Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Wrong Stuff

Picture from the Forward for illustrative purposes only
One of the most disturbing and divisive tactics in Israel used by the Charedi politicians and activists in Israel, is the way they express opposition to innovations they believe contradicts their values.

This is not to say that they don’t have every right to express opposition to things like the designation a portion of the Kotel for egalitarian prayer; Women of the Wall;  allowing Mikvas to be used for non Orthodox conversions; drafting Yeshiva students into the army; or installing a core secular studies curriculum into their schools.

Of course they have that right. It is the apocalyptic way in which they express that opposition that is troubling. And extremely divisive. It’s true that a some of that opposition is based on Halacha and requires opposition. But not the way it it is currently being done. In some cases compromise is in order, Not opposition.  Like the designation of a portion of the Kotel for egalitarian use.  But they still have the right to oppose it in a democratic society. 

Here is how Rabbi Betzalel Cohen put it: 
Ultra-Orthodox public expressions, he told the Forward, are always “melodramatic, and apocalyptic. It’s a cultural style – and it’s used as much [within] the ultra-Orthodox community as it is against those who are opposed to it.” 
Like Rabbi Cohen, I would have agreed to the compromise on the Kotel for the sake of “unity.” And I too would have made it clear that the egalitarian purpose of it is not in accordance with Halacha.  But that is a lot different than the kind of opposition to these things one generally encounters. Which is extremely divisive. 

I do not want to alienate Jews that belong to heterodox movements. I would to reach out to them as my brothers and sisters. This is apparently of no concern to Charedi politicians and Asakanim. Their desire to show their opposition as stridently as they can overrides the damage they do to the fabric of Klal Yisroel. Damage that chases Jews away from observance rather than bringing them closer to it.

That type of opposition spreads to some of their lay constituents, who feel free to make life as hard as they can for Jews that do not agree with all of the Charedi values. Which exacerbates and increases the rift that exists between the Orthodox and non Orthodox world. 

There is a right way and a wrong way to handle opposition. What happened to Leah Bieler and her daughter is a case in point.  Leah is a Conservative Jew.  Her daughter recently attempted to join the Women of the Wall for prayer. And they were treated like dirt by a guard monitoring the entrance to the Kotel Plaza. From an op-ed in  Forward, here is her description of what happened: 
Next to our metal detector, there was a man with a velvet kippah going through each woman’s bag with a fine-toothed comb. He removed books and paged through them, and I couldn’t for the life of me imagine what exactly he was looking for. 
Slowly, we inched our way forward, secure in the knowledge that we had nothing even remotely interesting in our bags. Motrin? Pool passes? Lactaid pills?
I went through first, and the guard removed everything from my backpack, with special attention to the bag containing my tallit. It felt vaguely intimidating, and I could imagine his thoughts as he searched in vain for something to prove that I was unwelcome. After a couple of minutes I was waved through, and I waited for my daughter on the other side.
Because her tallit comes with her to school each day, the bag is full. Inside are a couple of prayer books and a bunch of papers, photocopies of various Torah readings and Haftorah readings she has recently learned, wrinkled and with frayed edges. Our intrepid guard opened each prayer book, thumbed through each page. Since it was clear nothing could possibly have been hidden inside, it seemed he was doing all this as a political statement, a form of protest theater.
He pulled the papers from the bag. “You have to leave these here.”
“Why?” My daughter was annoyed, not at all frightened.
“They have Torah readings on them.” The Orthodox rabbi of the Kotel had forbidden women from bringing a Torah scroll to the women’s side. But these sheets would be of no use whatsoever. 
“Those aren’t today’s Torah readings!”
“You can collect them when you leave.” 
It’s true that this may not have been the most earth shattering experience. (Although there have been some violent reactions by Charedi protesters in the past - this was not one of them.) But neither was it a warm and welcoming one. These two women should not have been treated any differently than anyone else passing through the entrance to the Kotel. That guard did not have to agree with these women. But neither was it his duty to alienate them. Which he most certainly did.

That said. I cannot let Ms. Beiler off scott free either. Here is what else she said:
A woman who wears a tallit has no right to our sacred heritage, his fingers said. She can’t possibly be using a prayer book for its intended purpose. She must be bringing it for some subversive reason.
Her attitude of entitlement to do things that are against the rules is based on false notions of what Judaism is about. Her daughter wanted to join Women of the Wall – who continually violate the rules set by the Kotel rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, in conjunction with the government. By using sarcasm, Ms. Beiler shows a degree of contempt for the sensitivity of the traditionally Orthodox women who regularly pray there and object to departures from centuries of tradition. She and her daughter may have been annoyed at what happened to them. Rightly so. But did they ever consider that the Charedi women that go to the Kotel and pray in traditional ways are distracted and annoyed at their unorthodox way of doing the things?

Alienation works both ways.

But since I am on the Orthodox side of this issue, I am going to address Orthodox behavior. We ought to not be objecting to things we oppose in ways that alienate other Jews. Especially among non Orthodox Jews that have religious leanings.

Let us remember that at the end of the day all these women want to do is pray at the holiest site in Judaism. Their motives may have been influenced by movements foreign to Judaism. But they don’t realize that - having been raised to think that what they are doing is just fine. If we treat them with respect, we will have a far better chance to reach out to them and perhaps someday welcome them as fully observant members of our community. It would not be the first time a sincere Conservative Jew found authenticity in Orthodoxy. But if things continue as they are, it may be the last.