Shabbat Zakhor 5779 – Esther the Feminist Hero

This morning is known as Shabbat Zakhor, the Shabbat immediately preceding the holiday of Purim.

Purim is my favorite.  At my shul in San Jose, we bring the bar up front of the sanctuary, right next to the bimah.  It’s so loud we pass out earplugs.  Our costumes give us the opportunity to don our alter-egos, and the partying is unmatched by any other holiday in the Jewish calendar.  Raucous merriment is the norm, and typical social rules are (mostly) set aside for one day.  It is even considered acceptable, I regret to say, to make fun of the Rabbi – but I do not recommend it.  Purim is the Jewish carneval, our opportunity to put a farcical spotlight on the hypocrisies and challenges embedded in society.

Megillat Esther, which we will read this Wednesday night and Thursday, embodies this spirit of farce, addressing some of the same societal challenges that we face today.  But there is so much about this story that we miss by not understanding it in its social context, and by not reading it closely enough.

Esther is unusual as one of only two books in the Hebrew Bible named after a woman (Ruth is the other).

But before Esther enters the scene in chapter two, we meet Queen Vashti.  She hosts a separate women’s banquet during her husband’s six-months-long party.  In his drunken state, the king thinks it would be a good idea to summon Vashti to appear before him and all of his guests wearing her crown.  Vashti refuses.

Furious, the King turns to his closest advisors for counsel on the proper legal response.  The men of the court are terrified that all of the women in the empire will follow the Queen’s brazen example and despise and defy their husbands.  Following the advice of one of his advisors, Achashverosh banishes Vashti. 

In recent years, feminist readers have found a hero in Queen Vashti.  She is a strong, proud woman who stands up to the male establishment with her emphatic refusal to submit to the King’s demeaning command.  

When the boorish King banishes her, Vashti marches out of the palace proudly, head high, leaving behind her legacy as a proto-feminist martyr.

In contrast, Esther seems passive–she is simply an object, used by Mordechai and Achashverosh for her looks.  Many contemporary readers accuse Mordechai of pimping out his niece.  Read the Megillah closely.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

If there is a feminist hero in this story, it is most certainly Esther, not Vashti. 

Adele Berlin, author of the JPS commentary on Esther, explains that to really understand these figures, we need to know something about ancient Persian society.

It is completely inappropriate for husbands to participate in drinking banquets in the presence of their wives.  That is why Vashti hosts a separate women’s banquet.  

When Achashverosh summons her to his party to show off her beauty, he is the one breaking the rules.  In so doing, he places the queen in an impossible situation – she can lower herself to the level of a concubine or slave, or, she can disobey the King.  Either way she loses.

She chooses to disobey and suffer the consequences.  She defends social norms by insisting that the queen should not be put on display.  In refusing, she maintains her dignity as her husband loses his.  Adele Berlin describes Vashti as playing the role of “the strong-willed royal woman.”

But really, Vashti represents those whom society places in impossible situations:  “Do what is asked of you and stay repressed.  Suffer the consequences if you step out of your role.”  Perhaps that is why we don’t hear Vashti’s voice.  

Think of the billions of people in the world who struggle in societies in which women are repressed, children don’t receive decent education, or poverty, malnutrition, and lack of access to health care limit opportunities to get ahead.  People without basic rights have a tough time challenging the status quo.

Esther is the real feminist hero of the Megillah.  She breaks all the rules, and gets away with it.

When the King sends his soldiers out across the Kingdom to gather all of the young women, Esther, an orphan refugee, is rounded up as well.  

Esther is special in many ways.  While she is described as shapely and beautiful, she has another quality that is frequently repeated in the text.  Chen – best translated as “grace.”  Chen is an inner quality by which Esther charms everyone she meets.  Chen seems to be a combination of emotional intelligence, wisdom, and confidence.

After Esther is taken, Mordechai, who has raised her like a daughter, follows his niece to the palace, hoping to overhear snippets of news.

In the harem, where the young virgins go through an entire year of preparation before appearing before the King, Esther quickly rises to the top.

The time arrives for her to go to Achashverosh.  Although she is entitled to bring anything she wants with her, Esther requests nothing.  All she needs is herself and her chen.  The King is immediately charmed, and crowns her as Queen.

In chapter three, we meet Haman, who bribes King Achashverosh to allow him to kill all of the Jews of Persia in revenge for Mordechai refusing to bow down to him.  At the end of the scene, Haman and the King sit down to drink while the city is dumbfounded by the quickly spreading news.

Thus begins chapter 4, in which Esther takes charge.  Upon hearing the terrible news, Mordechai tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth, and covers his head with ashes – all signs of mourning.

Esther hears about her uncle and sends a eunuch named Hatach to talk to Mordechai, check things out, and bring back a report.  Mordechai tells him the whole story, and even shows him Haman’s decree with the King’s seal.  He sends Hatach to Esther with the message that she must go before the King to appeal for mercy on behalf of her people.  In fact, Mordechai commands her to do so.

Esther does not comply.  “Everyone knows,” she says “that if any person, man or woman, enters the King’s presence in the inner court without having been summoned, there is but one law for him—that he be put to death.  Only if the King extends the golden scepter to him may he live. Now I have not been summoned to visit the King for the last thirty days.”

In this episode, we tend to see Mordechai as a paternalistic father-figure trying to convince his young, naive niece to intercede on behalf of the Jewish people.  This is not what is going on.

Esther’s response is not an outright refusal.  In fact, her statement shows deeper thoughtfulness and strategy than her uncle’s.  She understands the intricacies and risks of court life.  Consider her words the opening salvos in a political negotiation.

Mordechai responds, again through Hatach, playing shuttle diplomat.  “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the King’s palace.  On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish.  And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.”

How should we understand this densely packed statement?  Is it a threat?  Is Mordechai trying to appeal to Esther’s ego, dangling the prospect of becoming the hero of the story.  In any event, it seems, on the face of things, that Mordechai has taken Esther’s response as a refusal to act, and now he is trying to change her mind.

Esther responds with a plan.  She sends word to Mordechai to assemble all the Jews of Shushan and fast for three days.  Meanwhile, she will do the same with her court in the palace.  Then she throws in a bit of melodrama, “and if I am to perish, I shall perish.”

Esther throws Mordechai’s threats back at him.  She will indeed try to intercede, on her own terms.  She makes sure that Mordechai understands the risks she is taking.

We are now back where we started from.  The chapter opened with Mordechai and the Jews of Shushan in mourning.  Now, Esther has declared her solidarity with the Jews of Shushan by calling for a three day public fast, also an act of mourning.  In the postscript to the chapter, Mordechai returns to the city, and does what Esther has commanded him.

Notice that the exchanges began with Mordechai commanding a resistant Esther.  Now it is Esther who is doing the commanding.  And Mordechai obeys.  Their roles have reversed.  In its subtle way, the Megillah has shown us Esther’s transformation.

Remember Vashti’s big moment of defiance?  She refuses to appear before the King when she is summoned, and suffers the consequences.

Esther now does the exact opposite.  She shows up uninvited—a big no-no—but her boldness is rewarded.  “Even to half the Kingdom, it shall be yours,” offers Achashverosh. 

What is her request?  It’s modest: one small soirée, which is so successful that she follows it with a second.  When the King is good and tipsy, Esther goes for the big reveal.  Listen to how she builds up the tension:

If I have found grace in your eyes—chen—Your Majesty, and if it pleases Your Majesty, let my life be granted me as my wish, and my people as my request.  For we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, massacred, and exterminated.  Had we only been sold as bondmen and bondwomen, I would have kept silent; for the adversary is not worthy of the king’s trouble.”

She pauses.  “Who is he and where is he who dared to do this?” screams the King.

“The adversary and enemy,” replies Esther, drawing it out for maximum impact, “is this evil Haman!”

Her timing is impeccable.  Haman’s fate is sealed.  But Esther is just getting started.

She acquires all of Haman’s property.  She introduces her uncle Mordechai to King Achashverosh.  She puts Mordechai in charge of her new acquisitions, and the King assigns Mordechai to the newly vacated position of Viceroy.

She appeals to the King for permission for the Jews of Persia to defend themselves from their attackers, which he eagerly grants.

When the reports come back, the King himself brings the news to Esther.  The Jews of Shushan have killed 500 of their enemies, including the ten sons of Haman.  The King offers her another request.  She asks not only for permission to defend themselves again the next day, but also to impale the corpses of Haman’s sons and put them on display.

The King grants her request, and the Jews of Shushan kill another 300 people.  Across Persia, Esther’s people kill 75,000 of their enemies.

At this point, we might refer to her as Esther the Bloodthirsty.

By the end of the story, Esther is effectively ruling the Persian Empire.  She has taken down the second most powerful person in the court, and positioned her uncle to be his replacement.  She has put down a rebellion, saved her people, and become fabulously wealthy.

To accomplish all of this, Esther has broken every rule of Persian society, and everyone around her either does not notice, or does not care.  If we are looking for a feminist hero, someone to serve as a model for breaking the rules of a patriarchal society, there is nobody better than Esther.

As we celebrate Purim in a few days, let’s consider the strength of character of Queens Vashti and Queen Esther.  How did they handle a society that restricted their options?  What might they teach us about addressing the inequalities that persist in our world?  And if you are thinking about dressing up like Esther for Purim this year, let me suggest that a Disney Princess dress might not quite capture her essence.

It Is Time To Do Something About Sexual Harassment – Noach 5778

Noah is described as a “righteous man, perfect in his generation.”  God singles him out to build the ark and collect animals of every species on earth to preserve life after the coming flood.  We take the Torah’s word for it.  Noah was indeed a righteous man.  But as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks claims, righteousness is not the same thing as leadership.

For one hundred twenty years, Noah builds an ark according to God’s specifications.  In all of that time, we do not have a single record of a conversation with his neighbors.  Noah does not try to change God’s mind.  He does not try to convince anyone to change their ways.  He does nothing to try to avert the flood that he knows is coming or save any lives other than the ones God commands him to save.

Can you imagine Abraham or Moses being so complacent?

Noah’s lack of leadership raises questions about his righteousness.  In what way, exactly, is he so righteous?  In an age in which all life on earth has become thoroughly corrupt, perhaps it is sufficient to maintain one’s own personal moral integrity.

Does this make Noah innocent?  Is it enough to be righteous in one’s own personal domain while everyone else is wicked?  The ambiguity is reflected in a Talmudic argument.  One Sage argues that to behave properly in a society that has lost its way reflects a person of extremely high moral character and strength.  Another Sage argues that Noah’s righteousness is only in comparison to his own generation.  In Abraham’s time, Noah would be merely average.

The question goes deeper than this.  Noah is a bystander.  Does this make him innocent?  Or, is there no such thing as an innocent bystander?

The recent revelations by numerous victims of sexual assault and harassment by Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein have shed light on a pervasive problem.  A couple of weeks ago, Rose McGowan publicly revealed that Weinstein had raped her in 1997 when she was 23 years old.  Her revelation opened the floodgates for dozens of other women who shared that they had also been assaulted and raped by the media mogul.

It did not stopped there.  Millions of women have been using social media to share their own tragic experiences of being assaulted, harassed, and raped – some going into detail, and others by responding with the hashtag #metoo.

We are now facing evidence that millions of victims have kept silent out of shame and embarrassment for abuse that was not their fault.

As far as we have come in establishing equal rights for all people regardless of gender, we have to ask ourselves honestly if there are still cultures of misogyny and patriarchy embedded in our social institutions that allow someone like Harvey Weinstein to commit these horrible crimes over and over again for years, without ever being held accountable.  The answer is clearly yes, and the outpouring of stories indicates that it is not limited to Hollywood, but permeates every aspect of our culture.

It has emerged that plenty of people knew about Weinstein’s crimes, but nobody said anything until the floodgates opened.  How terribly heartbreaking.

Sometimes, I find as I study Jewish texts that I stumble upon a passage that speaks so clearly about the present situation that it feels like it cannot have been a coincidence.  This week, as I learned Talmud with my friend and colleague Rabbi Philip Ohriner, we came across a passage that seemed eerily relevant (BT Shabbat 54b-55a):

Rav, and Rabbi Ḥanina, and Rabbi [Yonatan], and Rav Ḥaviva taught…: Anyone who has the capability to protest [the sinful conduct] of the members of his household and does not protest, he is apprehended [ and punished] for [the sins of] the members of his household; the people of his town, he is apprehended for the people of his town; the whole world, he is apprehended for the whole world.

In other words, we bear responsibility for the actions of the people around us.  Note that they are careful to say that this is the case when we actually have the power to make the protest.  It is not difficult to imagine that someone might not be in a position to raise his or her voice.  The Talmud then shares a story.

Rav Yehuda was sitting before Shmuel [his teacher] when a particular woman came and cried before Shmuel [about an injustice that had been committed against her], and [Shmuel] paid no attention to her.  Rav Yehuda said to Shmuel: Doesn’t the Master [i.e. you] hold: “Whoever stops his ears at the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself, but shall not be heard” (Proverbs 21:13)?  [Shmuel] said to him: Big-toothed one (i.e. you have a sharp, keen tongue), your superior, [i.e., I, your teacher] will be punished in cold water.  The superior of your superior [i.e. my teacher] will be punished in hot water.  Mar Ukva sits as president of the court.

To summarize, a woman comes before a respected Rabbi to complain about a wrong that has been done to her.  We do not know what this injustice is.  We can only imagine.

In rabbinic literature, the scene of a woman bringing an injustice before a rabbi is not uncommon.  She is representative of someone without power.  Someone who is not able to get justice for herself.  So she turns to a respected religious authority.  In this story, Shmuel, the respected religious authority, ignores her.

Rav Yehudah, his student, observes the entire episode, and is shocked.  Bringing a verse, he basically asks his teacher, “how can you pretend not to hear the cries of this powerless woman before you.”  For a student to rebuke his master in this way is quite courageous.

Shmuel accepts the rebuke, admitting that not only is he fit for punishment, but Mar Ukva, the most senior Rabbi of the time, is fit for even greater punishment.

Here the story ends.  We do not know what happened next.  Did Shmuel go chasing after the woman to hear her complaint?  Probably not.  Did Shmuel or Mar Ukva receive any punishment or consequences for their dereliction of moral duty?  I doubt it.

This is a description of a society with injustices that are so embedded that the rabbis themselves, the ones who are supposed to be the moral consciences of the community, do not even see them.

How sadly fitting for the current conversation.  It is the complaint of an unnamed woman that sparks this episode.  But take note whose experiences are included, and whose are ignored.  The Talmud, a book written by men for a male audience, does not share her perspective.  What is her complaint?  Could it be that she has come to report a case of sexual harassment or rape?  Quite possibly.  How much courage did it take for her to even bring her case to the Rabbi?  How did she feel when he refused to listen to her?  Will she come back the next time she suffers an injustice?

What was she thinking when she got home?  If she was married, did she tell her husband what happened?  Her friends?  Her daughter?  Her son?  Her parents?

If the #metoo comments of this past week are at all indicative, she probably felt shame and embarrassment, and likely told nobody.

Although two thousand years have passed, we still live with a societal plague of our own making in which sexual harassment is passively or actively encouraged.

Rav Yehudah had the courage to speak out against his teacher’s indifference.  Shmuel had the willingness to admit to making a mistake.  But neither of them took it any further.

As the Talmud clearly teaches, if we have the ability to protest and remain silent, we are guilty.  In 2017, this is something that all of us can effectively do something about.

As a male, I have to consider all of the ways in which my life has been made easier due simply to my gender, in subtle ways in which I was not even aware at the time.  I have to listen to the stories of women who have experienced discrimination, harassment, and abuse – often made possible by institutionalized power imbalances.  And I have to suspend my temptation to reject or judge their experiences.  It is not my place to do so.

We parents have to teach our kids very explicitly to be able to say no to things that make them uncomfortable, and to always respect another person’s request to be left alone.  As kids get older, we need to teach them that consent must be explicit.  If I do not bring this up with my children, I am guilty.

In the workplace, and in social situations, it is not enough for me to simply respect other people’s boundaries.  I have to be an upstander.  If I see someone else crossing the line, I have to do something.  If I do not, I am guilty.

I think that there is a real opportunity to change the way that our society treats sexual harassment, discrimination, and rape.  The laws are mostly in place.  But the change that needs to happen now has to come from us.  We have the ability to make it happen.

The Women’s Mirrors – Vayakhel 5776

In this morning’s Torah portion, we read of the Israelites’ building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, along with all of its furnishings and the special clothing of the Priests.  This is one of two parashiyot that describe this.  And, this is after God has communicated all of these instructions to Moses on Mt. Sinai over the course of two previous parashiyot.  That the Torah takes so much time to describe the details not once, but two separate times is an indication of the important role of the mishkan in ancient Israelite religion.  The mishkan, the portable Temple that the Israelites carried with them for forty years in the wilderness, symbolically represents the permanent Temple that stood in Jerusalem for nearly one thousand years and served as the center of Jewish religious life.

Once the mishkan, and later the Temple, was put into service, there were very specific regulations about who could enter its precincts, as well as how close to the innermost chamber one could go.  Only the kohanim, the priests, could enter the inner sancta, and only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and just once a year.  Common Israelite males were allowed inside up to a certain point from which they could watch some of the rituals, but the furthest into the interior that women were allowed did not even provide a few of the priestly service.

It was believed that if a person transgressed the furthest boundary permitted to him or her, that person risked being struck down by heavenly fire.  This included, by the way, a priest who entered while not in a state of ritual purity.

With such rigid, restrictive access to the Temple, it is somewhat surprising that the construction of the mishkan was so democratic.  The Torah regularly emphasizes the involvement of all of the Israelites.  They brought voluntary donations of precious metals, stones, cloth, leather, and wood.  A half shekel tax was required of every Israelite male.  Most significantly, everyone was given the opportunity to be involved in the craftsmanship.  It was a meritocracy.  Whoever had the skills in weaving, building, metalwork, etc., was invited to participate, regardless of tribe, pedigree, or gender.

What stands out in particular are the numerous mentions of women’s contributions to the mishkan.  Over and over, the Torah makes sure to tell us about women’s involvement in the construction of the mishkan.  And not simply general statements.  We know about specific contributions that they made.

Because the texts that we have inherited reflect more patriarchal times, whenever the Torah does say something about a woman, either individually or as a class, we ought to pay close attention.  Sometimes, stories involving women are more fully developed.  On other occasions, we find oblique references which might hint at a more complete oral tradition that has been lost to us.

Towards the end of Parashat Vayakhel, we read about the kiyor nechoshet.  The bronze laver, or washing fountain.

וַיַּעַשׂ אֵת הַכִּיּוֹר נְחשֶׁת וְאֵת כַּנּוֹ נְחֹשֶׁת בְּמַרְאֹת הַצֹּבְאֹת אֲשֶׁר צָבְאוּ פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד.

“He made the laver of bronze and its stand of bronze from the mirrors of the women who flocked to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.”  (Exodus 38:8)

The fountain was used by the priests to ritually wash their hands and feet before entering the holy precincts and performing the rituals.  For some reason, the Torah wants us to take note that the metal used for constructing this laver came from melted down women’s mirrors.  In ancient times, a hand mirror was made out of a highly polished piece of bronze or other metal and was quite valuable.  Glass was not available.

Why this detail?  To further confuse matters, when Moses received instructions for how to build the fountain back in chapter 30, there was no indication of the source of the metal.  That detail appears only here.  We are left with questions.  Why was the fountain made out of these melted down mirrors?  Why are the women described in this unusual way:

הַצֹּבְאֹת אֲשֶׁר צָבְאוּ פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד

– depending on the translation “the women who flocked / performed tasks / gathered together at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting?”  This expression appears here and in only one other place in the Bible.

The contemporary Bible scholar Nahum Sarna claims that these were women who “performed menial work” and that they were “at the bottom of the occupational and social scale.”  The Torah goes out of its way to record their donation of these personal items because they “displayed unselfish generosity and sacrificial devotion.” (JPS Bible Commentary, Exodus, p. 230)  Even the lowliest women gave up their most precious possessions to build the mishkan.

The thirteenth century Spanish commentator Ramban offers an explanation of the p’shat, the plain sense meaning, of the verse.  The women were so eager to participate in the building of the mishkan that they voluntary offered a very valuable, personal belonging.  The word tzov’ot is used because the women assembled like an army with their mirrors.  Tzava means army or host.  Tzov’ot conveys a sense of enthusiasm and excitement.  They rushed, like soldiers assembling for a muster.

The commentator Ibn Ezra offers a sober explanation.  (*You might not like this.)  The way of women, he says, is make themselves appear pretty by looking at their faces in metal or glass mirrors in order to arrange the hats on their heads.  There were some Israelite women who abandoned the vanities of the world, giving up their mirrors which they no longer needed.  They would come every day to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to pray and hear the words of the mitzvot.

In a slight variation, the commentator Hizkuni says that the women assembled there daily to hear the praises and singing of the kohanim and leviim.  Another commentator, Sforno, claims that they came to hear the words of the Living God.

All three of these explanations set up a dichotomy between concern with female attention to physical appearance, on the one hand, and piety, on the other.

Rashi cites a midrash that offers a more colorful explanation.  When the Israelite women showed up with all of their mirrors, Moses was disgusted.  These objects that women use to adorn themselves serve the purposes of the yetzer hara, the evil inclination.  Moses wants to reject the gift.  But the Holy One sees something different.  God says to Moses: Accept them.  These mirrors are more precious to me than anything else!  When the Israelites were in Egypt, the men would be off working in the fields, too exhausted to even come home after work.  So their wives would bring food and drink out to them in the fields and feed them.  And they would bring their mirrors.  They would entice their men, looking together at their reflections and exclaiming, “look how much prettier I am than you.”  And they would awaken their husbands’ desires.  That is how the Israelite population flourished in Egypt.

The Torah describes the mirrors with the words b’marot hatzov’ot.  The Israelite women used these mirrors to create a host – an army – of children in Egypt.  The Talmud cites this midrash as one of several supports for the claim that the redemption of the Israelites from slavery took place due to the righteousness of women.

Why were these mirrors used specifically to make the bronze fountain?  Rashi explain that the fountain played a central role in subduing a jealous husband and restoring peace to the home.  The ritual of the sotah, the suspected adulteress, involved the use of water drawn from the bronze fountain.  A woman whose husband suspected her of cheating with another man would drink the water in order to prove her innocence.

In contrast to Ibn Ezra and the others, Rashi’s explanation integrates sexuality with pious intent.  In the midrash, Moses acts like a prude, but God sees something holy and life-affirming in these mirrors.

Yet all of these explanations reflect the age-old stereotype that women are vain and focused on their looks and must use their sexuality to succeed.  For Ibn Ezra and the others, it is a rejection of the mirror, a denial of their sexuality, that leads to piety.  For Rashi, it is the wives’ embrace of sexual desire during a particularly dark and depressing time in our history that prompts God’s praise.  For all of them, the fountain made from the women’s mirrors is the primary item in the Temple that restores the relationship between husband and wife when she is suspected of sexual impropriety.

Because our traditional texts so rarely describe women’s experiences, we must try to celebrate them where they occur, even though they may reflect a patriarchal worldview.  As society has become more egalitarian over the past two centuries, we have tried to include women in traditionally male aspects of religious life.  Perhaps we ought to consider seeing men in light of women’s traditional roles as well.

Even today, in 2016, in Northern California, we still fall into traditional patterns of gender stereotypes in so many ways.

I like the idea of God rebuking Moses, almost playfully, for his negative reaction to the women’s mirrors.  There is a wisdom and a piety expressed in the ability to integrate the physical with the spiritual.  It is the women who are aware of this.  It is Moses, and by extension the men, who are in the dark.  It seems that God wants to bring us into the light.

Speaking with a Single Voice – Mishpatim 5776

There was a momentous decision in Israel at the beginning of this week.  The Israeli Cabinet voted to endorse the Mendelblit Plan to create an official egalitarian section of the kotel, the Western Wall.  It legally designated the entire area as a pluralistic space that belongs to the entire Jewish people.  For the first time, the government will fund what until now has been referred to as the “Egalitarian Kotel,” or Ezrat Yisrael, and has been maintained by the Masorti, or Conservative, Movement.

Here are some of the details.  The existing segregated men and women’s sections will remain in place and continue to be administered by the Charedi Western Wall Heritage Foundation, under the leadership of Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz.  The plaza behind those two sections will remain under the administration of Rabbi Rabinowitz, although it will now be officially designated as a public space and used for national and swearing-in ceremonies for the IDF.  Whereas in the past, women were prohibited from singing or speaking at those ceremonies, there will no longer be such discrimination.

Previously, violations of “local custom” have been punishable by 6 months in prison or a 500 shekel fine.  The Charedi authorities have been able to define “local custom,” which has resulted in many women being arrested for praying over the past two decades.  The new plan decriminalizes women’s prayer.

Regarding the Egalitarian Kotel, located in the Davidson Archaeological Garden, which is to the South of what we generally think of as the Western Wall, there will be a number of changes.  The space will expand significantly from the current 4800 square feet to nearly 10,000.  In comparison, the segregated sections comprise 21,500 square feet.  Currently, the entrance is located next to a poorly signed guard booth outside of the main entrance gate to the Kotel plaza.  That will change, with a prominent entranceway being built in the main plaza area.  There will be three metal detector lines: male-only, female-only, and egalitarian.  In addition, Sifrei Torah, siddurim, chumashim, and other ritual items for prayer will be available, paid for with state funding.

Women of the Wall’s monthly Rosh Chodesh service will be moved to the new area when the expansions are completed.  Until then, they will continue to meet in the existing women’s section.

The Egalitarian Kotel will be governed by the Southern Wall Plaza Council, comprised of representatives from the Masorti and Reform movements, Women of the Wall, the Jewish Federations of North America, and the Israeli government.  The committee will be chaired by the Chair of the Jewish Agency.  The site administrator will be a government employee appointed by the Prime Minister.

The plan also mandates that the Southern Wall Plaza Council and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation hold a roundtable meeting at least five times per year to address and resolve issues that may arise.

So this is exciting news, right?

As we might expect, the Masorti and Reform movements, along with Women of the Wall, immediately released joyous press releases.  But – surprise, surprise – not everyone is happy.

Rabbi Rabinowitz compared the division of the wall “among tribes” to the sinat chinam, the senseless hatred, that according to tradition, led to the destruction of the Second Temple.

On the other side, some are asking, “when did ‘separate but equal’ become the goal of any civil rights movement?”  A splinter-group calling itself the “Original Women of the Wall” has pointed out that Orthodox women who do not feel comfortable in egalitarian services now have no place to pray in a women’s minyan.

Time will tell how this plays out.

Last Sunday during religious school tefilah, we spoke to the students about the exciting news.  I quickly realized that most of the kids there had absolutely no idea what we were talking about.

Some of them knew what the kotel was.  Almost none of them knew what a mechitzah was.  A mechitzah is the separation barrier between men and women in an Orthodox synagogue.  So I had to start from the beginning.

You see, here in liberal, egalitarian Northern California, most of us never experience explicit segregation, whether by gender, religion, or ethnicity.  I am not talking about more subtle forms of segregation, which certainly exist.  But we do not typically encounter physical mechitzah‘s in our daily lives.  Quite the opposite.  We emphasize diversity, multiculturalism, and tolerance.  We give our girls and boys the same education, and we deliberately try to instill the belief that gender should neither be a hindrance nor an advantage to them in their lives.  Egalitarianism is all they have known.

Which means that we are not doing a very good job of preparing them for the real world, or even the Jewish world.

I explained to the religious school kids what a mechitzah was, including that there are many different kinds.  I pointed to the balcony in our sanctuary, and told them that in some synagogues, a balcony like that would be the women’s section and that women would not be able to lead any parts of the service.

Then I shared with them about my experiences growing up attending an Orthodox Jewish day school.  When I was in middle school, we had daily tefilah in the auditorium.  There was a mechitzah down the middle comprised of portable room dividers.  Of course, only the boys could lead services.  As a boy, it did not strike me as a big deal.  It was simply how things were.

I later found out from one of my friends from the other side of the mechitzah that whenever the girls started praying too loudly, the teachers shushed them – female teachers, mind you.  My friend, who attended the same egalitarian, Conservative synagogue that I did, was really upset about it.  After all, like me, she was accustomed to going up to the bimah on a regular basis.  I felt a little guilty myself, now that I knew that I was being given opportunities that were being denied to my classmates because of their gender.

As you can imagine, most of our religious school kids were shocked to hear this.  It was so foreign to everything that they have learned and experienced.

It is important for us to prepare them for the wider Jewish world.  Our goal is to raise kids into committed, knowledgeable Jewish adults.  If we succeed, then they will find themselves in other synagogues from time to time in their journeys through life.  When they encounter other ways of being Jewish, will they appreciate the differences or will they negatively judge the unfamiliar?  That depends on how we teach them.

Where do we draw the line between embracing pluralism and diversity and holding on to our principled positions?  How do we teach it to our kids?

The message that I tried to convey to our Religious School students is to, when we are in our own home and community, fully embrace our values.  We are committed to Jewish tradition and history, but we understand that times change and our understanding of what the Torah asks of us changes.  It has always been this way.

At the same time, we must understand that the Jewish world is diverse.  There are many communities which, like ours, take Judaism seriously, but practice it differently.  When we are guests in those communities, it is important to be respectful.  I don’t have to like it, but just because I do not like it does not mean it is not an authentic expression of Judaism.  Ours has never been a monolithic tradition.

Which is why things get complicated in the public arena.  Sometimes, having things my way means that those who disagree with me cannot have it their way.

Charedim represent a minority of the Jewish world, but a majority of those who frequent the kotel.  To what extent should their needs for segregated prayer spaces and suppression of women’s voices take precedence over the needs of other Jews who want access to the kotel in a way that is more egalitarian?

The answer to that question is sure to disappoint someone, as we have seen already with this most recent decision by the Israeli Cabinet.  But it is a question that we have got to be engaged in openly and honestly.

At the end of this morning’s Torah portion, there is an incredible moment.  Moses comes down from Sinai after receiving the laws from God.  He assembles the entire nation together at the base of the mountain.  He repeats all of the mitzvot to them.  The people respond with an unprecedented declaration of unity: vaya’an kol-ha’am kol echad.  “and the people answered with a single voice and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.'”  (Ex. 24:3)  All of the people are there: men and women, adults and children, old and young – nobody is left out.  There are no mechitzah‘s.  And they speak in unison, although to be precise, the verb is singular.  The people speaks in a single voice.

At this moment, in accepting the Torah, the Jewish people exists as a singularity.  Since then, groups of Jews in different times and places have found different ways of living up to that commitment.  Even though practice has varied considerably, we all look back to this foundational moment of embracing the Torah with a single voice.

I would hope that we, the diverse Jewish people, can find more opportunities to discover shared values and aspirations.  I pray that our holy places, especially the Kotel, will one day cease being an object of contention that divides us and serve rather as a symbol that brings us together as a single people from the four corners of the earth.

Dinah, The Yatzanit – Vayishlach 5775

There is a current trend in Hollywood of making epic movies based on stories from the Torah.  Earlier this year, we saw the release of Noah, by Darren Aronofsky.  Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings opens next weekend.  This Sunday night is the premier on Lifetime of a mini-series adaptation of Anita Diamant’s biblical-historical novel, The Red Tent.  I can only assume that it has been timed for release with this morning’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, in which we read the story of the book and mini-series’ central character, Dinah.

I saw the trailer for the miniseries.  It is what I would have expected: stunning desert scenes, dramatic music, beautiful actors, violence, and quite a bit of skin.  According to the journalist Debra Nussbaum Cohen, “the miniseries provides Lifetime’s heavily female audience with gauzy love scenes that verge on soft porn.”

When the novel, The Red Tent, was first published in 1997, it had no advertising budget and did not attract much attention.  Anita Diamant, however, wisely hit the synagogue lecture circuit, and by 2001, it had become a New York Times bestseller.  It has since sold over 3 million copies.

It also pioneered a literary trend of Jewish female-centered novels set in times in which women’s voices have rarely been recorded.  Maggie Anton wrote her Rashi’s daughters trilogy, and is now two thirds of the way through her Rav Hisda’s daughters trilogy, for example.

Anita Diamant was prompted to write The Red Tent by Dinah’s total silence in the biblical text.  Dinah does not get a single word in the thirty one verses that describe her ordeal.

Many readers have described The Red Tent as a modern midrash, an effort to fill in the gaps and thereby describe what happened then in a way that also connects with our view of the world today.

Interestingly, the author disagrees.  She writes the following:

The Red Tent is not a translation but a work of fiction. Its perspective and focus—by and about the female characters—distinguishes it from the biblical account, in which women are usually peripheral and often totally silent. By giving Dinah a voice and by providing texture and content to the sketchy biblical descriptions, my book is a radical departure from the historical text.

Simply put, The Red Tent is a novel based on a biblical story.  But for the millions of people who have read it, especially Jewish women, it has been a powerful and religiously meaningful suggestion of what life might have been like for the women who lived in our Patriarchs’ households.

The Red Tent makes significant, and intentional, departures from the text.  It describes what the Torah depicts as Shechem’s rape of Dinah instead as a consensual, loving marriage that Dinah freely enters.  It presents the women of Jacob’s household as idol-worshipping pagans.  And of course, it gives Dinah voice and volition, both of which are absent in the text itself.

The language in chapter 34 is extremely deliberate.  Let’s focus on some of the verbs.  Dinah is the subject of exactly one verb in the entire story.  Ironically, her verb is the opening word of the chapter.  Vatetze Dinah.  “And Dinah, Leah’s daughter,whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to go seeing among the daughters of the land.”  (Genesis 34:1, Translation by Robert Alter)

For all other verbs in this story, Dinah is an object to be seen, taken, slept with, abused, defiled, and given away.

The medieval commentator Rashi records a midrash (Genesis Rabbah 80:1) that asks why Dinah is described as Leah’s daughter rather than Jacob’s daughter.  It is because her “going out” is similar to something her mother, Leah, had done a few chapters earlier.  After making a deal with her sister and co-wife Rachel, Leah goes out into the field to inform their husband Jacob that he must sleep with her that night.  Thus “going out” is associated with wantonness and promiscuity.  “Like mother like daughter,” as the Prophet Ezekiel states (Ezekiel 16:44).  Dinah, says Rashi, is a Yatzanit.

While there are other commentators that do not find fault with either Dinah or Leah, and indeed praise them both, we see in the midrash that Rashi chooses to cite the sexist and dangerous attitude that seeks to blame the victim.  “She was asking for it.”  “She should have known better than to go out looking like that.”  And so on.

How sad that the one verb attributed to Dinah in the entire Torah is interpreted so horribly!

Indeed, the verbs in the rest of the story also reflect the classic misogyny in which women are not seen as agents who can determine their own fate, but rather as property to be owned and traded.

Two verbs that occur numerous times are lakach and natan – take and give.  There is nothing unusual about these two words.  Both are ubiquitous and among the most common words in Hebrew.  In this story, these words are used almost exclusively to describe the transferring of possession of females by males.

Here are a few of the many examples:  Shechem takes Dinah and rapes her after he sees her.  Later, in love with Dinah, Shechem begs his father Chamor to “take for me this girl as a wife.”  When Chamor speaks to Jacob about it, he asks him to “Please give her to him as a wife.”  Chamor then suggests that the two tribes should intermarry with each other.  “You give your daughters to us, and our daughters you shall take for yourselves.”

When they hear about it, Dinah’s brothers are unhappy.  “We cannot do such a thing,” they say, “to give our sister to a man who has a foreskin…”  Negotiations go back and forth.  Eventually, the men of the town agree to be circumcised so that their respective daughters can be given and taken accordingly.  As per the agreement, Dinah is sent to Shechem’s house.  But it is all a ruse.  Shimon and Levi sneak into town and slaughter all of the men.  “Then they take Dinah from the house of Shechem and they leave.”

While incredibly upsetting, it should not surprise us that this ancient text presents women as passive chattel.  That was the social structure in the Ancient Near East.

These texts are part of our holy Torah, however.  Our tradition considers these words to be sacred, and insists that they contain ultimate Truth.  As Jews, we have to find how these words speak to us today.  In some cases, as in this story, there are elements both of the story itself and of how it has been traditionally understood, which many of us find deeply problematic.

That does not mean there is not a Truth that can speak to us from this text.

At this moment, a national conversation is taking place, primarily on college campuses, about what constitutes consent.  The old adage was “no means no.”  Now there are those who advocate a higher standard of “yes means yes.”  In other words, if both parties do not verbally consent, a sexual act may be considered rape.

In the course of this national conversation, attitudes are emerging that suggest that the clothing a person chooses to wear, or the decision to attend a fraternity party, for example, makes a victim at least partly responsible for the sexual assault she suffers.

While we as a society have come far in terms of promoting gender equality, and creating equal space for women’s voices, it is clear that we still have a way to go.  The way that we speak about gender and equality in religion is a central part of that progress.  Religion both reflects and, in some cases, leads the progress that society makes.

Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent has been a very important step that is both symbolic of and has inspired the embrace of women’s experiences and voices in Jewish tradition.

I am not suggesting that we should all go out and watch the Lifetime miniseries.  It will probably be entertaining, as well as “gauzy,” but I am not expecting any fabulous new insights.  Personally, I will not be watching it because I do not subscribe to cable.  I will just have to wait until it comes out on DVD.

But I see the trend of creatively considering how we might understand the voices of previously-silenced Jewish women to be an important one, whether in a miniseries, in a novel, or even more importantly, whenever we read our ancient holy texts.