Returning Judaism to Israel

Laura Janner-Klausner (Rabbi to the Movement for Reform Judaism) is right to be in combative mood. Her essay in the UK Jewish newspaper (Jewish Chronicle 31st May 2013 demands a response and challenges all Jews to reconsider the place of prayer and gender in Judaism, and above all, how truly to cause a spiritual revival in our people and institutions in Israel. We have today a retaining wall that was part of the foundation of the Second Temple (not a place of prayer in the original design). Otherwise known as the Kotel it nevertheless forms one of the more ‘sacred’ spots in modern Jerusalem, and a place of automatic pilgrimage for any Jewish person wanting to connect with G-d. Yet at precisely this space gender divides. The law in Israel is clear (as taken from the WOW website “No religious ceremony shall be in held in the women’s section of the Western Wall.”
This includes holding or reading a Torah, blowing the shofar (ram’s horn) or wearing tallitot (prayer shawls).

I am not a feminist, nor do I think that any ‘ism’ should be allowed to dictate what the Torah says; it has enough internal power of its own for those who have ears to hear it. But to even begin to classify the above debate in gender and feminist terms is to surely miss the point. Rabbi Janner-Klausner titled her essay ‘Wall fight is to return Judaism to Israel’. THAT is the point. Jewish women should surely be allowed to worship the G-d of our Fathers as anyone else can, and here we see the real issue: what is the actual purpose and point of the Temple at all? And more critically, just who CAN or SHOULD worship there? Only as this issue is settled will Judaism, the real Judaism ever come back to life again and be returned to Israel.

Let the Prophet Isaiah speak: ‘For my house shall be called a house of prayer FOR ALL NATIONS’ (emphasis mine), Is 56:7. King Shlomo also was well aware of this and in his inauguration speech in 1 Kings 8 outlines those who may ‘spread their hands towards this Temple’. And yes, after detailing those in the Jewish community who should come, he goes on to speak of those ‘not of your people but has come from afar’. In the first century the Mashiach (Messiah) used these verses to accuse those who ran the Temple of hindering those who would come, thus undermining one of the key elements of Israel’s light to the nations: sacrifice.

From Torah it is clear that isolating gender as an issue of worship in the Temple is to be way off the mark. We should be encouraging those from the nations to draw close, make the spiritual journey to join us and worship the only G-d in the Temple. This isn’t about gender, it is about being the chosen people of G-d. Inclusion is the word that should define worship in Judaism. If, according to Isaiah, even the eunuchs have access, then surely women do too, and thus ALL those who would choose to follow the G-d of Israel and His Messiah.

Thus Judaism will be returned to Israel, not just through the women, but through all those who are called to join us.

How to thrive as a Jew.

The Mashiach, the Jewish Messiah said ‘I have come to bring you Life, Life in all its fullness’. Who doesn’t want Life? Who would be so foolish to turn down such an offer? But this isn’t just any life, this is Life offered by the living G-d of Israel, His Life that when appropriated courses through our spiritual veins causing our lives, physical and spiritual to flourish and bloom. In it we discover our reason to live and purpose to exist at all. No one would disagree that we need that Life. Laying hold of it, appropriating it and even defining it however are more complicated challenges. Because one thing is true today: in our Jewish communities wherever we are we need more of the Life of G-d in our midst. This is not a Life that can be created artificially by emotion, deeper thinking or even by establishing more programmes for children, teenagers, young mums or trips for pensioners, as good as all those are. Being busier and more engaged creates more heat but not necessarily more Light. In a thought-provoking article in the Jewish Chronicle (UK 31.5.13) Simon Rocker in his essay on Judaism dares to ask the question ‘Can Jewish life thrive if God is on the sidelines?’ He notes that many Jews are merely following tradition, religious ritual, without believing in its divine origins. Judaism it seems is becoming increasingly a cultural club, a social unit which derives its validity and legitimacy from history alone, a vague sense of ancestry and ethnic descent rather than a definite calling into existence as a nation, a people by a G-d who planned for our geopolitical and theocratic space in time. Rocker, quoting Rabbi David Goldberg, highlights the absence of something that should surely worry us as Jews: “What had largely gone was the concept of a personal G-d who intervened in history and gave the commandments.”

So can Judaism and Jewish life thrive without G-d? Maybe we should be encouraging more observance of the mitzvot, will more observance mean more of G-d? I suggest that Torah has a different route in mind. The highest commandment is to love the Lord our G-d with all our hearts, minds and strength. Notable by its absence is the command to love Judaism, rather we are to love the Giver of Judaism, the Giver not the gift. Our faith as Jews centres around the G-d who gives revelation to us, to deny Him as first source is to effectively deny Judaism and condemn Jewish existence to a cultural backwater equal to other cultures. To love G-d first means we have to know whom we love. We cannot love an idea, a concept, a philosophy, nor can we love an impersonal force, demi-urge or absent clockmaker. To love is to know. To know is to have the basis of relationship. And the Prophet Jeremiah sums all this up thus; “they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest” Jer 31:34. To know G-d and have a personal relationship with Him is the pinnacle of Jewish existence and Life in all its fullness.

So, can Jewish life thrive without G-d? No. Judaism is about G-d, who He is and our relationship with Him. That this relationship forms culture is obvious, but to live with the end-product rather than the first source is to rob Jewish life of its power and transformational aspects.