Women of the Wall

Manning up at the Kotel by Rabbi Daniel Landes

Originally posted on Times of Israel blogs:
http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/manning-up-at-the-kotel/

Rabbi Daniel Landes

The latest escalation in the attacks upon women praying as a group at the Kotel on the second day of Rosh Hodesh Adar is as remarkable as it is perverse. Senior rabbinic figures summoned hundreds of dati leumi (religious Zionist) teenage young women from their high schools to the Wall to protect its sanctity from women performing a religious act of quiet devotion.

I don’t think this has been done before in the religious Zionist world, to set women against women, by drowning out the voice of the prayer group with their own. In the laws of prayer, we have a principle that shtai kolot lo mishtamei – 2 voices can’t be heard so that a prayer leader must be of one voice. Applied here, we can be astonished at the implication that God will hear only the protesting, bused in girls’ voices. Are not their voices also drowned out by din and roar of their own opposition?

The perversity is of course deeper. This is the month in which we follow the story of Esther who emerged to save all Jews and began with calling upon all to fast and pray. Esther is classically celebrated as performing all her daring do with great tzniut (modesty). And I’m sure that is how these young women certainly have been raised and taught. Tzniut is always understood as going beyond the notions of what body parts are to be concealed. It is an all-encompassing stance, in which one does not put themselves first or shine a light upon their own performance. No Jewish ethical system can condone this mad Purim inversion of tzniut to mean infringing upon other women’s space to intimidate, shame, or frighten. And tzniut education has never meant to cause hatred. Senior rabbinic figures who ordered these girls to perform shamelessly do not allow the same girls to costume themselves as men for Purim fun. By what right do they order their students to don “manly” garb to attack women at prayer? Shame!

And the men leading the whistles and jeers at the women at prayer, way beyond the noise they create upon hearing the name “Haman” during the Megilah reading? Aren’t they commanded with the same tzniut? Of course, and every yeshiva curriculum teaches that quality intensively. I suppose they are more interested in the quality of their gevurah (heroism). But they really need to think about this. Jewish male heroism is expressed in several ways, especially: learning intensively, working and supporting a family, defending our country in battle. If they are bothered by women praying as a group then let them go back to the Beit Midrash, join the army, or go to school and get a job. Or all of the above. At the least they should consider the fourth definition, as found in the teachings of the Rabbis: “Whoso is a Gibor (hero)? One who conquers his passion,” and recognize the not so latent sexual obsession revealed by their violent responses to women.

As an Orthodox Jew, I have prayed individually and in a minyan in a wide variety of locations – valleys and hilltops; on a New York subway car headed to Brooklyn, in which someone needed to say Kaddish; resolutely seated during Kedushah in an El Al seat even though the other 9 wanted me to stand (but our teacher the late Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach maintained that one should not stand and inconvenience the other passengers and staff). I have prayed in a few Young Israels with record ear shattering decibel chattering. All Orthodox Jews, and others, have the know-how – keep your eye on the text, and your heart fixed on God. So, young, religious Zionist women, you know better than to let your teachers force you to act in a non-tzniut fashion like bratty boys. And young men, if disturbed by the women, just calmly walk away. You don’t really want to throw a hissy fit, now do you?

RRFEI Analysis: A new twist in the unfolding Kotel saga

Leading archaeologists insistently weigh in against the Government’s Western Wall agreement

This week witnessed a new twist in the unfolding Kotel saga.

At the initiative of leading Israeli archaeologists that approached a ready and willing Knesset committee chair, a public hearing was held regarding the Kotel agreement from an archaeological perspective [LINK]. Early on, we assessed that the archaeological angle could indeed develop as a significant challenge to the implementation of the Kotel compromise [LINK].

While there is no consensus among archaeologists as to the extent of the potential damage that implementation would cause to this singularly precious historic site, among the opponents one may find some of Israel’s leading archaeologists. They come to the issue without religious malice, but at the same time express a strong rejection of the compromise, based on objective scientific and historical concerns. When such opponents turned to a typical ultra-Orthodox opponent to the compromise who does indeed bear religious malice towards both the Women of the Wall and the Reform and Conservative movements (and happens to chair the Knesset Education Committee [LINK], whose turf includes archaeological matters) there is little wonder that their plea is met with a full court welcome; and the deliberations of the committee result with a public appeal to the Reform and Conservative movements and the Women of the Wall.

Two additional interesting elements of the meeting are worth mentioning.

  1. Anat Hoffman, leader of Women of the Wall, participated in the deliberation, and she responded to the archaeologists’ plea, saying: “we never wanted this, and we said so.”
  2. While the opposing archaeologists put forth a weighty challenge to the agreement, another senior archaeologist said that he did not share the all-out assault upon the agreement, but rather pointed to the potential to maintain a proper balance between archaeological value and the current needs of worshippers, indicating that the agreement can be regarded as meeting that necessary balance.

None of this is surprising, and it indicates that there is yet a turbulent path forward, in which significant circles that come from outside the pluralism debate insistently weigh in, and they play into the hands of those who never wanted to see the site turned over to the Women of the Wall and the non-Orthodox movements. At the same time, given the impediments put in the agreement’s path, this may serve as a basis for giving greater credence to the new front opened by the non-Orthodox movements, reflecting the wishes of the Women of the Wall. Namely, moving the eye of the storm back to the traditional Western Wall plaza, rather than the Robinson’s Arch section.

Updates on the Kotel agreement and the Supreme Court’s ruling on access to Israel’s public mikva’ot

The platform for egalitarian prayer at Robinson's Arch, under fire

The platform for egalitarian prayer at Robinson’s Arch, under fire

Since last week’s bulletin, there have been a number of developments in the ultra-Orthodox political and rabbinical leadership’s battle against the implementation of the Kotel agreement, as well as their battle against the Supreme Court’s ruling to make Israel’s public mikva’ot available for non-Orthodox conversion ceremonies.

These developments reflect, in essence, an escalation in anti-Reform rhetoric and the pressure faced by Haredi politicians to withdraw their unspoken consent to the framework of the Kotel agreement. Thus, due to these increasing tensions, Israel’s political system is being pulled in opposite directions – torn between the demands of the ultra-Orthodox politicians and the consequences of reneging on the Government’s agreement with the non-Orthodox streams and Women of the Wall, not to mention reversing the Supreme Court’s ruling by legislative action.

RRFEI aims to deepen our members’ understandings of current events, and answer all of your questions and requests for additional background materials. In the meantime, we note the following developments since last week’s bulletin:


THE MIKVAH BILL

  1. Following the Cabinet’s decision to support MK Gafni’s (and co.’s) mikvah bill, it passed its preliminary Knesset reading last Tuesday (as is required for all privately proposed bills), with 42 MKs voting for it and 38 voting against.The list of MKs who voted for and against the bill can be found here. Oddly, Yair Lapid, Chairman of ‘Yesh Atid,’ voted for the bill. He explained that his vote was a mistake.
  2. Last week, we noted some of the harsh and base statements made by Haredi MKs and ministers against Reform Judaism. Such statements continued during the Knesset debate, and included Minister of Religious Services David Azoulay’s (Shas) admonition that “Whoever does not accept the Torah’s (Divine) authority, and tramples the mitzvot, cannot claim to represent religion in Israel… It is their right to have ceremonies and all the folklore they want, but Judaism is not theater one drives to for mere enjoyment. Just as a witch doctor would not be allowed near a hospital in the capacity of a doctor, so too these entities should not be allowed near the Torah of Israel.“In the past, Minister Azoulay also proclaimed that he has difficulty accepting Reform Jews as Jews (for which PM Netanyahu scolded him). It is important to note that his are not simply the statements of a private individual, but rather those of a Minister charged with providing religious services to all Jews in Israel. Doubtless, Azoulay’s repeated declarations are aimed at all of non-Orthodox Jewish society around the world. This truly underscores the need for world Jewry to not remain passive in the face of Israeli ministers who curse it publicly on the Knesset floor, while the Prime Minister sits by and does nothing to make good on his promise to ensure that all Jews of all streams will feel at home in Israel.
  3. This Sunday, it was made public that the new Attorney General has made it clear to the government that this bill is unconstitutional, and violates the principles of religious freedom in a way that cannot withstand judicial review. There is doubt that the last word has not been said in this saga, and we expect new developments in the coming days, as the Haredi parties attempt to deal with this new front in the battle.


THE KOTEL AGREEMENT

  1. The pressure on the ultra-Orthodox politicians to withdraw their unspoken support for the Kotel agreement, which they voted against knowing that it would easily be approved by the government, is increasing. As a result, Minister Deri (Shas) and Rabbi Shalom Cohen (Head of the Shas Council of Torah Sages) have demanded that the agreement be nullified (even though they had approved of it in the past), lest Shas leave the coalition and overthrow the government. “It is not acceptable that the government makes these kinds of decisions,” said Deri. “We won’t sit in a government that recognizes the Reform, not over the Western Wall, not for marriage, and not for divorce.”
  2. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, Rabbi of the Western Wall, also changed his position, petitioning the Haredi political parties to void the agreement. Rabbi Rabinovitch had led the negotiations and approved the agreement, but his views are also becoming radicalized under the pressure.
  3. On the legal front, supporters of the agreement face another problem, for the High Court has ordered the government to respond to the “Original Women of the Wall’s” petition submitted by the Center for Women’s Justice (Attorney Susan Weiss). The government now has 12 days to explain why women are denied their right to read from Torah scrolls at the Western Wall, as of March 14, 2016.
  4. The Women of the Wall intend to expand their operations, and, for the first time, conduct a women’s “Priestly blessing” ceremony at the Western Wall during Passover. Their declared intent has been met with harsh reprimands from the Western Wall rabbi and his associates, further heightening tensions.

RRFEI response to the Western Wall compromise agreement

  • The agreement is described in Hebrew here: [link], and in English here: [link]

RRFEI gives great credit to the Reform movement and Conservative movements, and the Women of the Wall for making the painful sacrifice of giving up their demands of being allowed to hold egalitarian prayer services and women’s minyanim at the traditional Western Wall plaza. While a section of the Wall, which hitherto functioned as an archaeological garden, and had never operated under the dictates of the Orthodox rabbinic establishment, has now been designated as a pluralistic prayer space, it must be underscored that this compromise stipulates that the main Western Wall prayer plaza will officially remain under ultra-Orthodox authority.

Most positive, from RRFEI’s perspective is that the vast majority of world Jewry, the liberal streams, will, at long last, possess an official area in which to pray according to the customs and theology of the modern Jewish world.

However, RRFEI remains concerned that in recent months, Prime Minister Netanyahu has sent very mixed messages regarding the equal status of the non-Orthodox streams in Israel – one for external consumption, abroad, and one for domestic Israeli policy. When Netanyahu speaks with leaders of the Diaspora Jewish community, he voices his support for equality, while the persistent discrimination and denial of key religious freedoms and equality within Israel only continues to degrade. The Ministry of Education’s recent, public freezing of funds designated in the State budget for Jewish renewal, intended for non-Orthodox and secular educational initiatives, serves as a clear reminder of this.

The Western Wall compromise, which requires no substantial concession on the part of the ultra-Orthodox, only further highlights the willingness of PM Netanyahu to trade away the core values of religious freedom and equality, in exchange for the religious parties’ votes, necessary to keep him and his party in power. Therefore, we fear that the Western Wall agreement will simply be used as a smokescreen, aimed at convincing Diaspora Jewry that this represents the implementation of the PM’s promise to ensure that every Jew will feel at home in Israel, while in truth it avoids addressing the real issues that impact the lives and dignities of so many Israeli and Diaspora Jews. So, as welcomed as the Kotel compromise is, it must not distract world Jewry from the need for dramatic changes in Israel in such critical arenas as freedom of marriage and divorce, Who is a Jew, and state-sanctioned, religiously-based gender discrimination.