One of the cornerstones of a modern democratic society is the value placed on open discourse and debate culture. So what happens when people of opposing ideas are no longer willing to sit together and talk? It’s not only a devastating academic loss, but a cultural loss as well.
Through Women of the Wall, I’m fortunate enough to meet hundreds of groups a year and reach thousands of people. When I give these presentations, I’m not there to convince anyone that they’re right or wrong, or that we’re the be-all and end-all for modern Judaism, I’m there to present a different side of Judaism. One of the hardest groups that I ever met with was a group of young men from an all-boys, national religious high school. Before I even started my presentation, I was peppered with a barrage of questions. It wasn’t even about the work we do at Women of the Wall, they were questions about how women fit into the halacha, and personal questions as well. Once I got the rowdiness under control, I was able to really talk to them. What struck me after I had finished talking was that they had given me a chance. They didn’t need to agree, they needed to listen and be open.
Recently, Women of the Wall was invited to be part of a presentation for Israeli university students between Israelis of different backgrounds. The goal of this was to allow people who wouldn’t meet under normal circumstances to come together and have an open conversation. We readily accepted and were looking forward to being a part of this forum. Here was a wonderful opportunity for people to see us not as a demonizing headline, or as a group of diehards, but as people. People with names, faces, and lives that they would not be able to ignore. However, we were soon uninvited. The reason why? The ultra-Orthodox students that were invited to listen refused to even hear us.
In a forum that was supposed to be promoting diversity, it would have been too much for these participants to be in the same group as us. The irony is palpable. They expect a one-way conversation where they demand to be heard, but they then refuse to listen to us. As a people, how can we be expected to progress when one group not only actively antagonizes another, but effectively sticks their fingers in their ears and ignores the reality of the situation? And to add insult to injury, after we were so unceremoniously uninvited, the forum will still go on as originally planned.
When the free exchange of ideas is cut off at the legs, how can we even begin to understand one another? Misinformation becomes rife, prejudices solidify, and hate takes root. If we were (and still are) willing to sit down and listen to people who have very different ideas than us, why are they unable to extend the same courtesy? Our existence is conceived as a threat by the ultra-Orthodox establishment, so much so that even hearing us speak is a ludicrous idea. Pressuring forums and discussions to uninvite speakers because you don’t like what they say is an affront to open mindedness, multiculturalism, and democratic values.
A large part of our ethos at Women of the Wall centers around pluralism and open mindedness, meaning that we welcome Jews of all backgrounds to join us in our goal of gender equality at the Kotel. On our board and staff we work hard to have an open dialogue, and if we didn’t embody this then we would be the worst kind of hypocrites.
Recently I took a taxi to a speaking event. This in itself isn’t anything extraordinary, but the driver saw that he was scheduled to pick up someone from WOW and was expecting a belligerent, aggressive caricature of a feminist. Anyone who’s taken a cab in Israel knows that they’re Jacks of all trades, they’re the unofficial psychologists, tour guides, political commentators, spokespeople, and even matchmakers of Israeli society. We started chatting about Women of the Wall, life in Israel, our children, etc., and he was fairly surprised. He said, “Huh, you’re actually pretty nice! And you’re very knowledgeable about halacha”. We were able to talk because he wasn’t speaking to a headline, or an organization, he was speaking to me. This little tableau shows us what we need in Israeli society; the chance and willingness to sit down with someone you may not agree with 100%, and still be able to maintain a respectful dialogue. You can’t always agree with everyone, but what’s important, on a personal note especially, is to be able to sit down and listen to what people are saying and vice-versa.
Liberal-minded people all over are asked to bend over backwards for people with more conservative views because we “need to be more considerate”. I was hurt that the organizer wasn’t brave enough to make the ultra-Orthodox members of the group stick to the values of the forum and listen to us as we would’ve listened to them.
What they would’ve gained from having us be part of the panel is a very different perspective than their own. This is priceless. They were robbed of that opportunity not only by the organizers, but by their own stubbornness. “The heart of an understanding person seeks knowledge” Proverbs 15:14. I’m inpatient for the day when not only Women of the Wall, but all liberal groups will be given the opportunity to be respectfully listened to by the other side.