It was a quiet Jerusalem day at the Wall, one of those brutally hot June afternoons with the sun beating down on the sandy hues of Jerusalem stone. The day seemed familiar yet something was different. Nowhere to be found were the plastic chairs filled with women praying in the tiny "women's section," that in recent years often blocked my access to the Wall, the last remaining vestige of the Second Temple. Today, I easily found my place at the Wall, reminding me of my childhood when the women's section wasn't so small and most of the people there were just like me.
I put my notes and prayers in the Wall with the thousands of other petitions to God, touched the cool stones, closed my eyes, and began to pray. In that moment, I could hear the distant prayers of men and women over the decades and centuries of time, their weeping and their voices of gratitude as they came to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festivals. Their voices were as music in my mind, a millennial chorus testifying to the unity and continuity of the Jewish people. Only when I was finished with my holy moment did I look to my right and see women sweating on those white plastic chairs and standing cramped and pressed together in the shade under the ramp that leads to the Temple Mount.
What a summer it was for religious pluralism in the Land of Israel! First, Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center and leader of the Women of the Wall was arrested on Rosh Chodesh Av for carrying a Torah near the Wall. The same week, world Jewry mobilized to protest the Rotem bill before the Knesset, which threatened to redefine "Who is a Jew?" in the Jewish state. The bill would have placed all authority for conversion in the hands of an ultra-Orthodox extremist rabbinate whose mantra is exclusion. The results would have threatened to rip tens of thousands of Jews from the bosom of K'lal Yisrael (the people of Israel).
Our Torah records moments of division among Jews in the same breath that it teaches harmony among brethren. So, as we spiritually prepare to take our first yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem with our ancestors this Sukkot, I am choosing an alternative text for study this Shabbat. Although this is not the traditional reading for Sukkot Chol HaMo-eid, as the author for Deuteronomy's Reform Voices of Torah this year, I thought it would be fitting to choose a text from Deuteronomy.
And Moses instructed them as follows: Every seventh year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths [Sukkot], when all Israel comes to appear before the Eternal your God in the place that [God] will choose, you shall read this Teaching aloudin the presence of all Israel. Gather the people- men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities-that they may hear and so learn to revere the Eternal your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. (Deuteronomy 31:10-12)
Here, in the very last words Moses shares with the Israelites before God tells him that he is about to die, we learn that this Festival of Booths, Sukkot, so often known for fruits and harvest, is a time for the reading of our sacred Torah. All the people together as one were to hear the words of Torah on this festival. No m'chitzah (separation wall between men and women) is commanded. Even the stranger is welcome.
Sukkot is not just a harvest festival in the Torah. It is the festival during which King Solomon dedicated the Temple with all of Israel. "At that time Solomon kept the Feast for seven days-all Israel with him" (II Chron. 7:8-10; see also I Kings 8:1-5).
Ezra brought the law before the congregation in Jerusalem, "both men and women, and all who could listen with understanding . . . And they found written in the Teaching (Torah) that the Lord had commanded Moses that the Israelites must dwell in booths during the festival of the seventh month, and that they must announce and proclaim throughout all their towns, and Jerusalem as follows: 'Go out to the mountains and bring leafy branches of olive trees, pine trees, myrtles, palms and [other] leafy trees to make booths, as it is written' " (Neh. 8:2, 14, 15). The passage from the Book of Nehemiah recounts that the observance of Sukkot had not occurred since the time of Joshua. As the people read the Torah, they learned that they needed to build booths (impermanent tabernacles) for the Festival of Sukkot.
There have always been those who wanted to be different, and those who made changes to the tradition. Jeroboam, in I Kings 12:32-33, changes the date of Sukkot for political and religious reasons. Jubilees 32:27-29 records that Jacob added an eighth day to the holiday.
And the most significant Sukkot passage of all appears in Zechariah 14:16-19, which shares a vision that all nations shall share a Sukkot together in the end of days. That is our goal from the voice of Torah: ultimate togetherness, not just with fellow Jews, but with all humanity.
Observance and exile, return and renewal, change and evolution are the cornerstones of Jewish survival. Historically, we have not remained in any one period of time, garb, or ideology. We continue like all others who biologically survive on this planet, because we adapt. Change enabled us to go from Solomon's temple to Ezra and Nehemiah's marketplace. Our survival has never been predicated on banning our fellow Jews from places that are holy for all of us or turning our tradition over to the hands of one group. Today's Chasidim were yesterday's persecuted minority. Today's Reform Jews are likely the largest group of Jews in North America.
Exclusion or inclusion? The Torah is clear: the ideal is inclusion. Our sukkah is open for all to come and dwell. We welcome all Jews, and all who wish to join us, in our tabernacle, and we welcome all who seek to study Torah-our sukkah is a tabernacle of Torah for everyone. It is the model of inclusion for every tabernacle, or Wall, or dwelling place dedicated to God. There is room for all of us in God's sukkah and at God's Wall. We are all welcome to embrace God's Torah and celebrate God's holy days. Sukkot is the symbol of the world to come: a world where all who seek the Eternal in truth are welcome in the tabernacle of peace. Every Shabbat we pray to God asking for a sukkat shalom, a "tabernacle of peace" to be spread over us, over Jerusalem, and over our world.
Kein y'hi ratzon. So may it be God's will.
Thank you for the opportunity to study Torah with you for the past three months. Thank you for your comments. Thank you to Rabbi Joan Glazer Farber, Audrey Merwin, their colleagues, and the URJ for making this learning possible.
Rabbi Amy R. Perlin, D. D., is the senior and founding rabbi of Temple B'nai Shalom in Fairfax Station, Virginia.
In our community, we take to heart Rabbi Perlin's words, "Our sukkah is open for all to come and dwell." Whenever we have guests from Israel in our community, they are always invited to attend Shabbat services, and they are also invited to the bimah: for an aliyah, to hold the Torah, to dress the Torah, to carry the Torah. Not long ago, I invited one for an aliyah; at the oneg she told me that she had been to America before, but this time, she had promised herself that she would "make aliyah." It was something she had always wanted to do, but of course, she couldn't in Israel.
We "make aliyah" by emigrating to Israel. For this Israeli woman, "making aliyah" meant being called to the Torah in America. She could be a stranger to the Torah at home in Israel and yet embrace the Torah in America. In America, we revere the Western Wall-the Kotel-from afar, while our sisters in Israel can touch it. But they revere the Torah from a distance, while we can hold it in our arms.
According to Rabbi Judith Hauptman, Talmudic scholars struggled with defining the religious lives of women after the destruction of the Second Temple. The need to reinvent a set of religious practices based on prayer and home ritual challenged the Rabbis to reconsider the spiritual needs of women. Within the norms and constraints of Talmudic society, they sought to increase women's opportunities and even obligations for the ritual expression of their spiritual selves.
The concept of the "honor of the congregation," which has justified the exclusion of women from participation in the Torah service, is an issue of social custom: a person must not be represented before the community or before God, by someone who is inferior to him. As Hauptman notes, our Rabbis used their skills and their authority to improve women's spiritual lives in their own day (see Rereading the Rabbis, [Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1998], pp. 232-33).
Just as the Rabbis understood, the participation of women in religious life is important for the spiritual health of the entire community. Both women and men seek to create holiness in their lives, as they live from day to day and season to season.
Welcoming our Israeli sisters into the shelter of Torah in America testifies to the boundless-and boundary-less-nature of Torah, as well as to the energy and inclusiveness of Reform Judaism. To share with them the "making of aliyah," whether in America or Israel, is to restore the health of Klal Yisrael. More than ever, this Sukkot let us make this our goal.
Rabbi Beth L. Schwartz is the rabbi of Temple Beth El in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Chol HaMo-eid Sukkot, Exodus 33:12–34:26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 657–661; Revised Edition, pp. 592–596;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 508–512