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Parashat Shlach Lecha 5776 and divisions in Israel

In memory of the 42 victims of the Ataturk Airport terrorist attack and in memory of little Hallel Yaffa Ariel, age 13, who was stabbed to death in her bed this Thursday by a Palestinian terrorist. May their memories be a blessing.

The parashah of this week and the next, Shlach Lecha and Korach, speak much about divisions inside our people. This week 10 spies, from the elite of Israel, tried to convince the people to ignore God’s command and renounce the Land of Israel because they thought it was impossible to conquer. Moses, Aaron and two of the spies, tried to convince the people that with God’s help everything is possible and that this Land is worth fighting for. The issue almost finished in tragedy when some of the people tried to stone Moses’s group. Sadly, this hatred and animosity is not only in the pages of the Torah but in the newspapers as well. The Sages asked in the Midrash why was the Torah given in Sinai and not in the Land of Israel; and they answered that in was in order for no tribe to be able to say that the Torah was given in their Land, so it was given in a neutral place. Also in the Midrash there is a discussion trying to understand why did Cain killed his brother Abel. One explanation said that the fight was because both wanted the site of the future Temple in Jerusalem to be in their Land, until Cain attacked and killed his brother. We all know that the Kotel, the Western Wall, is a place of huge significance for all Jews in the World, because of faith, history and a shared narrative. The Israeli government and the non-Orthodox movements achieved an agreement to establish a permanent area for non-Orthodox prayer in the Kotel, next to the current Plaza. The project involved a complete makeover of the area in Robinson’s Arch to include most services that the current plaza provides, but enabling non-Orthodox prayer in it. The agreement was supposed to be implemented in 30 days, but it was not. Prime Minister Netanyahu asked for 60 more days for a committee to recheck the agreement but promised that it was a formality. Those days passed as well. The Israeli government and Primer Minister Netanyahu have been unwilling to implement their own agreement so far, because of the pressure from Haredi politicians. This week, Orthodox groups even presented a demand in the Supreme Court to cancel the agreement, claiming that without the approval of the Chief Rabbinate it is not valid. Two weeks ago the situation got even worse, as an extreme group, aided by police protection and led by Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, and former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, both positions paid by taxpayer money; arrived at the Robinson’s Arch area of the Kotel. This is an area which for more than 15 years has been specifically set aside for use by Masorti, Reform and others who wish to pray in their own way. Amar’s group set a mechitza to separate men and women and had a service. This was of course less a statement of piety than an effort to provoke and set precedents. He called all non-Orthodox Jews evil and wicked people and said that they should never have access to the Kotel to worship in their own custom. Who are these “evil people” he condemned? Well, I am included in that group and you are as well. It includes thousands who live in Israel and millions of Jews throughout the World who identify with the various non-Orthodox movements. I am proud to be in company of so many “evil people”, may they multiply! Let it be clear. We do not view Orthodoxy as an enemy, I am glad there are Orthodox Jews and their visions and input are essential to the Jewish People. We do believe that sometimes Orthodox institutions, in particular the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, limit the religious freedom of other Jews and are an obstacle to presenting an alternative between the different brands of Orthodoxy and total secularism. The Chief Rabbinate is a stain in Israeli Democracy. All this is in my eyes a desecration of God’s name. I think it’s very important for us, Jews of the Diaspora, Reform, Masorti and yes, also Orthodox, to raise our voices and give an example of respect and love of fellow Jews. We don’t have to agree, we don’t have to pray together or even recognise each other’s conversions; but we must respect and love each other. We must make clear to Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government that we expect all Jews, from all denominations and beliefs, to be welcomed and respected in Israel, in the Land that our Parashah describes justly as “flowing with milk and honey”. In these days of hatred and violence in the name of religion, we should make an example at least inside the Jewish people of our faith being a force for love and good and no for more division. We love Israel and because we love Israel we must be honest and speak the truth. The promise made at its founding of freedom of religion has not been kept, at least not to the Jews. Jews in Israel do not enjoy the freedom they have in all other democratic, western countries to practice their Judaism according to their desires. They cannot be married by the rabbi of their choice or in a civil ceremony. Any divorce must be religious and must be done only by the official rabbinate. They can worship in a synagogue of their choice, but cannot expect government financing unless it is an official Orthodox synagogue. Israeli citizens are captives of a rabbinate that denies their freedom of choice and enforces a religious viewpoint that is unsuited to a modern democratic state. When will we attain in Israel the freedom we have been promised and that we deserve? When religion and politics stop being mixed in a dance of money, nepotism and corruption. When the Jews of the Diaspora, out of love for Israel, speak truth and say clearly that they demand religious freedom in the country. When secular Israelis raise their voice and stop being apathetic in religious issues and demand change. Are we truly “evil people” because this is our belief?

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