelis attend ceremonies at Reform Synagogues each year.   They are disenfranchised by Orthodox monopoly and so are we and the approximately 30% of World Jewry who either are members of Progressive or Conservative Synagogues or who identify with us.

The detail of the Kotel issue is this: there is a platform by the Robinson arch divided from the rest of the Kotel by the rampart leading up to the Dome of the Rock where egalitarian prayer may take place – but it is invisible – not signposted, with as the Alyth group who prayed Minchah there last year discovered, broken access lifts down from steep staircases and with an entrance which is outside of the prayer space for those who might choose to go to the Kotel.   Two months ago, at the conference of the World Union for Progressive Judaism convention Alyth members joined a group of three hundred of us to pray together men and women on the main plaza – still banned from the main wall, but no longer invisible.  It showed the difference that it would make if all streams of Judaism were granted the right to gather to pray in what has become a world symbol of Jewish peoplehood.   Incidentally before 1967 and for two thousand years before, the Kotel was not kept as an Orthodox Synagogue, men and women prayed there together as can be seen from many photographs from before the foundation of the State of Israel.

Yes wresting the Kotel away from Orthodox monopoly is only symbolic but that symbol is as potent as the symbol of the State of Israel – the seven branch menorah lampstand – which shows how seven different branches, call it seven different denominations, can make one strong light together.  Israel does not thrive by false unity and monopoly but rather by united diversity – as the Jewish people always has.

What can we do?  Number one is to join our voice to the millions in Israel who do not accept Orthodox monopoly.  We will not allow our religious rights to be compromised in order to keep a particular Israeli government in power.  When Alyth members visited the Knesset in mid-May we met with Members of the Knesset of two parties who told us that our struggle for religious pluralism in Israel is their party’s too.   They urged us to make our voice heard – we can do so by writing to Prime Minster Netanyahu and the Israeli Ambassador here in the UK, Mark Regev.  On Thursday, I will be part of a meeting with Ambassador Regev at the Israeli Embassy here in London, representing the Movement for Reform Judaism, enabling him to send a message back to Israel that British Jews demand religious pluralism in Israel and that the more this is so the more engaged in and supportive we can be of our Jewish state.

We are backing Israelis who need this and we are acting in our own interests as a worldwide Jewish people.   Please consider writing to the Ambassador yourself or to Rabbi Josh or me and we can ensure our message is taken to him.

On Monday night, here at Alyth Professor Gil Troy, of Mc Gill University, will be speaking about what is happending to Israel with President Trump in power in the White House, he will helping us to understand if that has an influence on Orthodox monopoly.

Could you imagine what Israel would be if all streams of Judaism were allowed to share space?  If the energy spent on exclusion today were instead sent on kiruv – bringing us together?  If the wonderful Reform Synagogues of Israel were loosened from the restrictions placed upon them?  If we respected each other and learned to live with religious pluralism in Judaism rather than trying to squeeze each other out?  For me this would truly be the dream of two thousand years – truly the Promised Land that Moses was leading us to.