Women Of The Wall And Of Israel

On my recent trip to France and Israel, I arrived in Jerusalem from Paris on the first day of Rosh Hodesh Adar– a Sunday– and was scheduled to read Torah at our minyan in the hotel on Monday, the second day of Rosh Hodesh. When I made that commitment, I hadn’t taken into account the monthly service of the Women of the Wall, which was to take place that Monday morning as well. Had I been more conscious of it, I might have made it my business to go.

As it turned out, due to illness, I was unable to attend either service. But it certainly didn’t take long for the news from the Women of the Wall’s service to reach me. Two of the women who were arrested there are friends of mine. One of them, Robyn Fryer Bodzin, is the rabbi of a neighboring congregation here in Queens. The other, Debra Cantor, also a rabbi, is someone my wife and I have known for more than thirty years.

As it happened, after she was released, Rabbi Cantor joined the group that I was with in Israel with for two days of our program, and I had a chance to speak with her at some length about her experience. I also exchanged e-mails with Rabbi Fryer Bodzin soon after her release. To say that it was an unsettling experience for them to be interrogated by Israeli police would certainly be an understatement. What was clearly an act of civil disobedience, designed as a peaceful protest against a policy restriction that many in both the Orthodox and non-Orthodox world regard as sad and hurtful, was regarded by the police as something more sinister. The intention of these women was merely to bring attention to their complaint with the law as it is. That has been clear for as long as the women have been protesting. The presence at their service of one of the paratroopers whose awestruck face became an iconic image of the first few moments after the liberation of the Kotel in 1967 should have added majesty and pathos to the moment. Instead, these women were made to feel cheapened.

Those who engage in civil disobedience, no matter what cause they are espousing, know up front that their action will, technically speaking, be a violation of the law. They are expected to go into their protest willing to face the consequences of their actions. These two rabbis did. But the issue here is not their arrest per se. It is, rather, the question of why they, in 2013, have to continue to engage in civil disobedience in order to express themselves spiritually, as many traditional women do today, wearing a tallit, at such a sacred site in a Jewish state?

The juxtaposition of my friends’ arrests with the death and burial of Rabbi David Hartman, z”l, seemed particularly striking to me. I can’t claim to know how Rabbi Hartman felt about the Women of the Wall and their tactics. I do, however, know well that, in so many different and important ways, his Torah was a Torah of inclusion, the very opposite of a traditional Judaism that would criminalize those who dared to challenge the status quo. The “Hartman way” was to do everything in its power- to push the envelope to its outer limits- to find a way to make women feel fully empowered within the structures of Jewish law. It was about being unafraid to create new norms, to fashion new styles of worship for those who called themselves traditional yet sought different ways to define it. And most of all, it was about presenting the life of Torah as the way of love and fellowship– not of handcuffs and interrogation. It was about heart, mind and soul, not arrests.

There are clear and unambiguous signs that, as regards its policies about religion and state and the power of the ultra-Orthodox to shape policy for the country as a whole, Israel is changing. The fact that Yair Lapid, a relative newcomer to politics who campaigned so outspokenly about drafting Haredi men into national service, introducing civil marriage into Israeli society, and ending what he himself referred to as the stranglehold of the ultra-Orthodox on religious life in Israel, received enough votes to earn nineteen seats in the new Knesset, is simply too powerful a sign to ignore. Obviously, there are a great many Israelis who are anxious to see things change. The status quo, help up for so long as the basis on which Israeli society depends for its stability, may well be evolving into something very different from what it has been. And Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party, while certainly right of center on matters relating to Israeli settlements, is also open to changes in the religious status quo.

That there is change in the air in Israel is undeniable. The question is not if, but when, and that remains a very large question indeed. Any one who knows the nature of governmental coalition negotiations in Israel must surely believe that, in the quest for power, those who are in a position to bargain have relatively few core principles that they wouldn’t bargain away for the sake of access to power, and all that goes with it. This is the question that I find myself asking these days, to myself and to anyone who will listen: What are the political heavyweights in Israel willing to compromise on? What campaign promises are not quite as sacrosanct as they appeared to be, and might be cast aside for the right Cabinet portfolio? We who care about the religious pluralism issue have been down this road before, many times, and we have learned the hard way how very disappointing the bitterness of failed promises can be. This is not the first time there have been promising signs, and pronouncements.

But then again, I simply cannot read Yair Lapid’s remarkable electoral achievement as anything other than the clarion call of a changing electorate. Maybe- just maybe- Israel’s voters have woken up to the fact that the religious status quo isn’t just a sad and unfortunate thing for the Women of the Wall and those who sympathize with them. Maybe- just maybe- more of Israel’s voters are coming to terms with a much more difficult truth. The nature of religion and state as it currently stands in Israel is, in the long run, as great if not a greater threat to Israel’s viability and security than Egypt and Syria are. We cannot afford to be our own worst enemy; there are too many enemies with guns all around.

Change is indeed in the air…. Will the real leaders stand up and embrace it?

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.