Rabbi Avi Weinstein

As if you needed to hear more about “the Wall”

In Uncategorized on February 4, 2016 at 4:14 pm

In the space of several decades, a quiet schism has been revealed. The OWOW (Original, or the Old, Women of the Wall) who are now aggravated, and the present Women of the Wall who have scored political points by having a funded unique space outside of chareidi sightlines; the two wall solution, so to speak.

The originals wished to remain within an Orthodox framework on the one hand while pushing the envelope of accepted, but arguably halachic, practice. They wanted the Mechitza, but once on their side, they wished to express themselves by donning talit, and tefilin. The originals had been given approval by the Supreme court, but those responsible for the Kotel, had refused to enforce it.

The perceived victory of the liberal denominations has to do with the State recognition of the aspirations of the Conservative and Reform movements. This was a departure from the originals intent which was meant to work within an Orthodox framework. Non-Orthodox women who were part of the originals were in solidarity with their sisters, and supported their efforts. Phyllis Chesler, one of the originals, invoking her friend and mine, Rivka Haut z”l lays this out in her Tablet e-zine article:

Most Reform and Conservative Jews, having been misled by their leaders and by the media, do not seem to understand that the feminist and religious struggle that we have been waging for more than a quarter-century has not been to pray at Robinson’s Arch or to pray together with men in a minyan and in an egalitarian service. We all support such rights and had long hoped that the denominations would have fought for their rightful place in the sun: for a third section at the Kotel proper. This never happened. No such lawsuit was ever launched. Instead, the denominations piggy-backed on the contribution of grassroots feminists—and they hired Anat Hoffman, one of us, as an employee of the Reform movement. They used her just as she used them. The denominations have not betrayed our vision; they never shared that vision. Alas, only Anat Hoffman has departed from our original vision ostensibly for pragmatic reasons.

There were two different agendas for the struggle over “whose Wall is it anyway.” Potentially, neither was only about the Wall. For the Orthodox women, the permission to read Torah, wear tallit and tefillin would confer legitimacy on this practice far beyond the Kotel plaza. If a woman could put on tefillin at The Wall, why can it not be done in Modern Orthodox synagogues and schools? Rivka Haut was one of the early activists regarding the dilemmas of agunot, and she was passionate about women’s ritual inclusion in what is generally accepted  as being within halachic parameters, but not part of the amorphous, protean mesorah. She may have only had her sights on the wall, but had women been allowed to read Torah there, it would have certainly had an impact well beyond that sacred space.

It has been suggested that we go back to the time when individuals came to the Kotel to pour out their hearts, meditate, place notes, but not make a minyan. For too many, however, those activities only occur within the framework of formal tefila. It wouldn’t be long before people would clamor to pray together at “the holiest site in Judaism”. The claim that the Kotel is a Chareidi shule, howevr, is hyperbolic. It is a shule that conforms to the norms of ninety-nine per cent of the Orthodox shules in Israel, and not much fewer in the diaspora.

As one who is Orthodox in practice, but has only worked in pluralistic environments for forty years, I can tell you this. We are never going to be able to pray with integrity as a unified people. The unintended consequences of the OWOW enlisting/accepting the support of those from more liberal traditions is to have their own agendas and desires eclipsed.

Rabbi Yehoshua of Sakhnin in the name of Rabbi Levy said: Both [Cain and Abel] took equal portions of land, and chattel, so about what did they argue? One said, “The Temple will be built within my borders.” And the other said, “No, it will be built in mine!”…And Cain arose against Abel, his brother, and killed him. (Bereshith Rabba 22:7)

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. In the meantime, let’s learn together.



On Victims, Predators, and Kabbalah…A cautionary tale

In Uncategorized on January 4, 2016 at 11:01 am

Years ago, I read a biography of the late poet Allen Ginsberg who had managed to achieve a cult like status through the unlikely medium of poetry. He, and Kerouac had discovered at some point, Zen Buddhism, and became involved with the former Buddhist monk who founded the Naropa institute, and many Buddhist centers throughout the country. Rinpoche was a master of Zen wisdom, but he had abandoned the traditional discipline of the Buddhist monk for the pleasures of the flesh.  He was also a raging alcoholic who died of cirrosis at the age of forty-eight. His marriage was not shackled by arcane notions of fidelity, and he fully engaged carnally like a full-fledged beatnik. His knowledge, his wisdom, however, emanated from an authentic world to which he was deeply connected. His merger of the traditional east with the hedonistic and narcissistic west was, in essence, quintessentially American. He offered the promise of being the master without the shackles of traditional discipline; a loveable rogue Buddhist who has it all. In Jewish terms, the fruits of this world and the next. There were no expectations that he should be anything other than he was, and the Naropa Institute lives on as the only accredited Buddhist University on the continent–a true merger of east and west, I guess.

Mark Gafni must have kicked himself for waiting so long to find his way to Esalon where he could engage in the chaotic world of commitmentless love while lecturing nonsense peppered with pithy aphorisms borrowed from the many new agers who had preceded him.  If he had gone straight to Naropa, we may not be talking about him now, and we would still be lining up at Whole Foods checkout counters. This is why he feels persecuted. Like Rimpoche, Gafni needed an authentic history to abandon in order to sell his brand of snake oil.

Did we boycott Roman Polanski movies because of his ostensible liaison with a teenager? What galls us is that Gafni duped both leaders of the Jewish religious establishment  and Jewish renewal who demur when it comes to being that unconventional. Inasmuch as this campaign of ostracism is for defense of the innocent, and vulnerable, it is also particularly visceral for those who think they should have known better, but didn’t. As Americans, we, too, wish to have delights in both worlds, but we do so under the guise of our encounter with modernity; our own version of east meets west. “Feelin good, feeling good, all the money in the world spent on feelin’ good”. This is what Gafni’s acolytes received from him, but it cost them dearly, and so, therefore, he should pay for all the suffering he caused. Even when he acknowledges the pain he caused, he does so in the context of his so-called evolving awareness.

The book of Proverbs defines wisdom as being familiar with the ways of seduction. The Vilna Gaon explains that one is obliged to know these ways so as not to be swayed by the evil inclination. True wisdom eschews naïveté and the Book of Proverbs was supposed to immunize pupils from the malady of innocence. “To give the innocent guile, and to the uninitiated awareness, and cunning.” (Proverbs 1:4) The Gaon comments: 

For wisdom has many aspects, among them are wisdom and guile. Wisdom refers to one who has learned, received and knows much. The one with guile knows how to tempt and seduce others, offering sweet words, but his heart is up to no good. Similarly, the one who can recognize this quality is called “cunning”…as it is written, “I am wise, and I have dwelt with guile.” (Ibid 8:12) Through this exposure, he will understand the. temptation of the evil inclination.

 I think that says it all.

Report from Armon Hanatziv (East Talpiot)

In Uncategorized on October 16, 2015 at 9:27 am

Rabbi Mishael Tzion, (the able Executive Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships which I had the privilege of leading many years ago) gives the following report after the bus bombing near his kids’ school. Mish is a second generation Israeli with Anglo parents–his mother is actually Dutch–but has always been connected to the Anglo community. His perspective as a native born Israeli has a qualitatively different flavor than some American Olim for whom “matzavim” are new experiences. By all accounts, the current situation has been more affecting than previous ones because of the perceived ubiquity of the threat, but Mish really captures the complexity, and confusion of inter-ethnic strife, geography, security and, yes, bigotry. It’s a microcosm that’s worthy of George Pelecanos, and it sheds more light than heat. I give you Mish…

I posted this piece in Hebrew on Facebook a few hours again and thought you’d appreciate it as well. You’ll see in it that I got very little done on behalf of the Bronfman Fellowships these last few days – so sharing this here is offered as a form of reparation to the community. ;-)
Thanks to Elisheva Urbas (mom of Avital Morris ’11) for the spontaneous translation.
Four Days in Jerusalem, and a Prayer for Parents in our time.
Mishae Zion
Tuesday, 7:10am. I order a Get-Taxi from home, en route to catch a ride out of town. Turns out that the taxi driver is a neighbor of mine: he lives in Tzur Baher and I live in Talpiot. I wait 3 minutes, watching his car cross the (until recently) invisible line that divides my home from his. In the taxi, we compare stories from the last few days. I say that we should pray for the children. He replies that we must pray for the parents. On our end, he says, it all depends on the parents; they have to persuade their children not to go out to the demonstrations. Some of the parents teach their kids to stay home (that’s the tradition in my village, he adds), and some think their main responsibility is to teach their kids to run away fast when they have to.  It depends on the parents with us, too, I think. What they say at home, how they answer, how they explain. What they say even when they’re angry.  I didn’t know that, that same morning, I’d find myself in the middle of an unusually intense parent conversation.
Tuesday, 9:45a.m.  East Talpiot, Olei HaGardom Street, 122 meters from my daughters’ school. Later the older one will tell me that “we were in the middle of snack time and suddenly there were a ton of sirens and explosions. I sit near the window, so I looked out — I saw a bus and all around it a ton of police cars. Afterward all the kids gathered around the window, and it really bothered me because I couldn’t finish eating.”  I’m stuck up north, when I get a message in the Fourth Grade Parents Whats-App group, updating us about the attack. Parents try to figure out what’s going on, to share information. And then one parent calms “Yes, everything’s all right in the school,” and immediately after that another parent “Great, but we have to get rid of the Arab cleaner.” From there, everything goes downhill. I debate whether to open my mouth (or my fingers). Against my nature, I join in the conversation. It’s the least I can do. Appalled by the attack. Appalled by the instinctive impulse to turn the school into an ‘Arab-rein’ zone.
Wednesday, 11:15a.m.  I didn’t go to the office. Not much progress toward my goal of writing an article about Moses’ leadership, either. I find myself spending hours in the school, on the phone, in front of parents, with parents, with the security guard, with the principal. There are many security gaps in the school, and a lot that needs to be taken care of — and at the same time, we have to be careful not to fall into the easy racism of firings. I learn gradually to recognize people’s fears first of all, and I also learn that human faces need to be put on all of this.  It’s not our school against all the world’s enemies.  It’s a matter of Samer, the school’s maintenance worker for the last year, a single mother of two daughters, who lives in Abu Tor. A neighbor.  And also: a religious woman; her head-covering covers  a little more than the other women’s on the staff.   I get in touch with the principal to give her an update and ask how I can help, and I see that she’s already five steps ahead of me. After a conversation that morning with Samer that made clear how frightened she herself is, the principal goes into every classroom and tells the students about Samer. Meanwhile the parents are still storming; most of them understand the complexity and write calmly, others…  At the end of the day the Parents’ Association votes, with a large majority deciding not to fire her.  Meanwhile the other parents appeal to City Hall. It’s clear that the work is just getting started.
Thursday, 10:20a.m.  The principal calls me.  “Samer is here with me, crying. Do you speak Arabic?” “I wish,” I say, and I head back to school.  On the way I pass four checkpoints, separating Tzur Baher and Jabel Mukaber from Talpiot and East Talpiot. I hand out snacks to the soldiers, who rightly prefer the fruit I’ve just bought for the family. Back at school Samer, trembling, tells me that on her way to school four police officers came at her with drawn pistols, made her lie on the ground, dumped out her bag on the floor. “They’re afraid, too,” we told her.  “I could see that,” she answers, “but why me?” Afterward she also got curses and abuse from some car passing on the street.  She ran to the school: a place of safety.
Friday, 9:45a.m. Exactly three days since the attack. Samer asks not to come in today.  Some of us parents volunteer to clean the bathrooms in her place. In the end there was no need.  But I was struck by the number of parents who were happy to help, and especially by the number of parents on the fence, struggling to make a path between security and discrimination, between anger and revenge, between national conflict and racism or religious war. On the way home, by the checkpoint, some guys are handing out Israeli flags and singing “Am Yisrael Chai.”  I hesitate to take them, but the children in the back seat ask to stop. They don’t understand the subtext: they come to this from a purer place. We head home, waving flags.
God of Fathers, redeem us.
Supporter of Mothers, redeem us.
God of Peace, awaken.
מגן אבות, עננו. משגב אמהות, עננו. מלך שהשלום שלו, עורה.
May it be a Shabbat shalom.

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