Punditry With Prudence

“According to you,” a reader wrote me privately about a recent column that appeared in this space, “we can’t make any conclusions, because of the unknowns.”

The column, titled “Unknown Unknowns,” pointed out how, particularly in political affairs (like the current American administration’s relationship with Israel) we don’t always have the whole picture.  I noted as an example, how, at the very same time that many Jewish media were attacking President Obama for his ostensible hostility toward Israel, the president was determinedly working hand in glove with Israel in a secret cyber-project to undermine the Iranian nuclear program. As pundits huffed and puffed, Stuxnet was silently destroying centrifuges.

The reader was chagrined that I, as he read it, was counseling a moratorium on commentary about all political affairs.  I wrote back to explain that no, I didn’t mean that at all.  We can, and even should, express our concerns openly in the free country in which we’re privileged to live. But we must do so with reason and civility (maybe even fairness), not the sort of ranting that passes for dialectic on talk radio these days. I meant only (and perhaps should have written more clearly) that a degree of modesty when voicing our assumptions and opinions is in order, and is all too often in absentia.

Serendipitously, shortly after I wrote the piece, a bit of news arrived that well illustrated its point.

Back at the start of 2013, when Chuck Hagel was nominated to serve as Secretary of Defense, the reaction from various corners, including some in our community, ranged from deeply suspicious to apoplectic.  Several artless statements Mr. Hagel had made were fanned into four-alarm fires; taken in the worst possible way, they were waved around as evidence of the man’s disdain for Israel.  (That his nomination was made by the man in the White House made things, to the alarmists, even more distressing.

Elliott Abrams labelled Mr. Hagel an anti-Semite.  Abe Foxman insinuated that the nominee believed that the “the Jewish lobby controls foreign policy.” Charles Krauthammer blasted the new Defense Secretary for “pernicious blindness” when it came to Israel.  Magazines, newspapers and pundits in our own community readily hopped on the berating-bandwagon – and looked with pity (at best) upon those of us who, weighing the evidence objectively, just couldn’t work up a good panic.

Fast-forward to several weeks ago, when Mr. Hagel’s retirement was announced.  Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who had no reason to say anything at all about the transition, took the initiative to describe Mr. Hagel as a “true friend of Israel” whose “dedication to ensuring Israel’s security has been unwavering.”

“It is a real shame Hagel is leaving – he was great with us,” another Israeli official told Israeli reporter Barak Ravid.  Reporter Udi Sagal wrote that Hagel’s departure is “is bad news for Israel,” citing Hagel’s close personal relationship with Israel’s Defense Ministry.

The Jerusalem Post, no slouch when it comes to Israel’s security concerns, editorialized that Mr. Hagel “proved to be highly supportive of Israel” and imagined (likely unrealistically) that “some of the organizations that originally attacked Hagel quite viciously must now be embarrassed by their behavior.”

At least one erstwhile critic, Mr. Foxman, to his credit, seemed to come around to the realization that his fears had proven unfounded.  “Secretary Hagel’s energetic stewardship of America’s commitment to Israel’s security in a dangerous region,” he said, “has been vital.”

“His hands-on engagement,” the ADL leader added, “to ensure that our ally Israel can live in safety and security and maintain its rightful place in the community of nations will have a lasting impact.”

Yes, we can wax critical of political leaders.  But before we call them Israel-haters (and certainly Jew-haters), before we dump gobs of cynicism on their heads, or accuse them of flouting the law or the Constitution (when no court has rendered any such judgment), or pronounce them traitorous or stupid or evil, we need to pause, take a deep breath, remember a few things.  That there are at least two reasonable perspectives on most issues.  That there are things we can’t know with certitude.  And that, as Shlomo HaMelech observed and taught, “the words of the wise are heard” only when expressed “in calm” (Koheles 9:17).

The state of Israel, and Klal Yisrael, have all too many all too real enemies in today’s world.  We really don’t do ourselves any favor imagining, or, chalilah, creating, new ones.

© 2014 Hamodia

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A Halachic Query of Jordanian King Abdullah II

Dear King Abdullah,

I’m quite sure you don’t remember me.  I was part of a sizable group of Jewish leaders, clergy, politicians and organizational representatives whom you, along with the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution, invited to a gala lunch in a posh Manhattan hotel nine years ago.

To jog your memory, though, I was the fellow with the beard and black hat, and whose lips you may have noticed quietly moving when you entered the room.  I was reciting a Jewish blessing that is to be pronounced when one sees a king.  It goes “Blessed are You, G-d, Who has given of His glory to flesh and blood.”  It is, for obvious reasons, not a common blessing to make, and I was happy to have the occasion to invoke it.

I remember well your address to the crowd.  Its essence was your hope that Jews and Muslims might be able, despite political differences, to attain respect for each other’s religious beliefs.  Your message was a vision, of a human race unified by its members’ recognition of the worth and dignity of one another.  We, you may remember, applauded loudly and enthusiastically.

We learned, too, about how you had undertaken a brave and visionary mission: to marginalize Muslim extremism of the sort that continues to plague the civilized world.  You recounted how you had organized a conference of respected religious leaders from all the major schools of Islam to endorse a document that explicitly asserts the responsibility of Muslims to honor “every human being, without distinction of color, race or religion” and to “shun violence and cruelty.”  That last phrase particularly has stayed with me, and I recalled it recently.

It was when two Palestinian men, as you surely know, entered a synagogue in western Jerusalem where Jewish men were engrossed in prayer, and mercilessly hacked or shot four of them to death.  The attackers killed a police officer who rushed to the scene as well. And as they engaged in their slaughter of innocents, they shouted a declaration of Islamic faith, as so many murderers of Jews have done over recent years, months and weeks.  Eventually, police shot and killed the rampaging killers.

Your Parliament’s reaction to this rather striking example of religious “violence and cruelty,” to borrow your phrase, was to observe a moment of silence, in memory… not of the victims but of their murderers.  Verses from the Koran (“to glorify their pure souls,” a member of your Parliament helpfully explained) introduced the memorial moment.

Shortly thereafter, according to published reports, your Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour sent a condolence letter to the families of the murderers.

And then, in a broadcast interview, a member of your Parliament, Rudaina Ati, praised “the [Jerusalem synagogue] operation” for sending “a clear message to the Zionist entity…”; and called on Arabs to use violence to “liberate Palestine from the colonialist Jews,” the “filthy Jews [who live] on the land of Palestine.”

All of which leads me to my question.  According to Halacha, or Jewish religious law, the blessing that I pronounced when I saw you nine years ago is only proper and only permitted when the monarch one sees has true monarchial power over his subjects, when he is someone whose subjects would not dare stand up in violation of their king’s decrees or initiatives.

The utterance of a Jewish blessing, moreover, which includes G-d’s name, is considered by Halacha to be a very serious matter.  One may not pronounce a blessing unless it is truly required.  Otherwise it remains a bracha livatalah, a “pointless blessing.”

I have many sins to confess to my Maker, and indeed I recite a confessional prayer daily.  My question to you is whether I should include in my confession the sin, even if it was committed unintentionally, of having uttered a bracha livatalah when I saw you nine years ago.

Thank you in advance for your response.

A. Shafran

© 2014 Hamodia

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Unknown Unknowns

Should you ever find yourself in an ornate, high-ceilinged room with a military-uniformed classical string ensemble segueing from a flawless rendition of a Bach concerto to an equally impressive (if less inspiring) version of “I Have a Little Dreidel,” it can only mean one thing: you’re at a White House Chanukah party.

I know, because during the George W. Bush administration, on behalf of Agudath Israel, I attended several of the yearly gatherings, which brought together assorted Jewish personalities, politicians and organizational representatives. One of the times when my wife didn’t accompany me, a major supporter of Agudath Israel was my guest.

I discovered then (aside from the fact that nothing compares to home-made potato latkes) that Mr. Bush is a mentch.

As we stood in the long line for the ritual photo-op with the president and first lady, my guest asked me if I minded if he alone stood next to the first couple for the photo.  Having already garnered the souvenir before (along with a presidential seal paper hand-towel from the White House restroom, now hanging on our own bathroom wall), I didn’t.  And so, when it was our turn, I stepped back to allow my guest to pose unaccompanied with the First Couple.  Mr. Bush motioned to me with a broad smile to join the photo.  I explained that I wanted my guest alone to be in the picture.

The president allowed the photographer to snap the photo but then, breaking assembly line photo op etiquette, insisted that a second photo be taken with me in it.  “Why shouldn’t you get a turn?” Mr. Bush asked.  I was a little embarrassed but, of course, heeded the Commander in Chief’s order.

Mr. Bush’s mentchlichkeit has been on more public display many times, most recently, during a Fox News interview.  The interviewer reminded Mr. Bush of his 2007 warning that withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq could be disastrous, and asked if he had criticism of President Obama for doing precisely that two years later.

“I’m not going to second-guess our president,” Mr. Bush said. “I understand how tough the job is. And to have a former president, you know, bloviating and second-guessing is, I don’t think, good for the presidency or the country.”

Mr. Bush wasn’t just being perfunctorily polite.  Having “been there,” he knows that there are factors that go into a presidential decision to which the citizenry is blissfully oblivious – and that, in the end good outcomes can only be hoped for, not prophesied.

A decision Mr. Bush made during his tenure was to authorize the secret creation of the Stuxnet computer virus, designed to infect and wreak havoc on Iran’s main nuclear enrichment facilities. When Mr. Bush left office, President Obama accelerated the clandestine program, ordering increasingly sophisticated attacks on the computer systems at the Natanz plant.

In 2010, the plant was hit by a new version of the worm, widely regarded as having been designed by American and Israel cyber experts working together, and then another one after that. Nearly 1,000 Iranian uranium-purifying centrifuges were disabled. The virus continued to hamper other Iranian facilities through the end of 2012

During that same period, many media were brimming with indignation over Mr. Obama’s not having yet visited Israel as president; trumpeting charges that cooperation between Israel and the U.S. was at its lowest point in decades; bubbling with outrage over Mr. Obama’s opposition to Israeli construction in the West Bank; and castigating the president for mentioning Israel’s 1967 borders as a starting point (“with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established…”) for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

And yet, behind the scenes, unknown and unsuspected by all the righteously irate, Mr. Obama was pursuing a joint program with Israel to undermine the Iranian threat to her security.

Ex-President Bush is both wise enough and modest enough to know that even those who once sat in the Oval Office are not privy to all that’s happening at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Kal v’chomer, the rest of us.

Predictably, though, in anticipation of news about a nuclear development deal with Iran, or of an extension of negotiations (this is being written before the deal-deadline), the usual suspects are cleaning their BB guns, ready to take their potshots at the president.  But the wiser among us do well to remind ourselves that we don’t know all there is to know, to not “bloviate and second-guess” the current president.  We could learn a little wisdom and humility from the forty-third.

© 2014 Hamodia

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Only One Path to One Jewish People

In Haaretz, Reform Rabbi Eric H, Yoffie, past president of the Union for Reform Judaism, conceded the main point of a recent piece I wrote for that paper – that there cannot be an American-style church-state divide in Israel.  He takes issue, though, with my claim, which he labels “outrageous,” that the haredi community seeks only to preserve the religious status quo ante established at the founding of the Jewish state.  Much has changed, he argues, demographically since then.

I did not, however, assert that demographics haven’t changed, a self-evident falsehood.   The status quo ante I cited is the legal/social agreement reached between David Ben-Gurion and the haredi community (Agudath Israel at its head) shortly before the state’s birth (along with other norms put in place shortly thereafter).

Yes, as Rabbi Yoffie points out, Ben-Gurion probably couldn’t know that the haredi community would grow to the point where it represents a sizable portion of the Israeli populace; and Israel’s first Prime Minister indeed likely hoped for a Hertzlian “Jewish culture rooted in atheism, socialism, and Biblical teachings.”  And yes, that didn’t happen.  (Whether Ben-Gurion’s spirit presently is perturbed or pleased by the current state of affairs is unknown.)  But the fact remains that all the clashes between “progressive” forces in Israel and the state’s haredi community have seen the former agitating for change, and the latter trying to maintain the balance struck at Israel’s birth.

Rabbi Yoffie is welcome to assert that changed demographics argue for a change in the status quo ante.  But he must admit that abandoning the modus vivendi of decades is what he, not the haredi community, wants to effect.

Intriguingly, Rabbi Yoffie himself explains that there has always been an assumption “that the nature of Israel’s Jewish character would evolve over time.”  Well, yes.  Israel’s populace and hence religious identity have become more haredi. What seems to bother the rabbi is that the particulars of the evolution have yielded a different result from the one he would have wished for.

Yet – and this was precisely my point – despite the great growth of the haredi community, it has not sought to in any way change the agreed-upon understandings that, for instance, full-time Torah-students be deferred from military service, that public prayers at the Western Wall be conducted according to long-standing Jewish tradition (a norm established, of course, in 1967, not 1948) and that a halacha-respecting official rabbinate determine issues of Jewish personal status.

Those things, according to Rabbi Yoffie, constitute a religious “coercive… religious monopoly.”  Unlike England, he explains, where “legal recognition” is assured not only for the Church of England but for “other religious faiths,” in Israel, Reform and Conservative conversions and marriages are not recognized by the state Rabbinate.

What Rabbi Yoffie overlooks is that, as Ben-Gurion himself said in 1947, a multitude of “Judaisms” in a state that aspires to be a Jewish one is a recipe for disaster.  Were there several standards for, say, conversion, then what would emerge in short order would be several “Jewish peoples” in the land.

Israel, too, of course, offers “legal recognition” to “other religious faiths.”  Presumably, though, the Reform movement isn’t interested in registering as a new religion.  If, however, there is to be only one Jewish people in Israel, there needs to be only one Jewish standard there.  And, to be meaningful, it must be the “highest common denominator” whose decisions can be (if begrudgingly to some) accepted by all Jews

Ben-Gurion realized that fact, and it is recognized today, too, not only by Israel’s haredi and national religious communities but by the large number of “traditional” Jewish Israelis, who, while not strictly observant, understand and accept that halacha defines Judaism.

“Follow the path of Herzl,” admonishes Rabbi Yoffie.  What alone can preserve the unity of the Jewish people in Israel, though, is the path of Moses.

© 2014 Rabbi Avi Shafran

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Strong and Subtle Slanders

The New York Jewish Week was understandably unhappy at the comparison that a respected Modern Orthodox rabbi seemed to make between the paper and the rabid Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer, which, from1923 until 1945, incited Germans with lurid fictions about Jews.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Yeshurun, the largest Orthodox synagogue in Teaneck, NJ, recently stepped down from the Beit Din of Bergen County he led for seven years, mainly, he wrote, because of “the negativity associated today with conversion, and the cynicism and distrust fostered by so many…towards the rabbinate.”

Rabbi Pruzansky, a member of the executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, was also critical of a decision made by that latter organization to appoint a new conversion committee that will include several non-rabbinical members in addition to five rabbis.  He expressed concern that the new committee may “water down the standards” for conversion and potentially lead to a return to “the old days of quickie conversions with little commitment.”

When the Jewish Week contacted him to elaborate, he declined to speak to its reporter, asserting that the paper is “one of the leading publications in the world of Orthodox-bashing and rabbi-bashing.”  And then he referenced Der Stürmer as another paper “that dealt a lot with Jews,” drolly adding that the latter periodical is “bad company to be in.”

The Jewish Week editorialized that the invocation of the Nazi publication was “outrageous,” leading Rabbi Pruzansky to subsequently write that he intended “no comparison” between the two publications, and that he “certainly regret[s] if [the Jewish Week] misconstrued my comment and anyone offended took offense…”

Whether the Jewish Week has accepted that apology isn’t known to me.  But one hopes that the paper’s umbrage won’t obscure what it was that so exasperated a genteel, intelligent Modern Orthodox rabbi that he would invoke, however rashly, a noxiously anti-Semitic tabloid.

The Jewish Week, after all, has never featured lurid fabrications about Orthodox Jews killing children to drink their blood, or offered gross caricatures of bearded, hook-nosed, slobbering rabbis in its pages.

But if the paper’s editor and reporters are interested in turning an insult into a learning moment, they might pause to consider the fact that subtle innuendo and generalizations can be even more powerful than gross, horrific fabrications.

Contemporary counterparts to Der Stürmer are rife in some Arab and Muslim sites (the word used in both its old and newer meanings).  And there are surely hateful simpletons who, as many Germans did during the Holocaust, accept the risible slanders against Jews those evil media serve up.  But don’t we all recognize that a greater danger may be posed by mannerly and reasoned “critiques” of Jews (or Israel, as a stand-in) that more subtly communicate slanders?

The Jewish Week cannot, unfortunately, so easily huff away charges of that sort of more delicate, oblique defamation.

It is a paper, after all, that, while it harbors some fine, unbiased columnists in its stable, has evidenced an inordinate amount of negative “reportage” about Orthodox Jews, largely charedim, and their institutions; and even seems to have assigned a reporter the beat of real or imagined scandals in the Orthodox community.  A reporter, it might be noted, who wrote a book that portrays communities like those in Borough Park and Williamsburg as small-minded, constricting, suffocating environments, and has characterized Orthodoxy, in the eyes of Jews she admires, as having “become little more than social control.”

The paper’s pages have included an assertion that “Some Orthodox label secular Jews Amalek”; a report about violent nationalist extremists in Israel that featured a large photograph of Har HaBayis in the background and a looming, ominous silhouette of a charedi man’s head in the foreground; a blatantly false assertion that a major charedi group “is opposed to… background check legislation” for Jewish schools.  It has, moreover, repeatedly portrayed a decidedly non-Orthodox Jewish congregation as Orthodox (in order to promote certain “innovations” as halachically acceptable).

There is also the disturbing but telling fact that, despite the abundance of top-notch writers in the contemporary traditional Orthodox world today and the unparalleled growth of the Orthodox community, the Jewish Week, which claims to represent the gamut of the Jewish world, does not feature, and never has featured, any charedi columnist.

So, rather than sleep tightly after taking its righteous offense at an intemperate comment, the Jewish Week’s editor and staff might do well to stay up a bit longer, to wonder at what evoked the rash comment, and to do some serious introspection.

An edited version of the above appeared this week in Hamodia

 

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Agudath Israel Statement on the Massacre in Har Nof

This morning’s barbaric murder in Har Nof, Jerusalem of four Jews has left all caring people reeling – the tears are pouring this morning and our hearts are full of pain.

This vicious attack on people wearing tallis and tefillin and immersed in tefilla is ugly testimony to the depth of evil faced by Jews in Israel and the world over, in the form of brutal terrorists who revel in the killing of innocents.

The celebration of the murders in Gaza and elsewhere reiterates the despicable nature of those who wish the Holy Land to be Judenrein.

When cold-blooded murderers attack a makom Torah u’tefila in the Eretz Ha’kodesh, it is incumbent upon all of us to strengthen ourselves in Torah and tefila on behalf of our dear brethren in the Eretz Ha’kodesh. Imahem anachnu b’tzara.

We are mispallel that those who were injured in this brutal attack have a refuah shlaimah.

Our hearts go out to the families, particularly the almanos and the 26 innocent yesomim who lost their fathers – true kedoshim, holy men killed because they were Jews, who died with Jewish prayers on their lips.

May the families of the murdered, Rabbi Moshe Twersky, hy”d, Rabbi Kalman Levine, hy”d; Rabbi Aryeh Kupinsky, hy”d, and Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, hy”d, be comforted amid the mourners of Tzion v’Yrushalayim.

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Status (Quo) Update

ITEM: In the wake of the shooting in Jerusalem of political activist Yehuda Glick, allegedly by an Islamic Jihad member who was killed by police after he fired at them, and the subsequent closing of the mosque on Har HaBayis to Muslim worshippers for several hours, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to maintain the “status quo” at the site.

ITEM: Mr. Netanyahu insisted that Israel is indeed “determined to maintain the status quo” at the holy site.

Status Quo: A Latin phrase meaning the existing state of affairs.  The related phrase often intended by “status quo” is status quo ante, or, “the state of affairs that existed previously.”

It is unfortunate, in fact tragic, that a mosque occupies the site where the Beis Hamikdash stood and will one day stand again.  But the state of Israel respects the understandable 1967 decision of then Prime Minister Levi Eshkol after the Six Day War, when Yerushalayim was reunited, to cede control of access to Har HaBayis to Jerusalem’s Islamic Waqf, or religious trust. Even to the point of prohibiting Jewish prayer on the site, in seeming violation of at least the spirit of the state’s “Preservation of the Holy Places Law” enacted that same year.

All of which should be a pointed reminder that, the state of Israel notwithstanding, we clearly remain in galus.  But there is no practical issue here, as the recognized poskei hador have made clear that it is halachically forbidden for a Jew to ascend to the Har Habayis.

What’s interesting, however, is Mr. Netanyahu’s declared respect for the status quo.

Because he only recently succumbed to pressure brought to bear by ministers Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid and Avigdor Lieberman and lent his support to the conversion bill passed by his cabinet.  That enactment will permit municipal rabbis to hold special conversion courts, allowing for multiple conversion standards and potentially creating a class of tens of thousands of Israelis who are recognized as Jewish by the state but whose conversions did not meet accepted halachic requirements.

Rabbi Seth Farber, a conversion liberalization activist, hailed the enactment as “the first major reform in religion and state that has the potential to fundamentally change the status quo in Israel.”  Indeed.

Then there is the “Equal Burden of Service” law, which, earlier this year, ended exemptions for charedi yeshiva students from military service, exploding another status quo that has existed since the founding of Israel.

More recently, a feminist group has insisted that it be permitted to publicly and vocally hold its “progressive” services, which greatly offend Orthodox Jews, at the Kosel plaza.  The group’s members were given an area in front of another part of the Kosel for their “non-traditional” services.  But they insist on changing the… status quo at the Kosel.

A few years ago I had the privilege of addressing the issue of “Jewish Pluralism” in Israel before general (mostly Jewish but decidedly non-Orthodox) audiences on two university campuses.  One point I made was that, contrary to many people’s assumption, none of the socioreligious conflicts in Israel have been engendered by the country’s religious populace.  All were initiated by people seeking to change the status quo that has served Israel well since its inception by maintaining a modus vivendi among its religious, traditional and secular citizens.

Some of the listeners seemed surprised to be confronted by that fact, despite its obvious truth.   They had been fed so steady a diet of rhetoric about “creeping haredization” and “religious coercion” that they hadn’t noticed that it was junk food.

Pretty much whatever the religious/secular crisis du jour may be – images on buses in Meah Shearim, the closure of streets in religious neighborhoods, allotment of government funding for the institutions of new “Judaisms” – the conflict has been produced by those intent on changing things, not those committed to preserving them.

There is nothing necessarily or inherently bad, of course, about change, at least responsible change.  But making changes in time-honored agreements and undertakings, especially at the expense of upsetting longstanding accommodations, offending in the process large numbers of heartfelt Jews and doing violence to amity and good will is, well, as Mr. Netanyahu intimated with regard to the Har HaBayis, deeply unwise.

And so, the question practically shouts itself from the rooftops of Yerushalayim: Why is the ideal of maintaining peace and harmony by preserving the status quo sufficiently sublime to apply to the Muslim world, but not to the Jewish one?

© 2014 Hamodia

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Sefer Torah Abuse

We rend our garments if a sefer Torah is, chalilah, desecrated.  If one should fall to the ground, it is customary for those present to undertake to fast that day.  I don’t know what the proper reaction is to seeing a sefer Torah employed as a prop in the service of a social cause, but a recent such exploitation made my heart hurt.

The exploiters, for their part, were jubilant.  Members of the feminist group “Women of the Wall,” they had obtained a sefer Torah small enough to smuggle into the Kosel Maaravi plaza, where they proceeded to hold a “bat-mitzvah” ceremony, complete with a woman reading from the Torah and the 12-year-old reciting birchas haTorah.

“Today we made history for women @ Kotel,” the group announced on social media.  “We must recreate this victory each month with great opposition.”

The latter phrase may have been incoherent, but the sentiment was clear.  By flouting the Jewish mesorah (and current Kosel regulations) and by evading the Israeli police, the intrepid women had, at least in their own minds, scored points for their team.

For more than three decades, the Kotel has been a place – perhaps the only one in the world – where Jews of all affiliations and persuasions have regularly prayed side by side.  What has allowed for that minor miracle has been the maintenance of a standard at the holy site that all Jews can abide.

Last year, to maintain that uniqueness, Women of the Wall was assigned an area in front of part of the Kosel, Robinson’s Arch (or Ezras Yisrael), for their “non-traditional” services.  But the feminist group’s leader, Anat Hoffman, blithely dismissed that equally holy area as a “sunbathing deck.”  With its recent incursion into the main Kosel plaza, the group has made it clear that it has no interest in avoiding offense, but rather, on the contrary, is committed to being “in the face” of the vast majority of regular visitors to the Kosel for tefillah, whom it views as the enemy.

Part of the recent verbal victory dance was performed by Women of the Wall’s Executive Director, Lesley Sachs, who seized upon the fact that the small scroll, which she said was 200 years old, had likely been written to avoid its seizure by enemies of Jews.  “This time,” she explained, it was used to avoid “Jews imposing restrictions on Jews.”  That would be the Rav of the Kosel, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, and those who, like him, wish for the standards of Jewish tradition to mediate public services at the Kosel.

It wasn’t only the sefer Torah that was conscripted for the cause.  So was the bat-mitzvah girl.

The daughter of an immigrant from Russia, she was one of four whose images appeared in recent bus ads in Yerushalayim that were part of Women of the Wall’s campaign to hold such ceremonies at the Kosel.  The Hebrew text of one, featuring a young girl in a tallis and holding a Torah, read: “Mom, I too want a bat mitzvah at the Kotel.”

After the celebration, the honoree shared that, amid the merriment, she had become “very emotional” at the Torah-reading, and “just had a lot of fun.”  As, from all appearances, did her minders.

Predictably, the mainstream media were full of praise for the successful subterfuge, and the cause in which it was committed.  Among the effervescent expressions was a piece by Lexi Erdheim, a rabbinic student at a Reform institution and a “Women of the Wall Intern.”

Ms. Erdheim wrote that she “could only imagine” the “overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment” felt by  those who had been fighting for years to obtain “women’s right to free prayer at the Kotel,” and who were finally able to “witness a young girl chant from a sefer torah.”

But she injected a note of reservation, too, since, “despite this momentous occasion, the battle is not over.”  Still and all, she wrote, she was, “reminded of a quote from Pirkei Avot: ‘You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it’.”

Another mishnah in Pirkei Avos, though, is more fitting for the occasion of a sefer Torah employed as a PR prop.  It was cited well before Ms. Erdheim’s piece appeared, by Leah Aharoni, a co-founder of the mesorah-respecting group “Women For the Wall”:  “Rabbi Tzaddok would say… ‘Do not make the Torah a crown to magnify yourself with, or a spade with which to dig’.”

© 2014 Hamodia

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