New Words for a New Chapter in Jewish History

by Francine Gordon

On the eve of Shavuot 5773, just as when we stood at Mt. Sinai so many generations ago, Israel again stands on the precipice of change, presented with a historic opportunity to renew, in a revelatory way, Her Jewish identity. Following the elections of January 2013, the State of Israel is finally governed by a coalition of political parties capable of reweaving the fabric of Israeli society. After the past several months of unreasonable police activity against the Women of the Wall, the people of Israel, especially those in North America, have raised their voice in protest over the infringement of women’s religious rights at the Western Wall. Not only has Prime Minister Netanyahu charged Natan Sharansky with finding a compromise to the deteriorating situation at the Kotel, the legal system has also responded, with two judges holding that the Women of the Wall are not disturbing the peace and challenging the accepted “custom of the place”. Throughout the land of Israel, the winds of change are blowing, shifting the sands of the religious status quo in potentially profound ways. Visionaries are sharing their dreams with the public as activists find their voices, articulating and working toward their aspirations, fueling the energy of social change. Our tradition is very clear about the power of words to shape reality. The central story of Shavuot is all about the revelation of words to guide us as a People. The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project, in the spirit of our verbal tradition, is dedicated to helping build a new Jewish reality in Israel by introducing a new framework, complete with new phrases representing core concepts, to understand what we have been calling the “religious pluralism” issues.

My passion for what I call “the modern Jewish democracy movement” began in earnest in December of 2009 at the Biennial gathering of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in Cherry Hill, NJ. Israel’s Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, addressed the gathering, endearing himself to the crowd by highlighting his roots in the Conservative movement, notably our youth group, United Synagogue Youth. During the Q & A, I asked the Ambassador to comment on what had happened at the Kotel several weeks earlier with Nofrat Frankel, who had been arrested for wearing a tallit at a WOW Rosh Hodesh gathering. Unfortunately, the Ambassador had been given an inaccurate report of the incident by the Foreign Ministry, which was revealed by his inaccurate response to my question. It was this exchange which opened his eyes to what was happening every Rosh Hodesh at the Kotel; it was also this exchange which propelled me into the middle of modern Jewish history, deepening my involvement with the Women of the Wall.

While I am not a board member of WOW, over the past several years I have supported their work and have joined the minyan whenever I am in Jerusalem for Rosh Hodesh. I have come to appreciate that with each new moon, WOW highlights the lack of religious freedom and gender equality in public Jewish space. Every month, WOW has shown the conflict between what I call “Public Jewish law,” in other words, Jewish law which is part of Israeli civil law, enforced by the police power of the State, and core democratic values. Israelis, who do not have a “First Amendment gene” like American Jews, have not been bothered by the suppression of religious freedom in public space until quite recently; American Jews, on the other hand, are hypersensitive to infringements of the basic right to religious freedom. In the areas of marriage, divorce, burial and conversion, however, Israelis are only too aware of the violations to their basic civil rights as a result of the current religious status quo. The unequal distribution of the military burden, the disturbing events in Beit Shemesh last year involving an 8-year old girl’s level of modesty as well as the continuing existence of segregated bus lines in Jerusalem, all remind the Israeli public of the overempowerment of the ultra-Orthodox minority in Israeli society. These same conditions helped propel Yair Lapid’s Yeish Atid party to a position of great influence within the Knesset, setting the stage for a rebalancing of power. This stage, with new players, is ripe for a new script, for new concepts, for new words; the corollary is that outdated concepts and words need to be tossed aside.

Accordingly, the modern Jewish democracy movement seeks to eliminate the term “non-Orthodox” from our shared vocabulary. Simply put, to describe the majority of our People as “non” immediately robs that group of both power and legitimacy. Rather, we should speak about Jews, and then if we need to further define, to say “who follow (fill in the adjective) practice”. We need to speak about spiritual civil rights and we need to demand that the Israeli legal system protect the religious rights of all Jews, regardless of gender or adjective. As the winds of change blow throughout Israeli society, we must begin using new phrases to describe who we are and what is important to us as a People in order to help build a new Zionist reality which reflects an understanding of Judaism that is common to us all.

While the most recent reports about the Sharansky proposal have the parties retreating from their initial support, observers of social change know that such posturing is a part of the long process of redefining the character of a society. For inspiration in the face of such discouraging news, I turn to the words of a song we USYers, Ambassador Oren amongst us, sang back in the 1970’s, “Yibaneh haMikdash, Ir Tzion t’maleh.” It is these ancient words from our tradition, sung in the 1970’s and still sung today in the 5770’s, that compel me to find new words to ensure that in the next stage of our Zionist enterprise, our public Jewish tradition mirrors the core values of the modern Jewish people. By offering new concepts and new words to the conversation, I hope to offer some guidance as we, the people of Israel, stand together at this historic moment in time, confirming our love and commitment to our holy space.