Singing Out for Sobel Rights in the wake of Rosh Hodesh Sivan

This Wednesday morning, 2 Sivan 5776/June 8 2016, finds me in my Cleveland home, preparing to participate in a unique fundraiser tomorrow night at Severance Hall. Every two years, the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center presents a choral concert, the “Sing Out,” to raise awareness of and funds for the critical work of this trailblazing social service agency.

Through the Sing Out, the CRCC has opened my eyes and my heart to survivors of sexual assault and has engaged me, through singing, in the critical work of this agency. Along the way, I realized what a powerful tool music in general, and choral singing, in particular, can be to catalyze activism on behalf of causes of concern. Every time I present a Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Concert of Concern, I am grateful to the CRCC and the Sing Out for helping me evolve into an artist/activist.  Participating in the Sing Out is like winning a trifecta: 1) I raise my voice to support victims of sexual assault in Cleveland, 2) I become empowered to use singing to support social change, and 3) the Zionist within me is inspired to create The Sacred Rights, Sacred Project on behalf of the modern Jewish democratic State of Israel.

Meanwhile, yesterday morning in my other neighborhood of Jerusalem, my dear friend Lesley Sachs, the executive director the The Women of the Wall, was detained for five hours by the Jerusalem police because she dared to have a small Torah in her hands. On Rosh Hodesh Sivan, 5776, despite the clear declaration of religious rights for women set forth in the Sobel decision of 2013, and despite the clear intent of the Israeli Cabinet ORIGINALLY demonstrated by the “Great Kotel Compromise” of January of 2016, Lesley was detained by the police at the conclusion of the monthly Women of the Wall gathered, after the Torah had already been read as part of the service. How profoundly ironic that on the same day that Hillary Clinton becomes the first woman in American history to become the presumptive nominee of a major political party, Lesley is apprehended by the police of the Jewish State because she is in possession of a Torah scroll. Clearly, the rabbi of The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich, emboldened by Bibi Netanyahu’s backtracking on the Great Kotel Compromise, ordered that Lesley be taken in for police interrogation. For this American Jewish Feminist Zionist, yesterday was a day when the arc of American history seemed to bend one way while the arc of modern Israeli history seemed to bend the other.  This is a cause of concern.

Without the confidence and courage instilled in me as a member of the Wexner Heritage Foundation, I would not have been able to cultivate my niche as a musical Zionist activist.  One of my favorite teachers from my Wexner years, Rabbi Daniel Gordis, is a profound thinker and prolific writer on the current state of the Jewish State as well as the Jewish People.  In a recent article published in The Jerusalem Post entitled, “A Dose of Nuance: The question that may determine Israel’s future,” Danny sounds a very loud a clear warning to the modern Zionist community, using history as his persuasive tool.  Recalling an interview with Benny Begin about a biography Gordis had written about his father, former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Gordis raises grave concerns about Israel’s future.  On the subject of Germany’s offer of war reparations, Begin acknowledged that while his father could oppose German money on ideological grounds, Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, had to govern a new nation born in the wake of the worst atrocities to befall mankind in modern times.  As Gordis, quoting Begin writes, “ ‘Of course, I think my father’s points were correct. But Ben-Gurion had a country to feed. He had hundreds of thousands of immigrants who needed roofs over their heads. This country was out of money, and the Germans were offering Israel an opportunity to get on its economic feet. My father was in the opposition – Ben-Gurion’s responsibilities weren’t his. What was Ben-Gurion supposed to do?’ It was, for me, by far the most moving and memorable moment in our conversation.”  Not only was Gordis moved, he was shocked.

Gordis goes on, saying, “It was a vestige of an era sadly largely gone from Israeli political life and public discourse, an era in which both the political Right and the Left were characterized – at least at times – by an openness to self-critique and self-reflection.  Lamenting the dismissal of Moshe Ya’alon as Minister of Defense, Gordis comments, “Ya’alon was serious, level-headed and experienced. That he refused to silence critique of the army or the government . . . made Ya’alon more essential for Israel’s future, not less. A government that cannot make space for introspection, for self-critique, for engaging with social flaws is a government that will lead Israel to doom.”  Accusing the Left of the same intolerance for critical introspection, Gordis concludes, “Sadly, ours is an era in which most people are unwilling to reflect on the flaws of their own camp or their own position.”

Once again, I invite Rabbi Gordis to become familiar with the work of The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project, which is expressly devoted to being “lovingly critical” of the modern Jewish democratic State in the area of spiritual civil rights.  That there is no outcry amongst those who value the participation of the world Jewish community in the spiritual, social, economic and strategic life of the Jewish State that a woman was detained by the Jerusalem police, yet again, despite the advancements in religious freedom made by social activists in the past six years, is a perfect example of the “unwillingness to reflect on the flaws of their own camp or their own position.”  Deeply embedded within Israeli society, culture and legal system is a patriarchy that is holding back the march of modern Jewish history.  The Chief Rabbinate, by its intolerance of forms of Jewish expression and practice that are Other than Orthodox, enshrines a religious patriarchy into modern Israel.  This is a great cause of concern.  That Lesley Sachs was detained for having a Torah scroll on Rosh Hodesh Sivan 5776, almost six years after Anat Hoffman was arrested for carrying a Torah away from the Kotel Plaza and three years after the Sobel Decision, is a most serious flaw within our modern Jewish democratic state.  That this happened on the day Hillary Clinton made American history is more than ironic.  The synchronicity of these two events sheds light on just how deeply embedded the fundamentalist patriarchy is within Israel’s political culture.  The crucial work of the Women of the Wall, as well as the liberal movements of world Jewry, is  chipping away at the barriers to advancement created by those who are enshrined in power by a toxic mix of a “status quo” arrangement and political expediency.

Rabbi Gordis ends his piece by asking, “The events of these past weeks beg us to ask ourselves one central question: Do we still know how to embrace those who most vociferously challenge us to rethink our positions, to value them precisely because they get us to think? It is the answer to that question, perhaps more than any other, on which Israel’s future may depend.”  While the issues of spiritual civil rights may not be at the top of Danny Gordis’s list, these issues of religious freedom for all Jews, regardless of gender or adjective, marriage, divorce, burial, conversion, gender segregation and suppression of women’s images and voices in the public sphere, are precisely the issues that are raised in SRSS Concerts of Concern.  Given the challenges the SRSS Project has faced in presenting Concerts of Concern at major Jewish gatherings, I can say, for a fact, that many in the pro-Zionist community do NOT embrace our vociferous challenge to rethink the religious status quo arrangement.  The SRSS would welcome being valued “precisely because (we) get us to think.”  Actually, SRSS would welcome being valued precisely because through our songs, we are singing out for a better modern Jewish democracy, inviting those on the Left, Right and everywhere in between, to join in our modern Jewish democracy movement.

Whether at Severance Hall in Cleveland, Ohio or in the Women’s Section of the Kotel, music is a powerful agent of social change, provided that the society is willing to listen and truly embrace those who challenge the status quo.  I do hope Rabbi Gordis will open his ears, finally, to the words of our Concert of Concern, hearing a harmonious yet powerful expression of Self-Reflection and Self-Criticism.  May he be both moved and shocked and may he be willing to embrace the challenge to a religious patriarchy that is clearly a flaw in our Israeli society.  Always his student, I offer my teacher a chance to answer his own question.

About the Author
Francine M. Gordon is an artist/activist who maintains homes in New York and Cleveland. From November 2010 through November 2016, through The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project, she produced over 10 Concerts of Concern in the US and Israel. Since establishing her New York residence, Ms. Gordon has become a member of the New York Federation’s Israeli Judaism committee which focuses on exactly the same issues as SRSS. In addition, she has become a proud member of the Zamir Chorale which allows her to express her Zionism through song.
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