The following is a sermon I delivered to my congregation last week for Parashat Vay’ḥi on the travesties in Beit Shemesh and Mea She’arim — a little late, but still important.
The Mirriam-Webster dictionary defines legacy as: a gift by will or something which is transmitted by or received from an ancestor. It is especially interesting to me that the word choice of the Mirriam-Webster dictionary is to use the language of transmission because the Hebrew word we use for tradition, מסורה, literally means ‘transmission.’ This idea, of something which is transmitted by an ancestor, is incredibly significant to the Jewish tradition. It is significant, mainly, because we take immense pride in our tradition and we take immense pride in the success we have had in passing down our traditions from generation to generation. This pride we take in transmitting our traditions is not new, quite the contrary, it goes back to our very foundation and to our very origins. Sure enough, when we received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai we were instructed, as we read daily in the words of the first paragraph of the Shema, וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ, וְדִבַּרְתָּ בָּם – and you shall teach these words to your children and you shall speak about them. Now, that is truly significant, but it goes even deeper into our origins than our covenant with God at Mount Sinai, rather it goes to our very first foundations, to Avraham Avinu, to Abraham our Forefather, of whom the Torah tells us לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה – such that Avraham commands his children and his household after him and they will guard the way of God. What we impart to our children, what we transmit to them, the legacy which we leave them, is a huge part of the Jewish tradition.
What is arguably the most important Mishnah in understanding the Rabbinic tradition, we learn in the first Mishnah of Pirkei Avot:
משה קיבל תורה מסיניי, ומסרה ליהושוע
Moshe received Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Yehoshua…
Why would I say this is the most important Mishnah to understand the Rabbinic tradition? The first chapter of Pirkei Avot lists generations of rabbis receiving wisdom from the previous generation and imparting it to the next. Therefore, the chain of transmission described in the first chapter of Pirkei Avot sets forth the idea of why it is the Rabbis interpretations are understood as expressing God’s will for the Jewish people – since each generation learned from the past the chain can be traced back to Moshe Rabbeinu receiving the Torah face to face from God on Mount Sinai, and this is why I would claim that the first Mishnah of Pirkei Avot is the most important, because it traces the transmission from Moshe on Mount Sinai through Yehoshua, the Elders, the prophets and the Great Assembly and on through the generations.
So we can see, based on the framework set up by this Mishnah, that the Jewish tradition survives and thrives by virtue of the transmission of tradition from one generation to the next. This idea is solidified even further in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vay’ḥi, in which we read of the death of Yaakov and Yosef, however before that we read a very special section of the book of Genesis, a passage known as brikat ya’akov, the Blessing of Jacob. While this passage is referred to as a blessing, if you read the passage closely you will find that most of the sons do not receive what you or I may call a blessing. However, whether positive or not, what is clear is that Yaakov is imparting something to his sons – a sort of early ethical will. Yet, whether we desire more positivity and actual blessing in Yaakov’s words, what we really have to learn from this is that Yaakov is teaching something to his children. He is transmitting a tradition to them; and by doing so he is teaching them something.
And I’m sure you can tell by now, since I mention it relatively frequently, how important it is, I believe, to be very clear in the values we impart and transmit to our children. And this is why what is transpiring today in the public battle between religious extremists and contemporary society raging on the streets in Israel hits me so hard.
Around the time of the French Revolution, Jews began to be integrated as citizens in their host countries in Central Europe, including Germany. As a means to integrate themselves more fully into German society, groups of Jews, primarily in Hamburg and Berlin, began to formulate a new approach to the Jewish tradition by emphasizing history and ethics over religiosity and by conducting religious services in the local language and using local and contemporary musical arrangements. This wave of Jewish innovation became known years later as the Reform Movement. This “new” form of Judaism spread throughout many parts of Central Europe. As it spread, those dedicated to traditional Jewish practice and custom felt attacked and responded in term. This fight was most prominently adopted by Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, also known as Rabbi Moshe Sofer, known even more commonly by the title of his book, Ḥiddushei Torat Moshe Sofer, or Ḥatam Sofer. In 1806 the Ḥatam Sofer became the leading rabbinic authority in the town of Bratislava in Austrio-Hungary. The Ḥatam Sofer saw a huge threat to Judaism and the Jewish people in the Reform Movement, and he dedicated the last three decades of his life to fighting it from spreading. He forbade contemporary music to be performed in synagogues in Bratislava and was eventually compelled to coin what became the battle cry in opposition to Reform Judaism, כל חדש אסור מן התורה, all innovation is forbidden by the Torah.
Since that point in the mid-19th century, what became known as Orthodox Judaism has been hallmarked by a rejection of what they see as innovation – never mind that Orthodox Judaism as we know it today is precisely that, an innovation. Now, let’s jump ahead from 19th century Hungary to 21st century Israel. There is a town outside of Jerusalem known as Beit Shemesh. This town has been relatively unknown to the greater world until a few weeks ago. Beit Shemesh has a growing religious community populated by what are known as Ḥaredim, what some call “Ultra-Orthodox” Jews, and a growing number of Modern Orthodox American immigrants. Around three years ago, as the religious population of Beit Shemesh continued to grow and diversify with the growth of the Modern Orthodox community, a group of extremists began posting signs demanding that women walk on one particular side of the street. Over the course of the few years, tensions rose and eventually a group of men from this extremist minority took it upon themselves to become modesty police. Meanwhile, the Modern Orthodox community had been coordinating with city officials to open a school for girls. Things got so out of hand in Beit Shemesh that a few months ago, these extremists went so far as to harass girls as young as 8 years old, calling them whores and spitting on them. As this story was picked up by Israeli and international news outlets around November, outrage increased against this extremist group and the Israeli police eventually came in to remove the signs not sanctioned by the city. As is often the case in such incidents, the media portrayal of the events grouped in mainstream Ultra-Orthodox Jews with this extremist group who truthfully do constitute an extremely small minority.
Yet, as a result of trying to remove this sign relegating women to a particular side of the street, the police officers were physically assaulted, spat on and called “Nazis.” This led to a media frenzy in and out of Israel which is nothing short of a complete embarrassment for the Jewish people. If matters could not get worse, extremists in the religious neighborhood of Jerusalem known as Mea She’arim, staged a protest against what they call anti-Ḥaredi bias in Israeli society. Never mind that it is simple obscene and ridiculous for Jews to be claiming that the State of Israel is repressive against Judaism – and, mind you, if any Jews in Israel have a right to claim repression by the hands of the State, it would be Conservative, Reform and other non-Orthodox Jews – never mind that there claims were completely outlandish; their protest was the very definition of a shonde, a disgrace. These so-called pious men dressed up in striped uniforms and attached yellow stars with the word “Juden” written on them; what is worse, and it can get worse, is that they dressed up their children like this. I do not need to be any more specific about which image they were trying to invoke.
This is an assault on the memory of the victims of the Shoah, it is an affront to anything sacred and holy and in attempting to shed light on a very real problem in Israel – that of sinat ḥinam, senseless hatred between Jews – these extremists, by choosing this style of protest, have not only shown contempt for the whole Jewish people and all of Jewish history, they have inspired unbridled hatred against themselves thereby doing more to spread sinat ḥinam than combat it. All of this is so much more upsetting when viewed in the greater context of the history of inter-Jewish relations since the Ḥatam Sofer took up his fight against what he called “forbidden innovation.” To use the words of Elie Wiesel, the world-famous scholar and survivor of Buchenwald and Auschwitz, as he put it this was a “vile sight.” And it is, if you see the pictures of these men, it is nothing short of vile and enraging and I would go so far to say that actions such as this absolutely qualify as a ḥillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name. Wiesel went on to aptly describe this travesty as “spiritually poisoning” the children of these extremists. And that is where the real issue with this problem is – if these men want to traipse around looking ridiculous and embarrassing themselves that’s their business. They may think they’re speaking in the name of Judaism, but an overwhelming majority of Jews find them completely ridiculous. But when they involve their children in their obscenity, when they teach such values to the next generation, Wiesel’s words are the perfect ones to describe what they are doing – they are “spiritually poisoning” their children and by doing so they are desecrating the memory of those who perished in our most devastating tragedy, they are desecrating the honor of the Jewish people and they are desecrating and transgressing against the Torah.
Whatever it was that caused strife for the Ḥatam Sofer, and I do have to say I can appreciate the fear he felt, extremists such as these men in Mea She’arim and Beit Shemesh have taken the statement of the Ḥatam Sofer, that all innovation is forbidden by the Torah, to levels that have placed them so far on the fringe of the Jewish people that, as I said, they themselves ARE an innovation. And here is, in my opinion, the two lessons I take away from this type of incident: First, we should feel motivated and inspired to be proud of our connection to Conservative Judaism, we should continue to learn about and understand its inspiration and premise and we should live by its teachings and standards.
Toward that end, I would like to encourage everyone to support Masorti Olami, the wing of the Conservative Movement outside of North America by making charitable contributions and visiting Masorti synagogues abroad; the second lesson, and I think the more important lesson, is to know in our hearts that there is no one group that has a monopoly on authentic Judaism. Rather, the Jewish people have historically and continuously always grouped themselves with other like-minded individuals. Whether this was Koraḥ and his partners in revolting against Moshe’s authoritarian rule, the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots and Essenes of the 1st century, the Rabbinic Jews and Karaites of the Middle Ages, or the array of movement-based denominations we have today, there has never been just one voice to Judaism. I, for one, would rather leave my children the legacy of a diverse and vibrant Judaism that is dedicated to peace, justice, love and kindness as dictated by the Torah, Talmud and generations of Jewish thought, than a Judaism dictated by the extremist ilk that have abused Jewish memory and, to again borrow Wiesel’s words, “spiritually poisoned” their children.
Let us acknowledge that these shameful extremists certainly do not represent the Jewish religion as a whole, nor do they represent typical mainstream Ultra-Orthodoxy. Let us, in our communities, be emboldened to celebrate our Jewish heritage and practice our traditions and customs from a place of authenticity and pride. May we be blessed to see a day, speedily in our time, where the Jewish people can respect one another and allow the variant expressions of our religion to be celebrated rather than demonized and may we see a day where children are safe from the abuses such as the school-girls attacked on the streets of Beit Shemesh or the misguidance of the parents in Mea She’arim in Jerusalem.
May we most of all be blessed to leave behind a legacy to our children worthy of Jewish history, tradition and belief so that we may see an end to separatism, partisan division and discord in the State of Israel and in the whole Jewish world and let us say: Amen.