Thursday, March 18, 2010

When Positive Change Brings Negative Results

Reform Judaism has changed. In fact it has done almost a 180 degree turn in terms of the attitude towards Mitzvos. It has gone from a movement of rejecting all ritual observance to one of endorsing – if not requiring them.

It is impossible to over-state the significance of this relatively new turnabout. I recall growing up in Toledo of the late 50s - walking to Shul with my father on Shabbos. When we passed by the Collingwood Avenue Temple - my father informed me that if we were to walk into that Temple the rabbi would require us to remove our Yarmulkees.

Today many Reform rabbis can be seen wearing them in the street. One will often even see a Sukkah on the property of a Reform temple. There are many more such ritual innovations that would make the founding fathers of Reform Judaism turn over in their graves.

Although there are still diehard Reform leaders that are fighting this trend toward tradition - I think it’s a losing battle for them. Those who have seen the handwriting on the wall now realize that Judaism sanitized of all ritual is a prescription for extinction. So even though they still consider Halacha to be non binding, it is a welcome change to see them turn in the direction of ritual observance.

But this development is not all roses. The return to ritual has taken some interesting turns that are not so welcome. In some cases their acceptance and practice of a ritual is somewhat corrupted. One can overlook that I suppose in the overall view of things. Positive trends will often take a not so positive detour before getting back on track. This happens when those trends become disruptive.

A case in point is the advent of the Women of the Wall. This is a group led by Anat Hoffman - a Reform leader. They come every Rosh Chodesh to the Kotel with their Talis and Teffilin to Daven and Lein.

In one sense this is a positive development. Her predecessors a generation or two ago would hardly even know what a Talis and Teffilin were - let alone use them for prayer. Today one can go into a Reform Temple and find mostly men and some women wearing these religious items as they Daven. Truly amazing!

Ms. Hoffman has taken this new sense of devotion to God to another level. She has inserted herself and her group into the Kotel Plaza area on the women’s side of the Mechitza. This is an area that is frequented mostly by Charedim. It is also under the control of Charedi authorities. This behavior was very disruptive. Especially when the ‘Chazanit’ started leining in a loud voice. That has resulted in a violent response from some Charedi opponents.

It is ironic that the by inserting more spirituality into their lives they have become so disruptive that it has caused a violent reaction by those whose own values are supposed to be entirely spiritual. On the one hand I applaud their return to observance by the Reform Movement. But I am troubled by those who express it in ways that are so disruptive of others.

A while back a compromise solution was found where a different section of the Kotel was made available to them. A section called Robinson’s Arch. But for some reason Ms. Hoffman decided to go back to the Kotel Plaza and stir up controversy. My guess is that her reasons for doing that were less than spiritual. They probably have more to do with asserting ‘rights’ than they do with expressing spirituality. I suspect that this is mostly about feminist politics and challenging the status quo control of the Kotel by Charedim.

What she is doing is wrong. By asserting her rights she is trampling on the rights of those who have religious problems with her behavior at the Kotel. The behavior lacks respect for the sensitivity of others. Especially in light of the fact that she has been given another section of the Kotel to use in any manner of prayer service she chooses. Rabbi Avi Shafran makes a very eloquent argument of this point in a cordial interview conducted by a Reform rabbi on his cable TV show.

The problem once again is that there are ‘religious’ Jews who think they can take matters into their own hands. And by doing so they not only lose any possible public sympathy which undermines their own cause, the violence can easily cause physical harm to innocent by-standers. And of course there is the minor detail of the massive world-wide Chilul HaShem it causes!

As is evident from the photo above and the video below chairs were thrown by these misogynist ignoramuses indiscriminately over the Mechitza at the women on the other side – as a form of protest against the Women of the Wall! They were soon arrested and questioned.

As I have said many times -no one approves of their violent actions. Not even their leaders - at least publicly. But no one does anything about it. So whenever the opportunity for violent response comes up – there they go again!

Tepid statements of disapproval from their leadership are more of a wink and a nod of approval than it is any serious condemnation. The lack of seriousness about it is evident from the fact that those arrested will very likely be released by the police. With absolutely no consequences to their actions.

I do not support the Women of the Wall. But I do not call for protest. I am completely against it. My attitude is let them have Robinson’s Arch and they can do their thing there. It should not be of any concern to the rest of us.

The problem with the leadership of the community from which those protesters come - is not that they oppose the Women of the Wall. It is in how strongly they oppose it. The stridency of their opposition is not lost on those who have escalated the violence here. I’m convinced that next month that escalation will continue.

The only way to stop it is hard jail time. Those involved in violent protest of any kind in any place or any time should pay a heavy price for it. They currently pay no price at all. And that is the fault of their leadership.

I would also suggest that their mentors, rabbis, and teachers tone down the rhetoric against anything or any group to which they are opposed. It’s one thing to – even strongly - oppose what they disagree with. It is another to oppose it in ways that inspire violence.

Unfortunately - though I constantly protest this type of violence - offering what I believe might be effective measures to curb it… I am probably talking to the wall.