The prophets of the Jewish tradition are known for being sensitive to the injustices they see around them. They boldly speak out and fearlessly call on every person to repent and change his or her ways. Prophets are rarely popular, but they are not looking for glory. Like contemporary prophet Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who called for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity in the face of racial inequality in the US in the 1960s, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, a senior fellow on the faculty of the multidenominational Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, believes the Jewish people is in crisis because of the way women and minorities are treated in the holy city. She calls upon the majority to stand up for what is right. At stake is the future of Israeli democracy, she says.
As a theologian, Sabath Beit-Halachmi is troubled by efforts to remove women from public life and recent Jewish violence against Arabs.
“Theologians, to be relevant, have to be, I think by definition, concerned about a society’s level of consciousness, about its own deep, deep problems on one hand and able to be inspiring about what it could be on the other hand,” says Sabath Beit-Halachmi, who also teaches Modern Jewish Thought at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post ahead of Rosh Hashana. “So by definition they’re both inside and outside. Pushing society to self-critique, to be better than it is, to become more like the ideal society that we were commanded to create here.”
Sabath Beit Halachmi has published numerous articles on theology, Zionism and gender, and is working on a book about the theology of Reform theologian Rabbi Eugene Borowitz and the covenantal relationship.
The Boston native who grew up in Minnesota has taught at Hartman for 11 years, where she directs the Institute’s Christian Leadership Initiative, study programs for visiting North American clergy, and served on the Engaging Israel team, responsible for a new curriculum on Israel for North American synagogues.
On her bookshelves in her Hartman office sit Heschel’s Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s To Heal a Fractured World and The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich, a German philosopher and theologian. Among her prayer books are Mishkan Tefillah, the Reform movement’s siddur, and A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book. Her rabbinic ordination from Hebrew Union College, PhD diploma and Master of Philosophy from the Jewish Theological Seminary and a picture of her with her husband, fellow Reform rabbi Ofer Sabath Beit-Halachmi, who has just completed eight years as the rabbi at Kehillat Tzur Hadassah, and three children (one of whom she gave birth to in January), adorn her walls.
The co-author of Preparing Your Heart for the High Holy Days and Striving Toward Virtue, tells the Post about why Iran is distracting us from the social tasks at hand, what messages her young daughter is internalizing and how to more honestly engage Diaspora Jews with Israel.
What is facing Israel at this season?
I think there are several huge issues that are facing Israel at this season of heshbon nefesh [self-evaluation]. I’m thinking about who we are and where we are and where we want to go as a nation. There are a lot of sources of hope and enormous anxiety. To speak about Israeli society and about Jerusalem in particular, I think we have serious ethical concerns about what’s happening to our society, to our people. One would be the area of social justice, and I think what’s happening in terms of the blotting out of the image of women in Jerusalem and inclusion of women and other minorities in Jerusalem are probably the biggest indicators that we are facing a real crisis of ethics. If you can judge a society based on how it treats its most vulnerable I think you can also judge a modern democracy best on how it’s treating its minorities and women. For us to be fighting the current battles that we’re fighting about the inclusion of women, the appearance of women in public ceremonies or in public advertisements I think says we have a lot more work to do in order to be able to honestly call ourselves a democracy.
Have you been involved in the social justice movement?
I’m very supportive of the movement for social justice in general. I was very struck [two weeks ago] when the taxes and the price of gas skyrocketed to an all-time high and there were no social protests. No people blocking the roads. In fact, I myself needed to fill my car with gas that day and it was like any other day at the gas pump, just extraordinarily expensive, making me reconsider owning a car! I think the level of on one hand apathy in the vast majority of the society, which we should be concerned about, for something that drastic to happen and for there not to be some kind of major public outcry tells you that the public is – I would say in this case – actually exhausted. Exhausted from all of the social protests and all of their concerns on one hand, and on the other hand where you will find masses of people gathered are at the collection points for the gas masks here in Jerusalem. Long lines. I don’t know if you yourself tried to get one but as far as I can tell it still takes three hours.
What do you make of this dynamic of fear?
I think on some level when there’s a long, a distant but drastic threat about which you can do something like go get your gas mask versus day-to-day social economic concerns of minorities, it’s actually easier to stand for three hours in line to get your gas mask. It’s also the most self-oriented. I don’t want to say selfish, but self-oriented practical step to take. And then you add to that I think a lot of the other things that have been happening in Jerusalem including what I think we should call an attempted lynch. I think that lets you know also about where our minorities stand in the public eye. So you add the social economic issues to the challenges to the basic rights of minorities to what’s happening to the image of women, and I would say the city’s in a huge crisis. And the question is – will be – whether the kind of heshbon nefesh, the kind of self-evaluation, that the local government, local leadership wants to do will happen or whether the distraction of a distant enemy actually will continue to override all of those concerns.
Is the government capable of self-evaluation?
I think in some corners we see a lot of activity in that direction and a lot of movement in that direction, but I think overall the distraction of being concerned about Iran has been very effective, actually distracting the public from its immediate concerns. And yet I also see some improvement since last year’s social protests. For instance, my son is in one of the preschools that’s now [state] funded that a year ago wasn’t funded. So I think we see some tiny steps moving in some directions but I think over the big issues in the year 2012 to live in a city where it’s not clear that women have public voices and their images can be in public places I think should be a huge wake-up call about who we really want to be in the nations of the world. Do we want to be a nation like all the other nations, in which case that’s par for the course for a Middle Eastern country, or do we actually see ourselves as a very enlightened Jewish democracy where that kind of erasure of the images of women in public space – I can’t think of a society since the Middle Ages that has so vehemently promoted such a message.
The question is what’s the message to our daughters, to our granddaughters, and whether Jerusalem will continue to be a city where people feel that it’s actually operating like an enlightened democracy or not. The government has enormous capacity to correct for these things. We ought to be seeing a lot more activity toward correcting it than we do if they really were as aware as I think they should be.
And sometimes it takes a crisis to wake up a place. I just pray that it is not a crisis of catastrophic proportions.
How long have you lived in Jerusalem?
I’ve lived in Jerusalem for at this point over 10 years. I actually live in Tzur Hadassah, right outside Jerusalem. But I lived in Jerusalem also many years. I was here during the first intifada, during the second intifada, during the First Gulf War, during the Second Gulf War. So I’ve definitely been here in many periods of crisis, and I’m actually very eager to see whether or not there will be a reorganization of the social protests around these issues or if the majority can tolerate this kind of abuse of women and minorities. It’s abuse. I think the attempt to silence someone and to wipe out their image is actually to annihilate them perhaps, and works even more powerfully than to abuse them physically.
Has the issue of gender equality been part of the social protests?
Yes, I think the absence of women from leadership positions was part of it. There are significant discrepancies of salaries between men and women at every level, both in Israel and in North America. These discrepancies also plague Jewish life and are another area where repair is desperately needed. I think all of these things are in need of correction and are sources of shame for a democracy.
How are these messages translated to Jews of the Diaspora?
In terms of [Hartman’s] Engaging Israel project – Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman’s brainchild – version 1.0 that’s currently being taught, we only actually have half of one session that deals with some of these issues, but in the next 2.0 that’s being worked on as we speak, there’s going to be a number of sessions that actually deals with both the Arab minorities and more questions about women, more questions about refugees. And so I think there’s a lot of educational ways where the Diaspora, Jews around the world, can become more knowledgeable and more sophisticated about their understanding of what’s happening here. And hopefully it will make their involvement and their critique actually more constructive.
One of the concerns is that I think between all the social and ethical issues that we’re talking about is added to a situation of an ongoing occupation, and it only further serves to distance liberal Jews who aren’t already totally engaged from wanting to be engaged. So to create a more sophisticated understanding of what’s happening and what can and should be done, and the role that Jews all over the world can play positively, I think will be very helpful.
But one of the main purposes of Engaging Israel as I describe it was to lift and shift the discourse. We wanted to emphasize that the narrative about Israel needs to move from a crisis narrative to a narrative that is about covenant. The crisis narrative is that at any given point either Jews in the Diaspora are going to be destroyed and they need Israel as a sanctuary, as a safety net, or that Israel’s about to be destroyed and we need Diaspora Jews to save us. So that major shift or attempt on our part to shift the dialogue is actually up against another big challenge, because we’re back in crisis narrative mode.
Because of the Iranian threat we have this major existential threat and a potential, perhaps even imminent, military involvement, so that by definition puts us back in the crisis narrative, so it’s our work to try to maintain another parallel long-term narrative that’s healthier, that I think is more constructive, that I think is actually more true.
What should the relationship be between Diaspora and Israeli Jews?
It should be ongoing, it should be something that’s actually mutual, what I call a mutual upholding of each other and not a one-directional relationship. My husband, a fourth-generation Israeli, has learned as much from North American rabbis as North American rabbis have learned from Israel and Israelis, and that kind of cross-fertilization and mutual learning means also a kind of mutual care and a sharing of possible visions for the future. If we see it actually as only one way it’s not a real relationship, not a covenantal relationship.
Is the relationship changing?
I think we see three things happening simultaneously. On the very active, committed level I think there are lots of projects of greater and greater partnership, even though we still have the kind of oldschool response. I think there’s the greater distancing from Israel in almost disgust with what’s happening and disengagement. Distrust I think of what Israel is versus what it promised to be. There are many North American Jews who are apathetic about Israel, they are neither deeply concerned nor deeply identified with the project of the Jewish state, meaning Israel’s actually irrelevant, completely irrelevant, and that is the majority of North American Jews. And hopefully they’ll be engaged in some kind of creative Jewish community engagement effort of which there are many, many wonderful things happening around North America now led within the movements, and also nondenominationally.
I think that those things, if they’re able to attract people, have to have as an element of their spiritual community a connection with Israel. I don’t see that happening across the board, so that is a source of great concern.
I would say we’re at a real watershed movement. The movements are clearly at a watershed in terms of questions about membership and relevance. But I think in partnership with a lot of these non-denominational and more creative efforts being led by a number of my students and younger colleagues there’s a lot of potential out there. It could be harnessed. I’m not quite sure where Israel fits into that picture at the moment.
I would say there is an enormous window of opportunity here and the question is whether Israel will be something other than a Birthrightlevel relationship, which I think is a really important starting point, but whether we can take Birthright alumni to the next level of relationship.
What should be the “next” Birthright?
I think we need to have a kind of Birthright for young families, I think we need to have a Birthright for intermarried families. I’m working on projects with Christian scholars. I’m really interested in creating a Birthright for Christian leaders and young Christian university students. If we at Hartman can train Hillel professionals, we should be able to train church professionals to deal with some of these issues. And then change American opinion also.
Is your work with Christians an effort to change American public opinion on Israel?
Yes, I think ultimately when you understand something better it should shape your political reactions to things. Twice in the last few months I was presenting to groups of Christian clergy where the Presbyterian leader asked, “What should I say to my people in my sermon on Sunday, some of whom are very supportive of boycott divestment and sanction type of activity?” I described for these Christian leaders the spectrum of opinions that exists among my colleagues and friends here in Israel, and at Hartman in particular. Their responses to Christian leaders discussing BDS ranges from the response that to even consider sanctions or divestment or a boycott of any product of Israel is to engage with or get in bed with our enemies. That even thinking such a thing makes one an accomplice to our enemy and therefore we can have no relationship with that person. This has been the basic response of many mainstream Jewish organizations to Christians who consider BDS.
But others in our midst would make the argument, as I do, that BDS is actually just terribly ineffective. Boycott, divestment and sanction of Israel has thus far borne no positive fruit and, if anything, I would say it causes great damage to the very people that you’re trying to help, namely Palestinians. It makes for fewer jobs. It makes for angry Israeli leadership, and I don’t think it does any good, and it destroys the relationship with Jewish leadership in North America, so I don’t see any good coming of it even if theoretically or ethically one might argue that it should help influence Israeli leaders to end the occupation.
My personal position has been not only is it not helpful and not effective but I would actually like to argue for a more constructive involvement. If you, Presbyterian cleric, really care about us and want to help us, then care about us and help us. Be involved in the same kinds of social movement and activities and human rights organizations that I’m involved in. There could be, like there’s a Rabbis for Human Rights of which my husband is a board member, there could be a Christian clergy for human rights in Israel and then we could work together. So if you want to continue to be our friends and be in dialogue then help us do constructive things here together with us rather than engage in destructive activity that destroys our relationship.
Is there a danger to “airing Israel’s dirty laundry”?
First of all, I don’t think there’s an easy fix to any of these things. Second of all, the demonizing that goes on between different facets of the Jewish community is probably one of the most effective ways of distancing more people. So I think we need to change the way we talk amongst ourselves first of all. I think we have to be more honest. I think the more voices out there of how we actually really struggle with these things in a deep and honest way, not a one-sided demonizing way, then I think more sophisticated, honest people will want to be involved. But the kind of false dichotomies that are drawn are things that smart people in general aren’t going to be interested in because it’s not that interesting after a while. I think that what’s going on here is so interesting and so fluid and so open to change that the more we talk about that, the more interesting it is, and hopefully the ways in which people who aren’t so engaged who are concerned might find a way in.
Where is God in Jerusalem?
Personally my theology is that God is – it’s very hassidic and Buberian and Beshtian [of the Ba’al Shem Tov] – that God is present wherever you let God in. Sometimes God is interpreted to be playing bigger roles in bigger areas of our human society than I think is healthy. I have a friend, a haredi rabbi who I spent a lot of time talking with recently. I think we have different interpretations of what God wants us to do in these periods of crisis. I am quite certain from my reading of tradition and even from my understanding of a haredi read of tradition that all of our communities by and large do not at all think that God intended for women to be absent from the world, much less from public space. I don’t see any indication that that was ever God’s intent. And I think that what’s happening in terms of the violence toward Arab and Palestinian minorities, and this violence toward women is that it’s truly actually the evil behavior of a small minority in a period in which the majority doesn’t have enough loud voices and a quick enough response to it. I think they’re the behaviors of a small minority, but the leadership of the majority is disconcertingly silent.
The majority of public leadership has to be much more swift than we have been to respond and stop it so we’re not responsible for the behaviors per se but still responsible for the educational system, how the public responds. It seems to me that the first day of school should have had a speaker in every school denouncing what happened and clarifying the holiness of the image of God in every human being. I didn’t see that. It seems to me that in every school there’s a little bit of effort in this direction, and some of our curriculums in Israeli high schools, the Hartman Be’eri curriculum, serve to do this. There should be major efforts to strengthen and to enable more girls and young women to find their voice and to find their place in society, because the greatest success of that kind of terror against women is that it silences young women and women feel that they don’t have any place. So in that sense in order for them not to succeed, really these forces of darkness not to succeed, it will take a major effort in the educational system and in our synagogues and in our homes, and without that then that’ll be the view of women for the next generation, and that will be the view of Arab minorities. So I think we have a lot of work to do.
You have a daughter.
A daughter and two sons.
How is she internalizing the messages around her?
She often asks about women in the haredi world. She’s the daughter of two liberal rabbis, so in her worldview she thinks that women actually do have the option to do everything, but I don’t think she thinks that they have to do everything, so in a sense she’s really third- or fourth-wave feminism at her young age.
She’s eight and a half. She just started third grade. But she’s very conscious that in her modern Orthodox friends’ homes women don’t say the kiddush [blessing over wine] and all those kinds of things, but the women in those households play very public, active, academic kinds of roles. So I think she knows that in lots of different definitions of Judaism there’s no reason for women to be wiped out.
In her world women are heads of supreme courts, they’re heads of hospital departments, they’re heads of departments of the university. I don’t think that she has any doubt that that’s the reality in which she lives but she knows that her neighbors in Betar Illit, which is probably the second largest settlement or ultra-Orthodox city in which we do most of our shopping and health care; we are there several times a week, so she knows that there are other worldviews as well and hopefully we’re teaching her to respect them as legitimate for them.
Is pluralism possible in Jerusalem?
I think it is very possible, actually. I think we see it happening, first of all as we sit here in this glorious institution. The fact that a woman rabbi has been the vice president of a major institution in Jerusalem, the fact that we have many liberal institutions where women are in the most senior roles in them, women rabbis are in the most senior roles in them, I think should sort of balance out the way in which we might give too much attention to the other things happening.
On a day-to-day basis I’m doing bar mitzvas, funerals – God forbid – I’m teaching, I’m speaking, I’m being interviewed in the newspapers. I’m not sure that on a day-to-day basis there isn’t pluralism. There are places in which we should be very concerned. We should be concerned about this attempt to cause women to disappear from other public spheres. I think we should be concerned about women not having equal access to sacred space. I think we should be concerned about the lack of equality of representation in lots of government bodies, about the lack of equality in salaries, all those things. Some of them are actually concerns in America as well. So I think we have areas in which to work, and we shouldn’t forget how much enormous success there’s been. In my lifetime there’s been phenomenal successes.
You sound optimistic.
Yes, I am quite optimistic actually, I am very optimistic and I think that we have a historic privilege and historic responsibility to help shape this place and not relinquish it to the hands of extremists. I think the significance of a Jewish democracy here is too important to the Jewish people and to the world to give up on it. Rabbi Prof. David Hartman often said that Israel is too important to leave it to the Israelis. And I think about that all the time. I want to be one of those Israelis who’s doing everything I can to both grow and change and correct what’s happening here, but I don’t think there’s any reason for us to do it alone.
Was the state’s recognition of some liberal rabbis progress?
I’ve been telling [Reform Rabbi] Miri [Gold] that she should learn to play basketball really well if her funding is coming from the Culture and Sports Ministry. It couldn’t hurt if we knew basketball and Talmud, which many of us do! I think the court case to approve funding for her service to the public is one indication that it’s just a matter of time until we see more government funding of liberal Judaism. There is already the public recognition that the Orthodox can’t continue to have a monopoly on Judaism. I think more than 20 percent of Israelis getting married are not going through the rabbinate. When I made aliya 10 years ago it was 12%. The couples coming to people like my husband and myself don’t even have a question as to whether or not they want a ceremony that’s egalitarian and meaningful to them. There’s no question that they want women to have equal participation and for it to feel true to who they are. They don’t want to begin their sacred union with the lies that the Orthodox rabbinate wants them to embody. They want a Judaism that is true and relevant. So I think that what we’re doing combined with what some modern Orthodox rabbis are doing combined with the fact that there’s a lot of secular spiritual movements afoot, I think it’s really just a matter of time.
Sometimes a couple wants at the end of a wedding to have the rabbi say, ‘by the power vested in me.’ Instead my husband likes to say, ‘by the power not vested in me by the State of Israel I now pronounce you husband and wife.’ But at a recent wedding, totally without thinking about it, I found myself saying ‘by the power vested in me by the Jewish people and soon by the State of Israel, I now pronounce you husband and wife.’ This was shortly after the decision about Miri Gold. It’s just a matter of time until liberal weddings are recognized. I have no doubt about that.
The role of Diaspora Jewry will determine how slow or how fast that happens. The minute I think that Diaspora Jews say, when an Eric Yoffie or a [Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi] Rick Jacobs comes and some Israeli official refuses to call him rabbi, as a president of the State of Israel did with Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the former president of the Union for Reform Judaism, had Diaspora Jewry more quickly said to the Israeli government: You want our partnership and want to recognize Diaspora Jews, then you must call our rabbis rabbis. If world Jewry would be so brave, and true to who it is, it would be a matter of probably days and there would be greater religious equality and freedom.
But being more realistic, it will probably be just a matter of a few years until we see much greater recognition. And that’s also a product of a lot of educational efforts that have been happening in Israeli schools that are teaching that there’s more than one way to be Jewish. The Tali school system, the Hartman Be’eri program is now in 120 high schools teaching that there’s more than one way to interpret and to be Jewish.
For Women of the Wall and women’s equal access to the Kotel, is that also a matter of time?
I’ve argued that an ultimate solution might be a time share. That on Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays the current authorities that control sacred space can have access to it, and on Saturdays, Mondays and Thursdays, all the rest of Jewry should have equal access to it. So far there’s not a big movement behind my proposal, but you never know.
So on one hand I think the significance of there being equal access to a pluralism of ways of being Jewish at our sacred spaces is a core issue for the Jewish people. Most Israelis don’t see the Wall as a sacred space, as you know it’s irrelevant to their Jewish identity so they’re willing to relinquish it, and I think that’s actually a mistake. It’s indicative of a mistake in Israeli education, but I think it’s also a mistake for the Jewish people. I think the places that have been sacred and that are important to us I’m not saying that you have to go to, but I am saying we all must have equal access. I don’t see why we can’t achieve in our own public Jewish space what we even have achieved at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron of being able to share the space and make sure that all religious views can be respected and protected by special forces if need be. And that’s another way to judge the true pluralism of a society – whether or not it can do that. So I imagine we’ll see some shift there as well.
I myself officiate quite often at bar and bat mitzvas a few meters down the Southern Wall, at the archeological garden near Robinson’s Arch. You know, it’s actually more beautiful. So it’s not a bad solution but I do consider it a temporary solution. There’s something about being pushed to the periphery which is just like being pushed to the back of the bus. Even if the air conditioning works better in the back of the bus, nobody deserves against their will to be pushed to the back of the bus. This is the situation not only for women but for minorities such as liberal Jews. Nonetheless, in terms of liberal Judaism, it’s clear that we’re moving in the right direction toward greater equality and access, and I think that my daughter’s likely to get married in an Israel where there should be lots of options and lots of ways to have one’s Jewish wedding be registered in the Jewish state and not have to go to New York and have a Puerto Rican clerk for $36 stamp a document so the Jewish state is willing to call her married.