Once again the holy city of Jerusalem, the “City of Peace,” is gripped in controversy. Although somewhat quiet over the past few months, painful conflict is again raging regarding the mixed gender prayer section, recently opened at the Kotel HaMa’aravi.
First championed by Natan Sharansky and now embraced by the Netanyahu government, this is an attempt to restore serenity and end the distressing conflict caused by the longstanding monthly prayer services of the so-called “Women of the Wall” (WOW). (Whom I have written about before). Under this initiative, in addition to the existing Ezrat Anashim (Men’s section) and Ezrat Nashim (Women’s section) that are under the jurisdiction of the Rabbanut, there is now an “Ezrat Yisrael” at the southern end of the Kotel with no mechitza; where all are welcome to worship however they see fit, not bound by traditional norms. The Reform and Conservative (R&C) and the “Orthodox” WOW (led by paid Reform radical Anat Hoffman) claim this as a victory in their long-standing battle for legitimacy by the State of Israel, which up until now regarded only Orthodox as the arbiters of Religious Judaism.
This new section has been functioning for some time. Until now there was a doorway before the main entrance leading to a long flight of stairs to the designated area. It is completely separate and far away from the main Kotel plaza; one cannot see or hear anything of the goings-on from one area to the other.
Unfortunately not satisfied with this arrangement, non-Orthodox advocates have lobbied hard for an area that is more equivalent to the main Kotel area. After much discussion, the government on January 31 decided to invest 9 million dollars in providing enhancements to this area including a new entrance way will providing secured access to all three areas, i.e. two separated gender and one mixed gender path, attempting to create an impression of equal dignity to all three areas. Furthermore, the Rav of the Kotel, the Chief Rabbinate, and the Minister of Religion will have no jurisdiction over the new area; rather it will be governed by a council including Reform/Conservative representatives.
Reactions to this decision have come, fast and furious, in two basic flavors.
The reaction of almost all Orthodox spokesmen and writers has been fierce. Many statements were issued characterizing this as a terrible development, a desecration of our Holiest of all places, an affront to the myriads of Orthodox Jews who pour out their hearts there 365/24/7, and even to G-d Himself who desires that prayers be offered in a separate gender setting. Furthermore, it is unacceptable in that the Kotel has, and always has had, the status of an Orthodox Beit Knesset, in which mixed prayer is forbidden. Worst of all, it is, for the first time, a formal recognition of the legitimacy of the various non-Orthodox forms of Judaism, and as such a dangerous slippery slope of a precedent towards forced concessions on many future matters. In fact, the very week that the decision was announced, the Reform movement hailed this decision as a historic breakthrough from the heretofore total rejection of Reform Judaism. This dovetailed with a Supreme Court decision released the same week ruling that mikvaot (Ritual Baths) built with State funds must allow Reform Rabbis to perform conversions using their facilities, further stoking fears of the continued movement towards full recognition of Reform Judaism, including validation of their marriages, divorces, and conversions. These matters, of course, go to the heart of the ultimate divisive “Who Is A Jew” question; one that could potentially divide the Jewish people irreparably.
The reaction in many non-Orthodox circles has, predictably, been the polar opposite. Trumpeting the values of Equality, Pluralism, Religious Tolerance and abhorrence of Religious Coercion, these developments have been met with joy and renewed vigor to build upon this towards an ever more official status of the Non-Orthodox movements in Israel.
Virtually every Orthodox person I met in Israel, from Chareidi to Religious Zionist, is supportive of efforts to go to war, if necessary, on this issue. Headlines and posters everywhere scream about the awful decree that has befallen us; the strongest language is being used to vilify the Reform, etc.
While apparently this puts me outside of mainstream Orthodox thinking, it would seem to me that not only is the approach of “going to war” against the R&C on this issue is doomed to fail, it will only further strengthen them.
But first, I would like to make several observations:
- Up until quite recently, Reform and Conservative Judaism has had little traction in Israeli society. This was not for a lack of trying, nor for a lack of money or effort on their part. Hundreds of millions of Dollars, if not more, have been spent, endless lobbying with the Israeli government has been attempted, and an enormous political and legal campaign has pursued in this effort. But at the end of the day, until quite recently, they have just not caught on with mainstream Israelis, as they did (in the past) in the Diaspora.
Chareidi spokesmen typically claim that the main reasons that R&C have been unsuccessful are (a) that the Orthodox have succeeded in stymieing their efforts through political pressure in various forms (mainly coalition agreements and demonstrations), and (b) that it is (or should be) self-evident to most Israelis that R&C are illegitimate, and thus even secular Israelis deep down want that the “Shul that they don’t go to” should be Orthodox.
Truth be told, however, these were far from the main reasons that R&C have been relatively unsuccessful in Israel. In my opinion, the main reason that that they have not been able to replicate in Israel what they have had (till now) in America is a simple one: they were seen by most Israelis as both unnecessary and irrelevant. Permit me to explain.
Over the years, R&C Rabbis, Academics and thinkers have provided a mountain of scholarship t purportedly justifying their deviance from traditional norms. They claim that it is this progressive and more enlightened interpretation of Judaism that led so many to leave Orthodoxy behind in years past, and that they are, in fact the authentic version of Judaism for the modern world.
The falsehood in this position is immediately apparent when speaking to and befriending non-Orthodox Jews. It is decidedly not ideology or theology that moves 95% ─ or more ─ of R&C adherents join those congregations. Rather, the reason they join is that R&C provide what they are looking for is a social and cultural way to officially be recognized as part of the Jewish community; G-d, Torah, and Spirituality are not what they are seeking.
“Belonging” to a Congregation bestows official allegiance with the Jewish people and one’s roots.
For many Jews who are steeped in a mostly secular, non-Jewish environment, a need exists to officially identify Jewishly, motivated by factors such as nostalgia, tribal identity, history, social interaction and the desire to stand together in response to Anti-Semitism. Certainly there are some who are seriously interested in Jewish worship and observance; but they are a small minority. In particular, I have met very spiritual and sincere women, and their families, who desire a more active participation in the Services than Halacha provides for, and but for that issue would probably identify as Orthodox. That notwithstanding, most R&C attend for the reasons noted above, and attend only on special occasions, such as a Bar/Bat Mitzvah and other life-cycle events. It is reassuring to be told by one’s Rabbi that there is no reason to hang on to the superstitions and fundamentalism of one’s observant ancestors and whatever positive one does is to be celebrated, with no guilt needed for lack of observance of those mitzvot that are inconvenient.
Indeed, little Halachic observance, if anything, is demanded to be considered a fully committed R&C Jew; the choices are wide open. For those who want to select any observance they choose, or none at all, Reform’s doctrine of personal autonomy is perfect. For those who like a somewhat more traditional format, with more Hebrew and familiar tunes, Conservative feels more comfortable. (It has been often said that the theology most Conservative Jews are seeking, all their denials notwithstanding, is “Not Orthodox, but not so Reform”) In short, R&C Judaism is primarily a way of identifying Jewishly without the burden of Halachic observance.
It is crucial to understand this in order to comprehend the very plain reason that R&C has never been much of an attraction for Israelis. An Israeli does not need any external structure in order to feel Jewishly connected. He/she lives in our ancient homeland, speaks Hebrew, the Jewish holidays are their legal holidays, they serve in the Jewish army defending the Jewish State, and are surrounded by Jewish culture (in some form) everywhere they go . . . in short, their whole environment is Jewish. Nothing further is needed for Jewish self-identification.
Those who do become interested in sincerely pursuing G-d, Torah, spirituality and ultimate meaning in life are drawn to the “real thing”; not a paltry version manufactured primarily for those basically uninterested in religion and spirituality. For those occasions that secular Jews felt the need to interact with Tradition, Orthodoxy was fine, even quaint and nostalgic, as long as it was presented in a pleasant atmosphere. R&C with its mixed pews, driving on Shabbat, diluted services and female Rabbis and Cantors, seemed strange and inauthentic; decidedly uninteresting and unnecessary for the average Israeli.
2) Over the past two decades these attitudes have begun to change, due to many factors. Here are three that I consider very important:
a) Frustration with the Chief Rabbinate (CR). As a vestige of Turkish Law, all personal status matters in Israel are handled by the Religious Authority of one’s ethnic group. For Christians it is the Church, for Moslems the Waqf, and for Jews it is the CR. Thus even completely secular Israelis must go to the CR to effectuate a marriage or divorce. This law has been a great blessing for ensuring, until now, that fundamental matters of personal status — whether or not a person is Halachically Jewish, properly married or divorced — were in the hands of a responsible Halachic authority.
Unfortunately, all has not been well at the CR. Too many stories of corruption and callous treatment by functionaries in their offices have emerged. For secular Israelis who resent having to come to the Rabbinate in the first place, terribly negative feelings are created when they perceive themselves as having been mistreated. A new, and awful, low occurred when the previous Chief Rabbi was indicted for corruption, and resigned in disgrace.
Among the Orthodox respect for the CR reached an all-time low as well. Chareidim have never accepted the authority of the CR; many Religious Zionists are disgusted as well. Furthermore, advocates of so-called “Open Orthodoxy”, such as Rabbi Avi Weiss, have done their utmost to repeatedly attack and disparage the CR in pursuit of their own unfortunate agenda, doing much harm to the respect, dignity, and authority that the CR needs to function effectively.
Bottom Line – A void has been created in which new alternatives that might have never gotten a hearing in the court of public opinion before, are now gaining strength.
b) The unhelpful reactions by the Chareidi leadership to the excesses of their extremists. For many years now, the WOW have insisted on poking their fingers in the craw of the overwhelmingly Orthodox worshippers at the Kotel. Wearing Tallis and Tefillin, trying to read from a Seder Torah, singing loudly, occasionally accompanied by instruments, they engaged in behaviors that they knew would enrage the Traditional worshippers, and elicit strong reactions.
In my perfect world, those reactions would have consisted of well thought out responses that would have sought to solve the problem, while maximizing damage control. Responses that would have made every effort possible to warn young hot-heads to not engage directly with the WOW, and to let the police do their job. It would have been best to encourage people to ignore them, drown out their demonstrations with louder positive davening and music in response to them, as in fact done by the brave Women for the Wall. Instead, there were ugly fights, reports of chairs and dirty diapers with feces and other miserable objects being hurled at WOW. All this succeeded in doing was inflaming the WOW and R&C activists, as well as additional proof that the Orthodox are unruly violent bigots in the eye of the secular public.
A good example, one of many, of a an unfortunate response happened this past week, when the Chareidi press was full of accusatory messages and even calls for violent protests about the “terrible provocation” that occurred when R&C held a protest service in the upper Kotel plaza, going so far as to accuse PM Netanyahu as lacking a Jewish heart because he allowed this to happen due to being bribed by R&C money. What they gloss over is that this protest was in response to the service that was led by Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Amar last week at the Southern Kotel area, which had been designated as an egalitarian prayer area, decrying “these evil people” who are defiling the holiness of the Kotel, attempting to alter the uneasy new status quo.
As should be fairly obvious, there was no way that R&C, or the government, would allow this to pass without a response. Perhaps I am wrong, but I cannot imagine that there was anyone whose mind was changed positively by that demonstration; all that it accomplished was an escalation of the political, legal and interpersonal fight between the sides who will be even less likely to find a peaceful solution to this intractable problem.
The truth is that, away from the public spotlight, responsible Chareidi leaders had agreed to the Sharansky proposal, knowing that it was a good, respectful, and sensible way to ease the tensions brought about by WOW and those who fought them, and at a minimum, the lesser of two evils. But as usual, the extremists will not let sanity prevail, and we have what we have.
c) The Rise of Spiritual seekers among the Secular — space does not permit a full development of this aspect, but it is important to note that a great change has been quietly happening in Israel for a long time now. That change is that in many ways, the current generation of secular Israelis, for the most part, are not as rabidly anti-religious as their forebears a generation or two ago. There is more and more tolerance and respect, and even interest, in Torah and spirituality, and far less kneejerk opposition, even amongst those who formerly were allergic to any talk of religion. Tens of Kibbutzim and Moshavim associated with Hashomer Hatzair, who used to hold Tisha B’Av parties and feature pork on their menus now have functioning Batei Knesset and people coming to learn Torah, and the “Lehach’is” excesses of are a thing of the past. Ayelet HaShachar, a wonderful organization that I am involved with, along with others, have introduced Torah and yiddishkeit in scores of places around the country formerly devoid of any religious observance.
This good news, however, comes with a proviso. People seeking connection to Torah provided that it comes without religious coercion, condescension, “holier-than-thou” criticism, and certainly ugly and offensive accusations and threats. To the extent that Orthodoxy is seen as angry, threatening, restricting, and mocking, a golden opportunity is handed to R&C to present themselves as an enlightened, empowering, celebratory and welcoming alternative. Many of those Israelis who have been attracted to R&C might easily have joined with the Orthodox, if only they had perceived Orthodoxy as a having a welcoming smile rather than angry condescension. “Going to War” at the Kotel will IMHO lead to far more sympathy for R&C than for the Orthodox, and drive these precious people straight into their hands, rachmana litzlan.
It hurts me that the Orthodox are fighting a battle that they cannot win and surely will succeed only in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
What then is the solution? The Orthodox world will have to come to terms with the fact that, like it or not, the State of Israel is a pluralistic society, in which Jews (and non-Jews) who hold widely divergent beliefs and levels of traditional observance have to co-exist, for better or worse. Although many on all sides would like to have us believe that THEY are the only ones who have a legitimate right to be in the land for reasons that need not be discussed here, the truth is that, Baruch Hashem, All Jews are at home in the land. The words of Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld zt”l, a fierce defender of the Chareidim, when asked in 1920 by the British High Commissioner whether the Yerushalmi community wanted all these secular Jews to come and live in and inevitably change the religious nature of the Yishuv (attempting to justify the British policy of severely limiting Jewish immigration), ought to come to mind. He unhesitatingly said, “The Land of Israel is our mother: a mother has room for all of her children”. There must be respect from the Orthodox community that other Israelis have no less of a right to the land than they do, much as they deplore their attitude towards religion.
Furthermore, not everyone sees the Kotel as an Orthodox Beit Knesset. Of course, that has been its primary function for a long time, and many poskim have stated that it has this status. But it is not its only function. It is a national shrine, a vestige of our History, a place to which Jews for millennia have directed their hopes and dreams, and a place where all Jews ought to feel welcome to pour out their hearts to G-d. The Sharansky compromise, approved by the government, should have been seen as a great win for the Orthodox. Under this plan, the Kotel as it has existed since 1967, is to be left alone. Those who wish R&C or egalitarian, or other forms of worship, agreed to go to a completely different area, where they bother no one who does not wish to be disturbed, and can do what they choose subject to a pluralistic oversight commission. One need only search superficially to see how disappointed the R&C and WOW were by this compromise, as they had been arguing for their right to take over at least part of the main Kotel area. It hurts me that the Orthodox are fighting a battle that they cannot win and surely will succeed only in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. If the legal battle continues, there is no question that the same playbook by which progressives have won the battle for recognition of civil liberties, gay marriages, and so much else will be successfully used here, and there is no legal recourse that will withstand this onslaught.
If the Orthodox really want to win the “war” with R&C, it will not be done with violence, power struggles, and public insults. It will be done by focusing on Ahavat Yisrael and making sure that Orthodox Jewry is seen as open, inviting and encouraging for Jews of all levels of faith and observance.
It will be by presenting authentic Torah with as much love, ingenuity, and attractiveness as possible. Any visitor to the Kotel will see what is already evident now; the Orthodox main plaza has hundreds of people davening 365/24/7, while the Southern wall is mostly empty most of the time, due to lack of interest on the part of R&C Jews in actually praying there, rather than making headlines.
It is time that we learn from mistakes in the past, and focus on how we can bring Jews together with messages of respect, acceptance and love, and prove that the Ways of the Torah are those of Pleasantness and Peace.
Rabbi Lenny Oppenheimer