Fighting the Establishment

by Brian on June 12, 2008

in Jewish Holidays and Culture

Fight the establishment. That was the implicit message my wife Jody and I gleaned this Shavuot from our attendance at a fiery lecture and our participation in a controversial minyan.

First the lecture. Shavuot is the holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. The emphasis on the Torah as the central motif of the yom tov has led to a custom of studying all night. Jerusalem probably has more learning opportunities than any other city in the world, in every language imaginable.

For the past few years, we have attended David Hartman’s class at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a pluralistic research and training school in Jerusalem (which also happens to be where our 16-year-old son Amir goes to high school). David Hartman, who is Orthodox, typically spends the first half of his lecture railing against iniquities and injustice he perceives in modern Israeli society, with the brunt of his criticism aimed squarely at the religious world of which he is a member.

This year, he chose to expound on the famous Talmudic story of Tanur shel Achnai (Achnai’s oven) that includes the phrase lo b’shamayim hi – translated as “it is not in heaven” – found in the Babylonian Talmud Baba Metzia 59b and based on a biblical verse in Deuteronomy 30:12. The story is long and involved but the upshot is that there is a disagreement between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Gamliel over a particular interpretation of the Torah.

Rabbi Eliezer calls for several miracles to appear if the heavens agree with him. A tree magically jumps 100 cubits, a river runs backwards, and ultimately a voice booms out of heaven to declare that Rabbi Eliezer is correct. Rabbi Gamliel responds: never mind all that, the Torah is “no longer in heaven.” Rather, it is up to the learned men and women in this world to which it was entrusted to rule on issues of halacha.

That principle led Rabbi Hartman to declare in his lecture that not only is decision making on religious law no longer dictated from heaven, but history itself is not and cannot be controlled by God.

Hartman recounted how, after the 1967 Six Day War, many of his peers saw “God’s finger” in Israel’s striking defeat of its enemies. One Rabbi put it this way: in a crucial battle against Egypt, Elijah the Prophet appeared in the midst of the Israeli army dressed in white with a long beard and blowing a shofar. The result: the Egyptians recognized that God was with the Israelis and simply “ran away.”

But how could it be that the same God who was allegedly so omnipresent in 1967 was cruelly absent during the years of the Holocaust and many other incidences of Jewish hardship? Is our God really so capricious, Hartman asked. A man who’s had a life of plenty may remark that “God has been good to me.” Does that mean that God is “less good” to a family suffering in poverty? History winds its own past, based on the actions of man not God, Hartman emphasized.

Yet, the idea that God actively takes a part in history has taken root across Orthodoxy today, strangling rabbinic innovation, Hartman said. If God is dictating events, the thinking goes, then what right do we as humans have to change Jewish law even when it is clearly unjust? Hartman cited several pressing problems – recalcitrant husbands who refuse to give their wives a get, a divorce degree, and agunot, literally “chained women,” who cannot remarry according to Jewish law because their husbands have gone missing.

Hartman saved his most stinging vitriol for the controversy du jure where in recent weeks an ultra-Orthodox Rabbinic court has retroactively annulled hundreds of thousands of conversions to Judaism going back as far as 1999, insensitive to the suffering caused.

The implicit message: we must continue to fight the establishment. We cannot cede control over such important matters to those who do not interpret lo b’shamayim hi and God’s role in history as Hartman says we must.

After such a combative lecture, it’s not surprising that our evening ended with another example of fighting the establishment.

A further custom of Shavuot is to pray at the Kotel, the Western Wall, as the sun rises. At 4:00 AM, the streets are filled with thousands of people of all religious stripes and colors making their way towards the Old City. It’s exhilarating to participate in the march. However Jody and I overslept by half an hour and there were only women, children and tourists on the streets as we made our way, bleary eyed, towards our destination: the egalitarian minyan which comprises Conservative, Reform and liberal-leaning Orthodox Jews.

This minyan, where men and women pray together and where women lead the tefiilah, has been no stranger to controversy. The group tried for years to pray at the Western Wall, indiscreetly in the back of the plaza. The keepers of the Kotel were not pleased, however, and tried to scare off the minyan’s participants.

I was amongst the group one year and saw first hand the baseless hatred between Jews. Dirty diapers, garbage and bags of chocolate milk were hurled at us indiscriminately. The police were called in to create a separation barrier before we were whisked away for our own protection.

The minyan eventually settled for a government-sponsored compromise to be relocated outside the main Kotel area to the southern extension of the wall known as Robinson’s Arch. The new location is quite picturesque, located amidst archaeological excavations and the nearby Davidson Center, and actually offers a more fulfilling prayer experience than the overcrowded central plaza.
I commend the egalitarian minyan for sticking to its guns and fighting the religious establishment as bravely as it did for so many years. As I see it, the Western Wall should belong to all of the Jewish people, and the egalitarian minyan’s strive to change the status quo is a welcome modern extension of the concept of lo b’shamayim hi.

There is still much to be done. There are times when modern Jews seem to be losing the battle. That’s why we must do our part with steadfast conviction. Jody and I will continue to attend both the Hartman Institute for late evening learning and the egalitarian minyan for early morning prayers, as we fight the establishment in our own quiet way.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: