How Good Are Our Tents? The Kotel Controversy

How Good Are Our Tents? - The Kotel Controversy
Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh
Parashat Balak 5777/2017

Jewish unity can be a fleeting thing as we saw in these last weeks.

The kotel compromise officially began in 2013 – took three years to get everyone on the same page, and in a day, it’s all gone.  (for a basic overview of the Kotel compromise, please read: Western Wall prayer fight ends with historic compromise

Due to the outcry from the Jewish community outside of the land of Israel, the government has delayed any changes for six months. 

Now we have six months, so what now? 

Before we start planning for the future, I would like to look to the past.  Today, I want to focus on two things: 

1.     Balaam’s famous blessing, Mah Tovu
2.     An adaptive solution to the issue of pluralism

Balaam, the infamous non-Israelite prophet, is ordered to curse the Children of Israel by a King Balak who was fearful of these ex-slaves from Egypt.  However, every time Balaam tries to curse them, he blesses them. What makes Balaam such an interesting character is in his name itself – the rabbis took his name apart, Bil – Am – literally means without a nation.  This is a prophet who doesn’t understand how a nation works.  How can a people stick together as they grow and become diverse? 

He goes up on a mountain, sees the children of Israel, and says the famous words:

Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael

How good or fair are your tents Jacob, your dwell places Israel!

There is something quite deep to these words. First, what was the good that Balaam saw regarding the tents?  The Talmud fills it in through a story:  

Bava Batra 60a
“And Balaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel dwelling tribe by tribe; and the spirit of God came upon him” (Numbers 24:2). The Gemara explains: What was it that Balaam saw that so inspired him? He saw that the entrances of their tents were not aligned with each other, ensuring that each family enjoyed a measure of privacy. And he said: If this is the case, these people are worthy of having the Divine Presence rest on them.

What could this mean?  Well, it is a message of privacy and respect.  They were a people, but each family had their own sense of identity.  They were united, but not uniform. 

And the next question is, what were the tents?  In the Talmud, the rabbis say the tents and dwelling places become the synagogues and study halls of the people of Israel.  As we have grown and moved around the world, our synagogues and study halls have become even more diverse. 

So if we zoom out, what did Balaam see?  He saw that a nation could only be a nation if it gives each other room and respects how they worship in their own dwelling places.  We are related, but at the same time, we are different. Pirkei Avot wisely states:  “One who says, "What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours" is a chassid (pious person). And one who says "What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine" is wicked.”

In the Diaspora, we have done a decent job of respecting one another’s dwelling places, our ways of worship.  In our community, we can see this through our emphasis on Jewish unity.  In Israel, this is not the case.  In Israel, the Rabbanut, the Ultra-Orthodox dominated state sanctioned rabbinate, insists on looking in everyone’s tent.  Judaism is what they say it is – your tent has to be just like our tent.

The truth is, we are never going to change their perspective – but they are not the majority of the country.  The majority of the country isn’t religious at all – 80% are secular, and most of them know nothing about the Reform and Masorti movements.  The Kotel controversy dominated our news here in the Jewish press, and it even made it to the cover of the New York Times, but it did not make it to one newspaper cover in Israel. 

I have been learning about the practice of adaptive change – often times, we look at problems and offer technical fixes.  For example, you have high blood pressure, so what do you do?  You take medication to lower it.  This might solve the problem technically, but the healthiest thing to do, which takes longer, is to change your lifestyle to eat healthy, get more exercise and lower your stress.  The adaptive challenge prevents the issue from recurring. 

The adaptive challenge here is not the ultra-Orthodox, rather, it is the 80% of Israelis who don’t know about us. 

So I want to offer my solution to Jewish unity, which will take a lot longer than the kotel compromise:

A reverse birthright trip – bring young Israelis to America to work in Reform and Conservative communities.  This system already exists to a certain degree.  The Jewish Agency in Israel sends shlichim, Israeli emissaries, to Jewish communities outside of Israel in various settings.  The Jewish Agency says, “our shlichim bridge the gap between Jews of different backgrounds and Israel, increase Jewish awareness and pride within your community and promote an understanding of Israel and its ideals.”  One of my life long friends is an Israeli shaliach who came to work in America for a summer from Israel.  We worked at Camp Ramah Darom together, and I will never forget when we first met, in our tiny shared room in a cabin.  He didn’t speak much English, and I didn’t speak much Hebrew, so we taught each other.  We taught each other much more than Hebrew, but our unique Jewish backgrounds.  He came from a Moroccan Jewish family, I came from a European Jewish family.  We were different, and yet, so similar.

When I visited Israel, I knew I always had a place to stay and a family to spend the holidays with, and vice versa.  Of course, I had many Israeli friends from various years at Ramah.  When I visited Israel, I not only visited the country, but I connected with real families.

(Erez and I in Jerusalem after a decade of not seeing each other!)

Can you imagine if we welcomed thousands hundreds of Israeli young men and women from secular backgrounds to work in non-Orthodox synagogues and schools?   We need a dose of Israel and Hebrew for our children, these young Israelis want an experience outside of Israel for a year to make some money and travel.

It would be an incredible win-win!

The kotel controversy is much larger than the kotel – the issue is not just about the synagogue that the Israeli government insists the kotel is – rather, it is about the acknowledgment of different expressions of Judaism in the Jewish state.  It is about Jewish religious freedom in our only state. 

I want to end with a good story that just happened:

At the Maccabiah opening ceremony in Jerusalem on Thursday evening, a Jewish Canadien Avi Steinberg, was called to the stage by Israeli actress Noa Tishby, who was emceeing the event. “I’m very excited to be here,” said Steinberg. “What makes this even more special for me is that my girlfriend, Rachel Dixon, the love of my life, who just completed her conversion to Judaism, today for the first time landed in Israel.”  Avi is in T-shirt and shorts – and Noa calls Rachel up to the stage.  Avi drops on one knee and proposes to her.  She says yes, meanwhile, they are in front of 10,000 people!  Noa goes on to say, “it would be our honor if you guys would actually get married right here, right now. Will you do it?”  And out comes a white dress, a hupah, and their rabbi, Rabbi  Avi Poupko, from Canada.  And there they are, in the Jewish dwelling place, their first home, the huppah, surrounded by the Jewish people, men and women sitting together, from different backgrounds. 

Rabbi Poupko commented on the moment

“Given the Israeli government’s recent decisions concerning the conversion law, it was a beautiful and reassuring sight to see a new convert be so embraced by tens of thousands of Jews from all across the world…I think that [this ceremony] expresses the true Jewish spirit as far as how we are to relate to individuals who have chosen to tie their fates with the Jewish people.”

It’s a nice story, but unfortunately, if the couple were Israeli, their marriage would be not be accepted in Israel.  If they lived in Israel, Avi’s wife would be not be considered Jewish because Rabbi Poupko, although Orthodox, is not a state sanctioned rabbi, and their wedding would not be recognized by Israel either.  A Conservative rabbi friend posted a picture of himself performing a wedding in Red Square in Moscow saying, “Just had the privilege of conducting a beautiful wedding for a beautiful couple under a chuppah overlooking the Kremlin. Who would have thought that the joyous voices of Jewish bride and groom and the sheva brachot would resound through Red Square? The forces of history were in evidence today. Ironic that I must pray that some day Jews in Israel will be as free to practice their religion as we are here in Russia, and have a wedding with the rabbi of their choosing.”

May we see a day soon when we have true freedom in Israel for all Jews, that we respect our tents so much that we welcome each other in, learning from each other but keeping our values and beliefs in tact. 

Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotech Yisrael -

Kein Yehi Ratzon. 


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