Where Politics and Religion Should Never Mix
Yesh Atid MK Dr. Aliza Lavie did not play to form last Rosh Chodesh. One of the founders of Kolech, a self-described Orthodox feminist group, Dr. Lavie nevertheless declined to join three female MKs from left-wing parties who participated in the monthly gathering of Women of the Wall (WoW) at the Kotel.
WoW seek every Rosh Chodesh to read from a sefer Torah at the Kotel Plaza and pray there wearing tallitot and tefillin, in contravention of a 2003 ruling of the Supreme Court, upholding the authority of the head of the Holy Sites to ban those practices at the Kotel. The Israel police normally enforce the Supreme Court order, but did not do so on Rosh Chodesh Nissan because of the presence of the three MKs.
In that same 2003 decision, the Supreme Court ordered the government to provide an area for heterodox prayer ceremonies at Robinson's Arch, further south on the Western Wall. Heterodox groups have used that site for their religious rites, without harassment from Orthodox protestors.
Explaining her refusal to join her Knesset colleagues, Dr. Lavie said that it was inappropriate for an MK to deliberately violate a Supreme Court order, even if the threat of arrest was negligible. I suspect that as a mitzvah-observant Jew, she might also have been put off by the use of religious ceremonies to make political statements. None of the other three MKs who joined WoW are religiously observant.
From the beginning, Women of the Wall has been more about politics than religion. The first gathering of Women of the Wall took place more than twenty years ago during an international gathering of Jewish feminists in Jerusalem. It is safe to assume that the vast majority of participants were not faithful synagogue attendees every Rosh Chodesh. If they had any theological statement to make, it was: If Judaism does not view men and women as identical, we reject Judaism.
About fifteen years ago, an acquaintance of mine found herself seated next to a newly minted PhD. from Michigan on a flight to Israel. The young woman told her that millions of dollars had been raised to send students like her to Israel.
When my acquaintance asked her what she was coming to do, she replied that she would be going to the Western Wall "to put on a shmatte." Seeing the quizzical look on the older woman's face, she added, "You know a shmatte," while miming putting on a tallit. The frisson of causing Orthodox Jews to gnash their teeth, not the religious experience of praying with a "shmatte" wrapped around her neck, was clearly the attraction.
Anat Hoffman, the leader of WoW is also the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel. As it happens, the Reform movement attaches no particular religious significance to the Kotel. The Council of Progressive Rabbis in Israel (Reform) declared in 1999, "One should not consider the Western Wall as possessing any sanctity . . . . The approach of the Progressive Jew towards worship and prayer is opposed to any renewal of the Temple, opposed to the restoration of sacrificial worship. . . . The Western Wall does not represent Jewish cleaving to G-d nor the experience of prayer nor Jewish thought for our times."
But if the Kotel has no particular sanctity in the eyes of the WoW members, the rhetorical question asked by decidedly non-Orthodox Hillel Halkin in the Forward more than a decade ago is only strengthened: "Were they to come to the Wall without prayer shawls as a simple gesture of respect for traditions of the place against what sacred principles of their faith would they be sinning. Are there no places in the world, in Israel, or even in Jerusalem that they must do it at the one site where it is sure to infuriate large numbers of Orthodox Jews?"
Of course, Halkin knew the answer to his own question. Creating a ruckus – not religious experience – is the key to the WoW ceremonies at the Kotel. The Western Wall may not possess any sanctity for Anat Hoffman, but she is canny enough to know that photos of her being hauled away by the Israeli police, as if she were Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama circa 1955, are great for rallying the troops. Those photo-ops serve the interests of the miniscule Reform movement in Israel -- in "secular" Tel Aviv, there are 550 shuls, most of them used daily, and one Reform Temple open only on Shabbos – and of the heterodox movements abroad as well.
The need for confrontation with the Orthodox in Israel to fill the coffers of the heterodox movements abroad only betrays both their weakness and lack of confidence. The need for validation of their rites by their performance at the Kotel demonstrates a lack of confidence.
And the reliance on negativity – beating the drums against Orthodox Jews, with whom few of their members are likely to have any personal contact – reveals a lack of a positive Jewish message. A woman whom I know well, with a number of ba'al teshuva children, asked her Conservative rabbi one year, after yet another Yom Kippur sermon on the evils of the Orthodox, "Don't you have anything to tell your congregants, especially those who will only be here twice a year, other than how bad the Orthodox are?"
WHILE GOOD FOR HETERODOX PUBLIC RELATIONS AND FUNDRAISING, confrontation at the Kotel comes at a high cost. The Kotel is the greatest symbol of Jewish continuity – the last remnant from the Bais HaMikdash, which stood above on the Temple Mount nearly two millennia ago. Were the WoW to achieve their goal of celebrating non-traditional rites at the Kotel, the sluice gates would be open. They would soon be joined by others demanding to tear down the mechitzah and allow egalitarian minyanim and even Jews for J. Over twenty years ago, I asked one of the founders of the WoW whether she would consider a service by Jews for J. at the Kotel beyond the pale. She could not answer.
Instead of serving as a symbol of Jewish continuity, the Kotel would become a sort of religious Hyde Park corner, with religious rites as performance art. Leah Shakdiel, another early WoW activist, admitted as much, when she described her vision of the Kotel becoming a place where "different people dynamically evolve various forms of worship so that Jews and Muslims and Christians can pray together to G-d."
The Kotel imagined by Shakdiel would cease to be a magnet for Jews of all types. While at any given moment the majority of those praying at the Kotel are Orthodox Jews, it attracts tens of thousands of non-Orthodox Jews every year. Many come to check out whether they can experience something of the power of the place standing before the ancient stones. Thousands of Jewish lives have been changed by the experience of the Kotel, often beginning with a tap on the shoulder from Rabbi Meir Shuster, as they pondered those stones.
Others come to pour out to their hearts to G-d. At any given time, the vast majority of those at the Kotel are not engaged in formal prayer services, but in private supplication. Contrary to Anat Hoffman's claim that women are silenced at the Kotel, every Jew, regardless of gender or religious affiliation, is free to speak directly to Hashem, in any language he or she chooses.
In a video produced by a group of women calling themselves Kolot HaKotel (Voices of the Wall), Sharon Galkin succinctly summed up the matter: "[Anat Hoffman] misses the point. Prayer is not directed at the person next to you. Prayer is not directed at The New York Times. Prayer is about talking to G-d. And He hears the quietest whisper."
When Later is Better
The first natural gas has begun to flow from the offshore Tamir field to the Ashdod processing plant. The Tamar field and the even larger Leviathan field are estimated to hold enough natural gas to supply Israel's energy needs for many decades to come, and to turn Israel into an energy exporter.
In addition to the offshore finds of natural gas, Israel is estimated to have shale oil reserves equal in volume to the known oil reserves of Saudi Arabia. Besides enriching Israel, the new found energy resources hold out the hope of lessening Israel's diplomatic isolation. Western dependence on Arab oil has always been a crucial factor behind the propensity of many Western governments to curry favor with Arab states by adopting a diplomatic stance hostile to Israel.
So much, then, for the old jokes about Moses having discovered one of the few strips of land in the Middle East without vast natural resources. The belated of discovery of huge energy sources, however, is another aspect of Divine benevolence.
Because of its lack of natural resources, Israel had to develop its human resources to a very high level. Despite a defense burden borne by no other country and despite – or perhaps because of – Israel's unique level of government support for Torah learning, Israel today has one of the fastest growing and most stable economies in the developed world and exercises a level of fiscal discipline that would be the envy of almost every European country. Revenues from the newly discovered energy resources are icing on the cake, not the basis of Israeli prosperity.
By contrast, the enormous oil reserves of Arab states, like Saudi Arabia, made the development of human resources unnecessary. Labor is disdained by Saudi men. Saudis import slaves to do the manual work and hire foreign experts to do the brainy work. When the oil is used up by Arab countries whose economies are wholly based on their energy wealth, their people will revert to being nomadic tent dwellers just as they were before the discovery of oil.
Sometimes late is not just better than never; its better than earlier.