This Sunday is going to be round two of the Reform-led Women of the Wall vs the newly-founded traditional Women for the Wall. The long-running debate about religious observance at the holiest Jewish site continues.
I was at the Kotel a month ago on Rosh Chodesh. It was painful and uplifting to see what transpired. A small group of rowdy Yeshiva students physically attempted to prevent Anat Hoffman from leading prayers. I was inspired to witness Ronit Peskin, the feisty young women who founded the new Women for the Wall. In a few weeks she has transformed the public debate, organizing the counter demonstration of over ten thousand young women. On that Friday morning she stood her ground, preventing violence targeted at the Reform women, the same group that she and her group came to show they did not support.
Everyone is galvanizing for this Sunday. The religious community is coming out in protest, this time calling for married men and explicitly rejecting violence. Reform leader Anat Hoffman is returning, feeling emboldened by a recent court ruling.
I profoundly disagree with Hoffman and her group. She wants to force others to accept her changes to Jewish law and tradition that reach back thousands of years. And prayer is not the real agenda. If you listen to Hoffman her goals are much broader. She wants to rescind the historical status quo on religion in Israel. Dismantle the Rabbinate, institute civil marriage, to fundamentally change Israeli society. She is using the headlines from her monthly drama at the Kotel to propel a much broader agenda. Recently she even called for the Kotel to be transformed into a National Monument every morning and the dividers be removed. Cleary there is much more at stake.
The religious community has realized her true agenda, that is why it has mobilized. Hoffman has unified the religious Zionist and the Haredi communities. Both groups, as most Israelis, would like to see the delicate balance of religion and democracy maintained. Over the decades there have been pressures from various sides that have shifted the ground one way or another. But at the core, the basic compromise has been maintained. Hoffman wants to dismantle the whole arrangement, and realizing that, the religious community is coming out in force.
On one level, I admire Anat Hoffman. She has spunk, drive and truly believes in her cause. She, as many other liberal Jews, care deeply about Israel and Judaism. I firmly believe that her approach is flawed, but I admire her deep convictions. In a time when so many in the non-observant community are feeling more disconnected to Judaism, she has passion, and that is to be respected.
Still, I am troubled about her provocative actions and I do not support her agenda. This Sunday she has publicly announced she will attempt to read the Torah at the Kotel. I think this is ill advised. It will be like screaming fire in a packed theater. The religious community is coming out to make the point that thousands of years of tradition should be treasured and preserved. Her intention is to be as confrontational and inflammatory as possible. If her actions provoke a clash it will serve her broader goals. There will be headlines around the world. It will be great for fundraising. Liberal Jews in Beverly Hills and Scarsdale will reach deeper into their pockets to fight the nefarious “ultra-Orthodox.”
But we need to ask, is this good for the Jewish people?
Some will say the conflict over the Kotel is advancing the cause of religious pluralism in Israel. Truth be told, that real battle is not on the front pages of the newspapers or the fancy salons raising money in California. It’s in secular Tel Aviv, where there are 550 orthodox synagogues, most open daily, and one Reform Temple, Beth Daniel, open just for Shabbat. Clearly the real issue for liberal Jews is that they have not really making inroads into Israel. In the US the same movements are facing serious attrition. Instead of focusing on the battle of a hundred women in Jerusalem, let them make their top priority the revitalization of Jewish life in their communities. That is the most important challenge they face.
Orthodox Jews do not have a monopoly on commitment for Israel and Judaism. Every Jew, no matter the level of observance, or engagement is intrinsically linked to Torah and the historical homeland of the Jewish people. No question there are vast disagreements across the theological spectrum. They are not going to go away. And sadly many of them are irreconcilable.
All sides must act with responsibility and not what is good for their agenda. They must always make paramount the welfare of the Jewish people. Personally, I would hope that Anat and company would choose to respect Jewish Tradition at the Kotel and not attempt to impose her changes on this holy site. She can join Women FOR the Wall in traditional prayer. I am sure the orthodox women will welcome her with open arms. Failing that, at the minimum, I would hope she refrain from actions that will be provocative and could create more tension. Shattering thousands of years of precedent and reading from the Torah will, without question, raise the temperature.
The religious community has issued a call for Yeshiva students to stay home and only young married men to come to the Kotel on Sunday. This is to ensure that those who acted irresponsibly last month are not present again. Women for the Wall have invited women for a peaceful prayer vigil. Voices of reason have spoken out in the religious community. Hopefully those voices will be echoed in the liberal community also. Both sides must lower the temperature and agree to disagree with dignity.