What’s New in the New Year?
December 30, 2011
Tomorrow night, all of us, in one way or another, will mark the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012. The secular new year is just one of five New Year’s that Jews mark during our calendar year. Rabbi Nagel, in his latest Temple Topic’s article, writes about the four New Year’s Jews observed in biblical and rabbinic times, Rosh Hashanah and Tu B’shvat being the two most notable. A new year is simply a human made artificial marking of time, a noting of the earth’s travel around the sun. Humans have a need to separate time into manageable segments. In biblical days, we marked time through the reign of kings. We would say that “such and such an event occurred in the third year of the reign of King Bob.” Later, Jews marked time using the date of Alexander the Greats’ conquest of the ancient Near East. For about the last fifteen hundred years, we have marked the passing of the years since the ostensible creation of the world, now 5772 years ago. Of course, we do not take that date literally.
In contrast to earlier civilizations who viewed time as cyclical, having no beginning, no end and no meaning, our Tradition said that time has a beginning and will have an end in the Messianic age. We infused every minute with meaning. Our ancestors viewed time not as a straight line but as a cork screw. Each year we celebrated the passing of the agricultural seasons and the accompanying holy days as we progressed towards the end of time.
With all this background in mind, I thought it might be worthwhile to discuss one of the least noticed press releases of 2011, one that has a direct relationship to the very heart of our Jewish lives, the nature and composition of the State of Israel. This article concerns me more than anything I have read about Israel during this entire year of 2011.
Just a few weeks ago, the CIRI, the Cingranelli-Richards Human Rights Dataset, a freedom of religion index published by two professors and run out of SUNY Binghamton, came out with their annual report for 2011. The index, which measures governmental restrictions on freedom of religion and freedom from religion, ranks 195 countries with a score of zero to two. Zero indicates severe and widespread governmental restrictions on religious freedom. One indicates moderate restrictions and two indicates almost no restrictions. The United States, Sweden, Austria, Belgium, Poland, Lebanon, and South Africa received a two. Italy, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Ukraine, Thailand, Spain, and Mongolia received a one. Of the 195 countries rated, a total of 52 received a zero, including Russia, Iran, Romania, India, Mexico, and Turkey. Notable on the zero list is Israel, which has received a zero score for the last several years. Although a Western country in almost every other way, Israel is more like Iran in this area than the enlightened Western world. Rabbi Uri Regev, the past-president of the World Union of Progressive Judaism and now president of an organization called HIDDUSH- for Religious Freedom and Equality said, “What causes this shameful situation is the practice of political parties buying power in exchange for capitulation to religious coercion, while ignoring the wishes of the majority of people in Israel and the Diaspora. Israel is becoming famous worldwide as the leader of the democratic world in assailing freedom of religion and conscience, something that is liable to deal a mortal blow to our status in the free world and to Western countries attitude towards us.”[i]
While only a small percentage of its citizens are Haredim, or Ultra-Orthodox, they wield an extraordinary amount of political power, given the coalition nature of Israel’s government. Almost every government needs the Haredi political parties to make up its ruling coalition, giving the Ultra-Orthodox tremendous political clout within the country. This has led to the forced segregation of women on some bus lines, male only sidewalks and park benches, and the ban of female advertising in some neighborhoods. It has even had an effect upon the Israeli army. Orthodox male Israeli soldiers recently walked out of a ceremony in which female Israeli soldiers were singing. They cited the prohibition of “kol ishah” the religious prohibition of men hearing a woman’s voice.
This tension over religious extremism boiled over this week in the town of Beit Shemesh, just west of Jerusalem. Naama Margolese, the eight year old daughter of Orthodox American Jews who made aliyah, was walking to school when a group of Haredi men “spit on her, insulted her, and called her a prostitute because her modest dress did not adhere exactly to their more rigorous dress code.”[ii] Naama’s picture has appeared on the front page of all the major newspapers. This incident has spurred counter-rallies against the Haredim who call the Israeli police “Nazis” and throw rocks at them while simultaneously assailing female reporters with words such as “shiksa,” “bat zona,” and “nafka.” If you would like to know the meaning of these last two words, ask me after tonight’s service. What is most concerning is that this violent coercion is being attributed to a group of several hundred Haredim called the “Sicarii,” or “dagger men,” named after the Jewish extremists in the year 70 who assassinated fellow Jews who wanted peace with the Romans and who later ascended Masada and killed themselves rather than surrender to the Roman attackers. They believed, and seemingly still believe, that only God should rule over Israel. They, of course, are the only legitimate interpreters of God’s will. The original Sicarii prevented us from reaching an accommodation with the Romans that might have allowed the Temple to stand and would have given us a modicum of political independence. Instead, because of their extremism, we were doomed to almost 1,900 of statelessness and political powerlessness.
While the country is rallying around Naama Margolese and opposing the Haredim in Beit Shemesh, the issues of forced segregation, the power of the chief rabbinate, and the lack of religious pluralism have plagued Israel for years. Exactly a year ago, Anat Hoffman, the executive director of IRAC, the Israel Religious Action Center and a leader of the group, “Women of the Wall,” addressed the members of Oheb Shalom at our Shabbat dinner in Tel Aviv. Anat spoke eloquently about the need for religious tolerance and pluralism in Israel. She spoke about being arrested for wearing a talit at the Kotel, the Western Wall, where the “Women of the Wall” hold a monthly Rosh Chodesh service. She told us of the many cases IRAC pursues in the Israeli courts, especially in the Supreme Court, which push for religious equality for non-Orthodox Jews. Israel is one of the few countries in the world where your rabbi cannot legally officiate at a wedding. IRAC is one of my favorite organizations. If you have any charitable dollars left after your yearend contributions, I urge you to support the Israel Religious Action Center. You can donate with the click of your computer’s mouse. There are few more worthy contributions in the entire Jewish world.
I pray that this secular New Year of 2012 will mark the beginning of true religious freedom in the land we love and support, our homeland, the State of Israel.
Kein Y’hi Ratson– May it soon come to be.