Category Archives: Jerusalem

The Call to Bridge the Wall – Judaism in the Jewish State


Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman

Larchmont Temple

The very first picture my son Gabe sent last month from his Birthright trip, undoubtedly the first place they took the group of 40 was, of course, The Wall.

But Gabe didn’t just send us a picture postcard I-Phone snapshot. He wanted us to be there with him, so he sent us a short video, capturing the scene; a panorama of all the people, swaying to the rhythm of their prayers, then panning upwards, scanning the  full length of the top tier of the Wall itself.

And as Gabe’s video spans the 2,000 year old stones, still listening to the sounds of petitioners below, as if those ancient rocks carry the call of generations long gone, we feel their hopes somehow rising…

Watching, the ancient stones calling, I tear up at the transcendent power that iconic place magically holds. Having stood there before—I am there yet again. Touching the Wall, I feel a heartbeat; the lifeblood of our people pulsing… For a moment, my heart beats in sync.

…..But [even with that great I-Phone V video clarity] the emotional high does not last very long…

Whose Wall Is It Anyway?… the headline in both the ‘Jerusalem Post’ and ‘The Jewish Week’ at the start of summer, poses a concern at the heart of our sacred center.  As on numerous previous occasions, trying to gather on the New Moon for prayer, when, observing Rosh Chodesh Av last fall, The Women of the Wall were greeted by busloads of Ultra-Orthodox girls, Brought there to block their way, and crowds of Haredi [Ultra Orthodox] young men,

Hurling words you could hardly believe you were hearing, as the Women of the Wall sang Mah Tovu,  Haredi men actually shouting “Heil Hitler.”

Even more: a couple of months later, as they began their monthly service, Anat Hoffman’s arrest—for wearing a tallit in that public prayer space, was accompanied by a physical roughing up by the police meant for some hardened criminal they are trying to crack.

Just what was Hoffman’s crime? That she had been a 16-year member of the Jerusalem City Council, A lawyer who insisted on pursuing justice for all citizens… Or that as Founder of Women of the Wall, And the head of our movement’s Israel Religious Action Center,

Pioneering the fight for equality, she has advanced the conversation in the public square to a place most Israelis never thought possible?

So, with all of this hullabaloo last Fall, trying to calm the storm, Netanyahu appointed the exemplar of our people’s fight for freedom. And though Natan Sharansky’s proposal is a stroke of political savvy, Even pluralistic ingenuity, it still might be just shy of a sacred affront.

The compromise: to extend the “Western Wall Plaza” all the way through to Robinson’s Arch—the very far right of the Kotel itself, with one entrance for all, but dividing the area, the current “Wall” would remain a prayer space with gender separation, while the newly designated extension would be a place for pluralistic prayer.

Thus, recognizing the divergent ritual paths & maintaining historic diversity, As Sharansky frames it, this would be “One Wall for One People.”

Nice try, but it’s really not…

Two pluralistically minded Zionist thinkers, American born/Israel-dwelling, went toe to toe a number of months back. Their point-counterpoint highlights the much larger implications of the issue at hand.  Just a bit of the back & forth, and you’ll get the gist.

My colleague, VP of HUC-JIR, Rabbi Rachel Sabath-Halachmi:

“Yossi…Women of the Wall has captured the minds & souls of Jews worldwide, because it symbolizes the sacred desire of the entire Jewish people to be equally at home in the Jewish State. It is no wonder that many Jews, both men & women, Do not feel that they can call Israel their homeland precisely because of lack of access to the sacred…”

Great journalist/author/teacher—Yossi Klein-HaLevi:

“Rachel…As the state founded by Zionism, the ideology of Jewish Peoplehood, Israel must not cede Judaism to any one denomination’s control. The ongoing monopoly of Orthodox prayer at the Wall is a painful symbol of Zionism’s failure so far to fulfill its promise of inclusive peoplehood.”

[Both are clearly on the same pluralistic page, but Klein-HaLevi continues:]

“The real question is, how to bring change…”

Seeing the futility of fighting the Ultra-Orthodox establishment, Klein HaLevi suggests the “Extension Option,” insisting:

“Robinson’s Arch is no less the Kotel… Who’s to say their part of the Wall is more sacred?”

But the Rabbi is not satisfied in settling:

“Yossi…It’s not about some political victory, it’s about the capacity to cling to God in the fullest sense of who we are!”

But KH closing critique echoes the greater concern:

“I, too, wish that there were no need to divide the Kotel, that it could be a symbol of our wholeness, rather than our fragmentation. But we have returned from exile shattered, and a wise people knows how to manage its divisions, rather than force an artificial wholeness which would result in even greater devastation.”  [‘The Jewish Week,’ 12.21.12]

The Temple [capital T] was destroyed, the Rabbis teach, due to seven sins, the last two of which were: “failing to settle disputes through compromise and sin’at chi-nam—baseless hatred.”

We know well where divisiveness, a “my-way-or-the-highway” intransigence leads, for such is the way of religious intolerance/extremism.

SO maybe Rachel is right: This is a matter of all the people Israel feeling at home; that they have a sacred space, same as every Jew, in the Jewish State.

AND maybe Yossi is right:  What’s at stake is much more than spatial relations. Our ability to recognize our differing paths, yet respect our peoplehood, will either bind us as Israel, or tear our people apart.

Now, you could pause at the question…

Is it not of greater urgency to explore Israel’s prospects for peace, or, at the least, normalization of relations with the Palestinians, especially when face to face talks, thanks to heavy Kerry arm-twisting,

Are on again/off again—on again?

And with a post-Morsi Egyptian political process imploding, hundreds of protestors dead, a military challenged to keep its power in check…

And with Syria’s intense civil strife, the Assad regime turning on its own people, beyond the bombardments, inhumanely, with chemical weaponry?…

Knowing US military response could further incite Assad, shouldn’t we be dealing with the security implications?

And need I mention that 4-letter word: Iraq?

Much as the pressing political concerns remain critical—our hope for progress on two-state negotiations, and, somehow, for sanity to prevail in Egypt and Syria… The ultimate outcomes are largely beyond our control. External realities notwithstanding, the heart of the matter for us, when it comes to Israel, especially in these days of inner reflection, is the state of being Jewish in the Jewish State.

And that reality not only impacts our personal connections, but is one in which we might actually have a say, and surely have a stake!

…And it’s all about a Wall…

Let’s do some Haredi Meshugas Multiple Choice.

Which of the following actually happened in Israel in the recent past?

  1. Sephardi Chief Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Amar, protesting the Israeli Supreme Court ruling recognizing Reform & Conservative Rabbis serving in rural communities called Reform Jews “enemies of God.”
  1. Commenting on the possibility of recognizing civil marriage in the Jewish State, Rabbi David Stav—the more open-minded candidate for Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi—stated that such a choice “would push them and their descendants out of the Jewish people.”
  2. The heads of “Od Yosef Chai Yeshivah” in Jerusalem authored a Halachic manual, sanctioned by the state Rabbi of Kiryat Arba, called Torat HaMelech, the King’s Torah, approving the killing of non-Jews who might hamper the living of Torah Law.
  3. Walking on their way to school, a group of middle school Ultra-Orthodox girls are spat upon and called dirty whores [because their below the knee length skirts are too short] by a group of Haredi men, tallit bags in hand, themselves returning from morning prayers.
  4. At the funeral of her 86 year-old father, Rosie Davidyan, the deceased’s daughter, herself an observant Jew, is stopped from reciting the Kaddish, or reading the eulogy she stayed up all night writing, by the Haredi rabbi officiating, who instructs her brother: “You read. In our tradition, women are not allowed to speak.”

IF you wisely/sadly guessed all of the above, and then some, you begin to sense the imposing wall of obstructionism, unintentionally enabled by Ben Gurion at the founding of the State, with his acquiescence to maintain the religious status quo; a ‘wall’ keeping mainstream Judaism out, or, keeping the UO in.

SO in this sacred season when the sins of any part of the body of our people, wounds us all, how do we respond?

Hear 3 Visionary Voices turning us around as a people, calling us to bridge that wall and repair Israel’s neshoma—our people’s spirit, from the inside out,  and the outside in.

Voice of Vision 1…

“The Haredi Spring is coming to an end and not a moment too soon.”

Who better to turn to for hope than the leading American Jewish model of religious pluralism, founder of CLAL, pioneering bridge-builder, Modern Orthodox Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. Rav Yitz sees the heart of the problem as an unnatural clash between Torah & Democracy.

“They preach that the laws of God should decide the general law, and even override national law.  They did not internalize that democracy required full respect for others.

Nor do they grasp that democracy gives full rights to woman, to minorities…and is predicated on a fair-sharing of national burdens like taxes and army service.” [J.Wk, 7.5.13]

Rav Yitz has a problem, and rightfully so, with the longstanding Haredi exemption from military service.

The greater problem [however] is exacerbated by Haredi entitlement, so entrenched that—with the Israeli government’s recent plan to begin enlisting young UO men [with a volunteer force of almost 2,000 Haredi men already in the IDF]

A poster campaign appeared in Mea-She’arim, the UO neighborhood in Jerusalem, featuring black & white cartoon caricatures, equating the Israeli soldier to the Nazi storm-trooper, calling those who would enlist Chardakim—a combination of Haredi, God-fearing and Charakim—insects.

Greenberg’s core concern, that among the Haredi community, “universal rights were taking 2nd place to tribal versions of halacha,” has best been countered by what Rav Yitz sees as the wake-up call by Women of the Wall.  “They spoke up and challenged the exclusion of women—and by implication, of all non-Orthodox at the Wall.  And starting from that dream of religious freedom, hopefully the Modern Orthodox community can regain its classic commitment to democracy and religious moderation.”

You could not frame this vision more forcefully than Modern Orthodox Chief Rabbi of Efrat, [Rosh Yeshivah of Ohr Torah]  Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.

“One of the great thrills of living in the State of Israel is the extraordinary mix of Jews from around the world…It’s not only a geographical mix; our country is blessed with Jews from every possibly branch of Jewish philosophy.  And because underlying unity does not insist on uniformity, it permits room for differences of opinion…There are many legitimate, even if differing paths, to approach the Divine.” [Jewish Wk. 8.2.13]

The call to bridge the Wall begins within the world of tradition itself—the balance of an Orthodoxy that is observantly Jewish, and genuinely democratic—self-aware enough to realize, there must be room for both!

Voice of Vision 2…

Repairing the state of religion in the Jewish State requires that the call likewise come from the 80% of non-Orthodox Israelis.  But what could possibly compel steadfastly traditional Jews to listen? What if this visionary was somehow speaking their language!…?

The unexpected win of 19 Knesset seats by a new political player in the most recent elections,  Yesh Atid—[literally, There is a Future] now part of the ruling coalition government, made room for what its leader, popular TV journalist turned MK, Ya’ir Lapid framed as:

Changing the priorities in Israel with emphasis on civil life, economic efficiency, social justice, 2 states for 2 people, and greater religious pluralism…

None of this new party’s members captures the spirit or speaks with a more resonant voice—one that both secular Zionists and observant Jews can relate to—than Ruth Calderon.

Founder of Elul, the first “secular yeshivah” in Israel, where traditional and non-observant, male and female learn side by side, master educator, a self-described ‘non-halachic’ woman with a doctorate in Talmud from the most rigorous Hebrew University, [and, btw, our own Amy Seife’s cousin!] this thoughtful intellectual with outgoing charm understands her new political leadership role uniquely, for she did something unheard of on the K’nesset floor in her opening GA address:

Ruth Calderon taught Talmud!

No party platforms nor political rhetoric, but a tale from Tractate Ketubot; A curious story she magically made into a metaphor for bridging what many regard as impassable walls….

Rabbi Rechumei was constantly before Rava in Mechoza. He would habitually return home every Yom Kippur Eve. One day, the topic of study [in Mechoza] drew him in. His wife anticipated his arrival, saying: Here he comes…Here he comes. [But] he did not come.  She became upset, and shed a tear from her eye. Rechumei was sitting atop the roof. The roof collapsed under his weight, And he died.

Now, you are undoubtedly saying what most uninitiated in the world of Talmudic legends might say: WHAT!?…..But Calderon draws out a message which speaks to the moment.

Here’s what she teaches….

…Rechumei—his name, in Aramaic, means love, and derives from “rechem” Hebrew for “womb”

So he is someone who knows how to make room/accept others. But where does he spend all his time?  Studying with the Rabbi. He would only go home to his wife, however, of all times, on YK eve, which didn’t exactly make for romance, but his wife yearned just the same.

As Calderon describes: “One can hear the aspirant tone of her words.  With every phone call, every footstep, every text-message, every knock, you are certain, it’s him. “Here he comes.”

But he never does….and a single, sad tear falls.”

“Now,” she continues, “imagine a split screen.

On one side the yearning woman; a tear streaming down her cheek.

On the other, Rechumei, dressed all in white, up on the roof, studying Torah, feeling so close on this Day of Awe to Heaven.

And as the tear falls from her face, at that instant, the roof caves in as he falls to the ground.”

Then the crucial question, as Calderon asks:

“What can I learn about this place and my work here from Rechumei & his wife?”

The entire K’nesset is on the edge of their seats; a lesson they can all take to heart.

“First, I learn that one who forgets he is sitting on another’s shoulders will fall.

I learn that being a Tsadik, a virtuous Jew, does not mean following Torah

at the expense of sensitivity to humankind….Then I learn that often, in a dispute,

both sides are right.  And I understand that both my disputant and I feel

they are doing the right & responsible thing, both—that they are safeguarding home.

Sometimes we feel like the woman, waiting, serving in the army, doing all the work

While others sit on rooftops studying Torah.

Sometimes those others feel that they bear the entire weight of tradition,

of our cultural heritage while we go to the beach [a hotspot for many secular Israelis on the Holy Days]…

Both I and my disputant feel solely responsible for home.

Until I understand this, I will not perceive the problem properly,

and will not be able to find a solution.”  Now her powerful bridge the wall call:

“I invite all of us to years of action rooted in thought,

And dispute rooted in mutual respect and understanding.

I aspire to create an Israel where Torah study is the heritage of all Jews,

Where all young citizens take part in civil & military service.

Together let us build this home.”

Then, as Calderon—a woman teaching Talmud on the K’nesset floor,

Finished with a prayer for her and all Israeli leaders to be given strength and integrity,

at peace inside & out, with God’s help…at that moment, Yitschak Vaknin,

a member of Shas, the right-wing religious party, responded with a spirited: AMEN.

The call to bridge the wall means every Israeli reclaiming a heritage the large majority had long-ago ceded to surrogate holy men, recognizing yet again: the ancient text is timeless,

And its story is speaking to our 21st century lives…

Voice of Vision 3…

The third voice is the hardest for us to hear,

For it is too easily drown out by what Peter Beinart’s recent book, The Crisis of Zionism,

terms a dramatic distancing of young American Jews from Israel, largely due to the disconnect between the liberal values they hold and the conflicting political policies of the Jewish State.

Though Beinart softens his disengagement dilemma cry a bit from what he said in his oft-cited NY Review of Books article a few years ago, [in no small part influenced by the reality of over 350, 000 college/post-college kids who’ve bonded meaningfully through Birthright]

There is no denying his thesis: that the “illiberal Zionism” forged by a 40+year occupation

And the role it forces Israel to play Jeopardizes Israel’s democratic integrity.

Beinart sees this great crisis as “the battle for Israel’s soul,” calling for a new generation to

“recalibrate the imbalance, to fuse religious commitment and liberal values.”

Yet his approach is askew.

Where some see a quandary,  others envision a critical reason to act.

Thus, the call meant for us all; to reclaim “Zionism” as it connects to our core identity

as diaspora Jews, and helps determine the Jewish character of the Jewish State.

The voice who, since his days as Executive Director of ARZA [Association of American Reform Zionists]

to his 16-year tenure as President of our movement, has spoken out with compelling clarity of vision is none other than Rabbi Eric Yoffie. So he speaks:

“The time has come to reclaim the term “Zionism” from the political and psychological cobwebs with which it has become entangled.”

Asserting that our link to Israel is neither a question of our alignment—right or left;

That our support for Israel’s continued existence is not contingent on the sometimes unpalatable decisions of its political leadership, Yoffie extends the call:

“Zionism is a movement that was created by the entire Jewish people, is sustained by the entire Jewish people, and belongs to the entire Jewish people.”

Which means that residence is not the determinant—though the Law of Return reminds

any Jew anywhere that homeland is just an El-Al flight away.

If, as Yoffie envisions, “Israel is not primarily the state of Israelis, but the state of the Jewish people, then it invites every diaspora Jew to engage in its affairs and participate in its debates, whether in the form of generating support for its policies or offering criticism.  And though final decisions will be made by the citizens of Israel…if American Jews wish to have their say about Israel, no special permission is required.  The right to do so is inherent in the Zionist mission…Zionism bestows on Jews everywhere a role in determining the Jewish character of the Jewish State.”[Ha’Aretz, Op Ed, 6.28.13]

WHY is Yoffie’s vision a voice we need not alone hear, but take to heart?


If Israel is to remain a Jewish State that is, at one and the same time, a democracy, as it must…

If Israel is to reflect those values—“freedom of religion and conscience” envisioned in its Declaration of Independence, as it daily aspires…

Who better to foster a place where multiple pathways to Jewish peoplehood are affirmed;

A place where justice for all citizens, Jewish or not, is second nature;

A place where the texts of our tradition tell a story that includes us all today…

Who should be more intrinsically motivated—who better equipped, to bridge walls of religious intolerance;

To embrace difference & celebrate diversity…than Zionists like us…?!


Gabe had a great time on Birthright; just ten Days…It was transformational.

I’ve never seen him more engaged in Israel’s daily happenings,

Never felt him more inspired by the tales he heard of Israel’s trials,

Never more ready to connect with other 20-something Reform Jews seeking a community tied by shared values and common purpose.

And it is by no means because he’s an RK [a Rabbi’s Kid]

That’s how nearly every kid walks away from the journey; walls of alienation and unawareness transcended—the relationship is suddenly for real.

But barring a Birthright program for kids in their 40’s or 60’s or 80’s…

We at Larchmont Temple will spend the coming year—our Covenant of Learning, exploring Israel from every which way…Rabbi Nathan & Cantor Scher; both leading specialized missions,  can even help you get there…

Our New Year’s call echoes from the inside out—but must be answered from the outside in.

Do not let a wall…of political differences, of religious injustice, of spiritual indifference;

Of long-distance, haven’t felt close in years relationship keep you from reaching, from struggling, from exploring, from connecting…

Israel’s soul is at stake as never before; the religious core of our peoplehood. The spiritual character the Jewish State carries depends upon us.

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel understood:

“Israel is the tree—we are the leaves. It’s the clinging to the stem that keeps us alive.”

So May our concern, our support, our critique, our commitment help to create a Jewish State where every Jew—each of us—has a place…

equal footing in the footsteps of our mothers & fathers; an Israel driven by mutual respect, democratic purpose and diversity of practice, where each of us feels whole enough—holy enough, to call it Home…..

Ken Yehi Ratson…So with the Holy One’s Help….May it Be                                                AMEN