The Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel

Sermon on Inclusion R. Gordon Tucker

Parashat Naso: 12 Sivan 5776 – June 18, 2016

Pirkei Avot enumerates for us ten miracles that happened regularly in the time of the Temple. The tenth is this:
“Lo amar adam la-haveiro ‘tzar li ha-makom she-alin bi-rushalayim’” — “No one ever said to another person: the space is too constricted in Jerusalem for me to be able to stay over there.”

This is usually interpreted to mean that somehow they never ran out of “room at the inn”. But think about the phrase. It doesn’t say that everyone always found a place. Instead, it imagines a likely conversation and then says that such a conversation, as likely and expected that it is, happily never happened in Jerusalem. The imagined conversation is something like this, and most of us will recognize it: One person says to another, “you ought to come with me to place X, to event Y. You’ll find it so inspiring.” And the other, for whatever reason, says “No, I don’t think so. I don’t really think I’ll fit in there. They define their space pretty narrowly; it’s too constricted. I’m not really wanted there.” And so we are told that although it is so easy to imagine such conversations taking place, and although such conversations in fact happen all the time, they never did when it came to the pilgrimage in Jerusalem. When one person invited another to go, the other felt fully included, and knew that he or she would be fully welcome there.

Why is a counted as a miracle? Precisely because it so goes against the usual course of human affairs, in which inclusion is hardly to be taken for granted, and in which people routinely are made to feel — whether deliberately or inadvertently — that they are not fully welcome, or are at best merely tolerated. When that doesn’t happen, it can truly be said to be a miracle.

Sadly, it is in Jerusalem itself — today’s Jerusalem — that events have fallen far short of the miracle celebrated in that Mishnah in Pirkei Avot.

Two items:
Five months ago, the Israeli government took a monumentally important step by approving, by a vote of 15-5, the creation of a permanent and well constructed and maintained space at the Robinson’s Arch area specifically for egalitarian prayer services. Under the terms of the agreement, the new prayer area would qualify for government funding and be operated by a council comprised of representatives of the government, the Reform and Conservative movements, the Jewish Agency, the Jewish Federations of North America, and Women of the Wall. We were deeply appreciative of what the government had done, and indeed, Yizhar Hess, the executive director of the Masorti movement in Israel, called the move “historic,” saying that the government had recognized in a formal way “the simple, basic and natural fact that there is more than one way to be Jewish.” Monumental, because at a time when there is legitimate and ongoing concern about the strength of the connection between Israel and the American Jewish Diaspora – and especially the young American Jewish Diaspora — this was a signal that “you are welcome here. As equals. Not just tolerated. But embraced.”

The euphoria and the gratitude to the Netanyahu government were, alas, short-lived. In the five months since the decision was made, nothing has been done to implement it. And indeed, on Tuesday of this week, a group of ultra- Orthodox Jews, led by a former chief Rabbi of Israel, entered this space, with a police escort no less, erected a Mehitza at the site, and held an Orthodox service there. You see, it is not enough that the entire main Kotel Plaza is designated and run as an Orthodox synagogue. The existence of a place – any place — for those who worship and believe differently could not be tolerated. So two days ago, given no choice, an egalitarian prayer service was held in the more public section of the main Kotel Plaza, well before you get to the defined prayer space, as a way of claiming our right as Jews to pray near the site of our ancient center of worship. The State Attorney General affirmed the right of our group to hold the service there. But still, ultra-Orthodox protesters came, and there was jeering, offensive language, shoving, and by some reports even some sexual harassment directed at female worshipers. But the police who had escorted the Haredi invaders of Robinson’s Arch in contravention of a government decision two days earlier? They were nowhere to be seen protecting this group that was simply asserting its recognized rights.