The past few mornings, the final ones of this strange summer of 2016, have been glorious here in northeast Ohio. Heading west up Kenwood Court on my morning walk, I have been awed by the waning silver moon in the clear blue sky while simultaneously celebrating the rising sun in that same sky to the east. It is at those sacred moments, flanked by the moon and the sun, when I feel my dual identity as an American Jew in the deepest part of my soul.
As a Jew, my sacred clock and calendar is determined by the rising and setting of the sun and the phases of the moon; as an American living in 2016, I am part of a 24/7 solar based civilization. I know I follow in the hallowed tradition of the great medieval Spanish Hebrew poet Yehuda Ha-Levi whose immortal verse, “My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west,” reflects the dual identity at the core of the Jewish condition. Attempting to balance both of these identities is the challenging dance that fuels my calling as an American Zionist Artist/Activist.
Of course, the creation of the State of Israel was meant to erase such challenging dualities as we began to build our Third Commonwealth on our historical Land. The reality, however, is that the modern State of Israel is being suffocated by an ultra-Orthodox religious/political status quo that undermines the democratic nature of this modern country while driving Israeli Jews away from Judaism AND the Jews of the World away from Israel. To gain Orthodox buy-in for the establishment of the modern State, David Ben-Gurion infamously granted political control over matters of Jewish religion and personal status to the Orthodox political parties of the time. HOWEVER, the nature of “political Orthodoxy” has fundamentally and radically changed over the almost 70 years of Israel’s existence. As evidenced by the growing concerns of both Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews, this status quo arrangement is no longer acceptable or tolerable in a modern democratic society. The Israeli Supreme Court’s clear message to the Israel government that the Kotel Agreement, agreed to by the Government and representatives of the Jewish People in January of 2016, needs to be implemented is clear evidence that the Israel’s Supreme Court realizes it is time to change the status quo. From the perspective of an American Zionist who knows her Jewish history, one could almost say that the modern day Sanhedrin has spoken.
Changing the status quo, releasing Israeli society from the repressive chains of ultra-Orthodox Jewish law, as incorporated into civil law (“Public Jewish Law”), is the goal of the Modern Jewish Democracy Movement. Allowing a vibrant, creative, flexible form of Jewish practice to thrive in the Jewish State will not only invite Israeli Jews to experience Other than Orthodox forms of Judaism, it will legitimize and celebrate the innovations and changes that modernity has brought to Judaism. The State of Israel exists because Jews, such as Theodore Herzl, dared to think differently than those Jews who came before him. Zionism is the 21st century is about working with Jews, no matter where they live, to ensure that the modern State of Israel reflects the best of what Judaism can be. In the spirit of Herzl, the change agents on the ground in Israel are doing the best they can to change the status quo; yet, the institutionalized/politicized/coalition-dependent state of affairs is so difficult to move. This is the reason the Israel Supreme Court’s message to the government was so very important as it clearly said, CHANGE THE STATUS QUO.
Two days ago, the New York City area was terrorized by a series of bombs set by Ahmad Khan Rahami. As the events unfolded, I was rocked by an ironic twist of my dual identity. Since becoming a foreign resident of Jerusalem in 1999, every time there is a terrorist attack in Israel, I feel the emotional impact 6,000 miles away. This week, from my home in Cleveland, I watched the constant reports from my new home in New York, feeling a similar charge of anxiety. How thrilled and proud I was of the NYPD and other authorities for apprehending the terrorist quickly. Of course I was reminded of the how secure I feel in Israel in these waning days of 5776. And of course, as Bret Stephens wrote so eloquently in The Wall Street Journal, Israelis know exactly how to live “Life During Wartime.”
In many ways, Israelis and Americans have much to learn from each other. For those of us who embrace our dual identities as American Zionists, we must be a part of that learning process. Sharing my understanding of democratic values with an Israeli society that aspires to live by those exact same values, is part of the dance I do with my dual identity. These words of Israel’s Declaration of Independence form the foundation of The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project: “The State of Israel…..will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture…”. The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project works with communities to raise awareness of the issues facing the development of a modern Jewish democracy in a parliamentary system. Through the performance of “Sacred Rights, Sacred Song” — A Concert of Concern, an 11-movement original cantata, a community literally raises its collective voice in concern over the difficulties faced by those working to change the status quo so that a modern form of Public Jewish Law can prevail.
On November 13, 2016, at 7 pm at The Kimmel Center, Perelman Theater in Philadelphia, PA, a chorus of over fifty singers will present the Philadelphia premiere of “Sacred Rights, Sacred Song” — A Concert of Concern. How fascinating that at sunset on that day, as the moon is rising over Philadelphia, the Jewish calendar will read 13 Heshvan, 5777. I always notice the sacred synchronicity when the Hebrew date and the secular date are in alignment, even if for the few hours of moonlight before midnight. The American Jewish artist/activist in me smiles at the thought that rather than fall prey to the common superstitious nature of 13, I look to Maimonides 13 Principals of Faith, inspired by the knowledge that the great Rambam too, did the dance of the dual identity.