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Resist Sermonizing On Women Of The Wall
Sun, 09/01/2013 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week

An initiative inviting 100 rabbis to deliver sermons about the Women of the Wall this High Holiday Season has enlisted dozens of rabbis. Although I understand why it is irresistible, I am not impressed.

Bashing Israel in front of liberal American Jews for oppressing women religiously usually descends into cheap demagoguery. It often invites ridiculous analogies invoking Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. – although comparing this intercommunal conflict in a country with equal rights for women to the oppression blacks experienced in the South diminishes the courage King and Parks needed. Such simplistic sermons, shortchanging complex Israeli realities, rile the congregants, making them feel self-righteous as they condescendingly pass judgment rather than challenging them to engage in the prescribed seasonal soul-searching. 

I write as someone whose oldest daughter read Torah at her bat mitzvah, wrapped in a tallit, at an egalitarian service at Robinson’s Arch. I have written numerous articles celebrating Israeli religious diversity, denouncing the chief rabbinate, condemning the haredi monopoly at the Western Wall and elsewhere, and demanding the Israeli government get out of the religion business – to protect Judaism from government as well as to protect individuals from government coercion. All these are important issues that merit discussion any time of the year.

Unfortunately, the popular, add-water-and-stir, simplistic narrative about the big bad Israelis bullying the noble Women of the Wall misses three essential points. First, this story is not about Israeli insensitivity to the diaspora or Israeli intransigence – just the opposite.  The activism worked.  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, among others, responded to the political pressure, at home and abroad. He deputized the iconic Natan Sharansky to find a compromise, reflecting how seriously the Israeli government takes diaspora input and how responsive the government can be to democratic activism.

Second, the current American Jewish obsession with the Women of the Wall defines Israel too broadly and harshly using a very narrow lens.  The excessive communal concentration on Women of the Wall ignores the modern Israeli phenomenon wherein less religious Jews are embracing tradition, not simply feeling harassed by their more religious fellow citizens. 

Ruth Calderon’s Knesset debut went viral this year because many people, especially liberal American Jews, were surprised to discover a self-defined “secular” Israeli teaching Talmud, quoting Jewish texts and loving the tradition. Similarly, her Yesh Atid colleague Dov Lipman became an American Jewish pop star, not only because he is a rare American immigrant serving in the Knesset but because he is an ultra-religious, bearded, dark-suit-wearing mensch. Lipman speaks powerfully about using Judaism and Jewish experiences as points of unity, not disagreement, and has fought intolerant extremists from the ultra-religious and ultra-anti-religious side. 

Israelis are spread out along a wider, richer Jewish spectrum than the old assumption of the religious-versus-the secular suggests. Many American Jews need to discover this Israel, but are blinded by the disproportionate focus on the Women of the Wall.

There are essential Jewish lessons here.  Israel’s image throughout the world suffers similarly from the constant barrage of selective perception and myopic criticism. Focusing on one over-reported flaw fails to judge Israel in a broader context. This is a timely life lesson for the High Holiday season too. Repentance feels easy when you are sitting in judgment on others, and condemning their most prominent or publicized flaw. True repentance entails freeing ourselves from such self-righteous tunnel vision and instead turning the self-critical lens inward, seeing our blind spots, our weaknesses, while trying to judge others with more understanding, empathy and humility.

Finally, I would challenge the rabbis to stretch – and tackle other compelling questions. Let’s encourage rabbis to sermonize about such questions as: what is prayer, for men and women? What is the Western Wall’s significance post-1967? What does the debate about women’s role in Judaism teach us about how to reconcile past and present, tradition and change? And, perhaps most mischievously, how can religious pluralists learn to tolerate religious fundamentalists, especially while demanding that the fundamentalists tolerate pluralism – many Women of the Wall activists fail to acknowledge any validity to the ultra-orthodox argument.

Understanding the Kotel clash as a story of different values and worldviews confronting each other, as a sideshow to the main religious and political events in Israel today, and, as in many ways, a struggle leftover from the 20th century as Israel flourishes in the 21st century, requires nuance, humility, mutual respect.  I understand why political agitators reject such subtleties; I challenge my rabbinic friends to resist such demagoguery.

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow. His latest book is Moynihan's Moment: America's Fight Against Zionism as Racism.


Kotel, Western Wall, Women of the Wall, WOW

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Thank you for your suggestions on what to preach during this year's hagim. It is unfortunate, in my opinion, that you seem to see that the only possible way to frame the discussion on WoW is in demonstrative and defaming terms. Please give Rabbis slightly more credit. In my sermon, for instance, I discussed how I see this current issue as a direct continuation of a Zionist tradition. Zionism is about revolutionizing and not taking the staus quo for granted. It is exactly the topic of WoW that creates an opportunity for Rabbis to discuss such as issues as you suggest: "What is the Western Wall’s significance post-1967? What does the debate about women’s role in Judaism teach us about how to reconcile past and present, tradition and change? And, perhaps most mischievously, how can religious pluralists learn to tolerate religious fundamentalists, especially while demanding that the fundamentalists tolerate pluralism..." Just to remind everyone here that Women of the Wall as well as the liberal movements are in no way looking to rid the Kotel of anyone, just to make a little room for others.
Hatima Tovah!

Herein lies the rub--WoW is invested in their self-promoted self-image as women who have "...struggled for a quarter of a century to achieve equal rights for women in Israel's public space and is not afraid to call out on injustice." Yet to me, not chareidi but one of the many modern-orthodox, orthodox-lite, Mitzrachi-traditional women who also oppose WoW (and are ignored by the press and WoW who prefer to cast all opposition as chareidi fundamentalists--NOT!) it is not a question of "equal rights for women" but equal respect for all Jews. When a group of largely Anglo and largely Reform/Conservative women (yes, there are some orthodox--no more than 2 last time I checked) seek to impose their style of prayer -- loud, intrusive, obnoxious dancing and singing that interferes with my kavanah--and whose menfolk somehow end up mixing with the women, and who advocate for abolishing the mechitzah, and who consistently denigrate and condescend to the majority of Israeli religious women as being "brainwashed by our rabbis" and being nothing more than "sheep" and "school girls" who are "repressed" and call to "liberate" the Wall and abolish traditions and prayer we happen to love....then I'm not feeling the love, nor am I inclined to respect this effort at bulldozing your traditions into space sacred to so many of us. I don't care if you wear tallit and tefillin--both are permissible. That's not the issue--the issue is your total lack of respect for and your condemnation of our tradition of prayer and stated intention to abolish it in favor of your own.

Rosh Hashana is for Am Yisrael to reflect on their past deeds and focus on refining them in the future to be the people they are supposed to be. We are supposed to be thinking about Hashem, not a bunch of whiny, selfish women who put their own agenda ahead of Jewish unity. Where does Hashem fit into your philosophy, if He does at all?

WoW's leaders cloak their desire to change the status quo in Israel in the context of women's rights and pluralism- the truth is they want more mainstream recognition of Reform and Conservative Judaism-concepts which are quite unpopular in Israel as they are seen as American imports which are quite foreign from Traditional Judaism. They have little respect for Traditional Jewry and often bash religious Jews on social media, Israeli and foreign press. They do not care if they bash Israel and Judaism, provoke violence, disrespect Traditional values, hurt the sesibilities of Traditional worshippers as long as their "rights" are honored. They refuse any possibility of a compromise- insisting on getting what they want at any cost. They have brought strife and infighting to the Kotel and Israel and refuse to be honest about their ultimate agenda.

I must conclude after reading this bit of rubbish from Gil Troy, that criticizing the Women For the Wall is tantamount to bashing the State of Israel. If so, so be it.

Professor Troy says that seculars should be tolerant of religious fundamentalists. I totally agree; the way one practices, or doesn't practice, one's religion is his or her own business. But the ultra-orthodox, in Israel, and elsewhere, have made it their business to impose their religion and their way of life on others, just as the Taliban did in Afghanistan. People's cars get stoned in Mea Sheirim if they're driving on the Sabbath. Little kids are spat on by religious zealots because the zealots don't like the length of their skirts, or their mothers' skirts, or because Dad and Mom own smartphones. Women are attacked because they refuse to sit in the back of the bus (and Troy sanctimoniously says that comparing WoW to Rosa Parks is an insult to Mrs. Parks; it's the same thing!).

Israel is supposed to be a light unto the Jews of the world, who are living in Galut. But here in that little corner of Galut known as North-Central New Jersey we have absolute freedom of religion. Israel is the only so-called "democracy" where a Jew can (until very recently) be arrested for praying with her fellow Jews. I'll take Galut, anytime.

As the person who organized this program - I regret that its message has been lost - before it even has been delivered. At a time when polls show declining attachment to Israel in younger generations, we are challenged - and commanded - to find ways to reconnect with Israel in terms that are religious and personal. Fortunately, I know that none of the extremely gifted 131 rabbis who are part of this program will be offering the "add-water-and-stir" simplistic sermons that this author is concerned about - not on this topic or on any other topic.

It is precisely because the issues at the Kotel need to be framed in a deeper and broader context than a newspaper article, addressing love for Israel and our true fundamental religious values that it is so important that these distinguished rabbis have felt called to speak on this topic. We still await an appropriate response by the government of Israel to the brave Women of the Wall. But meanwhile please rest assured that there is much to discuss beyond role models such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. (By the way, the Parks analogy is usually raised with regard to Anat Hoffman's separate trailblazing campaign to de-segregate Israeli buses where women were forced to sit in the back of the bus by Haredi men - an apt analogy.) If one would like to see an example of how our religious values speak to this issue and compel tolerance and pluralism, please read my article published in Haaretz yesterday.

I expect and look forward to much learning and discussion on this topic, sparked by these learned rabbis and carried forward in discussions by Jews throughout the world, at their holiday tables and beyond! I hope that the author of this article will be similarly engaged. Shana tova!

Rabbi Richman should get her facts straight. Young Jews are feelling more attached to Israel and recent polls show (

Anat Hoffman is not Rosa Parks and Jerusalem is not Selma. She is attempting to impose her changes in Jewish tradition made by the liberal Jewish movements on others.

The real issue is that WOW does not belong in the synagogue on the High Holidays. Once a year Jews turn up and instead of inspiring them with words of Torah, connecting them with their Heritage, encouraging them to learn about Judaism the subject is Hoffman and her protests. In a time when the liberal movements are challenged to retain the next generation maybe they should invest that special moment in the year when Jews are receptive with a positive message about Judaism.

No Rabbi Richman, the High Holidays are not the time. If you must speak choose a regular Shabbat in the middle of the year. Seize the moment to inspire those who come once a year with a positive message.

Thanks for your reply. My facts are entirely straight, as this very publication has reported in the last two weeks. The study that you rely upon, more than a year old, is a limited outlier study. Sadly, virtually all recent polls demonstrate declining attachment among younger people to israel, a circumstance that was part of the motivation for this project. Segregation *is* segregation and discrimination *is* discrimination - whether it is the women forced to the back of the bus because of their gender - a practice ended by Anat Hoffman in per position as Director of IRAC, not WOW - or women prevented from worshiping at the Kotel. This is alienating to the vast majority of views everywhere, who want indeed to stop making analogies to Selma and who want, who yearn to see Jerusalem as OUR Jerusalem too. As R. Larry Sebert, one of the 131 rabbis, said on Rosh Hashanah (paraphrasing): as we pray for Israel's physical security, we must also pray for our increased spiritual relationship with israel, for acceptance of all Jews, in Israel, in Jerusalem and at the Kotel". The positive message, Mr. Anonymous, is that with our efforts, we can make Israel, Jerusalem and the Kotel our place for spiritual connection, where WE too can express our Judaism in freedom.

Your "sit-in" last week was one of the silliest things I've seen in a long time, and it lost you a lot of support. On Rosh Hashana why don't you think about something besides yourself?

This opinion is interesting. I certainly agree that people and especially Rabbis sermonizing should resists simplification of issues. But this article does just that! Firstly, to say that support for Women of the Wall is bashing Israel, belongs with the most fundamentalist criticism if Women of the Wall. Our group has struggled for a quarter of a century to achieve equal rights for women in Israel's public space and is not afraid to call out on injustice. That is good citizenship and the best of Zionism. Secondly, Women of the Wall is a pluralistic group. Our members are from all the denominations of Judaism, Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and more. Our members are religious and non religious. The women who join us at the Kotel are Ashkenazi, they are Sefardi, they are undefined! Our prayer service is carefully designed to include everyone. Not one person is completely comfortable st our services, and that is our lesson, our message to the Jewish world.
Just this one fact, our inclusiveness, our tolerance, our sensitivity, yes to the Ultra Orthodox too, that is enough reason for a sermon on the high holidays about Women of the Wall.

Well written, this issue is a complex one with no simple answers, discussion, understanding and debate are needed not rush to judgements based on prejudices and half truths.