Friday, May 14, 2010

A Thought on the Parsha

Reading the other day the deeply disturbing story of a woman who was attacked in Beersheba when someone noticed tefillin imprints on her arm, I was reminded of the message of parashat Bamidbar that I shared with our musmachim at our semikha ceremony two years ago.

In parashat Bamidbar, which we read yesterday, the Torah tells us just how to construct a community that has God and Torah at its center. God's command, vi'asu li mikdash vi'shakhanti bi'tokham, "Make for Me a Sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst" - is now given true shape as the Children of Israel depart from the Mount Sinai and begin to move and settle as a camp, as a community. The Sanctuary, God's presence, lives in the center of the camp, and the tribes are arranged, each with its distinct position, each with its banner, around the Sanctuary.

What we learn, first of all, is that even when we depart Mount Sinai, even as we live in the larger world, outside of our shuls and our schools, we must remain oriented towards God's presence, directing our actions towards God, and bringing Torah into the larger world.

We further learn that to be one people is not to be a homogenous mass; that unity is not to be confused with uniformity. True unity, creating a bonded, cohesive community, comes from respecting differences - ish al diglo - each tribe with its own uniqueness, its own distinctiveness preserved. Some are on the left, some on the right, some North, some South. What held them together was a shared commitment to respect each other's boundaries, to value their degalim, their distinct flags, their diversity, and to exist together as one people with a shared orientation towards God's presence in their midst.

Much of the rabbinic leadership today believes that the only Jews who count are those who act within a narrow definition, a definition that is getting narrower each day. It is a leadership that is fearful of diversity, that believes that unity can come only if all Jews act and believe in exactly the same way - their way. YCT leadership will be a different one. They will spread God's Torah and its teachings, and at the same time will teach a respect for all Jews, that even Jews who never enter the Sanctuary can have God in their midst. They will have a different vision of Klal Yisrael. They will teach a unity that is fused by a shared orientation, not by sameness, a unity that values and respects difference. In a world where small-mindedness and intolerance is rife, in a world where Jewish identity and shared values are elusive concepts, this is a Herculean challenge indeed, but in the striving to achieve it, they will do much to transform the Jewish community and our respect for one another.

As a religious community we are very far from this ideal, indeed. Not only do we tend to focus only on those who are Orthodox, actively rejecting or passively ignoring broader Klal Yisrael, but we also find the need to constantly draw lines of divide within the Orthodox and halakhically observant community. We are told that this person or that person is michutz lamacheneh, outside of the camp. It is a way of defining community in very narrow, monochromatic terms. This approach is a distortion of Torah and of our mesorah. It is an approach that rejects the true machane of Benei Yisrael, a camp of twelve tribes, a camp that embraced diversity, that understood that unity is about shared commitment and orientation, not about sameness.

Last year I was in Israel at a conference of rabbis, and the topic for that afternoon was women's participation in the community and the shul. A rabbi spoke on the topic of women saying kaddish. He shared that he wanted to do what was best for the community, and he was prepared to allow a woman to say kaddish in his shul, but this created an enormous amount of conflict. So, for the sake of peace, he reversed his position and asked that women not say kaddish in his shul. While this is an occurrence that happens regularly - in one manifestation or another - in shuls everywhere, I was particularly disturbed by this story. Here was a rabbi who was not motivated ideologically, and who in principle was prepared to allow this practice, but who backed off to preserve the peace in his community. Even setting aside the ethical issue of preserving the peace of the majority at the expense of the rights of the individual, what is deeply disturbing is that there was another way to address the communal issue. The rabbi need not have bought into the cause of the conflict - the belief that many of his community had, that one person's actions defined their identity - that this woman's saying kaddish, this "feminist" act, as it were (here is not the time to detail how this was a widely accepted practice in Lithuania and elsewhere), defined them as feminist as well. Here was an opportunity to educate the community on the lesson of diversity. That to allow such behavior is not to say that I identify with the position, it is to say that I respect the principle of elu vi'elu, that I want a community that welcomes a wide diversity of people, a halakhic community that respects the range of halakhic practices. Why not do the hard work to create shalom by working to create a community that is a true machaneh Yisrael. Let each person have his or her degel. It need not be your degel, but make sure that they are part of the machaneh, not michutz lamachaneh.

What we need is a rabbinic leadership, and a laity, that is committed to Klal Yisrael and to achdut Yisrael. Let us all work together to build a true machaneh Yisrael, with all its degalim, with all its diversity.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dov Linzer

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