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March 17, 2023

Remarks from The Israel Religious Action Center Director, Orly Erez-Likhovski

Orly Erez-Likhovski

This transcript was edited and formatted by a third party and may vary from the live sermon delivered at Shabbat.

Vayakhel – Pekudei Sermon
Remarks from The Israel Religious Action Center Director, Orly Erez-Likhovski

This Shabbat we are reading the last two portions of the Book of Exodus. The late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote of the Exodus:

From a distance everything looks like a miracle but up close even a miracle doesn’t appear so. Even someone who crossed the Red Sea when it split only saw the sweaty back of the one in front of him. 

The Jewish and democratic state of Israel is a miracle, but boy do we have to sweat to keep it alive and well.

IRAC has been working for 36 years to keep the Jewish state a democracy which respects the rights of all its citizens.

We have been working to promote freedom of religion and equality to the liberal streams in Israel. We broke the Orthodox monopoly and proved that there is more than one way to be Jewish. Our conversions have been recognized; our congregations and rabbis now receive public funding; our pluralistic Jewish educational programs are now supported by the State. Just two weeks ago, I argued before the Israeli Supreme Court in our Kotel—Western Wall petition— demanding an equal and respectable place at the Wall for all Jews. This is still not the case—as was evident in the prayers of Rosh Chodesh Adar at the Wall.

We fight against exclusion of women and gender segregation in the public sphere. Thanks to IRAC, bus drivers in Israel are no longer allowed to send women to the back of the bus. Just a few weeks ago, another case of ours ended in a decision granting compensation to a woman who was not allowed to board a bus just because she is a woman. Thanks to us, flight attendants cannot ask women to switch seats because a male passenger refuses to sit next to them; modesty signs, such as the ones that are hung in religious neighborhoods, are now illegal; and burial societies are no longer allowed to prevent women from eulogizing their loved ones or to force gender segregation on the grieving family.

We fight against silencing women’s voices. Our class action suit against a radio station which did not allow women to be heard on air was accepted and the station had to pay 1 milliomn NIS in damages. We also fight against the vandalizing and censoring of images of women in the public sphere because women should have an equal place everywhere.

We say out loud that racism is not our Judaism. After long legal struggles, Orthodox leaders and Rabbis who incited to racism are facing criminal and disciplinary charges. Thanks to us, racist candidates were disqualified from running to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, for the first time in 30 years. We have established a racism crisis center, which offers advice and legal aid for victims of racial profiling and for people who were refused service because of their race. We take to court people who discriminate others, such as our class action suit against Get (the Israeli Uber), which offers a “Mehadrin cab service” —seemingly cabs which do not drive on Shabbat. In fact, this is a Jewish cab driver’s only service.

Our legal aid center for Olim assists thousands of new immigrants, and in the last year, we have assisted many olim from Ukraine and Russia, fleeing the war—such as 14-year-old Anastasia who is a great grandson of a Jew and was not allowed to flee war-torn Ukraine until we helped her. LACO also assists dozens of foreign women who are victims of domestic violence in their struggle to acquire Israeli citizenship after leaving their abusive Israeli husbands, when they face deportation. Thanks to our work, many of them have been allowed to stay in Israel, despite leaving their husbands. 

We fight against extremism, bigotry, homophobia, racism, and misogyny. And now, all of our values are threatened by the most extremist government Israel has ever had. But the good news is that most Israelis are with us. There is a vast majority of Israelis who support religious freedom, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights, including among those who voted for the coalition parties. When a few weeks ago it was published that the government considered changing the anti-discrimination law to allow people to refuse giving service to people based on their religious beliefs, there was an uproar among the Israeli public—and the government quickly retracted.

We have had many achievements in the last decades promoting the rights of Reform Jews, women, LGBTQ, new immigrants, and Arabs. Most of our achievements have been achieved through the court system, most notably the Israeli Supreme Court. Now, however, the Israeli legal system is under attack. The government is pushing for a complete overhaul of the judiciary, in effect promoting a constitutional revolution which will gravely harm Israel’s democracy.

Israel is a fragile democracy as it is. We do not have a comprehensive rigid constitution with a detailed bill of rights. The government controls the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. The Supreme Court serves as the only checks and balances on the government’s power and as the only protection of human rights against the will of the parliamentary majority. Now, the government wants to totally control the nomination of judges, make it almost impossible for the Supreme Court to intervene and strike down unconstitutional legislation and government decisions, allow the government to ignore the legal opinion of the Attorney General, and to override the Supreme Courts’ decisions. In short, there will be no protection for human rights against the unrestrained power of the government.

Our weekly Torah portion begins when Moses assembles the Israelites. “Assembles,” in Hebrew is vayakhel, a word derived from the word kehila, which means congregation, and also from the word kahal, crowd or audience.

In the past 10 weeks, it was uplifting to see our kehilot (congregations), as well as many others, join the protests against the constitutional revolution, raising a voice for democracy, for human rights, and for an independent judiciary. Those people are not a passive part of the crowd (kahal), but an active part of the kehila. Liberal Israelis who for many years were indifferent understand now that they cannot stand idly by as Israel’s democracy is threatened. The difficult circumstances have taught many Israelis a super-important lesson about political activism, about the need to speak up in the face of injustice.

Our weekly Torah portion includes the command to keep the Sabbath: “Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of rest.”

For the past 10 weeks, every Shabbat hundreds of thousands of Israelis go out to the streets and “pray with their feet” as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said. Last Shabbat there were half a million Israelis protesting in the streets, the equivalent of 16 million Americans protesting every week for 10 weeks straight. This is our holy task in the past weeks, and every week brings with it new crowds and congregations who join the protest.

We initiated a campaign under the slogan “Defending democracy in the name of Judaism,” because we offer a humanistic Jewish alternative to the extremist and racist version of Judaism that the government is espousing. We hold havdalah ceremonies immediately before the protests begin in cities all across Israel, offering our congregants a unique transition from the rest of Shabbat to the activism of the protests.

The hundreds of thousands of Israelis who voice their opposition to the dangerous initiatives of the government are joined by many liberal Jews outside of Israel. In an email campaign IRAC initiated a few weeks ago, more than 15,000 emails have been sent to the Israeli PM, the Justice Minister, and Israeli embassies and consulates around the world. Let me tell you, your voices matters. It is not only your right, but also your duty to fight for and ensure the democratic nature of the Jewish state, which is the homeland of all Jews. Three weeks ago, Rabbi Rick Jacobs addressed 150,000 Israelis in the central protest in Tel Aviv. After the speech, I walked with Rabbi Jacobs out of the demonstration. Israeli protesters stopped us and said to Rabbi Jacobs how meaningful it was for them to know that liberal Jews from North America are with them, with us.

The public pressure from within and outside Israel has already made a difference. The bills which seek to undermine our constitutional structure are not being promoted as speedily as the government wanted. According to surveys, a large majority of Israelis are against the legal revolution.  The President of Israel and many others call for a freeze of the dangerous bills and for a deep dialogue about the nature of the Israeli legal system.

The Book of Exodus ends with a cloud which covers ohel moed (the Tent of meeting or congregation), not allowing Moses to enter the place. In these times we feel as if a cloud covers us and we are in a search of a pillar of fire to show us the way. Just last week, we read about the Golden Calf, which symbolized a crisis of faith and a crisis of leadership. We are now in a moment of crisis in Israel, but out of this moment of crisis arises a moment of opportunity, a moment of the awakening of Israelis—standing up for the values of equality and dignity for all, like never before.

One hundred thirty years ago, Saul Tchernichovsky wrote his powerful song “I Believe,” which says:

Laugh, O laugh at all my visions,
I, the Dreamer, tell you true;
laugh, for I believe in humankind,
for I still believe in you.
For my soul still yearns for freedom,
I’ve not sold it to a calf of gold:
for I still believe in humankind,
in its spirit, great and bold.

And so, I end with hope, Od lo avdah tikvatenu. We will continue to fight for the soul of our beloved Israel. Together we will make sure Israel remains true to its founding values of democracy and justice.

Shabbat Shalom

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.