Sermon for June 30, 2017
What a delight it is to once again welcome the members of Har Sinai and my friend, Cantor Robert Gerber, to Oheb Shalom as we participate in our almost century old custom of sharing summer services. The earliest reference I could find of this custom was from an Oheb Shalom bulletin in the early 1920’s. It may go back even farther than that. I am glad that there are some traditions that we are still observing. I still lament Baltimore Hebrew’s withdrawal from what had been our Summer Union Shabbat services. I hope that in the near future the newly Reform Bolton Street Synagogue will join with us as we celebrate Shabbat as a Reform community.
Those two words, “Reform community,” are the crux of my message to you tonight. Allow me to digress for a moment as I speak about our Torah portion for this Shabbat and then come back to the subject at hand. You will see how they are directly related.
We read this week from Parashat Chukat which, besides being my Bar Mitzvah portion fifty-three years ago, is a fascinating lens through which to understand our people’s Weltanschauung in ancient times. The Torah portion from the Book of Numbers (19) speaks about the Parah Adumah, the red heifer, a completely red cow which had no defect and had never worn a yoke, whose ashes were necessary to be part of a mixture including cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet stuff. This mixture would be sprinkled over those who became impure because of contact with a corpse. They had to be sprinkled with the mixture on the third and seventh day after the contact in order to become ritually pure and re-enter the community of life. One of the mysteries of this procedure is that the one who burns the cow and mixes the ashes becomes ritually impure in the process. In other words, the same substance which makes those who have contact with the dead pure, makes those who prepare it impure. The rabbis cannot explain this paradox and say it is simply something we must accept on faith. It is a “chok,” a law which cannot be rationally explained.
There are ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel and around the world which are trying to raise a Parah Adumah, a perfectly red or brown cow. They are doing so because without one, the Third Temple in Jerusalem cannot be rebuilt. In order to enter the Temple all must be purified with the mixture that includes the ashes of the red heifer. This brings us back to the events of this week, for it is the same people who are raising the red heifer, the ultra-Orthodox, whose political parties control the thirteen votes in the Knesset Prime Minister Netanyahu needs to maintain his coalition government. In November, 2015, in an address in Washington, D.C., Netanyahu promised: “As prime minister of Israel, I will always ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel, Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, and Orthodox Jews.” Specifically, he told the thousands at the Jewish Federations’ General Assembly, he hoped his government would soon reach the “long overdue understanding that will ensure that the Kotel [Western Wall] will be a source of unity for the Jewish people, not a point of division.” In January, 2016, we rejoiced when Netanyahu and his cabinet endorsed an agreement between the government, the Jewish Agency, the Reform and Conservative movements, and the Jewish Federations of North America in which the government promised to construct an egalitarian prayer space just south of the existing Kotel plaza that would be equal in size and significance to the traditional worship space at the Kotel that separates men and women. Since this moment, the ultra-Orthodox parties of United Torah Judaism and SHAS have campaigned against the agreement, saying the Kotel must be liberated from the demonic Reform Jews, whom they often compare to Nazis. On this past Sunday, Netanyahu succumbed to the pressure and halted implementation of this agreement. His minister of health, Yaakov Litzman, leader of the Haredi United Torah Judaism party, boasted, “The government’s decision to freeze the Western Wall arrangement sends a clear message to the entire world: The Reform do not and will not have access or recognition at the Western Wall.” To add insult to injury, the Knesset also advanced a law denying the Jewishness of Israeli citizens not converted by officials under the authority of the Chief Rabbinate. This means any conversion at which a Reform, Conservative or Modern Orthodox rabbi officiates is invalid. It also invalidates conversions we have performed in the past. Suddenly, thousands of Jews who have made the decision to cast their lot with the Jewish people are no longer considered Jewish by the chief rabbinate of Israel. This action by Netanyahu creates a huge rift between his government and the Jews of the Diaspora, who are overwhelmingly non-Orthodox. We are Zionists who love the land and insist that the Kotel, the ancient remnant of the Temple, belongs not just to the Haredim, but to all the Jewish people. Israel is a home for the entirety of Klal Yisrael. Netanyahu’s action inflicts a wound upon us that cannot be easily healed. It causes a breach between Jews just when Israel needs us the most. Israel is beset by foreign enemies. There is little sympathy for Israel among the left in this country and in Europe. Millennials do not identify with Israel as do older Jews because of actions such as this. Netanyahu’s action is a Shanda, a disgrace.
Do you recall reading President Kennedy’s book, Profiles in Courage, in which he wrote about American politicians who sacrificed their political careers to do the right thing? If Binyamin Netanyahu had only read that book and had the courage to do the right thing he would reject the demands of the Haredim!
So, what do we do now? We await word on actions to be taken by the leadership of our movements. They are in Israel now for a board meeting of the Jewish Agency and are meeting continuously. Next, we must find a way to punish the government of Israel rather than the people and State of Israel. We do not stop visiting and do not stop buying Israel Bonds. Right now, we should contact the Israeli ambassador in D.C. and give him a piece of our mind. He must know how disappointed and offended by his government’s actions. We should also be contributing to Reform organizations such as the Israel Religious Action Center and the World Union for Progressive Judaism which do wonderful work on our behalf. We will not be dismissed and insist that we are counted among the Jewish people. All we want is to pray freely as Reform Jews at our most sacred site. We want those whom we convert to be recognized as the Jews they are. Our expression of Judaism is as legitimate, if not more so, than that of the extremist, non-Zionist, Haredim. It is time that the government of Israel recognizes us and grants us official recognition. We will not stop under these goals are achieved. May this time come soon!
Kein Y’hi Ratson– May this be God’s will and let us say: