Exodus 35:1 – 38:20
Jewish religious pluralism took a huge step forward recently, when the Israeli cabinet decided to establish an egalitarian section at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. While it may not seem like a big deal on the surface, the ramifications of this change are enormous. Israel, as a Jewish State, has no separation between “church” and “state.” Although Israel remains committed to freedom of religion, there is a surprising caveat: freedom of religion is guaranteed to all people except the Jews. Jewish religious practice has been strictly governed by the ministry of religion and the chief rabbis, which is to say, by the ultra-orthodox. As a result, the government of Israel has funded orthodox institutions and defined non-orthodox communities as outside the pale and therefore illegitimate. Creating a pluralistic section for worship at the Kotel establishes for the first time in the history of Israel, formal recognition of non-orthodox Judaism.
Sadly, several prominent religious and political leaders in Israel have reacted with venom to the change. One leading ultra-orthodox rabbi even went so far as to label Reform Jews as idolaters rather than Jews.
Fortunately, this week’s torah portion is VaYak’el. The word “VaYak’hel” means “and he gathered.” Our portion begins with Moses gathering all of the people together to build the mishkan, the sanctuary where sacrifices will be offered and where God will dwell in the midst of the camp.
Rashi, the great rabbinical commentator, said that this happened the day after Yom Kippur. Why then? Yom Kippur is a time for self-examination and spiritual renewal, a time to repair our broken relationships with each other and with God. If we are successful in this process, then we might actually have a chance of truly being gathered together. Only then can we bring God into the center of our community.
In the midrashic tradition our rabbis taught that the Temple, the more permanent replacement for the mishkan, was destroyed precisely because of the divisions and even hatreds that had developed within our community. (Talmud Bavli, Gittin 55b – 56b, Lamentations Rabbah 4:3)
Establishing an egalitarian section at the Wall, the holiest place in the world for Jews, enlarges the size of our tent; it gathers the entire religious community of Israel together.
Those who choose to reject greater Jewish inclusion, who instead decide to spit venom and sow division under the guise of piety, would do well to remember this lesson.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2015 Rabbi Gary Pokras