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Friday, December 19, 2014

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Who will redeem the chained women?

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The CJN is back – saved by people, organizations and restructured plans. This is a good thing, a very good thing for the Canadian Jewish community. But it raises the question: what does it mean when we find we have this power to preserve things and institutions?

It’s an awesome responsibility. We learn that we can save some things but not all, for surely we cannot save all. Some things and institutions disappear and are lost to our collective presence. Somehow, we must look backward and forward and wonder at those things or items that we didn’t manage to save. Were we wise in our decisions and judgments? Did we act responsibly when we could, or did we miss the boat?

All these images and thoughts are built into our notions of redemption, which weigh so heavily upon us in Judaism. Or at least they should. 

To redeem is wonderful. To fail is dreadful. To ignore or reject the appeal is disgraceful. To do nothing is immoral.

Theoretically, God redeemed us in the past in order to teach the powers of and the pattern for redemption. In this divine action prolegomenon, it then became our task as human beings to follow suit, to find ways and means to bring the redemptive influence into our lives and the lives of those around us.

I find this to be heavy stuff. We who follow this line of reasoning are asking ourselves to exercise great restraint and engage in prodigious activity. We’re not given leave to stand idly by. We’re challenged by this concept to make choices and take on responsibilities far outweighing our frail human existence. We can’t claim innocence, ignorance or frailty, nor the excuse of “What, me?”

So you see, for me, saving The CJN has vast implications. I look from this example to many other possibilities and wonder where is my community? Where are the leaders, and when will they act?

There are so many areas in our lives, globally and locally, that beg redemptive activity. Each one of us must make such choices as we can, but active we must be. The old Judaic frame applies. We’re not required to finish the task. Often, we’re not able to do so. But we must begin it, hoping others will come along and join our efforts. We must each build into our lives this active notion of human redemption, for ourselves and for our children, for our community locally and globally, Jewishly and humanly.

The Bible is filled with exhortations to the leaders of Israel to actively redeem and rescue. For example, Isaiah 1 is read before Tisha b’Av as a reminder to Israel of our obligation to justice and how easily we seem to have lost our way. He warns that bringing sacrifices and celebration of holidays doesn’t appeal to God when justice is aborted, when the widow and orphan are neglected. “Your new moons and your appointed seasons my soul hateth: They are a burden unto me;  …your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes… Learn to do well; Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.”

These impassioned sentences cry out for action. They tell us that no matter how much ritual we practise, if, for example, we deny justice to an agunah (a woman whose husband refuses to give her a Jewish divorce, the equivalent of Isaiah’s widow and orphan), our hands are bloodied. I have written obsessively about the women who are denied their Jewish divorce by recalcitrant husbands, so I ask where the redeemers are. Who will take the responsibility of our heritage today and apply the law as it was intended? To free an agunah was once considered a great good. Today, too many support and hide these men while turning away from the chained women.

I have received calls and letters from interested citizens who want to help. What can I tell them? Get educated and demand of your rabbis education and real action. Insist that the rabbinical courts in your community act more forcefully to free agunot. We need a systemic solution. Work harder on individual cases. Don’t be silent. Save one woman and it will be as if you redeemed the world.

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