Today was destined to be an auspicious day, the confluence of three important events. It was International Women’s Day, which for more than a hundred years has celebrated the role – and the promise – of girls and women throughout the world. It was the 30th anniversary of Women of the Wall, which has shown as a beacon of strength and determination and joy in Israel. It was Rosh Hodesh – the new moon, on which women’s prayers are considered especially auspicious – which meant that Women of the Wall would be celebrating this anniversary by praying at the Kotel. And not only was it Rosh Hodesh, it was Rosh Hodesh Adar, the month when we read the story of Queen Esther’s courage in saving the Jews of ancient Persia.
And it all went about as horribly wrong as I had feared – and expected – that it would.
The signs beforehand were ominous. Literally.
Flyers handed out throughout ultra-Orthodox communities in and around Jerusalem read like fake newspaper covers, calling essentially for holy war on the Women of the Wall. “The Reform have conquered the Kotel!” – the explosive headline read. “We must prevent it! All of us to the Kotel, Friday, 6:45 AM!”
So by the time members of Women of the Wall and the men who support them arrived at the Kotel – the holiest space in all of Judaism – the entire plaza already was crammed with Haredi men and boys and girls bussed in from so-called religious schools across the area.
They were not there to pray the prayers for the new month – but to prevent this group of women from doing so.
I was watching the live feed on Facebook in the middle of the night. Here’s what I saw:
Not only had the request for a sound system by Women of the Wall for the large group they expected been turned down by the Haredi rabbis in charge of the Western Wall Plaza – that sound system had instead been set up in the men’s section, where it was turned up full blast to drown out the women’s prayers.
Not only was there no security for the women, but the Jerusalem Police blamed them for inciting a riot by coming to the women’s section to pray – as they have done every month for three decades.
Not only were the women jostled and pushed and punched and scratched by these so-called religious girls who screamed at them and tugged at their prayer shawls and their tefillin – but the Men of the Women of the Wall were displaced and physically abused as well. Among them several of the famed paratroopers who liberated Jerusalem in 1967 – true national heroes being treated like garbage.
The scene was a calamity – and a dangerous one at that. The women trying to pray together were pushed apart and separated, so that they couldn’t even hear each other, much less pray a coherent service. They eventually had to be evacuated to Robinson’s Arch, a separate space for egalitarian worship, in order to hold their Torah service.
Let’s be clear about this. Women have the right to pray together, and to pray together at the Kotel – both by traditional Jewish law and by Israel civil law as upheld by the courts over and over again.
But the worst violence against them in at least five years was precipitated by an ultra-Orthdox patriarchy that cares nothing for either halakhah or civil law but only for amassing power. And it has been enabled and emboldened by an Israeli government – led for the last decade by Benjamin Netanyahu – that has a nasty co-dependent relationship with this Haredi patriarchy. It is a relationship based on power and patronage and male domination.
There are many people in Israel who would consider themselves chiloni – secular – and don’t care much about what happens to Women of the Wall. But they should. Because the travesty at the Kotel this morning is just one symptom of life in Israel that is increasingly erasing women from both religious and civil life.
In religious communities – and even outside of them – signs have appeared ordering women to walk on one side of the street and not the other, or to dress in more modest garb, or to avoid going anywhere near the neighborhood synagogue even when men are not at prayer.
In what are supposed to be secular government public events, women have been barred from speaking, or even appearing.
Posters – paid advertisements – for women running for public office have been effaced from the sides of public buses.
And just this week, a class-action lawsuit was filed against IKEA – the consummate example of modern secular consumerism – because their Israeli catalog included not one photo of a woman or a girl, but only of black-hatted, bearded religious men and their sons.
And even men who are supposed to be reasonable, open-minded allies are not always helpful. Netanyahu’s ever-more reactionary ruling coalition is being challenged by a new, more moderate Blue-and-White coalition, which says it will support the expansion and renovation of the Robinson’s Arch egalitarian prayer area. But the coalition’s number-two, Yair Lapid, stepped in it big time last week when he was asked at a public event why there are so few women on the group’s candidate list for the upcoming elections. There are only nine women in the top 30 and 13 in the top 40.
First, Lapid gave the rather lame excuse that, yes, it’s regrettable, but the list was done in haste in last-minute negotiations. Then, according to the Times of Israel newspaper:
“After offering his answer, Lapid introduced the party’s second-highest female candidate on the list, Orna Barbivai, a retired army major-general who is in tenth place, to stand up and acknowledge the crowd. But she declined and Lapid responded with a smile and said: “We have a small number of women candidates and even they lack discipline.’”
I was told by an Israeli colleague – well, that’s just Israeli self-deprecating humor. But Lapid wasn’t making fun of himself. And frankly there’s no excuse for a coalition that purports to be centrist and broad-based but does not recruit candidates of all races and backgrounds, men and women alike, from the get-go. That it wouldn’t occur to them to do so shows just how far to the right Israel has moved. And it is deeply, deeply disturbing.
All of this comes at a time when we American Jews are being bombarded here at home with hardened and emboldened antisemitism from both the left and the right, and when we have suffered (close to home) a spike in hate crimes against us and our communities. But, frankly, it’s getting harder and harder to justify support for Israel on the grounds that it is the only functioning democracy in the Middle East, when it looks and acts increasingly like something very different.
For the nearly nine years that I have been your rabbi, I have been proud of the support our community has shown for Women of the Wall. My first year here, we did a photo shoot of women and girls and their families wearing tallitot and holding Torah scrolls. One year, we decorated oranges for our seder plates with Women of the Wall slogans. This year, our Confirmation students have been inspired by meeting via the internet with my Jerusalem-based colleague and friend Rabbi Susan Silverman. Susan is a longtime member of Women of the Wall who was arrested along with her then-17-ear-old daughter Hallel six years ago – for the simple act of wearing prayer shawls during worship at the Kotel.
It is so important that we continue to support Women of the Wall into the next decade of their advocacy for women and girls in all walks of life. They are an example of courage and determination that should inspire us all of us.
Every single month, they walk the gauntlet, knowing they will be cursed and spat on and pushed and shoved and knocked down – all because they want to pray in peace, and they want to pray for peace.
Every single month, they show us what an eishet chayil, a Woman of Valor, really looks like.
Every single month, they hold the ground against an ever-more powerful patriarchy that is determined to sideline and disempower women from both religious and civil life in a land that was founded to be both Jewish and democratic. And if they can push back, with the challenges they face, then so can we.
Every day ought to be International Women’s Day. Every day ought to bring us one step closer to equal pay, equal rights, and equal opportunities – without fear of harassment, or threats of punishment for our impudence.
We were warned. We were given an explanation. Nevertheless, we persisted. Let that be said of all of us on this International Women’s Day, on this Rosh Hodesh, on this first day of the month of Adar, when a woman’s voice is heard and a woman’s courage is celebrated.
Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
© 2019 Audrey R. Korotkin
Gold and silver and copper for vessels. Blue and purple and crimson yarn for weaving curtains. Fine linen and goat’s hair, tanned ram skins and dolphin skins for the tent walls. Acacia wood for the altar tables. Oil for lighting. Spices for anointing. Aromatic incense for ceremonies. Precious gems for the priestly vestments.
These are among the precious possessions that the Israelites are summoned to bring to the artisans who are constructing the Tabernacle in the wilderness, at the start of this week’s Torah portion. Somehow, a rag-tag group of escaped slaves has access to such things in such great quantity, and is eager to give them so willingly, that Moses actually has to tell them to stop giving – because it’s more than God needs.
The truth of the matter is, of course, that Israel’s God needs none of this. But the people believe God does – and right now, in this Neverland between the Egypt they have left and the land they have been promised as their own – right now, that’s what matters.
The land is full of Temples and altars to the pantheons of Gods that were were worshipped across the Ancient Near East. The gods always got the best of what the people had – from the precious metals and gems to adorn the temples, to the animals sacrificed on the altars, to the skills of the artisans and weavers and goldsmiths. This is what the ancient peoples believed: If we care for our gods and their needs, then they will care for us and ours.
But as we are overwhelmed by the details and the minutiae, it’s all too easy to forget that this temple, this altar, is unlike any other. For God has commanded that these wanderers in need of love and protection create a portable tabernacle that will go with them: “V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham: Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”
Let’s just stop and think for a moment about what an extraordinary statement that is.
In the ancient world, everybody else believed in a vast pantheon of gods, each of whom had a specific role and a specific realm. A god of the sun and a god of the moon. A god of the mountains and a god of the sea. A god of rain and a god of the harvest. Each one had to be worshiped and fed and obeyed, in his or her own temple. The people went to them.
But Israel’s God is like no other – one God of creation, revelation and redemption. One God overseeing the workings of the whole material world. And instead of insisting that these wanderers come to God, God is saying – wherever you go, I will be with you, and this Tabernacle will be My home. V’shachanti b’tocham.
The three-letter root for the Hebrew word “to dwell” is shin-khaf-nun. In these same Biblical passages, it is at the root of the word Mishkan – the tabernacle itself.
And from this same root, the rabbis create the Divine persona of Shechina, the indwelling, close presence of God. The nurturing feminine aspects of a God previously portrayed as celestial, accessible only to Moses on Mount Sinai, and masculine, capable of destroying whole armies with a wave of His hand.
The Shekhina, for the rabbis, is that facet of God that the Israelites need in times of distress, loneliness, and fear. Not just in the wilderness, but anywhere we go – by choice or by force. By invitation or by exile. And not just thirty-five hundred years ago, but even now.
As the great Rabbi Akiva taught: “Shekol makom she-galu, shechina imahem, Wherever Israel goes into exile, Shechina is with them.”
What an astonishing notion! A God that is willing to go into the wilderness, into exile, into danger – to protect an entire nation, in every generation. Never before had the world seen such a thing! But that’s not the end of the story.
During my month away, I’ve been – among other things – studying the Zohar, the foundational text of medieval Jewish mysticism, with the brilliant scholar Daniel Matt, who spent eighteen years of his life creating a modern, annotated English translation of this esoteric and complicated piece of literature. Created in 13th-century Spain and written by Moshe de Leon in pseudo-ancient Aramaic, the Zohar plumbs the depths of the words of Torah seeking the key to unlocking the secrets of the universe – and opening the gates of heaven themselves.
The gate-keeper to the celestial heights – to those facets of God so far from us and so incomprehensible – is Shechina. She is, Dr. Matt told us, actually the star of the Zohar. But here, she is not a mere facet of God’s nature. She actually represents a concept of Deity that Judaism sorely lacks: the feminine half of God.
Keep in mind that peoples of the ancient world had, at the head of their pantheons, a male god and a female god reigning together. Isis and Osiris in Egypt, for example, or An and Ki in Mesopotamia.
But as the Israelite religion evolved, the feminine, the goddess, disappeared. The God of Torah is described in masculine terms, in masculine language. The Rabbis turned the Mishkan – the place of God among us – into Shechina, the nurturing element of God among us. But the Kabbalists gave Shechina her own realm, her own powers. She is the bride sitting as an equal with her bridegroom, the masculine element of God they called Tiferet, or what we would call yud-hey-vav-hay, Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu, Adonai, or Lord.
So what does it mean to bring the feminine back into our notion of God? The union of the male and female makes God complete. And we here on earth are responsible for making that happen. The rabbis taught that the way we behave on earth has consequences for the world. The kabbalists taught that what we say and do has consequences for God, who created our world. We speak of Tikkun Olam as repair of the world – usually through tzedakah and g’milut chasadim, giving and doing in God’s name. But tikkun, for the mystics, is – as Dr. Matt taught – about something very specific. It’s about weaving together the elements of God that make God whole. And making God whole is the way we make our lives and our world whole.
Now, that is a far greater responsibility. But it starts, Dr. Matt says, with the basic responsibility of studying Torah. It is Torah’s words, after all, that created the world. It is Torah’s words that hold the secrets to at least some elements of God’s nature. It is Torah’s words that bring us closer to our own unity with God – and ultimately to the unity of God.
Ever since Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we humans have been exiled from one-ness. As Dr. Matt taught, there is something beautiful and also something terrible about the splits, the tears in the weaving, that the exile created. On the one hand, we understand – as Adam and Eve did in that moment that brought them shame — that we are unique creatures, separate entities from one another. And that individuality is what gives us the spark of creativity that we need to make the world better.
On the other hand, being separate can be very, very lonely. We all know that. We all feel a sense of abandonment – some of us more deeply than others, and some of us in different situations than others. But that’s why, ever since then, we humans have searched for, and worked for, ways of coming back together. Of creating Tikkun.
Our goal, then, is – in essence – achieving oneness. Oneness with the divine. Oneness within the divine. Oneness by creating healing within ourselves. Oneness by creating healing between us and other people.
Repairing the cosmos is too big a job for any one of us even to comprehend. But starting by repairing ourselves, and our relationships to other people, is a life-altering start.
In coming weeks, we will see the change in the world around us – new life sprouting from the old, green from brown, dynamic colors emerging overnight. It’s like the earth is healing itself naturally, regularly, just as God intended.
And so it should be with each of us: finding in the new life around us the inspiration to find new life and inspiration and love within us and in the people around us, with the support and guidance of the Shechina, who is always with us.
Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin
 Exodus 25:8.
This morning, I want to tell you a story. It’s actually a story about THE story, the ultimate story in Jewish history. The story which, owing to a convergence of events on today’s calendar, is also THE portion of Jewish scripture that is being read TODAY in temples and synagogues all around the world.
You all know the story, I think. The Israelites fleeing Egypt are now trapped between the sea in front of them and the Egyptian army coming up fast from behind. God instructs Moses to hold out his hand over the waters, the sea miraculously parts, and the jubilant Israelites cross to freedom on the dry river bed.
Moses, the man who didn’t even want this job because, as he told God, he was “slow of speech,” now is inspired to sing of the peoples’ redemption in a magnificent, extended and richly detailed poem of praise to God known as the “Song of the Sea.”
Or so we are told.
But following this long poem attributed to Moses, the book of Exodus gives us this:
“Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them:
Sing to the Lord, for God has triumphed gloriously. Horse and driver have God hurled into the sea.” (Ex. 15:20-21)
Without waiting for orders or encouragement, Miriam and the women take it upon themselves to dance right into the middle of the sea-bed – in full faith and trust in God that they will be redeemed.
As it happens, this short two-line song may well be the original – or at least the most ancient – telling of the redemption of the Israelite nation. It may just be that this simple, short and beautiful first description of what the women said and did was later overshadowed by the extended and more famous poem attributed to Moses – who, after all, is the hero of the Exodus story as it has been handed down to us.
Some scholars even believe that the entire “song of the sea” should actually be attributed to Miriam. After all, in the ancient world, it was the role of the women to compose and perform songs of triumph to greet victorious troops as they returned from battle. One ancient manuscript actually calls this “The Song of Miriam.” But in the end, Moses is given the credit.
We are fortunate that the remnants of the original story remain in the final redaction of THE story. Because they teach us how powerful these women were when their faith in God was strong, and their trust in one another was, perhaps, even stronger. Miriam could not have pulled this off alone. It took all the women, singing and dancing across the dry river bed to freedom, who made such an impact that their simple act of faith remains with us more than three-thousand years later.
What happened to Miriam’s song and the story of the women are part and parcel of the patriarchal narrative of life – not just the life of the Ancient Near East but the life we live today. The movement that we call the Women’s March began in 2017 as a message to the world that the women of America would not step back. We would not see our accomplishments neglected or belittled. We would not politely wait our turn to step up into positions of leadership and power – any more than the Israelite women waited for somebody else to tell them to march forward.
The speed at which this is now happening at all levels of public life has been astonishing. It literally takes my breath away. I found my place in the feminist movement back in the 70’s, raised by a father who taught me I could do anything and be anything I wanted to be – and inspired by his mother, my Grandmom Freda, who took no nonsense from anyone, and by her mother, my Bubbie Rose, who arrived at these shores from Poland, all alone, at the age of 16, with nothing but a letter of introduction and enough talent in the kitchen and the sewing room to earn passage for the rest of her family.
The young women I am fortunate enough to teach and to pastor take for granted the broad horizons open to them. Which is exactly what my generation of feminists fought for.
The wonderful Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist Connie Schultz (who’s married to some politician in Ohio) wrote this week of what she learned watching her own mother’s regret that she had lived by the limitations that others had put on her. Connie wrote:
“We women have always had our ambition – and by ambition, I mean wanting to do anything that runs contrary to the relentless and time-honored tradition of keeping us in the shadow of our own lives.”
“Keeping us in the shadow of our own lives.” I love that phrase. I think it captures perfectly our struggle against those patriarchal traditions. The women of my and Connie’s generation had a long learning curve about stepping out of the shadows of our own lives. We had to learn, as Connie wrote, that our restlessness is an asset and a strength – and not, as we may have been taught, a sign of impolite selfishness.
And we are overjoyed to see how easily and gracefully the women who are our daughters’ ages – and even our granddaughters’ ages – have followed their (your) restlessness, stepping into the light and, like Miriam and the women, singing and dancing their (your) way to the front.
I was so lucky and blessed to be raised by inspiring and empowering women, who did not wait for someone else to give them permission to live their lives. That gift led me to what are still considered “non-traditional” careers for women: broadcast journalism, sports journalism, sports marketing. And now my true calling as a rabbi – a teacher, a preacher and a pastor for the past twenty years.
We women rabbis are still very much in the minority, even in Reform Judaism, which is the most inclusive and progressive stream of Judaism. But we are making our mark in congregations large and small, where we are a living embodiment of the joy of stepping out of the shadows of our own lives — and of other peoples’ pre-conceived notions of who and what a rabbi is supposed to be.
The women gathered here today – and in towns and cities across the country – come from all different ethnicities, faith traditions, and families of origin. But we march together because, like Miriam and the women, we understand we are stronger together. We are bolder together. And God knows, we are louder together. To those who would try to weaken us by driving wedges between us – I say now, you will not win. We see what you’re trying to do. We know your game plan. And we always will be three moves ahead of you.
We have a Hebrew phrase that we use at times such as these – times such as Miriam and the women faced – when we have rid ourselves of servitude but face unknown challenges in the path ahead. We say:
Chazak! Chazak! V’nitchazek!
Be Strong! Be Strong! And we will be encouraged.
The first part is in the singular: You be strong! And you! And you!
The second part is in the plural. Every time you or you or you shows how wonderful you are, you inspire the rest of us to stand strong together.
©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: Women of Reform Judaism, 2008), commentary to Parashat B’shalach, Exodus 15:1-21), p. 387-88.