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I never knew gender  was an issue - Yom Kippur 5778 - Rabbi Celia Surget

I never knew that gender could be an issue in Judaism. It was not until I started my rabbinic studies in my early twenties that I was made aware of the challenges I might face, of the limitations that could be placed on me in my role as a Rabbi, because of my gender. My childhood rabbi, Francois Garai, one of the most open-minded rabbis I know, never brought it up as an issue.  Sure I knew that some of our members had been rather uncomfortable when he made changes to the Amidah to include the matriarchs, I knew that our egalitarian practices were not the minhag in the other synagogues in Geneva, and that my reading Torah on my bat-mitzvah made my experience of becoming a Jewish adult different to the experience that some of my friends had. When I decided to become a rabbi, no one challenged me based on my gender, but rather based on my personality, on who I was, on my objectives. I wore a tallit on my bat mitzvah, because women in my community wore tallitot, as a result of having Rabbi Pauline Bebe, the first French woman rabbi, come and lead a service for us and wear one, and us thinking that this was our new normal.

Call me naïve, call me sheltered, and I am sure that my recollections of those moments are inaccurate or wrong- but it was a great space to grow up in- to have the opportunity to spread my wings, experience my Judaism not as a girl and a young woman but as a Jew. And I will be forever grateful to Rabbi Garai for providing me with that space.

Rabbinic school and my first pulpit in France were when I truly became aware of the divide in the larger Jewish community, and of the comfort zones that were being pushed and challenged. I will never forget how after my first Yom Hashoah commemorations, which in Paris are very public and, to a certain point, cross-denominational, I was cornered by a group of very angry women, because I had stood beside my male colleagues and recited Kaddish. It was a moment of intense struggle- them, struggling to understand my actions, and me, struggling to understand their objections, as each one of us based our rational on our education, on our commitment to uphold the values of the Judaism we were brought up with.

Elie Wiesel once said: The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death […] Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil [Elie Wiesel, US News & World Report (27 October 1986)]

Yes, it would be so much easier if the struggle and the divide within the Jewish community was not our reality, if the numerous denominations that make up the community were indeed united in a shared appreciation and respect of our differences, of our various minhagim, our customs, of the many ways in which we choose to embrace our Jewish practice. But that is not the case- because we are not indifferent, because we care about the future of the Jewish community, of the Jewish people, though the ways of expressing it are sometimes rather difficult to come to terms with.

One of the charities we have chosen to support as a community this year is IRAC- the Israel Religious Action Centre, of which Anat Hoffman is the Executive Director. Anat is also known for her leading role and her dedication to the group Women of the Wall, and for challenging the nominally accepted ruling that the practices at the Kotel should be according to an orthodox practice that does not allow for progressive movements to pray according to our customs.

Women of the Wall is multi-denominational group of women, and male supporters who have been gathering for nearly thirty years at the Kotel, the Western wall, on Rosh Chodesh, the new Jewish month, to pray together,  read from Torah, and celebrate the simple and holy beauty of a Jewish service. If you have been following the story of Women of the Wall, who use the acronym WoW, you will know that is has been a journey filled with ups and downs- that each gathering brings about violent verbal and at times physical attacks, prayerbooks torn, women spat at, chairs thrown at them, while the police stands by and watches.  On other occasions, women have been arrested for wearing a tallit, others have been strip searched to ensure that they were not smuggling a Torah scroll into the plaza, that they might read from. As a group, Women of the wall are working to break the hold that orthodoxy has over the Israeli government, to ensure that the Jewish state is a Jewish state for all, which is part of the important work that IRAC does by suing the government weekly (recent victories include the lawsuit brought against Elal on behalf Renee Rabinowitz an 83 year old Holocaust survivor who was asked to change seat on her flight ), representing the voiceless in Israel which include the women from the ultra-orthodox community in Beit Shemesh,  and the Bedouins, who were being charged twice as much as the Jewish citizens for water, on the grounds the animals that they raise require less water than those of Jewish farmers.. IRAC’s thirty employees, most of whom are lawyers are kept very busy, and this is only a sample of their activities.

It must be clearly said, or at least I should clearly say that this is not about pointing fingers, or accusing Jews who do not support IRAC or WOW, but rather to hold the Israeli government accountable and ensure it upholds its commitment to provide an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel as a first step to recognition for all Jews in Israel and justice for all.

As I mentioned, Women of the Wall is a multi-denominational group and has successfully managed to build a service that allows for each participant to engage with, according to their own comfort level.

It is actually worth noting that Rabbi Avi Weiss, a modern orthodox rabbi wrote the following in his book “Women at Prayer”:

“Prayer is a dialogue, a rendezvous with God. It is a song, a tear a meditative thought, a joyful smile which helps bridge the tremendous chasm between the mortal human and the infinite God. That distance is not easily spanned. Every fibre of intellectual concentration and emotional strength is needed to achieve that instant when we feel the spark of God and breath that spirituality into our being. For many women, the moment becomes more possible, the experience more intense, through women’s tefilah groups.

Participants in such groups are not rebelling against Torah Judaism. Quite the contrary. They are seeking to instil greater religious meaning into their lives. Their purpose is not to diminish the Torah but to enhance their Jewish commitment and halakhic observance. It would be a great disservice to our communities if we were to deny these women the right to participate in women’s tefillah groups, a right which has a clear basis in the halakhah, and a right which, for many, heightens their prayer experience. Their quest to reach nobly to attain this lofty objective should be applauded.” [Women at Prayer, Rabbi Avi Weiss]

On Yom Kippur, we stand, we pray, we engage in a process of teshuvah, of introspection, we carefully consider our actions, we might follow the commandment from Torah of “afflicting our souls” and choose to do so each according to our own understanding of the mitzvah- As some of our year six students from cheder put it- this might mean not eating, or it might mean snacking less for a day, or perhaps it might mean putting down our various electronic devices (again, this is their suggestion) (which I realise is a bit ironic to say as we are streaming our service through Facebook this morning).  The words in our machzor speak of our actions to others or towards God, but they do not speak to our inability as community to somehow engage in a process of mutual appreciation and respect of other Jews, and certainly does not explicitly name it.

We exist in a community of them and us, of them against us, of us standing up to them, a community of them or us. And the reality is that I am not convinced that beyond occasional events such as communal Hanukkah lightings, and secular moments, and even for those there are difficulties, I am not convinced that the answer lies in a non-denominational/ multi-denominational form of practice, nor am I convinced that such a form of practice actually works. The breadth of observances and practices within the Jewish community are what makes it so beautiful and so enriching, and as an observant Reform Jew, I would not want to have what makes our particular strand of Judaism taken out or put aside, just as I would not be comfortable praying in a non-egalitarian minyan and would struggle to find my place a in a community that is not as inclusive as I would want it to be, according to my own definition of inclusivity.

We often look to Israel as an archetype of a Jewish society, to inspire our behaviour towards “them”, the other Jews, but in this particular case we can’t. Anat Hoffman speaks beautifully of this, encouraging Diaspora Jews to actually act as leaders and pave the way- to model that behaviour we are attempting to define, even if it is difficult. After all, one of the paradoxes, or one of the anomalies of the Israeli society is cristalised in the following example I have spoken of once before: My Israeli step-father, who is a Reform Rabbi, the first Israeli Reform Rabbi ordained in Israel has less religious rights and authority in Israel,   than I do by living in the diaspora. Anat encourages us to not be indifferent, to care, show our support, to make our voices heard,  for a Jewish community that stands for tolerance and respect, a community that is there to defend and support those among us, whether Jewish or not that need our help; to ensure that pluralism truly is about creating a framework that allows each Jew to thrive in a context that he or she feels comfortable in, and is not merely a label we put on something to make it look pretty or nice, but a real way of practicing Judaism.

The following story, as retold by Joel Lurie Grishaver in his book “Stories we pray”, perhaps best illustrates the challenge of the quest:

A ruler planted an amazing garden. In the middle of the garden, the ruler had an amazing maze built. Each visitor received a letter from the ruler that said:” Enter by the door of the maze and seek the centre. There you will find what you have been seeing your whole life”.

Many entered and became lost. They found the maze too hard, and they discovered enough beautiful places along the way that they gave up. Most people just enjoyed the hedge, the benches, and the flowers. They gave up their quest. Many of them cried out “This is too hard. Why did you hide our hearts’ desire in the centre of a difficult maze?”

Then they heard the ruler call out from the centre “It is only by seeking and wandering that you can be prepared to find me. The seeking is a necessary part of the finding”. Then they realised that finding the ruler, being close to the ruler was the thing they desired most. [Stories We Pray, Joel Lurie Grishaver, p.247]

As we journey through the day, may we be inspired by the words we read, by the presence of those around us, by those we admire and look up to, to be sustained and strengthened as individuals and as a community to strive to create a larger Jewish community that is blessed with shalom, with peace, with wholeness and with understanding.

יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶֽיךָ, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵֽינוּ, שֶׁתּוֹלִיכֵֽנוּ לְשָׁלוֹם, וְתַצְעִידֵֽנוּ לְשָׁלוֹם, וְתַדְרִיכֵֽנוּ לְשָׁלוֹם, וְתַנְחֵנוּ אֶל- מְחוֹז חֶפְצֵֽנוּ לְחַיִּים וּלְשִׂמְחָה וּלְשָׁלוֹם

May it be your will, our Living God, and God of our ancestors, that You lead us towards peace and direct our footsteps towards peace and that You guide us towards peace and lead us to our desired destination- to life, joy and peace.


Tue, 20 October 2020 2 Cheshvan 5781