Some good news for a change
A wealth of social science evidence establishes that religious people are more optimistic in general than non-religious and better able to cope with adversity. Belief in a benevolent G-d Who loves us and wishes only to shower us with good will do that for a person.
Our sense of well-being, however, rarely comes from scanning the media and contemplating the world scene. In that realm, everything seems to be on a downward trajectory: harsher budgetary cuts, accelerating moral degeneration, the demographic suicide of our Jewish brothers and sisters, the latest chilul Hashem on the front page of The New York Times, rising anti-Semitism in Europe, and a soon to be nuclear Iran. Only the Siyum HaShas can be counted on to consistently lift our spirits. And that takes place only once every seven-and-a half years.
Yet last week something happened in South Africa that should cause each of us to jump up and click our heels (if we are still able). Chazal tell us that if all Klal Yisrael would just keep two Shabbosos properly, Mashiach would come. (According to some opinions, one Shabbos is enough.) Few of us can imagine how that will happen or what it would look like.
Now we can, after the Shabbos Project that took place across South Africa parashas Lech Lecha, which joined the entire community under the slogan "Keeping it Together." At least 20,000 Jews, by conservative estimates, celebrated a full halachic Shabbos for the first time in their lives. (I tell the whole story elsewhere in this issue.)
Another bit of recent news raises hopes among Torah Jews that twenty-five years of confrontation and demonstrations at the Kosel by Women of the Wall may end. At the very least, WoW is fraying. Anat Hoffman, the public face of Women of the Wall and chairman of the organization, recently announced that the group had voted in principle to pray at a specially designated section towards the southern end of the Kosel.
Of course, she then enunciated a list of demands, notable primarily for their chutzpah, that the government would have to meet to WoW's satisfaction before they would act upon their agreement. First, the area designated for WoW and other women who wish to wear tallitot, tefillin and read from a sefer Torah in proximity to the Kosel would have to be equal in size to that designated for mixed services, according to Reform and Conservative rites, and – get this – equal in size to the current Kosel Plaza for both men and women. And it would have to receive equal funding. In short, a group that presently musters eighty women once a month should be appropriated an area equal to the Kosel Plaza which attracts ten million visitors annually.
In addition, she demanded that the entire area for prayer adjacent to the Kosel be continuous and have a common entrance. She knows that is an absolute non-starter for the government, since it would require knocking down the ramp currently leading up to the Temple Mount and trigger rioting not just on the Temple Mount but across the Muslim world.
The very enormity of Hoffman's demands sounded like so much bravado to disguise the degree of the retreat. It was widely reported that the American Reform and Conservative movements are eager to accept Naftali Bennett's offer of a designated area towards at the southern end of the Western Wall, and told Hoffman that they don't want her getting in the way of the compromise.
One group that certainly saw Hoffman's decision as a capitulation was a dissident faction within WoW, which rejected the compromise out of hand. That group included some of the most veteran leaders of WoW, among them the woman who initiated their first "minyan," scheduled to coincide with an international feminist conference in Jerusalem 25 years ago, and Phyllis Chesler, a leading feminist theorist for decades. According to the dissenters, "the name of the holy site will be appropriated and bestowed on the archeological site [Robinson's Arch], also to be called "the Wall." (In point of fact, Robinson's Arch is every bit as much adjacent to "the Western Wall" as the current Kosel Plaza.)
Chesler has demonstrated considerable courage in recent years, sharply attacking her fellow feminists for ignoring Islamic misogyny and for their reflexive and uninformed criticism of Israel – and enduring their wrath in return. But her allegiance to the Kosel Plaza derives from her feminism, not from a religious sentiment. Just as she married an Afghani fellow student as a young woman – a decision that cost her years as a captive in Afghanistan and almost her life – as a protest of her Orthodox upbringing, so her insistence on maintaining tensions at the Kosel Plaza is another form of protest. She and her fellow dissenters suspect – rightly, I would guess – that without the frisson of high tension at the Kosel, the numbers of WoW supporters will dwindle greatly over time.
Hoffman lashed back at those who accused her of selling out. "It's easy to sit in American and watch things play out here," she said. It's much more difficult when you have to sit her and deal with Mandelblit," referring to the cabinet secretary in charge of the government committee to draft new space allocations at the Western Wall and prayer regulations. At the very least, she made indicated that she was under considerable pressure and did not feel things were going her way.
She also let slip the main purpose behind WoW's insistence on conducting services in full male regalia at the Kosel. "[W]e saw last Rosh Chodesh that they [i.e., chareidi women] really don't want . . . to see a woman in a tallit and tefillin, and they also have rights." "WoW," she conceded, "is not the right group for bringing about change in the Orthodox world."
In other words, the quarter century of confrontation at the Kosel have been about changing chareidi women, and freeing them from the patriarchy so they can daven just like men. It wasn't about the Kosel – for which Hoffman has said she feels no particular atraction – but to "see and be seen" by as many Orthodox women as possible, even at the cost of confrontation.
Hoffman did not suddenly discover last Rosh Chodesh, when the women's side was filled with thousands of girls and women davening prior to the arrival of the WoW group, that her proselytizing efforts for non-traditional davening were going nowhere.
But her affectation of a conciliatory stand towards her "chareidi sisters" at least suggests how flummoxed WoW was by the strategy first conceived by the three semi-anonymous founders of Women for the Wall (W4W) of juxtaposing the silent prayer of thousands of religious women to the antics of WoW.
Like Chief Rabbi Goldstein in South Africa, they have demonstrated how much impact a few individuals, devoted to the dvar Hashem and working purely leshem Shomayim, can have on the future of the Jewish people. And that is definitely good news.
Who is a Racist?
Jerusalem Post oped editor Seth Frantzman was in no mood for the posthumous barbs tossed at Rav Ovadiah Yosef, zt"l, by the left-wing media figures, who described him as a "bigot and racist." Frantzman is married to an Ethiopian woman, and it was Rabbi Yosef who first paskened that the Ethiopian Jews were the Tribe of Dan.
Let us see who is calling whom a racist, Frantzman shot back. He reminded those carping critics of Rav Ovadiah of the real racism that Jews from Iraq, like Rav Ovadiah, and other refugees from Arab lands encountered at the hands of the secular Ashkenazi establishment when they first arrived in Israel. And he did so in the words of that elite.
Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion described the Jews from Arab lands as "not constitut[ing] a people, but rather a motley crowd, human dust lacking language, education, roots, traditions or national dreams . . . ."
Jewish Agency head Giora Josephtal referred to the "feral" nature of the new Iraqi immigrants, and Amos Elon worried about the impact of their "uncontrolled fertility" on the Jewish people's robustness.
Ariyeh Goldblum fretted in Ha'aretz about the new immigrants "whose primitivism is unsurpassed."
The charge of racism, Frantzman argues, is being thrown by those living in glass houses. We see the same in America today. Critics of President Obama are daily accused of being motivated by racism, as if there could be no other explanation for criticism of a president, whose foreign policy appears more incoherent by the day, who has presided over the weakest recovery from recession in American history, and who signature legislative achievement stands revealed as a failed Rube Goldberg design, where none of the interlocking parts work together.
Yet those same accusers fall prey to the basic wrong of racism, essentialism, the belief that the color of a man's skin determines, or ought to determine, his every thought. Let an uppity black – e.g., Justice Clarence Thomas, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Senator Tim Scott, black intellectuals, like Thomas Sowells, Walter Williams, or Shelby Steele – fail to conform to what the elites have determined to be proper black thinking and they do not hesitate to portray him or her as a minstrel show caricature or as Aunt Jemima, with exaggerated negroid features.
But we digress. I would guess that most chareidi readers will delight in Frantzman's skewering of the pretensions of Left. For they know that Ashkenazi elite's revulsion at the primitivism of the Jewish from Arab lands was in no small part a revulsion at their religious faith, which every effort was made to uproot.
Yet if we are honest with ourselves, we must also acknowledge that Rav Ovadiah's mission to "restore the crown to its glory" was not just a response to the contempt of secular Ashkenazi elites, as Frantzman argues.
He was also acutely conscious of a lack of respect for the tradition of Torah learning from which he emerged. He knew all the disparaging remarks made about the lack of depth in "yeshivish lomdus" in the Sephardi yeshivos, knew even that there were those who disparaged or attempted to dismiss his own phenomenal memory.
His mission was to restore the pride of the Sephardi yeshiva student, no less than that of the simple man in the street.