Sunday, July 18, 2010

What Is It About the Summer?

Tisha B'Av is right around the corner. The ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av is the day on which the entire Jewish people sits in mourning - for the destruction of the two Temples in ancient Jerusalem, and for a litany of traumas that befell our people across the centuries. The Talmud teaches that the first Temple was destroyed as punishment for the fact that we refused to give up the worship of idols, and that the second Temple was destroyed as punishment for the sin of causeless hatred of Jew against Jew.

We sit on the floor in the position of mourning. The lights are dimmed. We read from Aykha, the book of Lamentations, in a mournful key. Our shoes are off. In many synagogues the curtain - the parokhet - is removed from the ark holding the Torah scrolls, as a sign of communal mourning. We fast for 25 hours, the only other full fast in the Jewish year besides Yom Kippur. We invariably enter the sanctuary slowly, sadly, knowing we are about to observe a day that is heavy with memory, all of it bad.

In recent years, many have questioned the need to observe Tisha B'Av. How long, they wonder, do we need to mourn the destruction of a place where animals were sacrificed? It's been two full millennia. Time to get over it. And further - we cannot mourn the loss of Jerusalem, because after all, Jerusalem is ours. We can get on a plane, land in Tel Aviv, and after a short ride into the hills, we can walk the sacred streets once again. How long can we mourn?

And yet.

I remember nearly 15 years ago, members of Masorti (Conservative) communities decided it was time to challenge the power of the ruling Orthodox rabbinate in Israel. Since the reunification of the city in 1967, the Rabbanut had decreed that the plaza in front of the Western Wall (Kotel HaMa'aravit) was a synagogue, and as such would follow the rules of all synagogues in the Orthodox world - i.e., there would be a separation between men and women. For the purposes of individual prayer, this might not seem like an imposition, but on a day like Tisha B'Av, when Jews come together as community precisely in the place where the destruction took place, it was important to daven (participate in a service) in that place as a community as defined by those individuals. In other words, Conservative and Reform Jews needed to come together in a mixed group in the plaza before the Kotel. It was decided to assemble far at the back of the plaza, not near the Kotel itself, since (a) the area immediately before the Kotel had a separating wall (mehitza) enforcing the gender separation and (b) our desire to daven as a mixed community should not be seen as forcing itself onto the sensibilities of those for whom that kind of congregation is offensive. We did not seek to offend others. Others were not so kind to us.

For two years, Conservative Jews came together to daven the Tisha B'Av service. And for two years, they were harrassed by yeshiva students nearby, pelted with a variety of substances, and hassled by the police. The upshot of the confrontation was the allocation of another location near the Temple Mount, now called the Kotel HaMasortit, but found down at a lower level. Some are pleased to have a place to daven without hassle. Others find the out-of-the-way location a way of shunting us egalitarians out of sight and therefore out of mind.

But I have a clear memory of the first year the Masorti community attempted to hold a mixed service at the back of the Kotel plaza. I remember going into my synagogue sanctuary in the afternoon, opening the doors to the ark, wrapping myself in my tallit, putting on my tefilin, sitting on the floor and crying. I wept for fear, because I still believe, in a deep-down irrational place, that we were given our homeland back because it was time for us to have it back, but that, as the Torah tells us, we still have to deserve it. And we as a nation were behaving so badly that it would not be a stretch for God to say, "OK you've had your privileges long enough. Back to your rooms."

Years passed, Israel faced challenges, fought back rocket attacks, learned to be tough as only someone can who grows up in a tough neighborhood, and now it's 2010 and I'm fearful again.

I look at the state of Israel, that beautiful piece of real estate at the far end of the Mediterranean, and I want to be proud. We have developed into a center of high-tech innovation. We are a lone outpost of democracy in an area run by autocrats and fear. When a disaster happens, anywhere in the world, Israel is a first responder, sending equipment, skilled professionals, and supplies. We were in Haiti before the United States. I am so proud of Israel.

And then I watch to see how the ultra-right-wing Rabbanut seeks to dismantle all that is good about Israel and turn her into another theocracy in an area filled with theocracies. The validity of conversions by non-Orthodox rabbis (a redundancy, since Orthodox rabbis have stopped teaching for conversion) has been called into question, and women who have the temerity to wear a tallit and tefilin in public are attacked. The women who meet monthly as a women's group on the women's side of the Kotel mehitza are harrassed, have to fear having chairs thrown at them, and all because they wear tallit and dare read from a Torah scroll. A woman was assaulted while waiting for a bus because a man saw the impressions of tefilin straps on her arm and began assaulting her when she confirmed that indeed she had put on tefilin that morning. And now a woman has been arrested for carrying a Torah.

There is no halakhic (legal) basic for any of these insults, only the frantic desire on the part of the Orthodox authorities to narrow the definition of who is a Jew and how can we define normative - no, strike that - just Jewish behavior. How do we worship as a Jew, as individuals or as a community? Who may wear the Jewish prayer uniform? Authorities across the Jewish spectrum are divided, but clearly the Rabbanut is certain about their position, and their position seems to be the only one that matters.

And so the rest of the Jewish world watches as Israel is being pulled further and further to the right Jewishly, further and further away from the rest of the Jewish world. We feel more and more estranged from our home, a heartbreaking reality.

Jew is fighting Jew again. World Jewry is enraged at the passage of the conversion bill by the Knesset. Women and men everywhere are appalled at the arrest of Anat Hoffman for carrying a Torah. Rabbis are expressing concern for the safety of their communities on visits to Israel - "Will our women be assaulted for showing the imprint of tefilin straps?"

It's the summer again. Tisha B'Av is around the corner again. And the actions and decisions coming from Israel are once again threatening to divide the Jewish people. We no longer have a Temple that God can take from us. We have only our land, a blessing for the past 62 years. And once again I will go to services Monday night and Tuesday morning, and I will cry for what we lost millennia ago, and I will cry for what we are losing today.

What is it about the summer? What is it about this time of year, that the tensions between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israel (and world Jewry) come to a head? Have we learned nothing after the losses of the millennia? Or will we continue to fight, Jew against Jew, no matter the price?