this drash was delivered at a service in which our WoodSY leaders were being honored.
Rabbi Miri Gold serves Kehilat Birkat Shalom in central Israel. You can find her on a given Shabbat leading services in the beautiful outdoor sanctuary the kehillah calls home on Kibbutz Gezer. Miri joined the liberally-leaning kibbutz in 1977 and established a home there. Over the years, her leadership role on the kibbutz increased. Hearing the call to join the clergy, she studied at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem and has served as the spiritual leader of Gezer’s kehillah ever since.
As beautiful as it is, Miri Gold’s story is almost unremarkable here in the US. We’ve got plenty of female rabbis, as well as plenty of congregations and rabbis that fall for one another and serve one another.
But in Israel, this is all newsworthy. First, she’s a female rabbi. This makes her a member of an extreme minority and a source of puzzlement to many in Israeli society. Second, she’s a Reform rabbi, making her a part of yet another minority group. Liberal Judaism is still a difficult concept for Israelis, who, on the whole, consider someone either secular or religious. The beautiful blend of the two that we enjoy here in America has not yet taken hold in the Holy Land.
So for years Miri Gold has championed her position and the role that liberal Judaism can play in Israeli society. In an interview with the Religious Action Center back in 2006, she explained the cause: “For us to reach out, to get to Israelis who are searching for something, but they don’t know what it is.”
This mission is groundbreaking enough. But Miri Gold, her community, and her Reform friends around the world, decided to kick it up a notch. Miri would not just be an ambassador for liberal Judaism in Israel, but she would also be the one to break ground for all liberal rabbis – fighting for equal recognition by the state.
Orthodox rabbis in Israel have official “rabbi’ status. This means they receive some funding from the state to work in their communities. In order to get this funding, though, you must be recognized as a rabbi. Liberal rabbis from the Reform and Conservative movements have not, historically, been recognized as such.
So for years now, Miri Gold’s name has lived the hallways of Israel’s highest court. Using Miri Gold as the “poster woman,” the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) has been championing her cause – demanding equal recognition for rabbis of all streams of Jewish life and thought.
And this week, it happened. In a massive, landmark decision, Israel’s attorney general ordered that Rabbi Miri Gold and other Reform and Conservative rabbis receive the same benefits that their Orthodox colleagues enjoy.
This is about more than the money. This historic decision opens Israel up to being the truly pluralistic, welcoming state it was always meant to be. As Rabbi Danny Allen of ARZA said, “Israel’s Declaration of Independence guaranteed religious freedom, it has to be that this freedom is for all Israeli’s, Jewish as well as Christian and Muslim. This decision brings us closer to the day where this will be the reality in Israel rather than the ideal.”
By calling Miri Gold a state-approved rabbi, the state has also approved religious diversity.
And to add to the encouragement, this comes only two weeks after Rabbi Alona Lisitsa, another female Reform rabbi, was welcomed into the religious council of the Jerusalem suburb, Mevasseret Zion. By joining the council, she was declared a partner in the town’s spiritual life.
Something wonderful is afoot in Israel. These two triumphs bring a wave of optimism that’s splashing through the Jewish world. We have always declared that pluralism and cooperation were possible in the Holy Land, and now we are steps closer to that reality. This proves that the Diaspora’s engagement with Israel and persistent advocacy on the governmental level works.
These are watershed moments. Nachson moments, if you well. Remember Nachshon? The man the midrash says was the first to dive into the Red Sea, thereby causing it to part? He’s the man, who despite the odds being against him, understood that the risk of diving forward into the sea was better than the slavery that stood behind him. God recognized that passion and therefore parted the sea in his honor.
This midrash connects to this week’s Torah portion, Naso. Behold, here we find Nachshon. We learn that once the priests and the altar were ready to take offerings, guess who was the very first to bring something? Yup, Nachshon. The instigator, the initiator, the one, who despite the risks, offers himself up first.
Rabbi Miri Gold is the Nachshon of our day. She did not take on this cause for the fame or for the money. She did it in the name of equality and in the name of an Israel we Jews can be proud of. While discouraging setbacks did occur along the way, she and her team plowed forward anyway. As a result, we can see the seas parting. Indeed, there is a Promise Land well in the future – we can catch a little glimpse of it now.
I bring this up tonight not only so we can celebrate the changing tide (which we should) but also as a charge to our WoodSY leaders – both outgoing and incoming. First, realize you can make change. Second, understand that change is not always quick. We get sidetracked, we get snubbed, we go unheard. Yet, discouragement does us no good. Despite a setback, despite fear, our Torah teaches that you must trudge forward. There is too much at stake not to. Gather a team, work together. You, the WoodSY board, are like the Levites in this week’s Torah portion. You have been appointed the leaders. There is a whole population of WoodSYites whose cause you have been elected to champion. Your job is to seek those special individuals out, draw them to your ranks, do what is in their best interest. That requires a lot of listening and a lot of open-mindedness, but it is your job nonetheless.
I’m thrilled to say that the Jewish State has taught us this lesson this week. Israel is slowly growing into the “light unto the nations” we always knew it could be. Tonight we wish a hearty yesher koach to our Reform friends in the Holy Land. We thank Miri and her comrades for their vision and bravery and we celebrate their victory, which we pray will lead to a more just and equal Israel, one we can continue to be proud of.