When Judaism becomes coercive

The Women of the Wall, also known by the acronym WOW, is a multi-denominational feminist prayer group based in Israel which holds monthly prayer services at the Western Wall, whose goal is to secure the rights of women to pray and read from the Torah at the Western Wall. This feminist agenda upsets many Orthodox Jews, some of whom have staged aggressive demonstrations at the Western Wall which have resulted in confrontations with WOW members. I try to frequent the Western Wall from time to time and I have never witnessed WOW; my familiarity with the group and its agenda was limited to what I heard and read about in the news which, as an Orthodox Jew, left me conflicted. My heart told me that it would be praiseworthy and beneficial for the Orthodox community to demonstrate tolerance and appear civil towards a group which, in the end of the day, was interested in expressing their allegiance to the same God they subscribed to. On the other hand, I would analyze the parameters concerning the status of women’s prayer groups at the Western Wall from an Orthodox legal standpoint. A little over a week ago during Hanukah I encountered WOW for the first time as I went to pray at the Western Wall and my internal conflict was resolved. I began to realize as I have many times before, that the struggle which they were experiencing was a reflection of a more serious issue which the Orthodox community suffers from and should address if it is to remain relevant.

The group of women at the Western Wall was anything but provocative and it was clear that they were not interested in any altercation; they came to pray and they were undisruptive. One of the arguments of the Orthodox against the women was that they would sing which was a problem of Kol Isha; a rabbinic directive in Orthodox law which forbids women from singing in front of men as it may prove to be alluring. Yet, as I stood praying on the men’s side of the outdoor plaza of the Western Wall directly opposite the women’s side, I could not hear the women’s singing, or prayers for that matter, at all. In fact I found other men’s prayer groups which surrounded ours far more disrupting to my concentration, but none of the men’s groups took notice of the WOW group on the other side of the partition, and yet all was not to remain quiet on the Western Wall front. A few Haredim stood on chairs and peered through to the women’s side of the partition (something which would surely classify as a breach in Orthodox law). They screamed at the group to stop praying and to leave the Western Wall as they were desecrating God’s name. I questioned whether this small group of rabble-rousers was qualified to espouse accusations regarding the desecration of God’s name, considering their own shenanigans they displayed just a few feet from the Temple Mount, the very place which promotes Jewish unification through sacrifice, supplication and atonement. As these events unfolded in front of my eyes I was busy trying to lead a minyan of men in our own group prayer, when a young man approached me insisting that we move our group to the inner part of the Wall far from the women’s section as it was forbidden for us to pray so close to WOW’s singing and we should avoid a desecration of God’s name. Disturbed by the young man’s intrusiveness I motioned to him mid prayer that we were going to continue praying where we were as were six other prayer groups around us as well. He forcibly grabbed my arm and attempted to remove me (and the entire prayer group as I was leading the services) from the premises. When I gestured that he should not touch me again he frustratingly declared that we were a group of sinners and that he would not pray with us “in the name of God”. There was that expression again; an expression which has become conventionally used within the Orthodox community to justify outbursts and demonstrations of impertinence and to hide the increasing weaknesses and insecurities which fester within the religious world. Rabbis encourage their followers to throw stones on the Sabbath at people who desecrate the Sabbath all “in the name of God”. Ultra-Orthodox “modesty police” patrol the streets of their neighborhoods physically assaulting anyone who they suspect has not dressed modestly enough according to the standards of their revered rabbinic leaders and authorities all “in the name of God”. People who claim that they strictly adhere to religious law and follow its statutes yet advocate and help promote cheating in municipal elections by falsifying identity papers to ensure that their candidate is reelected, all “in the name of God”. Educators who are accused pedophiles and yet given venues to teach Torah all “in the name of God”.

I am an Orthodox rabbi but I appeal not as a rabbi or as an Orthodox Jew but as a member of the great Jewish nation; it is time that we came to terms with the fact that oppression, extremism and fundamentalism are spreading and enjoying popularity within large facets of the Orthodox community (Religious Zionist and Ultra-Orthodox alike); something which is not only unacceptable but antithetical and detrimental to the Orthodox community. It is time to realize that the narrow-mindedness of the Orthodox world in Israel impedes progress and obstructs any potential impact it could have on secular Israelis to identify with their Judaism. It is time for Orthodox Jews in Israel to realize that it is not their job or mission to “make” secular Jews religious and that in fact such efforts are counter-productive. A few days ago I received an email from a secular Israeli woman saying that in Moshav Herut, the secular Moshav where she lives, they have an Orthodox rabbi who delivers a class on the weekly Torah portion without any religious agenda and open to all sorts of questions. She closed the email saying,

“I wish more Orthodox rabbis were like this one because if they were, there would certainly be less divisiveness within the Jewish people”.

It is time for Jews who are confident and secure with their Judaism regardless of their affiliation or lack of it thereof, to embrace a premise of respect towards others and to institute tolerance towards varying opinions within the Jewish faith which will help us concentrate on the true challenge in Israel, preserving our Jewishness.

I serve as a lecturer for the Jewish Identity Branch of the rabbinate of the Israeli Defense Forces and work together with a group called Mahane Meshutaf which fittingly means a united camp. Mahane Meshutaf consists of a group of approximately 50 men and women, a most diverse crowd of Chabad Hassidim, Haredim, Religious Zionists from the center of the country, Settlers from the settlements along the West Bank, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, commonly bound by an objective to infuse the soldiers of the IDF with a sense of identity and determination. Our talks are void of anything which might be interpreted as religious coercion or political affiliation. Our words reveal our mission; to remind the soldiers of who they are and what they represent and to inspire them to believe that identifying with their past is key to perpetuating the Jewish people’s future.  Regardless of our most diverse backgrounds and cultural differences we remain united by the mission of our organization; to focus upon the soldiers, their ideals and the awesome contributions they make to help ensure national security (you would be surprised how much an inspiring lecture can have upon soldier’s morale). Our experiences and common cause has shown all of us, Orthodox and Ultra -Orthodox alike, that understanding and communicating are the ingredients which facilitate greater subscription and desire to identify with Judaism. Soldiers are not only receptive but they are responsive, often seeking personal advice from us because of our unthreatening composure, willingness to listen and forum of harmony. The second capacity is an undertaking which I believe is the key to ensuring Israel’s Jewish future. I travel the country offering lectures and classes on Judaism to secular Kibbutzim and Moshavim (settlements), and although the premise of the lectures explore biblical passages and implement analysis of the Talmud, I am careful to avoid any statements which would suggest religious instruction or prescription. Admittedly when I began this venture I braced myself for resistance and expected skepticism, but all for naught, for I have been met with open arms and have been privileged to witness a craving from so many secular Jews in Israel to connect with their Jewish roots. Many of these Israelis are not interested in religion but they are extremely concerned with fortifying themselves and their children with Jewish traditional values so long as they are delivered in a non-condescending manner. This undertaking has allotted me an opportunity to meet the only religious couple living in the Kibbutz Midreshet Ben Gurion, located only minutes from Sde Boker and established by the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, who was anything but sympathetic to religion but who understood the significance of educating about and preserving Judaism. This couple chose to live on the Kibbutz because they want to demonstrate to its secular members that there are religious people who are tolerant and that we can live together in harmony. I have encountered kibbutzim which are part of the Shomer Hatzair movement, whose past members would never have agreed to step foot in a Synagogue, and whose present members have not only built beautiful Synagogues for the kibbutz but are busy contemplating ways to grace them with activities. As a religious Jew, I do not believe that being “culturally Jewish” is enough to maintain Jewish identity however I am cognizant of the current positive dynamics exhibited by Israeli secular society and interpreting them as anything other than an invitation to examine Judaism in non-coercive and expansive forum is a mistake.

It is important to be confident enough in our religion to realize that it can speak to people in different ways sometimes sporadically, but right now we should be concentrating on making Judaism accessible to the masses regardless of their affiliation or lack of it thereof by introducing innovative and effective programs on foundations of Judaism. This will help promote an understanding that all people in Israel share the privilege of shaping the future of Jewish history.

A week ago I gave a lecture about prayer at the Limud conference of the Galil in Rosh Hanikra. The audience consisted of predominantly secular Israelis who were genuinely interested in hearing about what the Torah has to say about prayer. It was a most refreshing experience as the group was cordial and surprisingly familiar with the texts. One of the tenets of Jewish prayer is the importance of group prayer and although there are moments designated within our prayers for an individual to express his desires and feelings, Judaism believes that praying in a group is most effective. As individuals we may believe that a prayer group is defined only by a group of ten men or that it can be fulfilled and perhaps enhanced by a group of ten women who sing and pray at the Western Wall, but in the end of the day we must use the paradigm of prayer to emphasize that we have so much to lose when we compartmentalize and so much more to gain when we look for reasons to amalgamate.

This week Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke to the forum of the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial conference in San Diego saying,

“The Western Wall is in Israel, but it belongs to all of you, it belongs to you and to me, to all of us”. The Prime Minister explained that there were a number of ministers in his cabinet trying to find a solution for WOW and promote peaceful coexistence. As he explained that they were working towards compromise he said “You know the nature of compromise, no compromise is ever perfect, but I am confident that because of the work we are doing together, we will ensure that the Kotel [Western Wall] is a source of unity, not division; a place where all Jews feel at home.”

So be it.

About the Author
Rabbi Shalom Hammer currently serves as a lecturer for the IDF to help motivate troops in all divisions and infuse Jewish Identity. In addition he is currently involved in his own initiative offering lectures throughout the country on the basics of Judaism to many Secular Kibbutzim and Moshavim. He also serves as a lecturer for The Menachem Begin Heritage Center and has authored four books. Rabbi Hammer is a renowned guest lecturer for communities throughout the Diaspora. www.rabbihammer.com
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