Halacha and Inclusion Conference – Beit Hillel Rabbis

April 10, 2016

Good evening and thank you for inviting us here this evening.

The thanks is especially significant, because it seems to me that, just as it is unnatural for us to stand at a conference of orthodox rabbis (however liberal it may be), it is just as unnatural to invite to a rabbinical conference two utterly secular Jews as ourselves.

We wished and agreed to come because we wanted to send an important message, a message that, on one hand, will make it easier for you to identify with Shira and us, and, on the other hand, will make it easier for you to encourage moderation and tolerance in the community to which you belong.

Before we begin, we only wish to emphasize that we believe that every person and every community should encourage tolerance within, and that it is clear to us that the sin of extremism is not solely for orthodox Judaism to blame.

It is obvious to us you identify with our pain and that our personal story has not been forgotten. The proof is that we are standing here.  Nonetheless, we wish to deal with the voices calling to see  Shira and ourselves as “the other” – the one whose pain is not our own – because he is remote, because he is a stranger, because he brought this upon himself, because he is irresponsible, because what kind of parent sends his child to a parade of perverts in Jerusalem; after all, it is known to be dangerous.

Who was Shira?

Shira was a wonderful girl – a great daughter and marvelous sister.  She was curious, intelligent, an avid reader, sensitive to others, happy, and full of life.

Shira did not go to the gay pride parade out of the boredom of a silly teenager seeking fun and games on a Thursday afternoon during the summer vacation.  She went there because she cared, because she believed in the right of every person to live his life as he wishes.  She went there in the name of the liberal and democratic values that we, her parents, instilled in her by word and deed, and which, unlike us, she turned into action.

Shira was our eldest daughter. She has a brother and two sisters.  On the morning of that terrible Thursday last summer, like on every other morning of that week, Shira was with her brother and one of her sisters.  As during every summer vacation in the past few years, there was one week in which she took upon herself to spend time with them and see to their activity and entertainment, independently: she took them to the zoo, the Israel Museum, the Bloomfield Science Museum, movies and fun – together with her two youngest siblings, who will probably remember that last week for many years to come:

At eight in the evening, Shira was due to babysit for a family in the neighborhood, as she had done many times. I promised her that, when it was over, I would take her to a summer party with friends of her own age.

Between a busy morning and a busy evening, Shira planned to spend two hours at the gay pride parade – two hours of caring and social involvement.  When the people who had requested her to babysit asked her to come early, she said that she couldn’t because it was very important for her to participate in the parade and express her support.  Shira was an outstanding student at a school for outstanding students.  In her young life, she played the piano for ten years, regularly attend concerts with her grandmother and grandfather, participate in several school theater productions, volunteer at a battered women’s shelter, and much more.

The gift she asked from us for her 13th birthday was for us to take her to performances at the Khan Theater we regularly went to.

She loved to read.  She always had a book with her and it was always possible to discuss current affairs with her.

Shira was a diamond whose polishing was almost complete.

With an uncharacteristic slight lack of modesty, we will say that she was a girl many parents would have wished for.

And this diamond was murdered in an attack of religious zealotry, which did not grow in a vacuum.

It is very easy to condemn the murder and the murderer after the fact, to exempt him as an insane man who represents nobody – a kind of standard deviation.  After all, one of the Ten Commandments says, Thou shalt not kill.

But was he really so insane?  Was he really so exceptional?  So isolated – does he really represent no one?

The thing is, regrettably, Schliessel is not alone – at least he was not alone.

The NGO Honenu chose to defend him, as if gay hatred and right wing are one and the same.

According to the Berl Katznelson Foundation’s Hatred Index, 13% of the online responses to the murder expressed support for the deed.

Dozens, and maybe more, people came to honor the murderer when he was released from prison for an attempted murder. s “Rabbi Yishai Shlissel, married with four children”.

Many, many people came to hear what he had to say at various gatherings.

And many others expressed support through words or silence, or by slandering the LGBTQ community in various ways.

LGBTQs were called beasts, and the public was silent, extreme and inciting haredi posters were published on billboards and the public was silent.

In the presence of all the incitement, Knesset members, public figures and thought leaders were silent, maybe even  winking, some  going out of their way to help the man known in some circles as “Rabbi Yishai Schlissel.”

And in the presence of all the incitement, silence, nodding, winks, and forgiveness – in the corner of the camp awaits an idiot, a fanatic, an extremist who will draw legitimacy for his murderousness from the tolerance of his close environment for incitement, homophobia, hatred, and for the de facto forgiveness for the previous attempt at murder.

Perhaps if Schlissel had gone to prison alone, with no support, and was released to the cold shoulder of the public, which showed him not an iota of understanding for his hate and zealotry, maybe Shira would be alive and you would not know us.

I almost regret that I am embracing a cliché, but I think that it is so appropriate that I cannot help myself: “Where they burn books they will eventually burn people.”  When a man’s way of life is not just different – but is called deviant, improper, perverted, destructive, and abominable – in the end, someone will pick up a knife to put an end to that abomination.

The murderer may have been the only one with the knife, but he was not alone in his extremism and hate.

We all live is a riven society, and to survive the internal and external storms that lie in wait for the State of Israel, we must adopt moderation and tolerance as a way of life.

Mika and I, for example, are secular; we will not become newly religious and we will not voluntarily live in a country that does not respect the secular way of life.  But we are prepared to compromise in the common public space so that we can share it with religious people.  What concessions are we prepared to make?

That in Israel, the public Shabbat is much more religious than secular;

That food served at state institutions, beginning with the army, is kosher;

That food sold at supermarkets is kosher;

 That the holiday schedule is a Jewish, religious one;

That various documents that I must read state that the text was written with the help of a divine power;

That the national airline does not fly on Shabbat;

 That our children study Bible for 12 years in the state education system and, if we are lucky, they will also engage a bit in the theories of the Big Bang and evolution

These all may appear to be trivial matters to you, and some of them are trivial to me too – possibly because I agree, possibly because I have become used to it – but they are just a few examples of the slew of concessions and tolerance that a secular Jewish person living in Israel must make.

My five-year old daughter emerged from her secular state kindergarten with the understanding that there are people who believe in a divine power and that this was a legitimate option – is the same true of the state religious education system?  Is there a chance that children in religious education will learn that not believing in God is even an option?  (I don’t know, I hope so).

And yes, we are Jews – not by religion, but by nationality.  We know where we came from and where we are going.  The Bible belongs to me just as it belongs to all sorts of dark homophobes who find strength in religion. In two weeks, we will celebrate Passover, not because I think that some kind of divine power hit the Egyptians with ten plagues, but because that is what my forefathers have done for centuries and millennia. I am happy to be a Jew, but I am not prepared to be religious.    I do not believe in God, and I ask not to have a religious public space imposed on me in the street, at my children’s school, and definitely not in my home.

We are moderates and compromisers, but only up to a point, and we request that that point be respected.

We also believe that an old-fashioned patriarchal conservatism often stands behind the religious extremism and strictness about each and every aspect. There is no better example of this than the attitude toward LGBTQs to demonstrate that.

As we wrote in the booklet published ahead of this conference, we know very little about halacha, but it seems to us that the Torah contains several prohibitions and commandments whose importance are no less than the prohibition of homosexual intercourse.

Have we not heard and read calls for banishment, murder, and annihilation of those who do not honor their father and mother?  And what about those who does not obey the commandment of sending away the mother bird?

Have none of the religiously-cloaked homophobes ever withheld wages?  Have they always made sure to pray three times a day? About the latter,  I can testify as a former soldier, that – in the army, on a freezing morning in the Golan Heights or in Lebanon, for example – this was not always the case.

But everyone has something to say about gays – and not because it is a religious matter, but rather because it is a conservative matter.   For the same reason that conservative societies fear equal rights for women or a ban on beating children – it fits our natural tendency to glorify the past by claiming, “Times were better before I was born.”

That is a pretense.  Except for a few, no one wants to return to the past.  No one wants to return to a world without antibiotics in which children died of pneumonia, to travel by carriage to Petah Tikva, to draw water from a well by bucket, and to give up all the benefits of the 21st century.  It may sound romantic, but it is not realistic.

Moreover, a great many people are also unwilling to keep the values and norms of 1850, 1950, or even 1980 (to use the Christian calendar).  In 1950, would we be holding a conference about halacha in a hall in which many of the participants are visibly feminine? In 1850, would any father have great ambitions for his daughter except for a good match?  In 1980, would anyone imagine holding a conference such as this one?

We know about other places in the world where people are trying to have their cake and eat it too – places where people are trying to enjoy the benefits of progress on one hand, while enforcing extreme religious convictions and strict control of the public sphere on the other hand.  These places, if you will forgive me, are called Iran and Saudi Arabia; the former hangs gays and in the latter women are still forbidden to drive.

But we are not there, otherwise we would not be holding this conference: female and male rabbis, and, again forgive me, rabbit-eaters like ourselves.  But to stay here and no slide into a fanatical abyss, strictness the unwillingness to compromise, we must be bold and work hard.  It may be easier to invent a Shabbat clock, but where is the contemporary Rabenu Gershom who will change the world and forbid the divorce of a woman without her consent?

Before we conclude, in our humble opinion, there is another lesson to be learnt, without derogating from the power and strength of Jewish tradition of millennia: we wish to note that we are all here to hold this debate – in Ra’anana in the State of Israel – in a mixed forum, because of foreign influences on Judaism. I think that you will not disagree with me if I tell you that Zionism upended, even if only in part, traditional Jewish ideas, and that the idea that women can and should study Torah and engage in public affairs was not conceived  in Pumbedita in Babylon or at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Nonetheless, these are ideas that the audience here has adopted in full.  Foreign influences are not necessary bad.

Again, thank you for inviting us and listening to us.