I shook the hand that blessed Barack Obama
By TZVI GRAETZ
I pray that there will come a day, in the Jewish state, my state, that a Jewish leader such as Rabbi Sharon Brous, will be invited to bless and to give hope to a nation that currently oppresses and denies her the ability to freely practice Judaism.
In the past few days, the Israeli news media have been filled with nothing but
conjectures about which parties will make up the next government in Israel and
when the prime minister will be sworn in. But this week, I was in Los Angeles
for the Masorti Olami and Marom AMLAT Leadership Seminar, and all the Americans
talked about was whether or not the singer Beyoncé lip-synched at the recent
inauguration ceremony for President Barack Obama.
I spent this past
Shabbat Shira at Ikar, a congregation in Los Angeles led by Rabbi Sharon Brous.
Rabbi Brous is thought of as one of the most influential Jewish leaders in the
United States. Who thinks this? Not just me, but Newsweek magazine, which named
her as such in its annual edition of the 50 most influential rabbis in America.
The list is a veritable who’s who of rabbis from all over the spectrum: Haredim,
Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. This is the second year that Rabbi Brous has
made this list.
In Rabbi Brous’s Dvar Torah on Shabbat morning, she spoke
about blessing President Obama at the Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service,
held on January 22 in Washington, the day after his second inauguration.
Everyone in the congregation was excited to hear about this. At the service in
Washington, there were several other influential clergy members, including three
rabbis, of which Rabbi Brous was one.
Each clergy member was given a few
private moments to meet with the president. She chose that moment to teach the
president the midrash about Abraham and the burning mansion.
told the following parable. A man was traveling and saw a mansion in flames.
‘Who is the owner of this mansion? Is no one looking after it?’ he
“So, too, Abraham was wondering. Is it possible that the
world should be without someone to look after it? The Holy One peered down at
him and said, ‘I am the world’s owner.’” (Genesis Rabbah 39:1, adapted from
The message of the midrash teaches us that a leader
must know how to locate the problem and to work hard to find a solution. Rabbi
Brous then blessed the president, wishing upon him with insight to know how to
locate the problem and to connect to it and to the people that these problems
affect in society; those who are most weak and in need of help – not just in the
US but all over the world.
She then continued and told the kehillah
(community) about how the president was very excited about her words and that he
praised her and the interesting midrash that she had shared with
During the interfaith Inaugural Prayer Service, Rabbi Brous also
offered a prayer for hope asking Elohei Ahava (God of Love) to “pray that you
bring your presence among us, as light, as life and as holy
The kehillah was very impressed and excited about the role
that their own Rabbi Brous had played during the inauguration. When I went to
shake her hand and wish her a Shabbat Shalom, I thought about two things: The
first that I was shaking the hand of someone who had blessed the president of
the USA on the eve of his second term.
The second, somewhat obvious but
also somewhat sad, was that this incredible rabbi (who has taken a congregation
that started with only two people nine years ago and turned it into one that now
consists of more than 500 families) would never have been invited to a similar
ceremony at the Knesset, the parliament of the Jewish state.
How is that
possible? I pondered on the paradox that in America a Jewish leader of such
vision and influence can be invited to stand before senators and presidents,
while not even being considered a legitimate rabbi in the Jewish State of
Israel. This is because she is a woman and therefore is forbidden to participate
in a religious way in any government ceremony in Israel, and even if she would
or could, would most likely be spit upon or spark some other outrageous act of
This Shabbat, which as I mentioned was Shabbat Shira, is
traditionally known as the Shabbat of women. The haftarah is about Deborah the
Judge and Prophet who sings about the victory of the Israelites over Sisera and
of course, the Torah portion about Miriam who sang and danced spontaneously
after the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. (Even in front of the men, God
forbid!) It would take me another article and much time to expound upon this
serious and complicated issue. I will leave that for another
Meanwhile, though, I pray and will continue to pray with all of my
strength that there will come a day, in the Jewish state, my state, that a
Jewish leader such as my dear friend, Rabbi Sharon Brous, will be invited to
bless and to give hope to a nation that currently oppresses and denies her the
ability to freely practice Judaism. Then, and only then, will we have truly
finished crossing the Red Sea in the tradition of our ancestors, with a woman
waiting on the other side to sing praises to God.
Rabbi Tzvi Graetz is
executive director of Masorti Olami and MERCAZ Olami.