I once attended a meeting to plan an all-day workshop for a group of Israeli women. One of the women, whom I’ll call Noga, asked what we were planning to do about refreshments. In the past, the organizers had asked everyone to bring a kosher item. But Noga wanted a change. “How about if people bring what they want,” she suggested. “Those who keep kosher can bring kosher food, and those who don’t can bring either kosher or non-kosher food.”
Dina (also not her real name), a religiously observant woman, objected to Noga’s proposal. She complained that bringing non-kosher food would be insensitive to the kosher members of the group.
The conversation got heated and at some point, even the secular women at the meeting became uncomfortable with Noga’s stance. Noga was the only one who seemed to mind being asked to bring kosher food. Yet she wouldn’t let up.
Finally, Dina asked her what bothered her so much about bringing kosher food. Noga answered simply, “Lo ba li.”
Everyone looked away from Noga, embarrassed. Loosely translated, lo ba li means, “I don’t feel like it.” It’s what little kids say when asked why they don’t want to play with the group. Was Noga causing all of this tension just because she felt like it? If she would just give in, we could continue our meeting. Surely it wouldn’t kill her to eat kosher food for one day.
Noga went on, responding to our thoughts. “Why should I always be the one to show tolerance and respect for your beliefs? Maybe I don’t feel like going out to buy something kosher. Sometimes I want to bring something that I cooked at home, just like the kosher people do. Why don’t you show respect for me?”
Ever since that meeting, I see tolerance in a completely new light.
Tolerance does not mean asking others to accommodate my personal beliefs. If Noga doesn’t feel like bringing kosher food, that’s her choice. I have no right to ask her to buy something she normally wouldn’t, just because I keep kosher. In the worst case, I could bring my own lunch. In this case, our requirements do not clash in any way. In the end we all agreed to have two clearly labeled tables at the workshop, one for kosher food and one for non-kosher food.
It can be upsetting when people don’t want to accommodate our beliefs, religious or otherwise. Caring human beings try to respect the beliefs of others and accommodate them if they can. If Noga had decided to go out of her way to bring food that everyone could eat, that would be generous. But it would need to come from her. The members of our group who kept kosher should not expect it, or worse, demand it.
The true test of tolerance is how we relate to others who make choices that are deeply offensive to us, especially when those choices don’t prevent us from following our own beliefs.
And this is at the crux of the debate over the Women of the Wall, the segregated buses, the spat-upon girls of the Orot school in Beit Shemesh, the breastfeeding mother asked to leave the post office, and signs requesting that women not linger on the sidewalk. The presence of nursing women, or women dressed differently, or women at all, causes offense, so people with more power expect those women to make their presence scarce.
Women of the Wall, or WoW, is a Jewish prayer group that prays each month in the women’s area of the Western Wall. Some of its members wear tallitot (prayer shawls) and tefillin (phylacteries), which is not part of standard Orthodox Jewish practice for women.
The masses of women who turned up last Rosh Hodesh sent a message of intolerance toward the 100 or so Women of the Wall. Just as the presence of a non-kosher sandwich doesn’t prevent someone from keeping kosher, women in tefillin don’t take an iota away from the religious experience of women praying nearby. To me, the protesters are asserting their presence over the area in the same way that bullies take over a playground.
Orthodox Jews have strict standards. So we tend to see things in black and white–either it’s permitted or not. Chicken–yes, pork–no. Ironically, tallit and tefillin for women are not clearly prohibited in Jewish law. Yet if you judged by the rhetoric surrounding women wearing prayer shawls at the Western Wall, you would think the practice was akin to murder or idol worship.
The Wall is a holy site, a Jewish icon and a national monument. So you might argue that the standards for Jewish observance ought to be higher than at the community center where my group held its workshop. But the level of decorum at the Kotel is not so high. Small groups of men form prayer services every few minutes, chanting loudly. Tourists wander with bare arms, cameras and cell phones. In this context, a group of women praying together at 7 am is hardly disruptive.
The rhetoric against WoW led to violence at last month’s prayer service with rocks and chairs being thrown. Fortunately no one was hurt. The organizers of the protest against WoW are stating how imperative it is that even more people come to this Sunday’s prayers. This time someone could get injured or worse.
They claim that their protest promotes unity, but it only unifies those who share their perspective. Clearly a protest against a minority practice does not promote unity.
I’ve read the objections to WoW’s perceived agenda. But as long as the women are praying, and not holding up signs or shouting protests, they should be left alone. We can all pray as we like while tolerating others who pray in ways we find different, inexplicable, or offensive.
Demanding that others change their behavior, in order to show tolerance for our sensibilities, is the height of intolerance.
To live together in Israel’s complex, diverse and dynamic society, we must find a way to practice true tolerance.