#Shared Spaces, Shared Lives, Right to #Privacy and Other People’s #Modesty: On #Pride and in Memory of Andreas Hinz

Last weekend was the magnificent occasion of the ordination of seven new rabbis here at West London Synagogue. It marks the beginning of my 12th year in the rabbinate. When I joined the college there were three students in the year above me. Rabbi Neil Amswych (now serving in the USA), Rabbi Misha Kapustin (now serving in Slovakia having fled the Russian annexation of the Crimea in 2014) and Andreas Hinz. As many of you surely know, the reason I am not able to tell you where Andreas works is because he was murdered 15 years ago this week, just at the end of his second year of studies. Therefore, this sermon I am giving is in his memory, for the memory of the righteous is surely a blessing.

Our synagogue is openly and proudly supporting the Pride march today, when Rabbi David Mitchell will lead a group there after a special Pride service. Andreas was openly gay. In recent weeks, other parts of the Jewish community in the UK have become embroiled in a divisive argument over the discourse of a colleague with regards to gay relationships. Here, celebrating Pride, we show how much we hope we have moved on. Andreas, an openly gay scholar, was one of the most promising rabbinic students ever to grace the corridors of the Leo Baeck College. His murder stole from us his scholarship.

The first time I taught in memory of Andreas around his yarzheit it was also Parashat Balak, some 13 years ago. I’m going to introduce you to a couple of key ideas, which Rabbi Helen hinted towards in her thought for the week.

Let this sermon be a celebration of our interpretative community – our Reform approach to Torah, to living, to seeing the way our tradition can inform our actions to make the world better. We’ll leave the LGBTQi hate crime for the moment and the vicious attacks on rabbis in the Orthodox world. Let’s enter the world of Balaam:

How goodly are your tents Jacob, and your dwelling places Israel.

These words, uttered by Jews for centuries as they have entered into synagogues, first poetically inserted into the mouth of a non-Israelite prophet who just cannot escape his fate to bless and not to curse.

Now I want to take these words and elaborate on their interpretation in the Talmud to draw your attention to the ideas of privacy, by which I of course mean that I think we should all seek to live in a world where religion decreases its self-appointed right to comment on the sexual behaviour of two consenting adults. Secondly, I am going to argue that these words and their interpretation in the Talmud and by Rashbam the grandson of Rashi the French medieval exegete, remind us that the Jewish people in the State of Israel, may be read as akin to a shared courtyard and the Charedi world must therefore be compelled to not only allow space to denominations of which they are not a part, but must be compelled to pay for the support of those denominations.

But to my first point about privacy, which is really the beginning of our journey.

In the Talmud, Bava Batra 60s we read from the Mishnah that:

“A person may not open an entrance opposite another entrance or a window opposite another window toward a courtyard belonging to partners…”

לא יפתח אדם לחצר השותפין פתח כנגד פתח וחלון כנגד חלון

The text continues and then the Gemara asks:

מנהני מילי א”ר יוחנן דאמר קרא (במדבר כד, ב) וישא בלעם את עיניו וירא את ישראל שוכן לשבטיו מה ראה ראה שאין פתחי אהליהם מכוונין זה לזה אמר ראוין הללו שתשרה עליהם שכינה

“From where are these matters, [i.e., that one may not open an entrance opposite another entrance, or a window opposite another window,] derived? Rabbi Yoḥanan says that the verse states: “And Balaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel dwelling tribe by tribe; and the spirit of God came upon him” (Numbers 24:2). [The Gemara explains:] What was it that Balaam saw that so inspired him? He saw that the entrances of their tents were not aligned with each other, [ensuring that each family enjoyed a measure of privacy]. And he said: If this is the case, these people are worthy of having the Divine Presence rest on them.” (bBava Batra 60a – Translation from the William Davidson Talmud available at www.sefaria.org)

That is to say, when we do not position ourselves to see into the privacy of our fellow’s home we enable the Divine presence to rest on us. This right to privacy is one of the clearest articulations of what we might call a ‘human right’ in early Jewish thought. We often think of Judaism as a religion of law and obligation, with the rights implied – thou shalt not murder implies a right to life, for example. However, here the Talmud is explicit in telling us that the right of not invading the privacy of our neighbour leads to certain requirements in buildings.

תנן החלונות בין מלמעלן בין מלמטן בין מכנגדן ארבע אמות ותני עלה מלמעלן כדי שלא יציץ ויראה מלמטן שלא יעמוד ויראה

We learned in the mishna: And one who desires to build a wall opposite the windows of a neighbor’s house must distance the wall four cubits from the windows, whether above, below, or opposite. And it is taught in a baraita with regard to this ruling: Concerning the requirement of a distance above, the wall must be high enough so that one cannot peer into the window; concerning the requirement of a distance below, the wall must be low so that he will not be able to stand on top of it and see into the window…(bBava Batra 22b)

In fact the right to privacy, discussed earlier, leads to the Talmud describing a situation in which one can compel one’s neighbour in a shared courtyard to contribute to the cost of building a wall for privacy because of potential damages in overlooking one’s neighbour.

But let’s look back at the original discussion of Balaam’s words in this case. The reason for the praise of Israel’s encampment was because no-one could see into the home of anyone else. Assuming the home was a small tent then I think we can assume that this particularly applied to the rights of a couple to be together in privacy. The modesty we’re talking about here was not the enforcement of certain dress codes but rather the duty for individuals to avoid their own eyes prying on others.

If this is the case then I venture to suggest that we have reached a time in our community when we can interpret this idea most expansively to say that it is incumbent on each and every one of us to mind our business when it comes to judging what consenting adults are doing in the privacy of their home. Providing it is not illegal nor endangering of lives, we have a religious duty to avoid peering into the bedroom and using sexuality for our own ends. Politicians, by the way, would do well to do the same. Personal relationships are the last bastion of power in religious communities, it is the area in which we can apply the greatest force of condemnatory rhetoric and we should therefore be exceptionally careful to avoid this. Rather we should celebrate loving relationships, stable homes and caring families. And that is what we should be encouraging to be the position of our co-religionists and those in all religions.

But I said I wanted to extend this interpretation into the compulsion of the Charedi world into not just passive acceptance but supporting non-Orthodox Judaism.

On the discussion of the Gemara (Bava Batra 60a) I mention above, Rashbam writes:

גמ’ וירא את ישראל שוכן – ראה היאך שוכנים ולפיכך אמר מה טובו אהליך וגו’ שאין פתחי אהליהם מכוונים ומחנה ישראל כחצר השותפין דמי

“He saw Israel dwelling – Balaam saw how they dwelt, therefore he exclaimed ‘Mah tovu’ for no-one’s tent door faced the other. And the encampment of Israel is like a shared courtyard”

Listen to the claim here again, which makes sense since a lot of Bava Batra deals with that most tricky of questions that is how much I can make use of my property freely without impinging on my fellow and how we live in shared spaces together.

Rashbam suggests that the entirety of the encampment of the people of Israel in the wildnerness should be considered a shared courtyard.

Now I want us to stretch our interpretation here yet further and draw an analogy. It is not one of law but of narrative. If the camp of Israel is a shared courtyard then how much more so must the Jewish presence in the State of Israel be considered similarly. If the State of Israel is a shared courtyard, then certain principles apply. For example (e.g. bBava Batra 7b, 8a etc), all in that courtyard can be compelled to provide certain things, for example the walls, a porters lodge, and, by extrapolation to citizens of a town, the soup kitchen, the charity fund, the clothing fund, the burial fund, the maintenance fund and so on.

If you see the State of Israel as the Jewish people’s collective enterprise then the Charedi world, who let’s face it have received plenty of support from the State vis a vis support for the places of learning and avoiding army service, must be compelled to provide a public space for all Jews to pray in their own legitimate way. This is the implicit obligation in shutafut – in partnership. You can be forced to support that which protects me from something which would otherwise be injurious to me, or us. But not just injury, the basic functions of civil society can be compelled.

I’m not talking here about dense legal rhetoric. This is the principle of shared living. You want to be part of this society, the Israeli government should be saying, then you need to not just begrudgingly let happen but must demand that there is support for places for equal prayer at the State’s most holy places like the Kotel, support for rabbis of different hues in cities and towns, grants to places of study and synagogues, equal recognition of different Jewish practices with regards to marriage, divorce, burial and, yes, conversion. Netanyahu’s cowardly clinging on for power to maintain his government is driven solely by power but no vision, driven by self-aggrandisement but not bravery, driven by acquiescence to spurious ideas of Jewish authenticity but no celebration of 21st century philosophy.

So Balaam’s blessing tells us to ensure religions the world over (and including ours) honour the privacy of intimate relationships. And it also compels Jews in the State of Israel to live in partnership even with those whom they do not consider to be from within their strand of Judaism. And I urge you to write to His Exellency Mark Regev to tell him that is what you think with regards to the arrangements at the Kotel and the threatening conversion bill.

For as Micah tells us, in the Haftarah for our portion this morning echoing the words of Balaam with the phrase ‘Mah Tov’:

הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־יְהוָ֞ה דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ

“God has told you, humankind, what is good and what the Eternal One your God asks of you: only do justice, love mercy and walk humbly/modestly with your God.” (Micah 6:8).

Then we may live in a world where we can say:

Mah tovu ohalecha ya’akov, mishkenotecha yisrael – How good are your tents Jacob and your homes Israel

Mah tovu ohalecha kol b’nei adam, mishkenotecha kol ha’olam – How good are your tents all of humankind and your homes all the world.

May this be God’s will and let us say: Amen.


Women and Tallit

Today the news broke that again a woman has been detained at the Kotel (The Western Wall in Jerusalem) for donning a tallit. There’s a wider discussion to be had about the role of Women of the Wall and the need to ensure Progressive, Conservative and Secular Israelis do not cede authority for religious sites to the Ultra-Orthodox, but that’s for another time.

Here is something I wrote 2.5 years ago about this subject:

In November 2009, I welcomed Anat Hoffman Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Centre (IRAC) and also Chairwoman of Women of the Wall (WOW) to the synagogue in which I was then working.  It was a timely visit, because one of the members of WOW had, days before, been arrested for wearing a tallit at the Kotel in Jerusalem.  WOW campaign for the rights of women to hold women’s prayer groups at the Kotel, including the reading of the Torah and wearing of a tallit. This arrest prompted a flurry of articles and blogs across the internet to explore the motivations, the legal implications and Jewish tradition concerning women wearing a tallit.

A few weeks before, I received the following question in my inbox: “Why are so many ladies now wearing tallit and yarmulkes in shul?”

Therefore, I wrote the following answer:

I would like to restrict my answer, initially, to the question of women wearing a tallit in the synagogue.  Before I answer, let us first clarify our terms.

A tallit is a four cornered garment and attached to the four corners are ‘tassels’, known in Hebrew as tzitzit.  The commandment to wear tassels on the corners of one’s four cornered garment is derived from the verses in the Torah which state:

“Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages…That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all of God’s commandments and observe them…” (Numbers 15:38-39)

“You shall make tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself.” (Deuteronomy 22:12)

As you could read in the Jewish Study Bible, the origins of this custom may be derived from the common dress of the Ancient Near East (in Canaan and Mesopotamia).  “Prophets from the Babylonian city of Mari legitimated their oracles before the king by sending a fringe from their garment, which is a symbolic way of sending part of themselves, like a signature.  The imprinting of fringes on clay tablets, like the touching of the fringe of the prayer shawl to the Torah today when one is called to the Torah during its reading, is a way of verifying or endorsing the written document.” (Jewish Study Bible, p.315)

With the changing styles of dress, it was no longer customary to wear a garment with four corners.  This meant that it was no longer necessary to wear the tzitzit – as the instruction in Deuteronomy specifically refers to four corners.  As a result, the prayer shawl, which we know as the tallit, was developed to enable Jews to observe the commandment.  It is worn in the morning service over one’s clothes.  Some Jews also wear the tallit katan (small tallit), which is a smaller undergarment (though not worn against the skin) which has four corners and is worn all day.  Since the commandment includes the instruction to ‘look at it’, it was concluded that it only applied during the day time, when the light enabled the tassels to be seen.  Therefore, the tallit is not worn in the night-time (with the exception of Yom Kippur).

A second area of clarification pertains to the role of women and commandments.  In the classical rabbinic literature, which dates from the first six centuries of the common era, we find the following statement (which comes from the Mishnah, a collection of legal teachings redacted in approximately 200 CE):

“All positive commandments that are time-bound, men are obligated but women are exempt.  And all positive commandments that are not time-bound, the same holds for men and women, they are both obligated.  And all negative commandments, whether or not time-bound, the same holds for men and for women, they are obligated.” (Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7)

Let us first explain what this means: A positive commandment is a ‘thou shalt’, a negative commandment is ‘thou shalt not’.  A commandment that is time-bound is one that must be performed at a specific time.  This text tells us that women are exempt from performing commandments which are positive and pertain to a specific time.  There are exceptions to the category of ‘positive, time-bound commandments’ from which women are exempt, but that is not our subject here.

One often hears the traditional justification for women’s exemption in the following terms – women had many domestic responsibilities and therefore making them obligated to fulfil other duties would be unduly harsh.  Rabbi Professor Judith Hauptman, a world renowned scholar of rabbinic literature, makes the point in her book “Rereading the Rabbis” (paraphrased from p. 225-226) that the assumption that the time-bound nature was so specific and that no-one else could share in the domestic duties is false.  Rather, she suggests the exemption relates to a woman’s subordinate status to her husband – action which suggested other than this status would be impermissible.

Rabbi Hauptman continues, “Women were exempted from the essential ritual acts of Judaism, those that year in and year out mark Jewish time, in order to restrict their performance to men, to heads of household; only people of the highest social standing, according to the rabbis, does God consider most fit to honour or worship Him in this important way.” (p.227)

As it happens, Rabbi Hauptman notes that the exemption is far less severe than it would be were women actually prohibited (not just exempt).  However, this all adds to a belief, held amongst some scholars of Judaism today (myself included), that the rabbis of late antiquity, who were men, felt threatened by the presence of women.  Women were not only second-class citizens in their society; they posed a radical threat to the stability and order of the patriarchal world.  One could go so far as to suggest that in the world view of the rabbis, women were understood to be a necessary part of life (needed to maintain a home, for procreation, and for structuring civil society around the family), however they were a danger to men if they went beyond these roles.  Therefore, the rabbis legislated to restrict their roles, in particular excluding them from the public observance of Judaism – from the study hall and the house of prayer.

This is an immensely problematic aspect of rabbinic literature, making its translation into our Liberal Jewish way of life extremely difficult.  Liberal Judaism upholds the equality of women and men in religious life, within all areas of the Synagogue and home.  Therefore, texts which exclude women from the ritual practices of Judaism are inapplicable to our Liberal Jewish ways.  In Liberal Judaism, the texts – whether the Torah or rabbinic literature – do not have decisive authority for how we should live our lives as Jews.  The responsibility for deciding how to act and what to believe rests firmly with the individual, informed by their community, history, values of their own time, modern scientific understandings and the textual traditions of Judaism.  In other words, the texts might help in informing us, but ultimately we may choose to accept, adapt or reject what they have to say.  Moreover, the decision may not be a decision for all time – Liberal Judaism is not a static entity, it grows with time, it is constantly becoming.

So, now we can refer back to our original question regarding women wearing a tallit in Synagogue.  In the development of the traditional texts it is generally held that women may choose to perform a commandment, from which they are exempt.  The tallit is a positive time-bound commandment and therefore, though women are exempt, they may choose to fulfil it.  This ruling is found in many of the major codes of Jewish law, such as the Shulchan Aruch of Rabbi Joseph Karo (15th-16th century) and the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides in 12th century (though he prohibits women from reciting the blessing).  Of course, the necessity to repeatedly answer the question probably suggests that women have always sought to wear a tallit, perhaps only in the 20th and 21st Century have they been able to do it publicly and proudly.

In a typically misogynistic rhetorical move, some legal decisors on this matter have argued that women who do wear a tallit are being overly ostentatious in their piety and draw attention to themselves (see for example, Moses Isserles gloss on the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 17:2).  In the 20th Century, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chayim 4:39) suggests that, to avoid confusion with men’s clothes, women should wear a differently coloured tallit and then they may say the blessing.  Then he cautions that women should still be aware they are not obligated to perform the commandment and should not do it as an act of protest, which is strictly prohibited.  Even more strongly and in a vile and offensive manner, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, allegedly said in November 2009, according to reports,

“There are stupid women who come to the Western Wall, put on a tallit (prayer shawl), and pray.  These are deviants who serve equality, not Heaven. They must be condemned and warned of.”

Fortunately, we (Liberal Jews) can argue for equality and heaven, unlike the anti-modern, anachronistic and repressive statements of an Ultra-Orthodox rabbi.

The patriarchal tone of rabbinic literature became normative for Judaism through the last 2000 years (and still is in some communities as seen by Rabbi Yosef’s comments) and it is only progressive Judaism which has sought to begin to overturn the hold of rabbinic texts which secluded women, supposedly for men’s own safety, out of sight and earshot.  In Liberal Judaism men and women are equal – in theory if not in reality.

Gradually, as moves for equality have taken hold, other sections of the Jewish world have adopted them.  In the Conservative and Masorti movement women have a far greater role and in their move to begin ordaining women they adopted the view that accepting upon oneself the obligation to perform commandments is equally applicable to men and women.  In Israel, the Women of the Wall is a group of Orthodox, Conservative and Progressive Jews who all desire an equal and authentic place at the Kotel for their public prayer services.

Therefore, the practice we now see, is for some women in our Synagogue to wear a tallit.  Liberal Jews have very mixed views about how they regard the commandments – some have a sense that they are indeed commandments from a commanding God, whereas others may view the whole idea of command as the antithesis to Liberal Judaism.  Nonetheless, women, like men, find in the donning of a tallit a connection to tradition, a spiritual practice which enables them to focus on the prayers and a sense of God’s presence enwrapping them at the time of the morning service and a way of demonstrating one’s full presence within the community and accepting the concomitant responsibilities.  Often their tallitot (plural of tallit) are of different colours – not because Rabbi Feinstein required it, but because the tallit for so long was a man’s garment, it came to represent the hegemony of men in the Synagogue.  In colouring the tallit differently, women were able to claim the ritual for themselves.

That said, there are women who feel that the tallit was for so long a man’s garment it could never be appropriated for themselves and feel distinctly uncomfortable wearing one.

The donning of a tallit reflects a general return to ritual as a means to approach spirituality and in a public setting – where women have traditionally been excluded.  Ritual has a complex and very personal role in one’s life and, at the same time, Liberal Judaism still regards one’s thoughts and ethical actions as more important than religious rituals.  However, I think a return to ritual is a healthy reintegration of an aspect of religious life which has occasionally been sidelined.

In Liberal Judaism we have rejected the values of those texts which are patently misogynistic, patriarchal and unethical, though they are still studied.  Some rituals we have also rejected, whereas the meanings of others have been reconstructed, re-appropriated or continue to be followed as they have done for many years.  Women wearing a tallit must be seen within this context and with the background described above and is something that I am delighted to see happen at our Synagogue.