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November 21, 2014 / 28 Heshvan, 5775
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An Internal Tragedy

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

There is a story about a man full of worry who goes to his Rebbe to seek his advice. “Rebbe,” he cries, “I have parnassah problems. Yankel opened the same store as mine just down the block and his business is thriving while mine is going down.”

The Rebbe gazes at him and says, “I think the problem is that you have too many businesses and you can’t focus on the one you are running.”

“Rebbe,” the man protests, “how can you say that to me? I don’t have any business except my little store.”

“So why do you watch Yankel’s business? Just focus on your own, make it the best you can, and if you do that, with G-d’s help you will succeed,” the Rebbe responds.

Instead of focusing on our own blessings, we are always looking at someone else’s. We don’t enjoy what we have. We are obsessed that someone else has more. In plain English, we are jealous.

Each of us is custom made by our Heavenly Father. Each of us has been endowed with his or her unique mission – but we see only that of the other. We convince ourselves “they” have a better deal. Only when we lose it do we realize how good it once was.

There’s a life-threatening virus infecting each and every one of us – some less and some more, but just the same the virus is there. Experts have identified it as the “jealousy syndrome.” Once you succumb to it, recovery is difficult – but it is possible, if you truly work at it. Just how dangerous and pointless that virus can be is best illustrated by a little story.

A man gets off a plane and rushes to the baggage pickup area. He spots his shabby suitcase making its way to him on the carousel. A strange thought occurs to him. “Let me take that other suitcase – it looks so much better than mine. Nobody will know the difference.”

When he gets home he excitedly opens the suitcase and discovers hand-tailored elegant suits. For one very brief moment he is elated. But then he finds he has a major problem. None of the suits fit him. “I lost my own suitcase,” he cries, “and now I have nothing to wear. How could I have been such an idiot?”

These stories have come to my mind as a result of the travesty playing out at the holiest place the Jewish people possess – the Kotel, our sacred Wall. A group dubbed “Women of the Wall” goes there to put on tallis and tefillin, refusing to understand or accept that tallis and tefillin were uniquely designed by G-d for men. They refuse to realize they look ridiculous when they try to be something they are not. They have the wrong suitcase filled with suits that are not their size, but just the same they insist on putting them on. More tragically, they are oblivious to the fact that they are obfuscating G-d’s commandments and overturning His design for the world.

Of course these women insist that all they want is “equality” and that “haredi religious fanatics are denying us our rights.”

I would ask these ladies, “Are you doing this l’shem shamayim – for the sake of G-d – or do you have some other agenda? Are you truly shomer Shabbos? And do you adhere to our many other commandments?”

More questions: “Why do you not try to inspire your husbands, sons and male friends to join you and don their tallis and tefillin as G-d commended? Moreover, if it is the G-d of Israel you worship, why do you not seize the brilliant crown designed by G-d specifically for the Jewish women of Israel?”

I remember the early days of the feminist movement, when it became fashionable to give up marriage for careers. I remember when women felt diminished and even outraged by being identified through the names or professions of their husbands. They wanted to be women in their own right. They wanted to be respected for their own accomplishments. These ideals were so prevalent that they invaded our Orthodox Jewish community as well.

I was one of the first columnists for The Jewish Press. My beloved husband, HaRav Meshulem HaLevi Jungreis, zt”l, and I were newlyweds spending a summer teaching at the old Pioneer Hotel in the Catskills. We were privileged to be seated in the dining room at the same table as Rabbi and Rebbetzin Sholom Klass, of blessed memory. At one of the meals my husband suggested to Rabbi Klass that I write a column for the paper.

“What would you write about?” Rabbi Klass asked me. Before I could answer, my husband said, “My wife is an expert in helping and guiding people.”

“What would you call the column?” Rabbi Klass queried. Without even thinking, I said, “The Rebbetzin’s Viewpoint.” Now, this all took place a few years before the feminist movement (or “women’s lib,” as it was then called) really exploded, but dissatisfaction with women’s traditional roles had already begun to percolate, particularly among upper middle class, college- educated women.

Even many rebbetzins felt compromised by the title “rebbetzin,” protesting that they had their own identity – and it did not come from their husbands. I wanted to reverse that. I wanted little girls to look up to rebbetzins. Just as they played teacher, nurse, or Nancy Drew, I wanted those girls to play rebbetzin as well.

My rebbetzin story fades into insignificance when you consider the many other fallouts of the women’s lib movement. I cannot begin to tell you how many women in their late forties and fifties have come to me over the past three decades with tears in their eyes as they unburdened themselves:

“When I could have married and had children I gave it up to be an attorney” (or a physician, an investment banker, etc.), they say. “And now I yearn to have a husband, children, and a true Jewish family. Rebbetzin, do you think I still have a chance?”

But despite all the problems caused by feminism – broken homes, derailed marriage plans, confusion and bitter feelings among both men and women – the ideas that animated the movement are alive and well, only now they play out under the banner of “religious equality.” And one of the battlefronts is our holy Kotel, creating a very ugly chillul Hashem, a desecration of G-d’s name.

To be sure, we’ve always had rebellious groups who chose to violate our Torah and mitzvot. But to do so willfully, spitefully, in front of the Wall is something different. From the moment Israeli soldiers liberated that holy site Jews started flocking there with awe and reverence. It was always understood that when you come to that Wall you do so with the utmost respect. Even the most assimilated among us were sensitive to that.

People who go to the Vatican or other venues of religious significance respect the traditions that prevail there. So how can it be that the Jewish people, who yearned for nearly 2,000 years to pray at the Kotel, now have women coming there to battle and rebel? Sadly, there is more. This discretion has resulted in ugly infighting and despicable words and behavior – things the media relish but our Heavenly Father despises. When Jews fight and turn against one another, they jeopardize their own existence, for there is nothing G-d abhors more than seeing hatred and viciousness tearing His children asunder.

What is that hidden agenda that started all of this? Surely it cannot be merely the right to pray in tallis and tefillin, for if that were the case these women could easily find places to unobtrusively do just that. If the agenda driving these protests is a determination to break the back of the bastion of Torah in our Holy Land, it can never succeed. The chain of our heritage is eternal. But such division and desecration can result, G-d forbid, in the most tragic consequences for our people and our land.

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6 Responses to “An Internal Tragedy”

  1. Dear Rebbetzin,
    Women of the Wall is a group of women from all the denominations of Judaism. We are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform religious women whose sole aim is to achieve the recognition of our right as Jewish women to pray together in the women's section of the Kotel, and read from a Torah collectively and out loud. Some of our members wear a tallit while praying. Some have taken on the mitzvah of tefilin. I am sure you know that no one can know what is in the hearts of people during prayer, and that we are commanded to judge every person favourably. So yes, Women of the Wall’s struggle is for the sake of God, l'shem shamayim. And yes, we keep Shabbat, kashrut and other mitzvot. You did not mention this in your article, but I am sure you know that there is excellent halachic backing for women wearing tallit and wrapping tefilin. Women from all over Israel gather at the Kotel, in the women's section, on Rosh Hodesh to pray with us with deep respect for the place and for each other. We daven the traditional Shaharit for Rosh Hodesh, we sing Hallel, we read the Rosh Hodesh parsha, we pray musaf and go to back to our families and jobs happy to have started the month off in this spiritually uplifting way. The fighting and Hillul Hashem you describe is perpetrated by people who oppose our group and who are incited to violence against us by the messages coming from their leaders, such as yourself, Rebbetzin. It is more dangerous than you might think to call us "rebellious" or to intimate that we are responsible for the "viciousness" against us. That is a clear form of blaming the victim and will not benefit the community and values that you cherish.

  2. Susan Cohen says:

    I like the way this group http://womenforthewall.org/ tackles this problem.

  3. Elisheva Balfour says:

    With the greatest respect, Rebbetzin, your moshels contradict your message. The article started off well, but then you made the choice to publicly denigrate and name-call the other side, telling people that they look "ridiculous" in the way they choose to worship. Would you say the same of Bruria for donning tefillin? How can you judge the motives of those women you do not know personally? How can you shame them and belittle their form of worship (an issur for which there is far more halachic backing than women not wearing tefillin) because it is at odds with your choices for worship? You sound much like the man with too many "businesses". I have always admired your work (and in fact, my son is named for your husband) but I think perhaps you should instead focus on the "business" at which you have always clearly excelled – inspiring jews in achdus and personal growth, rather than criticizing how other groups choose to find their own path to spiritual fulfillment and a relationship with Hashem. I'm very disappointed in this article and the negative message it sends.

  4. Rachel Cohen Yeshurun And if anyone believes this, I have a bridge I'd like to sell you. There are as many and more rabbinic sources for women not putting on talit and tefilin. In any event, it is not the accepted practice today. In addition, the only people we know who did it, did so in seclusion, not to be seen and not to bring machloket but truly LeShem Shamayim. Come and daven with the collective in the traditional manner at The Kotel Plaza or separately in the alternative manner at The Kotel under Robinson's Arch but stop creating machloket and incitement as your way to 'go back to your families and jobs happy to have started the month off' by creating descent in Am Israel.

  5. Lee Smith says:

    lets be honest the women of the wall are obnoxious they are tryiong to crate a name and in doing so show that they are fraudulent.

  6. The WOW group are not interested in keeping Torah and connecting to G-D. How many of them properly cover their hair? Why do they come in short sleeves and sometimes trashy outfits? Their might be some confused individuals there thinking they are serving G-D, but the leadership made it clear it is more then just about the kotel. They want to introduce and promote deformism in Israel and that is unacceptable.

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