Once again, we look back at the historical tragedies of the Jewish people. Once again, we sit on the floor, in the dark, and listen to the stories of despair, of disease, of death, of women driven to eating their children, horrific images sung in melodies that are piercing, hypnotic, and oddly beautiful; at the end, we hear the slight but unmistakable entry of something else. Hope.
All of those disasters were caused, we are told, by the sin of sinat chinam. Senseless hatred, particularly of some Jews for other Jews.
Many of us grew up in a time when this story seemed far away. Now, terrifying, it no longer seems so entirely distant.
To be clear, the images still, thankfully, are foreign. We are not going to face sieges or starvation, pestilence, or roaming, foaming-at-the-mouth animals. No one will be eating her children.
But it used to seem as though everything was getting better; maybe it was happening slowly, but, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told us, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Now it just seems to be bending toward chaos, maybe brought down by its own weight.
There is, of course, the remarkably barbed situation in the United States, but right now, let’s talk about what’s going on in Israel.
Last Friday, on Rosh Chodesh Av, the first day of the sad month of Av, the Women of Wall went to the Kotel in Jerusalem, as they do every rosh chodesh, to celebrate the new month with services, including reading from the Torah.
The Kotel, the outside retaining wall, all that is left of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, has become Judaism’s most holy site, the place where Jews have gone for centuries to pray and grieve and hope, to talk to God, to put notes in the ancient structures crevasses, where stone meets stone and the connecting material has worn away.
It is set up like an open-air Orthodox synagogue, with a mechitzah separating a small women’s section from a much larger men’s section.
Over the last decade or so, the wall increasingly has become the subject of controversy, as Conservative and Reform Jews have worked toward establishing a separate prayer space without gender separation at Robinson’s Arch, not far away, and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government has offered that space, revoked the offer, offered, revoked, in a kind of tango of desire and distrust and naked political game-playing.
Women of the Wall pray in the women’s section at times; at other times they pray in Robinson’s Arch, with or without men, with or without a mechitza. They try to bring in Torah scrolls, which inflames the charedim, who consider it a complete breach of halacha, Jewish law. Sometimes the women wear kippot and tallitot, which their opponents also consider to be both provocative and illegal.
The situation has become more and more tense, as groups of charedi men and women — a small percentage of the charedim at the Kotel, but a large group nonetheless — have attacked either the Women of the Wall or the mixed groups. Most of the attacks are verbal — they often involve making so much noise so that the women cannot hear themselves — but at times there have been fistfights. Chairs have been thrown, and so have plastic bags of fecal matter.
Last Friday, however, when about 200 women and their supporters showed up, some of the charedim burned a siddur. They burned a prayer book, that is; it contains God’s name, which should have made that particular act of arson out of bounds for them. And the image of Jews burning books — much less books belonging to other Jews — much less prayer books — is chilling, despite the fire.
And that wasn’t all.
At around 5 o’oclock last Thursday morning, police officers in Haifa knocked on Rabbi Dov Haiyun’s door and hauled him – okay, let’s use less loaded language, escorted him – to the station for an interrogation.
So what was the suspected crime that called for a pre-dawn raid?
The local rabbinical court accused him of performing an illicit wedding.
Rabbi Haiyum is a Masorti rabbi — that’s Conservative in North America. Because he is not Orthodox, he is not allowed to perform weddings that have an legal standing in Israel, but he has married couples according to the laws of Moses and Israel, as the Masorti movement’s scholars define those laws, for decades.
Now, though, the rabbinic court decided to intervene.
Rabbi Haiyum had married a couple although one of them is considered to be a mamzer — a child born as the result of adultery, as defined by halacha. According to tradition, such people cannot shake off the sin of their conception and can never be married legally. The Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly has ruled that such laws are inherently wrong because of the suffering they necessarily entail, and it has come up with a work-around to avoid them.
Israel’s rabbinic courts disagree.
The result was the Kafka-like spectacle of a rabbi being hauled to a police station to be interrogated about a wedding to which the state objects but that it never would recognize anyway.
Since news of this situation broke, it has changed somewhat. Later that day, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit called off the prosecution, at least temporarily. Many American Jewish groups have protested it, including the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Federations of North America, as well as UJA-Federation of New York, whose CEO, Eric Goldstein, is Orthodox.
But it happened.
And it happened just before Tisha B’Av.
Israeli politics make the inherently difficult question of how to make a state both Jewish and democratic entirely toxic. It is problem with no obvious solution, if you are a politician looking to save your job rather than a person of goodwill trying to move an entire people back from the brink of disaster. But Israel, like all other countries, is ruled by politicians, whose first job almost always is to save their jobs.
Jews should not burn other Jews’ prayer books. Jews should not burn books. Jews should not order or conduct pre-dawn raids on the houses of rabbis who perform weddings of which other Jews disapprove. We are — or we should be — better than that.
If hope — that feeling that sneaks in at the end of Tisha B’Av, that terrifying, wondrous thing in Pandora’s box — is the thing with feathers, we should realize that it easily can fly away, and who would blame it?
We hope, on the eve of this Tisha B’Av, that even if we cannot all love each other, at least we all can refrain from the senseless hatred that leads to disaster.