On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - D'varim: For All the Jewish People

Kol Yisrael translates to “all of Israel.” In Parashat D’varim, when Moses speaks to kol Yisrael, he’s not speaking to a divided Jewish people: he’s speaking to them as one. It’s fitting that this year, we read Parashat D’varim in the lead up to the Israeli Supreme Court’s ruling on an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel. In this episode of On the Other Hand, Rabbi Jacobs describes what this agreement, the fallout, and the upcoming decision means for Reform Judaism.

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Welcome to On the Other Hand, Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Every week Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a new spin on the weekly Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. Some weeks he is joined by guests and some weeks he just shares his own perspective but On the Other Hand always provides the modern take on over 2000 years of Jewish wisdom. This week, Episode 79, Rabbi Jacobs talks about parashat D'varim. He wonders how this week's Torah portion correlates with the emotion and drama of Tisha B'Av and simultaneously with what is happening at the Kotel right now.  He wonders how we can learn from the past about what can happen in the present.

This week we begin a new book of the Torah. We begin with parashat D'Varim, the first Torah portion in the Book of Deuteronomy. The opening words of this new fifth book say "Eleh ha devarim hasher deber Moshe hakol Israel.” These are the words that Moses spoke to Kol Yisrael, to all of the Jewish people not some of them, not the ones that he agreed with, not the ones that he liked. But all of them. So I'd like to actually focus on where we are in the Jewish calendar this week and this Shabbat and where we are in the Jewish journey to the place of Kol Yisrael. All of Israel.

We are going to this week be in the moments just before Tisha B'Av the ninth day of Av, a day when we commemorate the destruction not only of the first and second temples but a day of Jewish disaster. It turns out the Supreme Court of the state of Israel will be ruling on a very important matter. It's going to be ruling on the whole question of the petition before it regarding the Western Wall, the Kotel. And so we're at a moment where we are not actually acting as Kol Yisrael, as the entirety of the Jewish people. There is at this moment a good deal of division on the part of the ultra-Orthodox political religious leaders in Israel who hold a lot of political power. And frankly all the rest of the Jewish people in Israel and around the world. Many of you know that for the past four years we, the Reform movement along with the Conservative movement, the Federations and Women of the Wall we have been not only in good faith negotiating with the government of Israel.

We actually came to an agreement, a really important and painful compromise, agreement about how to make the Kotel for Kol Yisrael for all of the Jewish people not some, not the ultra-orthodox, or not just the Reform or the secular but a place for all the Jewish people. So it would establish for the first time a pluralistic, egalitarian prayer space. The after math of that government decision a year and a half ago was such that it led till just at the end of June a cancellation, a freezing, a discarding of that decision because of the pressure of the ultra-orthodox. One of the things that's so painful around the time of this particular calendar moment that one of Talmudic texts from the Tractate Yoma. We learned that the temple wasn't destroyed by Second Temple by the Romans but rather because of sinat chinam. because of baseless hatred among the warring Jewish factions. So the Talmudic Sages see what happened the disaster as an implosion because of all of the internal tensions because we weren't Kol Yisrael, we weren't all of Israel.

It's the case that we may be at such a moment and I just want to remind people the Torah portion says something powerful to judges. So we're reading this parasha right before the Supreme Court would rule and I wonder if the Supreme Court justices would hear from the first chapter of Deuteronomy verses 16 and 17 where it says, "And I charge your judges saying here the cause is between your brothers and sisters and Judge righteously between a person and his brother or sister and the stranger that is with him or her. You shall not respect persons and judgment. You shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not be afraid of the face of any person for the judgment is God's."

So I know the Supreme Court justices are known for their brilliance and their independence and their courage. We're looking to the Supreme Court to really weigh in in a very serious way and to suggest that it is time in fact it is long past the time to implement this government decision. This compromise that would create for the first time a place for Kol Yisrael, for all of the Jewish people. And I certainly would say that you know the idea that there's a men's section or women's section so that the ultraorthodox can pray according to their custom makes perfect sense. That's part of the compromise. But we, the overwhelming majority of Jews on the planet, we deserve a place there an equal place a dignified place. A place that is open and welcoming so that people know at the Kotel they have a choice. So people know that throughout the Jewish state there is a choice on how one wants to live Jewishly, whether one wants to be very traditional or not. That is part of the promise of Zionism. That's part of the promise of Deuteronomy as well. I want to just read from the Supreme Court petition because the language is so beautiful and powerful. So here's a translation of the petition.

And by the way you should know that the Reform movement, led by the Israel Religious Action Center, we brought this petition and it's actually joining together a few other petitions that listen to the clarity of what is at stake. So this is from the preamble of the Supreme Court petition says:

 "This appeal concerns the grave and continued breach of the freedom of religion and the right to equality of millions of Jews both women and men in Israel and in the diaspora, who are denied the right to pray according to their customs in this holy site. And the breach of the fundamental principles of the state of Israel as a Jewish democratic state that constitutes the national home to all of the Jewish people including all of its denominations, circles, and communities. This breach is manifested primarily in the denial of the right of Conservative, Reform and secular Jews to pray as part of egalitarian minyans, and the denial of the right of women to pray is part of a women's minyan."

And this is the very clear frame as to what's at stake the freedom to practice one's religion is a democratic right. It's not a favor it's not a nice thing that the government would do or not do. And so we're standing up for a principle that's profound and it's in this Torah portion to judge righteously, to judge fairly, whether you're a Supreme Court justice or you're simply a person of ethical rigor and character.

So there's a lot riding, friends, and the government of Israel will be called to account shortly after Tisha B'Av.

I can't remember a Tisha B'Av, a ninth day of Av, that was as filled with as much emotion and drama in recent days particularly for non-Orthodox Jews because the place where most people gather to mourn the destruction is at the Kotel. It's at that very site and that would conclude by just sharing with you a piece of archaeology in the place where the egalitarian pluralistic prayers space is to be created. Not a few little modest improvements that the government is suggesting it will do before the 30th of July. But the dramatic reshaping of that space is right over the stones that fell when the temple was destroyed in 70 of the common era.

When you pray in that site what is most powerful is you're reminded about what happens when there is sinat chinam, and there is baseless hatred between the different parts of the Jewish community. So in many ways this Tisha B'Av, this hearing of the Supreme Court this moment in the life of the Jewish people is one that calls us to truly live that commitment to Kol Yisrael, to all of the Jewish people all of us standing up for one another, standing up for the respect that that we know that we must show one another and when we have our place at the Western Wall and everyone else has their place. Why we work backward, and we say now let's make sure the Jewish state is such an inclusive place and let's make sure the entire Jewish people, wherever we are, whatever our practices, that we make space to be responsible and to be committed to the well-being of Kol Yisrael at the Kotel, in the Jewish state, in every part of this world.

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand, Ten Minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week on ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit Reform Judaism or to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. On the Other Hand, 10 Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l'hitraot.