Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Shavuot and the Rule of Law

In the morning, we will meet at Sinai...again.  Annually, at sunrise on Shavuot morning, we gather around the world and read the narrative of the giving of The Ten Commandments, the moment of God's Revelation to Israel.  We see the thunder and the lightning.  Sound becomes visible.  Gathered  in our own minyanim and kehillot, it is possible to feel the collective power generated by the reading.  And when it is over, we tell one another we will meet again next year at Sinai, just as we met there the very first time so many thousands of years ago.

Beyond the power of the collective gathering, Shavuot is about the power of the rule of law.  As much as we are the People of The Book, we are The People of the Rule of Law.    In the ancient world, before the exile at the hands of the Romans, we were a sovereign nation.  Not only did we have ritual laws for The Temple and for daily life; we had civil law to cover everything from property disputes to supporting the needy. In exile, we lived according to both our own law and the law of the land.  Now, we are once again a sovereign nation, a free people in our own land, The State of Israel.  And once again, we toil with the challenges of being a Jewish civil society based on the rule of law.  Who decides the law?  Which interpretation is authoritative?  When Divine and Civil law conflict, how do we decide which framework and law takes precedence.

This past week, we saw the power of the rule of law in a democratic society in all its glory.  On Rosh Hodesh, this past Friday, Women of the Wall gathered as they always do to celebrate the arrival of the new month, with a service on the women's side of the mehitza.  In the past, women wearing tallitot was against the law, against the "commonly accepted" practice.  Until this Rosh Hodesh, the police enforced the law and Women of the Wall broke the law. The police arrested them. Forget for a moment that these women were simply coming to pray, to sing the Divine Name aloud, at the Western Wall, the Kotel, the symbol of the return of the Jewish People to sovereignty.  Their goal was not important.  There was a law.  Women of the Wall violated that law and bore the consequences:  Interrogation and arrest. This time, however, the situation was flipped.  Why?  Because of the rule of law.

After the last gathering on Rosh Hodesh, the police went a step further than they usually do. They took the arrested women to court, fully expecting to win.  After all, Women of the Wall violated the law as clarified by The Israeli Supreme Court.  To their surprise and to the surprise of everyone, the outcome was different.  Judge Sobel ruled that the women were not in violation of the law, that there acts were not provocative, and there was no reason for their arrest.  Moreover, Judge Sobel ruled that it was the Ultra-Orthodox who created conditions that led to violence.  The law changed, plain and simple.  Instantaneously, Women of the Wall, tallitot and all, were no longer scofflaws.  They were to be protected by the police against those who would do them violence.  The aggressor, previously viewed as the victim, could no longer claim that the women deserved to be harassed.

The rule of law meant that this time, this Rosh Hodesh, the police protected the Women of the Wall, fought of throngs of Ultra-Orthodox males hurling insults at the women. There were arrests, police cordons to protect the group, as it was surrounded by Haredi males screaming and young Haredi girls clogging the women's section so Women of the Wall could not gain access to the Kotel itself.  But, the rule of law, the cornerstone of a democratic society, held.  The women were now within the bounds of the law and the police protected them.  After years and years of tension between WoW and the police, the situation changed in an instant.

Tomorrow, we will celebrate the Revelation, the Covenantal relationship between Israel and God, and we will celebrate the rule of law.  For thousands of years, we prayed for our return to Israel, to sovereignty, to control over our destiny. And last week proved the power of being a free, civil, democratic society in our own land, in Israel.  The rule of law prevailed.  May it do so again, and again, and again.

Hag Sameach.

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