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Commentary: Women of the Wall pioneering true egalitarianism in Judaism

July 26, 2010 3 comments

By Rabbi Dow Marmur

Rabbi Dow Marmur

TORONTO–A scandalous aspect of virtually all religions has been their treatment of women. My own has shunned many excesses — stoning for alleged adultery, so-called honour killings or officially putting the ordination of women in the same category as pedophilia — but it nevertheless has a history of embarrassing discrimination.

One of the reasons for the growth of Reform Judaism, which this month marks its birth in Germany 200 years ago, was to bring about gender equality in worship and practice. Nowadays women and men have identical rights and obligations in Reform synagogues. Other Jewish religious streams have followed their example. There are now hundreds of women rabbis ordained by different rabbinic schools; about a dozen of them work in the GTA.

Though not a rabbi herself, Anat Hoffman is one of the leaders of Reform Judaism in Israel. She heads its Religious Action Centre that champions the rights of all citizens. She also chairs an interdenominational Jewish organization called Women of the Wall that conducts worship services at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest place. The aim is to challenge the misogynist franchise that the Israeli ultra-Orthodox rabbinate has arrogated to itself there and with which political parties in power cynically collude.

At a service at the Wall earlier this month, Hoffman was arrested for carrying a Scroll of the Torah in the women’s precinct. The ultra-Orthodox custodians regard this as sacrilege and a provocation. In its effort to keep the peace, the local police tend to placate the fanatics at the expense of the women. Hence the arrest.

A couple of days later, Hoffman was in Toronto. When I suggested to her that normative Judaism celebrates holy events, not holy places, she said that the monthly worship services the women hold at the Wall are indeed holy events. It’s the only opportunity anywhere in the world for Jews across the denominational spectrum to pray together. In the 22 years that her group has existed — 21 of them with her as leader — countless women, many of them Orthodox, have participated and been greatly enriched by the experience.

Hoffman insists that the remnant of an outer wall that once surrounded the ancient Temple in Jerusalem isn’t an Orthodox synagogue that would entitle its male worshippers to relegate women to the back, or exclude them altogether, preventing them from even touching Torah Scrolls. She argues that the Wall is a national monument that must be accessible to all. To give one group sole rights to the exclusion of all others goes against Israeli democracy.

But, I ventured to suggest, in view of Israel’s precarious diplomatic and security situation, its leaders have more urgent matters to deal with than gender equality at the Wall. She disagreed and argued that religious fanatics can be no less dangerous than armed terrorists. Erosion from within may turn out to be an even greater threat than attacks from without. The women are defending the soul of Israel, she told me.

They also reflect an important trend in contemporary Jewry. Gender equality has had a profound effect on all Jewish denominations. There are now even Orthodox congregations in Israel and elsewhere that encourage women to be full and equal participants in worship, including holding the Torah and reading from it. A maverick Orthodox rabbinic school in New York ordains women rabbis.

A seemingly local skirmish in Jerusalem is the tip of an enormous iceberg that stands in the way of dramatic changes in the very fabric of Judaism. Anat Hoffman and her group are pioneers. People of all faiths committed to religious freedom and women’s rights have reason to applaud and support them.

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Rabbi Marmur is spiritual leader emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. This column appeared in the Star of Toronto.

The celestial Jerusalem versus the concrete Jerusalem

June 1, 2010 Leave a comment

By Rabbi Dow Marmur

Rabbi Dow Marmur

TORONTO, Canada–Elie Wiesel, social activist, celebrated exponent of Judaism and Nobel Peace Prize winner, published a letter in leading American newspapers last month stating that “Jerusalem must remain the world’s Jewish spiritual capital.” It was a reaction to tensions between the United States and Israel, urging the U.S. administration to support Jewish expansion in all parts of Israel’s capital, even though it may harm its Arab population and impede a peace settlement.

Arguing that as Jerusalem is mentioned more than 600 times in the Bible and not even once in the Koran, Wiesel maintained that it shouldn’t be judged by political categories but as “a homecoming” for every Jew. “The anguish over Jerusalem,” he wrote, “is not about real estate but about memory.”

A hundred Jewish public figures and intellectuals, all residents of Jerusalem, reacted sharply against Wiesel’s initiative. In an open letter in the New York Review of Books, they challenged him: “We cannot recognize our city in the sentimental abstraction you call by its name . . . Our Jerusalem is concrete,” they wrote. Alluding to an oft-cited distinction in Jewish sources, they added: “You speak of the celestial Jerusalem; we live in the earthly one.”

They were troubled by Wiesel’s statement because “it upholds an attachment to the other-worldly city which purports to supersede the interests of those who live in the this-worldly one.” They wished to make homecoming available to Jews and Arabs alike: “We prefer the hardship of realizing citizenship in this city to the convenience of merely yearning for it.”

The writers list some of what they see as injustices committed against the Arab population of Jerusalem because it’s “being used as a springboard for crafty politicians and sentimental populists.” Their vision of Jerusalem makes room for all.

As I divide my time between Toronto and Jerusalem, I find myself uncomfortably astride both sides of the argument. As a Jew rooted in my tradition, I know of the centrality of Jerusalem in Jewish consciousness. But as a resident of the earthly Jerusalem, I identify with the concluding affirmation of the critics that “only a shared city will live up to the prophet’s vision: ‘Zion shall be redeemed with justice.’ ” And I agree with their assertion that “nothing can be holy in an occupied city!”

My commitment to Jerusalem would in no way be diminished if in a comprehensive peace settlement part of it would become the capital of a Palestinian state and the rest remain the capital of the sovereign State of Israel. Precisely because Jerusalem “is not about real estate but about memory,” it must make room for both Jewish and Arab memory.

Canada is more than an interested observer in this debate. The Jerusalem Old City Initiative based at the University of Windsor is largely funded by the Canadian government. It has published a lengthy paper on how to deal with one of the most contentious issues in the pursuit of peace: the governance of the area where most of the holy places of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are situated.

The authors seek a workable way of sharing space and overcoming divisions. Therefore, their proposals are bound to raise objections from all sides, because each is adamant about exclusive control. But the fact that a third party is trying to find a solution is indicative of how important the issue is for the international community. The argument between Wiesel and his critics reflects the drama. Perhaps outside experts can help bring it to a happy end.

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Dow Marmur is rabbi emeritus at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple. This column appeared previously in The Star of Toronto

Just a peace or a just peace?

April 7, 2010 Leave a comment

By Rabbi Dow Marmur

Rabbi Dow Marmur

JERUSALEM–Avishai Margalit, arguably Israel’s most significant living philosopher, has recently published a book with the intriguing title, On Compromise and Rotten Compromises. As I haven’t read it, I’m not in a position to comment on it, but one quote as it appears in John Gray’s review in The New York Review of Books, struck me as highly relevant: “The book is in pursuit of just a peace, rather than of a just peace. Peace can be justified without being just.”

Margalit is said to deal mainly with “the moral dilemmas that surround World War II.” But in view of his long and distinguished record as an Israeli “peacenik,” his formulation seems eminently relevant to the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Trying to follow what’s going on in Israel, one comes easily to the conclusion that as long as justice is defined in absolute terms there’ll be no peace in the Middle East. Here not only religious Zionists but also secular nationalists believe that the whole of the Land of Israel belongs solely to the Jewish people; for the former because God so decreed, for the latter because history has bestowed it upon us. Anything less would be regarded by them as a rotten and untenable compromise.

Palestinians also see the whole land as theirs and theirs alone. According to them, it has been forcibly settled by Jews, many using the Holocaust as an excuse for occupation. They accuse the Jews of having distorted history to provide a framework for their claim, which is nothing but a version of neo-colonialism. The only just outcome, in this scheme of things, is for Jews to accept the one-state solution for all of Palestine and learn to live as a minority within it, just as they once did under Muslim rule in the region.

In practical terms neither version of absolute justice can be realized and no outside force could impose it, even if we concede that the issue is a struggle between two rights, ours and theirs. The way to resolve the impasse is through compromise: just a peace even if not a just peace. In the many peace plans on the table each side would get much less than it wants and that it deems to be just. For Palestinians it may mean a state of their own, albeit not of the size and the sovereignty they would want. For Israelis it would mean giving up territory and learning to make do with less, perhaps much less.  

 It seems that this is the kind of (not rotten) compromise that the new United States administration is trying to impose on the two sides. To reassure the Palestinians as part of his overall plan for the region, Obama has put the screws on the government of Israel. Nobody seems to know if the new US approach will work and what the consequences might be if it doesn’t. The danger of a nuclear Iran is always in the background.

 The risk is, of course, that if they don’t settle for a compromise, each may end up with a rotten compromise. That’s why many serious analysts are saying that the clamor for what they see as a just peace is endangering the existence of the Jewish state no less than the Palestinian Authority while enabling enemies of both to take undue advantage.

This leads to the not unreasonable conclusion that while intransigence may be the order of the day, the popular consensus at least in Israel is pointing toward a compromise: just a peace, whether or not it’s a just pace. If this can be achieved under Israel’s and the Palestinians current political leadership is difficult to predict. Looking in from the periphery as I do, the consequences of not achieving it are too gruesome to contemplate.
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Rabbi Marmur is spiritual leader emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto.  He now divides his time between Canada and Israel.

Israel seeking to substitute personalities for foreign policy initiatives

April 6, 2010 Leave a comment

By Rabbi Dow Marmur 

Rabbi Dow Marmur

JERUSALEM — Mimouna is a colorful tradition that North African Jews brought to Israel. It celebrates the end of the festival of Passover. Activities include much public jollification and eating of post-Pesach dishes made from recipes from the old country. It has also become an occasion for Israeli right-wing politicians (who traditionally have courted Oriental Jews in contrast to the Socialist founders of the state who tended to ignore them) to make speeches of the kind Mimouna audiences would want to hear.

Early media reports this year had much to say about the celebrations in the fast growing West Bank town of Ma’aleh Adumim, situated close to Jerusalem on the way to Jericho and the Dead Sea. The event was used by several government ministers to assure the local population that Ma’aleh Adumim was there to stay, irrespective of what the United States administration and the rest of the world may say about settlements.

One of the speakers this year was Israeli Ashkenazi chief rabbi Yona Metzger, presumably trying to make nice to the Orientals as a way of compensation for the ill treatment to which the Ashkenazi establishment, including the rabbinate, subjected the arrivals from North Africa in the earlier days of the state.

Metzger isn’t known for his talents for political analysis (or for many other talents for that matter). This time he couldn’t resist the temptation to support the government position by an original historic observation. He’s reported to have said that long before Columbus discovered America, King David discovered/founded Jerusalem. The inference is obvious: in the same way as the United States is to remain the one indivisible super-power in the world, so Jerusalem will remain the one and indivisible capital of Israel – with much greater seniority in making its case and challenging the US president.

All this would be quite irrelevant hadn’t these speeches appeared to seek to replace Israeli diplomacy. Instead of trying to find a way of coming to an understanding with President Obama and his administration, Israel’s government seems to believe that by rousing the crowds back home at jolly Mimouna celebrations it’s really responding to the diplomatic challenges that it’s currently facing.

The country’s most popular daily, Yediot Achronot, reported another diplomatic initiative of the same ilk. Prime Minister Netanyahu is said to have asked Elie Wiesel, the best known Jew of our time, to use his alleged friendship with President Obama to persuade the latter to be nice to Israel. For many centuries the ghetto used shtadlanim, go-betweens who were highly regarded by the Jews and useful to the local squire, to intervene on behalf of their coreligionists with the authorities.

If the newspaper report is correct, the prime minister of the sovereign Jewish state is resorting to a similar method instead of formulating a policy and showing diplomatic acumen to meet the new challenge. This is a far cry from the way Abba Eban made Israel’s case before the community of nations.

Trying to make sense of what seem to be reactions by the government to the demands of the United States to curb settlement expansion and building in Jerusalem, it’s difficult not to conclude that they reflect embarrassing ineptitude. Perhaps King Abdullah of Jordan wasn’t as wrong as we’d like him to be when he told the Wall Street Journal on the eve of his US visit that Israel is isolating itself in the way of North Korea.

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Rabbi Marmur is spiritual leader emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto.  He now divides his time between Canada and Israel.

Watching Israeli reactions to Obama-Netanyahu rift

March 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Rabbi Dow Marmur

JERUSALEM–Now when he’s about to get a Jewish son-in-law, Bill Clinton moves to Israel, converts to Judaism, forms a political party and is elected Prime Minister with acclamation. I cannot have the same fantasy about Barack Obama whose popularity in Israel is now in single digits. But unlike Clinton, Obama may want to be involved in internal Israeli politics to reshape Israel in his preparation for the struggle against Iran.

The speculations here about what’s likely to happen next in Israel’s relations with the United States, now when Prime Minister Netanyahu has returned from Washington with his tail between his legs, include the possibility – fear for some, hope for others – that, when he puts Obama’s demands before his ministers, the majority will say No.

The exception would be Labor which, in the face of the intransigence of the other parties, may now have no choice but to leave the government and thus deprive it of its Knesset majority. It has so far justified its membership of the Netanyahu government by saying that it has prevented a collision with the Americans and harsher treatment of Palestinians, thus promoting the prospect of peace. It won’t be able to do that now.

Breaking up the coalition and forcing an election may gain Labor a few more Knesset seats but not enough to form a government. Neither will Kadima be able to govern without Likud and Labor. Whatever dissent there currently exists in Kadima would dissipate with the prospect of joining, even if not forming, the next government.

Obama’s alleged purpose in all this is to shift Israel’s government from far right to the center, i.e., without Yishai and Lieberman but with Barak and Livni. Netanyahu would probably remain Prime Minister but now leading an improved team.

Likud strategists and those to the right of them may know all this and, in order literally to save their seats, may swallow hard and agree to the undertakings that Obama is said to demand. On the other hand, they may go for broke. The noises that are being made by government people unfortunately point to this second option.

Much of it has to be done in haste because Obama is said to have demanded forthwith clear Israeli answers in writing in the hope that this will give the Arab League meeting in Libya enough of a victory to allow Abu Mazen, the Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, to go ahead at least with proximity talks.

 It’s difficult to imagine how Israel can withstand this kind of pressure, especially now when several other countries seem to be ganging up against it in response to the Dubai passport fiasco. Unless Netanyahu, contrary to what he says, is so much under the spell of Lieberman and the other hawks, he seems to have little choice.

The hawks may wish to cast Obama in the role of the Pharaoh of the Exodus story as we’ll retell it on Pesach, but that kind of rhetoric won’t do any good. The song at the Seder about evil men in every generation wanting to do away with us “but the Holy One Blessed Be He saves us from them,” may be a persuasive theological reflection on Jewish history but it’s not a pragmatic political analysis of the present situation.

The best case scenario for the Israeli right has been the status quo: continue to talk about talks and continue to build in Jerusalem and the West Bank while trying to make sure that Israel is protected from terrorists and infiltrators. President Obama has shattered that picture and nobody quite knows what’ll replace it.

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Rabbi Marmur is spiritual leader emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto.  He now divides his time between Canada and Israel.

Two views of latest Jerusalem apartment controversy

March 25, 2010 Leave a comment


By Rabbi Dow Marmur
 

JERUSALEM–A Likud member of the Jerusalem city council said in a TV interview that he was very upset with the news concerning the 20 apartments for Jewish settlers to be built in the midst of an Arab neighborhood in the city. He didn’t think it was wrong – on the contrary – but he deemed it treacherous that someone leaked it to the media. He’s now demanding an inquiry about it. I had the impression that he knew the outcome and looked for an opportunity to blame the political left.

The Peace Now spokeswoman in the same interview was also outraged, but not because of the leak but because of the flagrant provocation by the bureaucracy, presumably acting on behalf of the political right. Had she asked for an investigation, it would have been of a different kind: why do they want to undermine Netanyahu?

Here, then, are two very different versions, one legalistic – the Likudnik had much to say about how Irving Moscowitz’s American dollars had legally bought the property from its previous owners, a triumph of democracy and free market economy – the other morally sensitive and politically mature wanting to advance peace for all, and horrified how these efforts are being seemingly deliberately thwarted by own side.

The Likudnik was very comfortable with the scandalous decision whereas his Peace Now opponent was very upset about the scandalous decision. I’ve a feeling that most Israelis would side with the latter, unless their unrealistic expectations that Obama would acquiesce to everything Israel does (a la George W. Bush) have become as widespread as to blunt their moral sensibilities.

If I had the authority I’d also demand an investigation about the leak, for I suspect that it came from – the same right-wing that now tries to put the blame on the left (an old political ploy with antecedents too hard to recall). It smells of yet another effort to prevent Netanyahu from making concessions by creating situations that will infuriate the American administration and cast Israel in the role of victim.

Israeli reactionaries love victimhood. It gives them opportunities to urge all Jews, in Israel and the Diaspora, to close ranks and fight the enemy, i.e., anybody who doesn’t agree with them. The 20 apartments during Netanyahu’s Washington visit may have been an attempt to reinforce the 1600 apartments during Biden’s Jerusalem visit.

The burning issue this weekend and the Pesach week that follows will be if the seven-man inner cabinet can face realities and make substantial concessions, or if it’ll seek to perpetuate the myth of the world’s hostility and Israel’s invincibility. There’re some of the seven e.g., Barak and Meridor – who may rise to the occasion, but there’re others – e.g., Yishai and Lieberman (of course) – whose past record suggests otherwise.

The latter will no doubt say again with the Prime Minister that the US President should concentrate on the real issue – the Iranian threat – and not tinker with Jerusalem real estate. We can only hope that others will persuade them that, for better or worse, the prevailing US opinion is that the peace process here is a precondition for an effective response to Iran, and perhaps also to Iraq and Afghanistan. It may not even be true, but if President Obama thinks it is, Israel has little choice but to comply.

The coming days will place us all before yet another way of having to cross the Red Sea. Let’s pray for a safe passage so that we can continue to celebrate our freedom.

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Rabbi Marmur is spiritual leader emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto.  He now divides his time between Canada and Israel.

Do American Jews welcome U.S. pressure on Israel?

March 24, 2010 2 comments

By Rabbi Dow Marmur

JERUSALEM–This hasn’t been an easy week for J Street, the American-Jewish lobby that claims to be an alternative to the Jewish establishment in the United States. The AIPAC convention with its record attendance, belying the contention by David Remnick I cited the other day that it represented primarily old and rich Jews, has dominated the scene and attracted a lot of media attention.

A J Street member at the convention even suggested that he was given a hard time by other delegates; the most publicized dressing down came from Alan Dershowitz.
           
Perhaps to regain something of the momentum, J Street has just published a poll that supports its stance that American Jewry isn’t as united as the cheers at the AIPAC meeting may suggest. Despite the current tensions between the United States administration and the Israeli government, many American Jews appear to believe that Obama should get tough with Israel – not in order to punish the Jewish state but to make its leaders more amenable to concessions.

           
Though in Israel the criticism of Obama continues and though there was no love-in when Netanyahu visited the White House, Obama’s approval rate in the Jewish community remains 15 points higher than among other Americans. By a 71-29 percentage margin Jews are said to want the President to exert pressure on Israel.
           
The announcement about the 1600 housing units during Vice President Biden’s visit is generally assumed in Israel not to have been the cause of the present situation but an excuse for creating it. 60% of American Jews seem to disagree and believe that it has inflicted serious damage to US-Israel relations. The new announcement of building 20 units in the Arab Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah will make things much worse.
           
Though Netanyahu wants to talk about Iran and not about home building in Jerusalem, a majority of American Jews believe that building there is the real sticking point. Of course, Iran matters a lot, but perhaps they think that it’s up to the United States to deal with it in its own way, which may also mean restraining Israel from taking unilateral action. Now when health reform is out of the way, Iran may top the US agenda.
           
Though the Prime Minister may have impressed the AIPAC delegates with his strong assertion about the Jerusalem as Israel’s eternal undivided capital, when it comes to the moment of decision, further concessions may be inevitable. The stronger his public rhetoric the more difficult it’ll be for him to change course. The fact that there was no press conference after his meetings with Clinton and Obama may be point to the pressure under which he finds himself. There’s nothing to write home about via the media.
           
What this will entail and how it’ll be presented is unclear. What the J Street poll seems to suggest is that at the moment of truth it’s going to be tough for Israel. Some may say that such tough love is what the government needs to come to its senses, other will be understandably alarmed.  
           
The view that a united American Jewry with its strong leanings towards the Democrats will compel Obama to go easy on Israel in order to contain his anticipated losses in the forthcoming US mid-term elections is more wishful thinking than fact.
              
Which brings me to my version of wishful thinking: the extreme right of the Netanyahu government will leave and centrist Kadima will take its place. Amen.

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Rabbi Marmur is the spiritual leader emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. He now divides his time between Canada and Israel.