Two Halves, One Whole24 October 2013
By Shelly F. Cohen, October 2013
The first time I stood on the bima was when I became bat mitzvah in a Conservative shul. At that time, 40-some years ago, it seemed likely that would be the last time I'd be on the bima as well - there were no women clergy (that I knew of) and few lay leaders outside the Sisterhood. And surely I would never be permitted to wear a tallit.
When I came out as a lesbian a few years later, I could only feel that Judaism had no place for me. I wandered in my own personal desert for a long time before venturing back into a synagogue, this time Reform. In the Reform synagogues of my youth, no one wore a kippa or a tallit. (In our Conservative neck of the woods, we considered that a shonde.) Imagine my surprise to find that as the pendulum of Reform observance swung back toward tradition, it picked up women as well as men. Women were wearing tallitot, women were leyning (reading) Torah, women were leading services! I not only had a place, I had a home.
Putting on a tallit for the first time was a powerful experience, a tangible expression of belonging. And yet, there was still something missing. Finally I realized what I needed was a tallit that spoke to both halves of my identity - Jewish and lesbian. I recently had a tallit made for me with the rainbow stripes of the Pride Flag, and pink and yellow triangles forming a magen david at each corner. Now when I stand on the bima several times a year to leyn Torah, I am also sending a message to LGBT Jews that they will always have a home in our congregation.
Shelly F. Cohen is a member of Temple Beth Am in Seattle, and part of the Welcoming Synagogue Committee, which works to foster the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people at TBA and in the larger community.
Under Fire, Israel Must Still Stand Up For Human Rights20 July 2014
Israel's human rights community and their supporters are committed democrats and also patriots – even when they must implicate or criticize the Israeli military's abuses of power.
Unpromised Land: Eritrean Refugees in Israel25 June 2013
By P.J. Tobia
Before coming to Israel, Rhuba never smoked cigarettes. Now, she smokes like a truck driver.
Her cheeks cave as she huffs the butts down in long, powerful draws, sending nimbus clouds of tobacco floating into the damp air of a south Tel Aviv bar.
Rhuba is 19, petite in bright blue jeans. She stares out from a matching blue hoodie drawn tight to her head, nearly obscuring the crimson pool of blood that fills her right eye. The left side of Rhuba's face isn't so concealed. A dark, amaranthine welt starts in an angry ball on her temple and sprawls out like skinny fingers across her cheekbones.
Up and Down, No and Yes24 October 2013
By Dr. Judith B. Tischler, October 2013
I recently turned 80 (gvurot). I grew up in a traditional Orthodox home, rebelled, and became a member of Hashomer Hatzair (Youth Guard). My first real taste of women's equality was in that youth movement.
At the time, the dream was life in a kibbutz with a lifestyle that would enable women to work side-by-side with men while their children were cared for by others. We all know now that the dream didn't materialize as we had hoped. I moved on to become a professional French Horn Player with the then Israel Radio Orchestra. I was refused a scholarship with the Israeli Philharmonic because I was a woman. I returned to the U.S. to complete music studies through a PhD. I became an assistant professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary and along with that, the director of Music Publications for the Reform Movement (Transcontinental Music Publications). There was no gender discrimination in either of those places.
After I retired, I returned to Israel with the illusion that I would find it somehow the place I had left. Instead, I came to a near theocracy with a government that has little interest in protecting women's rights. I salute the women who are fighting for them.
Born in the United States in 1933. Attended the High School of Music and Art. Joined Hashomer Hatzair. I came to Israel in 1952 to Kibbutz GalOn. I married in 1957 and was widowed soon after, gave birth to twins, both who live in Israel. I remarried, gave birth to a son, studied and pursued an academic career in music. I retired to Israel and have lived here since 2000. I continued to teach in Jerusalem until 2009. Currently, studying Hebrew literature.
Update on Treatment of African Asylum Seekers in Israel15 January 2014
Israel was always meant to be both a Jewish homeland and a democracy. Its founders were driven by their experience as stateless Jews to guarantee equal rights.
Victory of ultra-nationalists in Israel may estrange U.S. Jews07 September 2012
More and more, it seems as if the world's two largest Jewish communities are watching each other through the rear-view mirror as they move further apart. U.S. Jews must find ways to support progressive voices in Israel whose values we share as they fight to take back their country.
By Daniel Sokatch | Jan.14, 2013
For most of the past 64 years, Israeli and American Jewry enjoyed a close and mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship. Both sides gained a great deal from the arrangement. Israelis got a fierce and loyal funder and defender - one that happened to be an important constituency in the most powerful country in the world. American Jews got a sense of mission and purpose, and, through advocacy and philanthropy, got to participate in the epic Jewish national project. Even if we didn't really understand each other quite as well as we thought we did, the relationship between our two communities was predicated on shared values, a bedrock commitment to an unshakable American-Israeli alliance, and a vision of Israel that was both a Jewish homeland and a liberal democracy.
But this relationship is changing. More and more, it seems as if the world's two largest Jewish communities are watching each other through the rear-view mirror as they move further apart. On some of the biggest issues, it is not clear how much we still have in common. The recent election in the United States and the coming election in Israel are a case in point.
Two months ago, about 70% of the American Jewish community voted to reelect Barack Obama. This, despite an unprecedented multi-million dollar campaign by the Sheldon Adelson-funded Republican Jewish Coalition, Bill Kristol's Emergency Committee for Israel and other groups attempting to peel away Jewish votes from the president and the Democrats by arguing that Mr. Obama was bad for Israel. The attempt to present the election as a referendum on the president's pro-Israel bona fides flopped, but not before it furthered the perception that supporters and surrogates of the Israeli government were choosing sides and trying to influence an American election. This didn't go over so well with American Jews.
That this effort failed so miserably came as a surprise to nobody, other than Mr. Adelson and the neo-cons. American Jews are liberal, and have been for a very long time. In fact, you have to go back to 1920 to find an election in which more Jews voted for the Republican candidate for president than the Democratic one, and then only because the Jewish vote split between the Democrat (19%) and the Socialist (38%). What's more, most American Jews don't disapprove of President Obama's position on Israel. In fact, a majority supports the president's handling of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and strongly supports a two-state solution.
But while most American Jews report that they feel close to Israel, only a tiny percentage of them actually base their vote on it. Rather, the vast majority of Jewish voters cite the same priorities as other Democrats: the economy, health care, education. These American Jews care about Israel, but it is only one of many things they care about. And when they - the vast majority of the Jewish American community - perceive that Israel is acting in ways antithetical to what they assumed were shared values, the danger is that they will walk away.
Which brings us to the Israeli elections. If the polls are correct, on January 22, Israelis will elect the most right-wing government in Israeli history. It is likely to be even more hardline than the current coalition, on whose watch Israel's relations with the Obama administration soured over disagreements over Iran, Israel's expanding settlement enterprise, and the moribund peace process. This coalition presided over an Israel in which Knesset members from the ruling parties pushed forward a raft of patently anti-democratic legislation, women fought attempts by some in the ultra-Orthodox community to exclude them from the public sphere, and government ministers vowed to make the lives of African refugees in Israel miserable and expel them. Criticism of these policies from Israelis was all too often characterized as treason. Criticism from abroad was merely proof that -the world is against us." None of this was lost on worried American Jews.
The coming coalition is likely to redefine -right wing" in Israel. The authors of the most anti-democratic legislation in Israeli history are now positioned high on the Likud-Beitenu list, and we are sure to see a renewed attempt to restrict judicial independence, the media and civil society, especially the human rights community. The passage of the Boycott Law in the last Knesset is a worrisome harbinger of more attempts to limit freedom of speech and conscience. The Likudniks who guarded the flame of their party's traditional commitment to individual rights and democracy have been tossed off the party list, replaced by extremists and champions of the settlement movement. New parties, like Habayit Hayehudi, headed by opponents of the two-state solution who openly advocate annexation of the occupied territories, are gathering strength and will likely exert strong influence on the new government's agenda.
I don't think that many Israelis understand just how badly all of this damages Israel's international standing, particularly its relationship with the overwhelming liberal Jewish community of a country that venerates its Bill of Rights. I'm sure many of the talkbacks to this article will say that they could not care less. But righteous indignation and name-calling are not substitutes for the advantages that come with a strong relationship with the American Jewish community. And that relationship is at risk. Luckily, there are reasons for hope. Millions of Israelis are deeply committed to Israel's founding democratic and Jewish values, and are concerned about the direction in which their country is headed. The same polls that predict a victory for the hard right also show significant, albeit divided, strength for a center-left bloc, and many still-undecided voters. An invigorated opposition championing democracy, peace, human rights and social justice could provide a critical check and an alternative direction for Israel.
On the issues, recent polls show that Israel, much like America, is closely divided, with the values and policies of the left at least as popular as those of the right. Progressive political parties may be less popular in today's post-Oslo Israel; progressive ideas are not.
This Israel still shares enormous common ground with the American Jewish community. Without engaging in the blatant electioneering shenanigans that damaged Israel's image during the American election, we must find ways to support those whose values we share as they fight to take back their country. And it is up to the leaders of the American Jewish community to speak truth to the new ultra-nationalist extremists of Israel, to tell them that the path they are on is damaging Israel and endangering its relationship with the American Jewish community that has always stood with it. It will be a difficult task. But that is what true friends are for.
Daniel Sokatch is CEO of the New Israel Fund.
This article was originally published by Haaretz.com.
Violence Against Women Degrades Jewish Concept of Modesty17 January 2012
The unconscionable physical and verbal violence against women in Beit Shemesh and elsewhere have degraded the religious concept of tzeniut (modesty) by associating it with misogyny and oppression. Some Orthodox condemnations of that violence, by objecting to means while acknowledging shared ends, have added to that degradation. My purpose here is to directly reject the ends, in other words to offer a vigorously Orthodox and halakhic understanding of the purposes and parameters of tzeniut that opposes the goals and not just the means of those who seek to use tzeniut as a weapon to subordinate women or intimidate them out of the public square.
Here are four key points:
1. Tzeniut is a broad Jewish value whose practical expression is opposition to unnecessary and meretricious self-exposure, whether of the body or of the soul. It relates to all people, male and female alike, and all of life. Reducing it to a code for women’s dress and actions reflects an unhealthy obsession, equivalent to reducing love to an expression of (exclusively male) lust.
2. Tzeniut is intended to preserve and expand the domain of intimacy. Intimacy is constructed by exclusivity of exposure, by sharing things about oneself that one does not share broadly. People with inadequate emotional boundaries are less capable of achieving relationship though emotional sharing, and people with inadequate physical boundaries are less capable of achieving relationship through physical intimacy.
3. Tzeniut is intended to preserve the integrity of personal space – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. People who “spill” emotionally compel others to respond to them – to feel pity when they express suffering, anger when they express betrayal, and the like. This legitimately feels like a violation. The same is true of unwanted touch, or of unwanted visual erotic stimulation.
4. Tzeniut is one value in the complex web of Jewish values, which must constantly negotiate its place in that web. It can be trumped, or attenuated, when it comes into conflict with other Jewish values. From the halakhic perspective, once tzeniut is correctly defined as unnecessary self-exposure, it becomes clear that it should not be applied mechanically, but rather on the basis of a sensitive and dynamic understanding of the necessary.
Indeed, we need to recognize that Halakhah does not directly obligate women to dress or behave modestly , however that is defined. Such obligations emerge instead via the obligation v’lifnei iver lo titen mikhshol – “you must not place a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus19:14). The Talmudic Rabbis understood this verse metaphorically as creating a covenant of mutual responsibility, with the specific consequences that Jews are responsible not to create circumstances that cause others to violate prohibitions, that preclude them from performing ritual obligations, or that distract them from the study of Torah. Each of these consequences is readily conceptualizable as an obligation to respect the others’ space.
Now the "stumbling block" argument is always a potentially dangerous weapon. Here is an illustration: The Talmud states that lifnei iver forbids fathers to give corporal punishment to grown children (Moed Qatan 17a), because this will cause the children to rebel and therefore violate their obligations to treat their parent with honor and reverence. But what if children will rebel even when asked to perform minor household chores? Worse, what if children learn this rule, and then give preemptive notice that they will disobey any parental command – does this effectively bar any exercise of parental authority? If I tell my neighbor that if she ever cooks broccoli again, I will be driven to eat a cheeseburger – can I control her diet by claiming potential spiritual injury?
The answer is of course not – Halakhah does not allow one person to take advantage of the covenant of mutual responsibility so as to prevent another from living a normal fulfilling human life. By the same token, Jewish law does not allow men to use erotic lifnei iver to prevent women from living normal fulfilling lives.
Now what constitutes a normal fulfilling life? It should be clear that this is a sociologically dependent category. In some societies it may be necessary to jog in public, but not in others; in some societies it may be necessary to sing in mixed company, but not in others; and so on. It is likely that in each society, whatever is done habitually will have minimal erotic impact, and have minimal capacity to express intimacy. None of these societies is intrinsically preferable according to Jewish law, so long as they are fully compatible with taking the obligations and values listed above with great seriousness.
Tzeniut is more easily implemented in a homogeneous society, where expectations of dress, behavior, and fulfillment are largely made by consensus. It becomes much harder in a heterogeneous society, and harder still at the intersection of sharply distinct homogeneous cultures, where each side has difficulty even imagining why the other might see a particular behavior as an assault on psychological space, or conversely, as an infringement of normal human fulfillment.
But people of good will negotiate such situations while making every effort to find solutions that serve everyone’s interests. By contrast, thugs beat up their opponents and try to make them leave or hide. No one who properly understands tzeniut could believe that physical, psychological and emotional assault, i.e. violent intrusions on the space of others, are viable means of implementing the values behind it. The thugs in Beit Shemesh should be condemned by all those who hold tzeniut dear, not because they are overzealous, but because their understanding of tzeniut is warped.
 There is one possible exception: an obligation (probably for married women only) to cover (or braid or tie up) their hair. This requires a separate analysis. For a more extensive halakhic and textual treatment of the points raised in this article, please see the version found at www.torahleadership.org.
Rabbi Aryeh Klapper is Dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership and Rosh Beit Midrash of its Summer Beit Midrash program, a member of the Beit Din of Boston, and Instructor of Rabbinics and Bioethics at Gann Academy. He previously served as Orthodox Adviser and Director of Education at Harvard Hillel and as Talmud Curriculum Chair at Maimonides High School. Rabbi Klapper lectures in many public and academic forums and has published in numerous popular and scholarly journals. Many of his articles and audio shiurim can can be accessed at www.torahleadership.org.
Visting Hebron - A Day for Deep Reflection16 November 2014
Sunday, November 16, was day 6 of our tour, and although the prior five days laid much of the foundation for what we were about to learn, our trip to Hebron deeply affected us, far beyond what most of us may have expected.