Rosh haShanah – Day 1 — 5771

21/09/2010 at 20:40 Leave a comment

“Membership has Its Privileges”

Rosh haShanah – 1

9 September 2010

Neil F. Blumofe

Under the British Mandate in what was then called Palestine, the Jews living in Jerusalem were forbidden to sound the shofar at the Western Wall, known in Hebrew as the kotel, by the authorities.  According to a documentary called Eyewitness 1948, a joint project of the History Channel and a group known as Toldot Yisrael, some of which can be viewed on YouTube, — at the kotel, the British authorities forbade the sounding of the shofar, praying loudly or the bringing of any Torah scrolls, because any of these actions would offend the larger Arab population.  However, as the documentary goes on to say, for roughly 18 years – between the years 1930-1947, shofarot were smuggled to the kotel at Neilah – the last service of Yom Kippur, and surreptitiously sounded by teenagers who, after a long day of fasting, would sound the shofar and try to escape.  Sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t – if they didn’t, they would be arrested, held in jail and tried under British Law, for upwards of six months.  This activist practice was ended after the 1948 War of Independence, when Jordan took over the Old City of Jerusalem and did not allow any Jews to gather, at all – of course, as many in this sanctuary remember, in 1967 – 19 years later — the Old City, obviously including the area around the kotel, was brought under the authority of the State of Israel.

I think of this determinism to pursue religious freedom, as I review the year that was in Israel — emphasized this past April, by the visit of our scholar in residence, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Assembly, and continuing throughout the summer and into this fall, we have spoken passionately and consistently about the high stakes and current perils concerning Jewish identity in Israel – threats not coming from determined enemies from abroad – which are considerable in themselves — rather from disparagement and a lack of engagement and conviction to openly debate and robustly discuss various perspective of religious practice among Jews within the Jewish state, itself.

Ranging from the potential monopoly that would be handed to the blinkered Chief Rabbinate in determining who is fit and proper to be identified as a Jew if the Rotem Bill is passed by the Knesset this fall, to the narrowing of tolerance at the Western Wall, in who and what befits prayer and appropriate Jewish observance, the existential threats and prowling antisemitism surrounding the Jewish people and the continued existence and legitimacy of the state of Israel seem secondary in comparison.

In a sea of hatred and divisiveness – where the cover of this week’s issue of Time Magazine depicts a Star of David composed of white daises against a light blue background and in the middle of this caricatured flag of Israel are the stark black words, more of an indictment than a challenge, Why Israel Doesn’t Care About Peace” – this provocatively appearing now during the fragile beginning to the latest round of peace talks – where, in the article, Israelis are accused of caring more about pursuing money than about pursuing peace – which harkens back to the basest of anti-Jewish stereotypes  — as we are surrounded by this latest incarnation of libel and viciousness and looming nuclear threat —  there is  increasing internecine antipathy  among dedicated and sincere students of Torah  and halacha who want to grow closer to God. It is this internal question of identity that has us in the deepest crisis and is the spiritual erosion that is widening the chasm between Jews, worldwide.  I ask, with gnawing sorrow, what is worth fighting for — and to refit a quote from the comedian Groucho Marx, to match my current thinking about Jewish identity, specifically in the land of Israel – “why should I belong to a club that refuses to accept people like me as members?”

A Jewish writer of the 19th century exclaimed, “Zionism would be a perfect system, if it were not for the fact that it exists for the Jews to put it into practice.” There is a well known, yet unfortunate adage in our community that expresses perverse appreciation for the enemies of Israel, for if there were not enemies on the outside of Israel to keep her busy, the Jews themselves would eat each other alive.  And I fear that even in these current choppy waters that pound against Israeli’s shores and threaten the ship of state, there are many from within who are attached to a convenient narrative of absolutism rather than the unautocratic intricacies of a truer truth which glints from different angles, who oppress and attack others in the name of the God of Israel.  And I say that this God is not my God – nor is this the God of the Jewish people who took all of us as a mixed multitude out of Egypt with an outstretched arm.

Sometimes like Groucho Marx did, making a mockery is the only appropriate response for absurdity.  Sometimes we laugh to keep from crying.  And sometimes it is not – sometimes it is the opposite. This past week, I wrote an editorial to the Austin American Statesman that demands accountability and meaningful, committed response against terrorism and violence from our Muslim brothers and sisters to further a relationship – lack of a sustaining engagement and a cavernous silence while civilians are dying only encourages misinformation and fear – a commitment to speak out against injustice and acknowledge another’s pain goes a long way in breaking down suspicions.  I will continue to speak out and I am committed to leading productive dialogue as we go – on this Shabbat, I will denounce the proposed burning of the Koran by members of the Dove World Outreach Center, led by their pastor, Terry Jones, as we have a larger discussion about the responsibilities of leadership in community.

Similarly, I speak out today against the brandishing of religion as a weapon among the Jewish people.  I stand with our Jewish sisters who want to pray with tallit and tefillin and receive instruction and revelation when chanting from a sefer Torah at the kotel in our ir hakodesh, our holy city, Jerusalem.  I want our community to notice the fullness of our worship here in our Austin community and to lend support to those who want the same for their daughters, sisters and wives in the Holy Land – even if it is not their personal choice — it makes me pause to realize that a Jewish woman may read from a Torah in Berlin, Rome and Chicago – yet will be arrested for doing the same thing in Jerusalem, where it is considered illegal and profane.

This past June, a young woman, Anat Hoffman, was arrested for doing just this during a Rosh Hodesh service – and earlier this week, the Jerusalem police recommended to the Ministry of Justice to press charges against her for the felony of “gravely obstructing a police officer in the performance of his duties” –- the sentence for such a conviction is up to three years in prison.  The organization that she helped to found is called Women of the Wall – which has held monthly services at the kotel and they have asked that all Jewish women take a photo of themselves holding a Torah scroll and send it to lawmakers in Israel to show them that there are alternative paths to holiness that are not in the domain of the exclusive.  You will see a flyer in your programs today with more information – as a congregation, we will open up our sanctuary this coming Sunday and also next Sunday, the day after Yom Kippur between the hours of 10:00 and noon.  All Jewish women in Austin are invited to come and take a photo and to send it forward, standing up for a God who is merciful and understanding, if not sometimes elusive and mysterious.

During the High Holydays, we chant a different liturgy – a language befitting ourselves and our God on this special occasion and celebration – we pray tein kavod l’amecha – please God, restore some dignity to Your people.  Allow us not to go through with our intended sacrifices, casting out or offering up in a fit of fury, that which is most precious to us.  Guide us not to destroy ourselves from within.

The Rambam, Maimonides, perhaps the most influential Jewish thinker of all time, writes that one is capable of either rising to noble heights or to fall into a degraded life – the choice is for the person to make.  How one worships is not God’s domain – lo bashamayim hi – we have been given guidance from the Talmud, for over 1500 years, that we are the arbiters of how to chase down the holy – God loves and expects our efforts – God appreciates our path – however, we have free will – God determines neither the equipment that we bring nor limits the communication of the earnest souls who are dedicated to following a life dedicated to asking legitimate questions of God.  We are all in peril when the administration of religion within itself, turns into an operative, political act.  When there is harm done and pain caused in the name of God to each other – all who are striving to hear the voice of God in the same congregation and in the same language – I believe this is a time when God weeps.

Let us speak to God with our sincere and overflowing hearts, allowing God’s response to flow directly back to us.  May we be emptied of self-righteousness and rage, finding instead a reservoir of tenderness and compassion upon which to act and a broad understanding and empathy for the worship of our halachically minded Jewish brothers and sisters.  Let us know that another’s way will not compromise our way.  It is my ardent hope that past and clear and present dangers, past cynicism, we find a healing and nourishing presence of God everywhere that we walk and that what we do and the decisions that we reach are reached for good and in the name of what is holy.  Let us appreciate too that tallit, tefillin and Torah are not mere objects used for agitprop – they are not part of a larger agenda, rather they exist as sustaining tools helping us in our spiritual practices to better and more clearly and as a community, reach God.

We must rise above suspicions and use the currency of our activism and sustained involvement as a bulwark against tyranny and others who attempt to speak in our name.

Let us continue to educate ourselves and participate in simple and profound ways in creating a place for generosity and fair-mindedness.  Let us not conveniently drift in and out of engagement.  Let us dedicate ourselves — living confidently in a world that admits both laughter and tears – laughing when we can, crying when we must, accepting unexpected change and opening ourselves up to what’s next as we seek to serve and be a blessing and to receive blessings, in return.

Shanah Tovah u’metukah.

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Erev Rosh haShanah — 5771 Yom Kippur – Kol Nidre — 5771

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