Yom Kippur 5778 – Time to reclaim our Jewish Identity

When I was a teenager, I was given a ring by my grandmother.  It was simple – a small moonstone with a teeny-tiny diamond chip one on each side.  It was the engagement ring my grandfather had given her.  He was too poor to buy her a proper diamond, as was customary then, but he wanted to make her a promise.  They went out to live 60 happy, hard-working years together.  I wore the ring all the time.  Ten years later, I went one day to the gym and put the ring in my bag so it wouldn’t bother me.  Later, I discovered a hole in the bag.  The ring was gone, lost forever.  I cried and I cried.  Not over the monetary worth of the ring, of course, but over what it meant to me.  It took me a long time, but eventually I was able to let it go.  I released it and hoped it found a happy finger to wear it.  I essentially declared the ring hefker.

Hefker is a halachic term for abdication of ownership over an object or property.  Generally, a person can take an object in their possession and make a declaration that it is hefker, meaning anyone who wants it can take it. When something is known to be hefker, then another person can acquire it – whether it is by paying a sum of money, receiving the object to his hand, or even some might say be just looking at it.

 

The tradition, of course, is speaking about physical objects and land.  Today we have the concept of intellectual property which is a work that is the result of a person’s creativity such as music, inventions, and art. And if there is such a thing, then we can also say that there is intellectual hefker – a person’s creation that he has no intention to profit from it nor care of continued use of it – such as Facebook posts.

Today, identity is also a kind of asset – the qualities and believes that differentiate one person from another – identity theft is when a person poses to be another person in order to take his money in order to gain use of the other’s possessions, advantages, and benefits.[1]  I worry that that we also have a sort of identity hefker – we have abdicated our Jewish identity and leave it to others who seek to determine the Jewish character of our society which slowly becomes the exclusive purview of a very small group who have a very narrow and coercive Jewish practice which often has very little connection to most of our everyday reality.  For anyone who has gotten married in Israel or participated in a funeral, you know what I mean.

 

This concerns me.  We live in a society in which we have access to every kind of information possible, is on the cutting edge of technology, has a booming tourist industry, yet we turn a blind eye to the abuses that occur in our society in the name of Judaism.  We learn from our tradition that the favored halacha in ancient times was the leniency of Beit Hillel over the stringency of Beit Shamai (who despite their disagreements, married their children together as a sign of friendship) yet our society allows women to be chained in abusive marriages because rabbinic courts won’t choose the lenient halacha to override a man’s vindictive or psychotic refusal to divorce.

I fear that if we leave othersמפקירים  to determine the Jewish character of Israel we will not live in a Jewish state that we can feel is ours or reflects our Jewish values.

Perhaps you have heard in the news this summer about the breaking of the agreement by the government to implement a third official section of the Western Wall.  The current Ezrat Israel is 20 meters long and set back from the Wall, is hidden from the site of the public unless you are really looking for it, and has almost no public resources to administer it.  The agreement was arrived at in January 2016 between the Israeli and North American Reform and Conservative Movements, the Women of the Wall, and the Jewish Federations of America and the government, including representatives of the Ultra-Orthodox parties, to create a third section next to the men and women’s section that is equal in size to the Orthodox side of the Kotel, is equally visible, and has equal resources for management.  The government delayed its implementation until this past June when it cancelled it.

I know many people who say, Who cares? – I have more important things to worry about/fight for.  For them, the Kotel is certainly hefker.  We can leave it to the Ultra-Orthodox who currently run it.  Except for the occasional bar mitzvah ceremony or class trip in 5th grade, who goes there anyway?

OK, so maybe not the Kotel  But what about these facts:  The State spends on religious services approximately NIS 13 billion per year – including the budget for the Ministry of Religion, the Rabbinate, and the Rabbinical Courts and services like Kashrut supervisors, synagogues, rabbi salaries, building and maintenance of ritual baths, and local religious councils..[2]  And, while not a large expense in the budget, approximately 17% of Israeli children study in an Ultra-Orthodox school, meaning they do not learn basic subjects like math, science,  computers and English, closing any door of contributing to the work force .[3]

But that issue also doesn’t seem to be at the top of people’s agendas.

So, what is important to Israelis?  In last year’s survey by the Central Statistic Bureau of Israel, it was found that the top three issues of importance to Israelis are (in order): Bringing down the price of housing, improving the education system, and ensuring good work conditions.[4]  This makes sense.  I agree that these are extremely important issues.

I would like to claim that they are connected part and parcel to our relationship with our Judaism.

 

Yom Kippur is our time of cheshbon nefesh. of personal and collective reckoning and reaffirmation of our shared values.

Living in the Jewish State has its privileges.

Ashreinu! (Our happiness)  We are living the ingathering of Jews from all over the world to our ancestral land.

Ashreinu!  We speak the language of the Torah every day.

Ashreinu!  Centuries of Jewish discussion and disagreement inform our judicial system.

Ashreinu!  Our holidays actually reflect what is happening around us in nature.

Ashreinu! We can discover in every corner of this land our ancient heritage.

 

And being citizens of Israel has its responsibilities.

 

We must protect our State and people sometimes with great sacrifice.  We are stewards of the land – we must protect it and its wildlife and keep it clean. We must judge fairly and without prejudice and take care of the weaker elements of society (the widow, the orphan and the stranger).  We must be mindful that ancient texts have myriad interpretations and we must be vigilant in our distinguishing between interpretations for the sake of tikkun olam and those which are destructive.  (For example, the imperative to see every human as the image of G-d versus Torat HaMelech which brings halachic evidence of situations in which a Jew may kill a goy).

Al cheit shechatanu (For the sins we have committed) when we shirk our responsibilities.

When we give up מפקירים את our Judaism, this also affects the things which we say are most important to us – our home, our children’s education, and work conditions.

 

Home: Many have shared with me stories from Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh of the bullying you experienced when Ultra-Orthodox started moving into your neighborhood.  Only a few years ago, residents in Tzur Hadassah acted to shut down an illegal Kollel that was set up in a private home. Women go around the streets here with Shabbat candles and seeking to do keruv.  Because of this, our members are careful not to look like “missionaries.”  We strive to create an atmosphere that is welcoming and stimulating, but we believe everyone should live according to their own conscience.

Education: Secular schools receive less funding and less hours of study than religious schools.  One school principal shared with me her concerns that more and more teachers in her secular school are Orthodox, and even Ultra-Orthodox. A growing number of citizens are concerned about hadata, religionization, in secular schools.  The number of examples of hadata are growing – A science text book that says that prayer is a step in farming; the Hebrew text book that assumes that every child goes to synagogue and asks forgiveness from G-d on Yom Kippur; and the budgeting of hundreds of thousands of shekels by the Ministry of Education to Ultra-Orthodox organizations to give child-rearing guidance to secular parents  (including statements like “The nature of women is to be emotional and they ought to focus on their home.”)

I welcome the establishment of the Secular Forum and to strengthening the awareness of these occurrences.  Our congregation answered the request of parents who want pluralistic egalitarian Jewish education – with knowledgeable teachers who receive sufficient training in Jewish subjects.  We support the Tali pre-school in Tzur Hadassah already three years.  This year, Gan Tiltan is a full class of three-year-olds.  I hope – and I am very sure – that we will continue to grow and in a few years we will even be able to open a first grade class of a Tali school.

Work: Regarding the economic viability of Israel, only 45% of male Ultra-Orthodox aged 25-64 work.  This is a loss of NIS 8.45 billion per year for the Israeli economy.[5]  The projection is that by 2065, 32% of the population will be Ultra-Orthodox which will, if this trend of non-working continues, will lead to a collapse of the Israeli economy.[6]  Jewish sources throughout the ages assert the need for people to first be economically sufficient and then study Torah and that the community should support fully only those exceptional Torah scholars. Government funding of yeshiva study by far exceeds these parameters.

 

I don’t say this to stir the pot of hatred and strife toward Ultra-Orthodox or even Orthodox Jews.  I believe that people have the right to follow their own beliefs as long as they are not hurting others.

But I’m thinking about my ring that I lost.  Years went by after I lost that ring  – I did survive without it but I never forgot it.  Then it happened that the mother of a bar mitzvah family that I worked with was a jeweler and she made really beautiful things.  I asked for her help: Could she reconstruct my grandmother’s ring?  I drew her sketches.  I picked out the moonstone from her collection.  I knew that it would not be exactly the same, but from the moment that I put the new ring on my finger, I again felt a connection, a sort of  hashavat aveidim, return of something that had been lost.  I wear this ring almost every day and it still makes me feel connected to my beloved grandparents.

I believe we all have a Jewish identity.  We have different names we can call ourselves – Reform, traditional, secular, atheist, searching, JewBu.  Each one’s identity is authentic, legitimate and worth preserving.  Each identity deserves a place in the State of Israel.  I prefer a Judaism that is pervasive because it is persuasive – not through coercion and not in a way that creates strife. A Judaism that includes, not excludes.

By the way, the number of people who identify as Ultra-Orthodox make up around 8% of the Jewish Israeli population.  Approximately the same amount of Israeli Jews identify with the Reform or Conservative Movements – around 480,000 Jews, both of Ashkenazi and Sephardi/Mizrachi backgrounds. (This fact was checked twice and still found to be true)

Back to the Kotel.

In June, when the agreement was canceled, there was a demonstration in front of the Prime Minister’s  residence.  I was really happy to see there so many people from our community. We understood that this was different.  We understood that when we create an egalitarian “family style” prayer space with equal access and equal resources at the Kotel, this will set the tone for a society which recognizes as legitimate multiple Jewish voices and that the agenda of the government – which is funded by our tax money – reflects the needs and aspirations of our greater society.  Not only that, but also the future of our country hangs on adopting a pluralistic approach with equal share of the burden.

We can do it.  We can all do it.   Moses reminds the Israelites before he dies, “It is not in heaven that you should say, ‘Who will go up to the heaven and take it for us?’…The word/thing is very close to you in your mouth and in your heart to do it.”[7]  Whenever there was a group that held on too tightly to power, it did not last too long at the top.  In the time of the Second Temple, the pharisees grew as a protest against the elitism of the Tzadokim and thus produced the first rabbis.  In the beginning, the rabbinate was a democratization of Judaism.  As opposed to the priesthood which passes from father to son, any person who is willing to study and work hard could receive the title “Rabbi.”

When the leadership of Eastern European Jewry became extreme in their intellectual and financial demands, a young man named Israel ben Eliezer, later known as the Baal Shem Tov, established the Chassidic Movement and said that every person regardless of education or wealth, could be a good Jew.

The pioneers of the aliyot waves also felt Judaism to be a part of the return to the land, emphasizing its humanistic qualities.  In the words of A.D. Gordon: “Judaism…is an expression of the aspirations of Am Israel to discover its supreme identity….Everything – all of the ethics, the religion, the entire human world – stands on the idea of the image of G-d that is in the human…..It must be clear to us that Judaism is the question of our lives and only through the pursuit of Life can we find in it at all what there is to find.[8]

Judaism is our identity, it is our intellectual property.  It is within us and it will be with us wherever we go and whatever we believe in.  In every generation, they preserved tradition and at the same time they updated it.  But what is true always is that they did not leave their Judaism to others to decide for them.  Every one has to sketch his own Judaism in his head, then share it with others, and then act to make it exist in reality.  It seems to me that if we do this, we, and our offspring, will live for many, many more generations in the State of Israel.

 

 

 

 

[1] https://he.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D7%92%D7%A0%D7%99%D7%91%D7%AA_%D7%96%D7%94%D7%95%D7%AA

[2] The information bank of the Knesset (source: Rabbi Noa Sattat, IRAC)

[3] http://main.knesset.gov.il/Activity/Info/MMMSummaries19/Education_3.pdf

[4] (https://www.calcalist.co.il/local/articles/0,7340,L-3683698,00.htm)

 

[5] https://www.calcalist.co.il/local/articles/0,7340,L-3577777,00.html

[6] Report of the Central Statistics Bureau, according to Rabbi Noa Sattat of IRAC

[7] Deuteronomy 30:12,14

[8] לבירור ההבדל בין היהדות והנצרות‘ ‘ א”ד גורדון

http://benyehuda.org/gordon_ad/natzrut.html#_ftn1  My translation

 

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