From the Rabbis' Desks May / June 2012
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The Jewish world is changing, and sadly not always for the better. Increasingly I am aware of the many occasions where the Jewish world is giving up on its values of honouring scholarship, of k’vod haBriyot (honouring human dignity), of k’vod haTzibbur honouring the community. As an avid supporter of a number of Jewish Human Rights organisations the emails that populate my inbox are becoming more worrying as different issues present themselves, clamouring for attention.
There is the issue of the exploitation of migrants in Israel; there is the hama’abara movement for public housing and social justice in Jerusalem, focussing on the real poverty that is being felt by so many in the city. A similar demonstration in Haifa with Rabbi Idit Lev saying” We need to stand at the gates of our cities and towns and loudly declare our truth and our morals. There are no prophets in our days, and it is our duty to translate the prophets’ words, interpret them for our times and turn those words into a reality.” The Rights Centre in Hadera, which deals with issues of extraction of rights, adopted a new method: ”we are looking for our target population and visiting people’s homes, As it is written: “But from thence ye will seek the LORD thy God” (Deut 4: 29).
Rabbis for Human Rights is an organisation founded in 1988, is not aligned with any stream of Judaism or any political party, and advocates for the rights of marginalised members of society, defending the rights of minorities in Israel and of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, and tries to prevent the flagrant violations of the basic human rights of foreign workers. Increasingly they call on their supporters worldwide to alert the policy makers in Government that certain procedures are against the values of Judaism. They say of themselves “The work of Rabbis for Human Rights expresses the view of its members that as Jews, we are obligated to protest against every injustice enacted against any other person, a view based on the belief that man was created in God’s image. We believe that it is our obligation to inform the Israeli public about human rights violations, and that it is our role to pressure the State institutions to fix these injustices.”
In the Jerusalem Talmud (Chagigah2:1) we learn that “one who gains honour through the degradation of his fellow human being has no share in the world to come. All the more so if one gains honour at the expense of the honour of the Eternal One” The Talmud makes clear that while the honour of God takes precedence over the honour of people, the two are linked – we honour God by honouring human dignity – k’vod ha briyot.
And yet, while Jewish teachings through the ages repeat again and again that how we behave to others is the real measure of our religious credentials, it seems that these values are being eroded in favour of a literalist, fundamentalist, dark-age understanding of what ‘authentic’ Judaism is. In its retreat from the challenges of the world, the ultra orthodox communities are vying with each other in the number of ways they can say no to modernity, as if this refusal to engage or acknowledge – let alone value – is a mark of piety.
So in the last week the Israeli papers reported that extremely large amounts of faecal bacteria are on the prayerbooks at the Kotel, used by both men and women - and the rabbi who claims to be the rabbi of the Western Wall said that “the cause is women’s crying, as they tend to hold the books close to their faces and shed tears”. He added that “the power of women's prayer is often stronger than men's thanks to their tears, excitement and spiritual transcendence."
And what did Israel’s Association of Public Health do? They saluted him for his cooperation in offering to replace the books more frequently. They did not suggest that people learn to wash their hands more often, and they most certainly did not challenge his declaration of the cause.
Another increasing trend in society both Israeli and Diaspora is the tendency to refuse to allow the voices – or the images – of women in public places. Even women like Hilary Clinton have been photoshopped out of news images in ‘religious’ papers. Adverts in Jerusalem depicting women –innocuous portraits selling breakfast cereal as part of a family tableau have been torn down from bus shelters and elsewhere. And the geshrei about the voices of women! From cross communal and secular celebrations in Johannesburg to the skilled trainers of the Israel Defence Force, women have been told they cannot be heard, that their voices breed licentiousness. Kol Isha, the idea that a woman’s voice is somehow so erotic that it might lead a man astray, has grown and grown out of all proportion to its origin – indeed its biblical origin is quite different. The text used as a basis for erasing women’s voices from the public sphere comes from Song of Songs, 2:10-14, and reads ”My beloved spoke, and said to me: 'Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land; …Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. O my dove, …let me see your countenance, let me hear your voice; for sweet is your voice, and your countenance is comely.'
The third century Babylonian sage Shmuel made a word pun on this last verse, and from the word meaning “sweet” (arev) he read instead “erva” meaning indecent. Why did he do so? Because he was trying to argue that the sound of a woman’s voice while a man was praying was a distraction. Itself a shaky premise, but it was his opinion. The Talmud does not comment, this is one opinion and word play among many. So how do we now get to the situation where women are being erased from the public sphere? It is a long and tangled pathway and while for most of Jewish history it was simply an oddity of Jewish text it has suddenly developed a life of its own and is challenging women’s rights both in Israel and in the Diaspora and leads to attitudes that can declare that women’s tears carry faecal bacteria!
We need to be part of the Jewish world that stands up for the real values of Judaism, the dignity of all human beings be they male or female, rich or poor, stranger or ‘us’. More than ever now the sound of our voices needs to be heard in protest against injustice. The Talmud reminds us “ Come and hear. Great is human dignity, since it even overrides a negative precept of the Torah” Berachot 19b
Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild