This Shabbat we open Sefer Dvarim, the book of Deuteronomy. This Shabbat is also known as Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat of "The Vision", which refers to the Haftarah taken from the opening of the book of the prophet Yeshayahu. It is always read on the Shabbat that precedes Tisha B'Av, (the ninth day of the month Av), the anniversary by the Jewish calendar of the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem. Solomon's Temple was destroyed in 586 B.C.E. by the Babylonians, and the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.
According to the Talmud, the Second Temple was destoyed because of sin'at chinam, "gratuitous hate" of one Jew for another. Stories are told of petty gossip and infighting between people. When a nation is sick at that ground level, there is no way it can defend itself against an outside force, or any great challenge. Deuteronomy is read at this time of year as an antidote to that -- a vision. The entire book is about a gathering, where the entire nation of Israel stands together and listens to Moshe. He recounts their story, and the laws that will shape their society when they enter the promised land.
Unfortunately this year, Shabbat Chazon and Tisha B'Av come at a time of great challenge to the unity of Am Yisrael. Earlier this week, a committee of the Israeli Knesset approved a bill governing conversions to Judaism. In Israel, all marriage and divorce are overseen by the various religious communities -- there is no civil marriage, and no Jew can be married in Israel unless both partners are Jewish. The rabbis verify whether a person was born of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism. The Law of Return enables any Jew in the world to come and become a citizen of Israel. The question of "Who is a Jew?" under Israeli law thus affects the most basic issues of citizenship and family.
The Chief Rabbinate, who are the official Jewish religious authorities in Israel, are Orthodox and more and more shaped by the charedi or "ultra-Orthodox" view of Jewish law. The proposal in the Knesset would write into law for the first time the authority of the Chief Rabbinate over all conversions. The Orthodox establishment in Israel does not recognize the validity of non-Orthodox conversions, and more and more this is true in the United States as well. So the proposed law would have far-reaching effects on who can become an Israeli citizen and who can marry.
So for instance, in a particularly horrible story, a young woman named Jessica Fishman made aliyah, served two years in the army, and became engaged to an Israeli. She grew up in a kosher home, attended Jewish day school, walked to her Conservative synagogue. When the Israeli rabbis were verifying that she was Jewish, they learned that Jessica's mother had converted with a Reform rabbi. They ruled that Jessica's mother was not Jewish, and neither therefore was Jessica. In order to marry in Israel, she would have to convert to Judaism. The Israeli authorities were rejecting her as a Jew. Jessica decided to leave Israel.
The other outrageous event of last week was the arrest of Anat Hoffman, director of the Israeli Religious Action Center for the Reform movement. She was arrested at the Kotel, the Western Wall, for carrying a Torah scroll at a women's minyan at the back of the women's section. Here it is in video. I see this, and: Eini eini yordah mayim -- my eyes, my eyes flow with tears (Lamentations 1:16, which we read this Monday night on Tisha B'Av).
Such things as this must not happen among Jews, and especially not in Israel. No group should have a political monopoly on love of Torah and the Jewish people. So there are two things I ask you to do in response. For we must not simply weep and be angry. First, click here to write Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, asking him to prevent passage of the conversion bill.
The second thing is more difficult. The Jewish religious right argues that they should make decisions about who is Jewish and what is Judaism, because the rest of us are not dedicated enough. So let's make sure that is not true. Find a mitzvah -- any mitzvah -- and dedicate yourself to it, beginning now. Now, as we begin the leadup to Rosh Hashanah. It's not to tell anyone, or use a political tool. Just as a way to make sure that we are the Jews we need to be, at a time when the Jewish people need to be one again.
The lesson of Tisha B'Av is that we can only be harmed when we have torn ourselves apart. May it be God's will, and our mission, that it doesn't happen.