There is an ancient tradition among our people that our name, Yisrael contains within it a vision of our role among all the nations of the world. When God bestowed that name, Yisrael, onto Jacob, it was because his descendants were to be the people of “Yashar El.” The Hebrew ‘yashar’ means ‘straight.’ We are the people of ‘godly straightness.’ This world is filled with crookedness, jealousy, and hatred, and we are to be the ones to ‘straighten’ it all out.
In Parashat Mishpatim, the Torah reveals an extraordinary series of laws that lay the foundations for building a society of justice, where the stranger, the widow, and the orphan are never forgotten. It provides a framework for thinking about an ideal society where none are oppressed, where the powerful never again victimize the dispossessed. Mishpatim begins with the words “V’eleh hamishpatim asher tasim lifneihem, “And these are the laws that you shall place before them” (Exodus 21:1). The commentary, the Sfat Emet, asks the question: why does this chapter begin with the word “and?” It should just say, “These are the laws.” The Sfat Emet explains: Think what has just come before in the Torah. It was none other than the Ten Commandments that God gave on Mount Sinai before the Israelites. “V’eleh hamishpatim,” “And these are the laws,” that you must now uphold, now that you have received the Ten Commandments. The Sfat Emet goes on to explain: The Ten Commandments represent the laws that refer to humankind’s relationship to God. The Mishpatim, the special laws and statutes that follow here in our parashah, refer to laws that must be upheld between person and person. In the Ten Commandments, we learn how to be holy before God. In the Mishpatim that follow, we learn how to build a society where we act out that holiness between one another, and straighten out this world.
Psalm 29 contains the famous words: ‘Adonai Oz L’Amo yitein,’ “God will give strength to God’s people,” ‘Adonai yevarech et Amo baShalom,” God will bless God’s people with Shalom, peace. The ancient rabbis of the midrash explain that the Hebrew word ‘oz,’ ‘strength’ also means Torah. Building on this teaching, the Sfat Emet explains that we only Truly receive Torah, when we adhere to these mishpatim, these laws, that are there to build Shalom, peace between one another. To put it another way, we are not really fulfilling the commandments of the Torah if we are not putting peace among the people of Israel as our highest goal.
We begin our work of being a light to the nations, of straightening out the world, by living the mishpatim, by enacting the Torah’s vision of being a people at peace with one another. Put another way, Shalom, peace, can only come to the world when Israel learns and models how to live in peace with themselves, free of injustice and oppression within the ranks of our own people. It’s a beautiful vision of the deepest meaning of peace itself—and what it means to be Yisrael.
But we all know that peace, and straightening ourselves out, is no easy task. We have learned in our American society through countless struggles for rights and freedoms and civil liberties, peace is not just the strength to end fighting, but the courage to live in harmony with difference. Martin Luther King said it beautifully: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.”
Last month, Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of a group called Women of the Wall, was called into a Jerusalem police station for questioning about her groups ongoing prayer services at the Kotel haMa’aravi, or the Western Wall. She was interrogated, fingerprinted and told that her case was being referred to the Israeli attorney-general for prosecution. Hoffman later said that the meeting was clearly meant as an intimidation. Hoffman’s questioning comes only two months after a different Women of the Wall member, Nofrat Frenkel, was arrested after she and other women stood at the Wall, garbed in tallitot, read from a sefer Torah on Rosh Chodesh, the New Month. Yes, you heard correctly: the very practice of egalitarian Judaism that we practice right here in our congregation every Shabbat, could get you arrested at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. In response to these developments, the Conservative Movement, under the leadership of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, called on Israel’s Ambassador, Michael Oren, to take action against this injustice. The Israeli embassy responded that Israel is committed to upholding its democratic and pluralistic values. And, if egalitarian Jews want to pray, they can move several yards down along the wall to a section known Robinson’s Arch, which was designated to host egalitarian services.
The embassy is referring in this letter to an area of archaeological excavation adjoining the Western retaining wall of the Temple mount. The area normally charges admission to view the excavation, but after a 2003 Israeli Supreme Court ruling, it is open for egalitarian prayer services until 10:30 in the morning. Voices for Conservative and Reform Judaism are quick to point out that, while indeed this site does exist for egalitarian services, the Robinson’s Arch area (as this excavation is known) is only available in the morning, as opposed to the Kotel, which is open 24 hours a day for prayer. Furthermore, it lacks prayer equipment like arks and Torah-reading tables (which worshipers have to bring in for themselves), and it has no indoor facilities. Rabbi Andy Sacks, director of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, rejects Oren’s letter because it suggests that Robinson’s arch is a perfectly suitable alternative to the Kotel. It’s not, says Rabbi Sacks. It’s a severely restricted space for religious use. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union of Reform Judaism added, “The wall as it’s been understood by the Jewish people does not mean Robinson’s Arch. It just doesn’t.”
Israel is a country beset by problems and threats to its very existence from the Palestinians, Iran, and world-wide anti-Semitism. It is all too easy to ignore a problem like this one, when existential concerns rightfully must be addressed first. And yet, we can’t afford to ignore the problem of pluralism in the Jewish state. There are many who have argued that pluralism is a nice value, but hardly critical at this moment in Israel’s reality; that the Women of the Wall and Conservative and Reform Judaism are a small minority in Israel, and that their values are an American import into Israel and therefore not relevant or even legitimate in the discourse of Israeli society. I couldn’t disagree more with this assertion. I would argue that the cause of pluralism and freedom of religious expression are not only critical to the ideal of a Jewish state, but are, in fact, essential to the very survival of the Jewish people in Israel and around the world.
So long as there is no viable and just place for all legitimate religious expression of the Jewish people in the Jewish State, then there is no peace, no Torah, no light to the nations. Pluralism is not an American import onto Israeli society. Pluralism is an essential need of the human spirit to thrive and to grow in this world. We all should care very deeply about the status of pluralism in the Jewish state, if indeed we love our Jewish people, our state of Israel, and our Jewish heritage—if indeed, we think we should be Yisrael, a people who can straighten out this world.
We all know well that pluralism is not an easy road. The Women of the Wall have stated categorically that they want the right to pray in the women’s section at the Kotel and not in some other designated site along the Wall. That’s a tough stance, one that they and we all need to be willing to question. The fact of women reading Torah and wearing tallitot goes against Orthodox interpretations of our tradition. If indeed we uphold pluralism, we will need to ask ourselves: is it pluralist on our part to deny Orthodox Jews the right to separate genders at the Kotel? We all know that peace involves compromise. If we strive for peace, perhaps we should, instead of demanding full egalitarianism at the Kotel, demand that the Israeli government make Robinson’s arch a fully accessible egalitarian site for prayer 24 hours a day? As much as we fight against the Orthodox strangle-hold on Israeli society, we must be hyper-vigilant about advocating for a non-Orthodox strangle-hold on Jewish life in Israel as well. Let’s envision a Jewish state where not only Orthodox congregations can thrive, but all denominations and expressions of Judaism receive equal and fair support from the Israeli government, where the status of Jews converted, married, or buried any Jewish denomination has a place in Israeli society, where Jews of any background or walk of life can find a full expression of their Yiddishkeit and Jewish identity. Where the inherent value of Orthodoxy, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, post-movement, and secular humanist Judaism have a place, a role, a function to enrich the life and peace among all of our people, in Israel and around the world.True peace, true Shalom, involves learning to fulfill the Jewish value of Ahavat Yisrael, love of all Jewish people. It’s a vision where all can uphold the Mishpatim, the laws that make for a just society, one that recognizes—with love--all of our differences, including our different interpretations and ways of fulfilling Torah. Let’s do everything we can to support Masorti Judaism and pluralism in Israel, and let’s also do everything we can to uphold everything that is sacred to Orthodox and secular Jews in Israel while we’re at it. Let’s see if we, the Conservative Jews, instead of fighting against our own people, can provide a vision for how all Jewish people can live in peace with one another. Adonai Oz lamo yitein, may God grant us the strength, the Torah, the wisdom to achieve this vision; Adonai yevarech et Amo baShalom, and may God therefore grant us peace.