The saga about the Women of the Wall, where a group of women are fighting for the right to to pray at the Western Wall (The Kotel) in the same way men do--including reading from the Torah--is a recent and painful example where modern societal expectations and conservative norms have clashed. From a political perspective I defend the rights of people to be able to express themselves religiously without having government interfering with the way they worship. Yet even as I support a woman’s right to express themselves religiously there is a larger issue at play
Which worldviews are we trying to conform to?
It is clear to me that Judaism sees the genders, male and female, differently. This is seen from the very first story in the Torah about Adam and Eve, where the Torah tells us that God created Eve as a “helpmate opposite” Adam (Genesis, 2:18). In addition when God tells Moses to explain His desire to give the Torah to the Children of Israel, He says “So you should say to the House of Jacob and Tell the Children of Israel,” (Exodus 19:3) The commentators explain that the “House of Jacob” refers to the women and the “Children of Israel” refers to the men (Rashi).
How do we deal with a God that is so transcendent that human beings have no ability to access Him? This is a question humans have been asking since the dawn of time. We have an innate desire to connect with the Divine and many of us strive towards spirituality. We want to feel that we are connecting with something higher, something beyond the mundane physical world we inhabit.
Over history there have been many approaches to answering this question. Idolatry tries to bring God into the universe by taking a physical object and giving it the properties of a deity. Philosophy argues that a transcendent God is completely inaccessible and the best we can do is cognize the actions of the Divine through studying His creations. Christianity suggests that God impregnated a woman to create a physical son of God. By connecting with God the son, Christianity claims, one connects with God.
Rabbi Dov Lipman and I have similar ideas when it comes to education. He and his party, Yesh Atid, are in my opinion, fighting God’s war to ensure that all children in Israel have the ability to get a proper education. As it stands many children from the Haredi sector in Israel only ever get an education in Judaic studies. They learn Bible and Talmud to the exclusion of all else. Yesh Atid together with its rabbinic Knesset Members Rabbis Lipman and Piron are trying to ensure that Haredi children learn core curriculum such as English and math.
The backlash towards this from the Haredi world has been harsh. They see this is an interference with their “holy and pure” education system. Rabbi Lipman himself has been attacked by his own former Rosh Yeshiva the head of Ner Israel Yeshiva in Baltimore, Rabbi Aharon Feldman. Originally Rabbi Feldman called Rabbi Lipman a Rasha (an evil person). But after receiving a letter from Lipman explaining his position he toned that down and said that whilst Lipman was not an evil person, he has made a big mistake and should resign as a Knesset Member of the Yesh Atid Party. I assume Rabbi Lipman will not be following that advice.
There have been a number of serious scandals recently involving rabbis who have been less than honest when it comes to their scholarly work. First the Chief Rabbi for France, Rabbi Gilles Bernheim was forced to resign because he plagiarized work from multiple authors, including famous post-modern philosopher Jean-François Lyotard.
Hot on the heels of that controversy, we in America had the scandal involving Rabbi Michael Broyde, a senior rabbi and rabbinic judge on one of America’s top rabbinical courts. Rabbi Broyde misrepresented himself in order to gain entry to a rival rabbinic organization, the International Rabbinic Fellowship (of which I am a member). He also used fake names to write letters and comments to bolster ideas he was disseminating. Broyde, like Bernheim, was forced to resign from his position as rabbinic judge at the Beth Din of America. Even more recently an article in the Israeli daily newspaper the Maariv has accused Rabbi Yona Metzger, the Chief Rabbi of Israel, of plagiarism in his book Mayim HaHalacha. Metzger maintains his position as Chief Rabbi of Israel.
This month, April, has been Autism Awareness Month. The first time I encountered Autism was when I was about 18-years-old and I was visiting my brother in New York City. I saw a minivan pull up and drop off a child - the son of one of his neighbors. The child was crying and screaming hysterically as he walked into the house and I recall being told that the child had Autism. I immediately asked, “What’s Autism?” They responded, “It’s a condition where the child’s soul has not been able to fully enter the body.” I was obviously horrified by the thought.
Then at the age of 20, when I was the head counselor of a summer camp in Chicago, I met a camper who suffered from Autism. During that summer I became much better acquainted with this condition that afflicts one in every 88 children in the country.
My non-profit organization Youth Directions, just released a film about a young man, Zach Henry, who suffers from Autism-Asperger’s Syndrome. It chronicles the challenges he faced growing up, but it’s also a very hopeful and heartwarming story. Through purpose-finding coaching, Zach was able to find his purpose as an actor. This has positively changed his life significantly. Where before he often found himself deeply depressed, misunderstood, and spending weeks on end hidden away in his grandparents’ basement playing video games, he now has a hopeful outlook on life and is pursuing his purpose of being an actor.