Netanyahu’s reversal on his personal promise, and his government’s commitment to egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, is not a new phenomenon in the systemic capitulation to the Charedi blackmail of his 61-member coalition. Many governments before him have yielded, bowing down to the extortion of small parties in the narrow coalition between otherwise unlikely partnerships. We’ve seen Bibi’s repeated submission to Charedi demands, in recent years; allowing the Israeli Rabbinate to limit conversions performed by strictly Orthodox rabbis in the US, striking down the law requiring Ultra-Orthodox conscription into the IDF, and other such examples.
The real question is; Is there a difference in the current climate, with yet another surrender to this ongoing ‘black-hat power’, that strips once more a large group of Jews from its yearnings, this time — to be represented at the Kotel?
Rabbi Nathan Cardozo, founder and dean of the David Cardozo Academy, heads a think-tank, focusing on finding halachic and philosophical approaches to dealing with the crisis of religion and identity among Jews and the Jewish State. He recently wrote an important article “The Kotel – Have We Gone Mad?” 1 in which he suggests that since the Kotel doesn’t belong to any one group and since it’s not officially a synagogue, it should be accessible without any limitations to everybody, for personal or communal prayer, representing each Jew’s yearning for connection with the Divine. He further suggests that there should be no ‘gatekeeper’ for how Jews express their individual yearning.
Perhaps, not many people will agree with his approach, which some may called ‘radical’, yet its inclusiveness strikes me as fundamental, and in line with the spirit of Jewish tradition; the birthright of our people. However, even if we maintain the Kotel as it is, what is at stake is more than curtailing a group of extreme provocateurs. The issues which are at risk, are at the very core of our Jewish debate over important topics, starting with denouncing the delegitimization of Orthodox rabbis in the US, to resolving the issue of conversions, to being more inclusive to the role of women.
True, there are differences in our tradition between the roles assigned to men and women, yet the front line in the debate throughout the greater Jewish world, is in redefining such differences.
Specifically, many religious scholars claim that excluding women from Torah learning and from many religious ceremonies, is not based in Halacha – religious law, but rather has evolved due to ancient conditions, social economic limitations and other circumstances (we have to remember less than a thousand years ago men were permitted multiple wives).
Within this context, we can understand the ultra-Orthodox attitude, as part of a larger battle to defend their narrow version of Judaism and to impose it on the larger Jewish world, not as Chabad does, with a carrot, but with the stick of banishing people in a tyranny of subversive insurgence.
One can argue that the main purpose of our Talmud, besides to teach Halacha, is to demonstrate the argumentative format, teaching us about the archetypes of Hillel and Shamai, and how they got along despite their renown disputes. Along these lines, we can deduce that this current disagreement, like many others, are not as much about enacting laws or about their execution, as it is a test for us, as Jews of different points of view, to live together even when we disagree. The Charedi party’s attempt to hijack this conversation may not end well, and the danger if we do not learn to live together is not theoretical. We can see the calamity among our Muslim brethren, where Sunni and Shiites kill each other in the name of their own independent reading of the same Koran.
I found a poster, circulating in the Israeli media, depicting the religious parliament leaders, with a text above: “We’re only 10%, but you will keep quiet while fighting in the army, work like dogs, pay taxes, and only do as we permit you.” Many Israeli citizens are outraged, by yet another desecration of their democracy and I fear that this tension may drag the country into a more combatant conflict.
Back to our question; Is there a difference in today’s controversy? I’ve been following the ensuing public debate and in the latest exchanges, I was shocked to see how the rhetoric is shifting. Instead of focusing on the democratic imbalance, which is systemic in the Israeli parliament, it has turned to attack and blame US Jewry, labeling it an American Jewish provocation.
Nathan Sharansky, the head of the Jewish agency since 2009, warned against dismissing American Jewry, among which more than three million identify as conservative and reform. In an unprecedented condemnation, the Jewish Agency issued a scathing response to the government’s decision to indefinitely freeze the agreement for a state-recognized egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, as well as severe criticism of the government’s granting the Chief Rabbinate a total monopoly over conversion in Israel.
But other headlines put the blame squarely on “spoiled” American Jews, who supposedly place claim to Israeli sacred places, while for the most part, they are disconnected from Israel. They ridicule Reform Jews for making frivolous claims that are inconsistent with their lack of presence other than having bar and bat mitzvahs and sending kids on Birthright trips, while the other, “serious Jews” carry the real burden. Israeli diplomats in North America rejected a talking point recently handed down to them from Jerusalem, by Jonathan Schechter, a top adviser to the prime minister, which blames liberal Jews for the Western Wall controversy. This is shaking the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.
Our rabbi reminded us how Rabbi Yisroel Salanter advised a Jew who was a little ‘too enthusiastic’; “When wrapping yourself in a tallis, try not to hit the guy next to you”. This sounds like good advice for many of the devoted Orthodox, who try to fix the world rather than examine themselves. With great dismay and utter shock, I recently watched a video, showing a religious Knesset member and deputy Education Minister, Meir Porush, speaking in a derogatory manner during a televised parliament speech, saying “the place of the Women of the Wall is in an “out-of-the-way corner, outside the camp, near the ‘Dung Gate’,” and that “[They] should be thrown to the dogs.”2. I realized sadly how misinformation is designed to cause deliberate rift in the Jewish world in order to hide the fact that the Israeli Government is willing to cross lines in its ongoing political struggle to remain in power. But such leadership is doomed — like so many other power-mongers throughout history, to dig their own pit, undoing the great legacy of many of its members. Let’s just hope that unlike what we read in Parshat Korach a few weeks ago, not too many Jews are brought down in this debacle.
Soli I Foger – Englewood, NJ