Friday, January 15, 2010

Earthquakes: Real and Metaphorical

As I write this, the world is just beginning to absorb the scope of the devastation and loss brought on by this week's earthquake in Haiti.  Click here for some eye-opening pictures of the disaster scene, as posted by the United Nations Development Program in Haiti.  According to some news reports, there may be as many as 50,000 dead - and many more homeless.  (This is a blow to a country that has been trying to establish democracy, and improve itself, in recent years.)

Some are asking what they can do to help.  The Department of State is encouraging Americans to donate to the Red Cross via cell phone!  All you have to do is text "HAITI" to "90999" and $10 will automatically be added to your cell phone bill, and the money will go straight to the Red Cross.  (More than $8 million has been raised already!)

The American Jewish community has also set up several funds to accept donations that will then be transferred to Haiti.  Here are just 3 examples:

If you'll permit me, I want to shift gears and spend the rest of this posting on an earthquake of a different sort.

Way back in November, many of us were caught off guard by the story coming out of Jerusalem that Nofrat Frenkel, an Israeli woman who identifies with the Conservative Movement there, WAS ARRESTED FOR WEARING A TALLIT WHILE PRAYING AT THE WESTERN WALL.

I know.  The words sound absurd to me too.

After all: as liberal Jews, we are quite accustomed to having our young women don kippot and tallitot when they celebrate their Bat Mitzvah, and join a community in morning prayer.  (Indeed, in America, there is a whole cottage industry that has sprouted up to supply American Jewish women with so-called "feminine" tallitot and kippot.)

In Israel - not so much.

Because of the hegemonic authority that the Orthodox community wields over Israeli Jews, it has for a long time been extraordinarily difficult for the liberal (i.e. non-Orthodox) Jewish community of Israel (notably, Reform and Conservative Jews) to gain any kind of official recognition and legitimacy from the government (and the Orthodox rabbinate).

Anti-Reform attitudes are documented from at least as early as 1954, when the Reform movement's seminary, Hebrew Union College, (my alma mater) sought to purchase land in Jerusalem for the establishment of a campus and Reform synagogue.  The Orthodox of Jerusalem protested, and successfully delayed the opening of the facility by nine years. 

The presence of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel is a threat to the Orthodox on multiple levels.  They represent, for example, an ideological threat - in the sense that Reform and Conservative offer an alternative way of understanding how Judaism can be practiced.  Thus, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism's logo:

The Hebrew reads: "There is more than one way to be a Jew." 

Of course, Reform and Conservative Judaism don't just offer an ideological alternative to Orthodoxy.  They also offer a social one.

This is best illustrated by the non-Orthodox world's embrace of feminism and commitment to egalitarianism (gender equality).

There are things about Reform and Conservative Judaism that you and I take for granted.  Things like mixed-gender seating, and a woman's right to participate equally in Jewish ritual. 

But, from the Orthodox world, these are transgressive ideas - ideas that turn their understanding of Jewish law and culture upside down.

In a world in which the Orthodox of Israel still have the clout to demand buses with separate gender seating (separated by a mechitza or curtain!), you can imagine how Orthodox authorities feel when they see someone like Nofrat Frenkel participating in a prayer service organized by Women of the Wall.

Since Nofrat's arrest, there have been reverberations throughout liberal Jewish circles in Israel.  Anat Hoffman, one of the founders of Women of the Wall, and its current President, was arrested recently.  She was interrogated by police, and threatened with being charged with a felony.  You can read her comments here.

Just as the very real earthquake in Haiti demands action from us, so does the metaphorical one in Israel.

As recent peaceful protests and demonstrations have indicated, the arrest of Nofrat Frenkel and the subsequent questioning of Anat Hoffman could be the tipping point in the ongoing question of religious freedom and women's rights in Israel.

To help, here are three things we can do:

1) Watch the brief video below to better understand the mission of Women of the Wall.

2) Stay informed and up to date on the issues, by familiarizing yourself with the work of the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center (coincidentally headed by Anat Hoffman).

3) Sign the petition that IRAC is circulating in its effort to gain public support for Women of the Wall.

Frederick Douglas, the American ex-slave and abolitionist, once wrote that: "It is not light that we need but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder.  We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake."

For all of the terrible tragedy wrapped up in these two earthquakes, may they be the impetus that we need to kick us all into action - to help bring a little bit of healing, and hope, to two places in the world that are in desperate need of it.

What are your thoughts?  I'd love to hear what you have to say, about the crisis in Haiti, or the controversy in Israel.  Please post your comments here on the blog, or privately over email.

Shabbat Shalom.

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