Monday, December 12, 2016

A Bad Idea – The Proposed Kotel Law

Protesters arguing with Charedim (Ha'aretz)
When I heard Conservative Rabbi Andrew Sacks claiming that egalitarian sevices are Halachicly sound, it re-enforced my resolve to oppose them. It has long ago been established that Halacha does not recognize a Minyan composed of anything other than a minimum of 10 adult men. 

9 men  and even 100 women do not constitute a Minyan. This has nothing to do with my own feelings about the inequity of such a situation. This is Halacha whether I or anyone else likes it or not. Even Open Orthodoxy requires a Mechitza separating men and women during prayer services.

A confrontation between Israeli authorities and a group of protesters some of whom were carrying Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) took place at the Kotel Plaza not long ago. Their goal was to change the decades long status quo that allows only traditional modes of prayer.

I have no problems with protesting a government whose policies are universally considered discriminatory. But when people disrupt a traditional prayerful atmosphere for their own specific agenda which is not universal my support stops. That is not discrimination. It’s about forwarding an agenda which is not universally accepted  

To say that the Kotel belongs to everybody (as is the constant refrain of these protesters) may be true. But that does not justify doing whatever one feels like doing – even if they believe they are doing it for God. 

A lot of people sincerely think they do things for God. That doesn’t make it so. Who determines what God wants? God has given man the Torah and mandated the rabbis to interpret it. In Israel it is the Chief Rabbinate – a mandate they have had from the founding fathers predating the State itself. Israel has every right therefore to define what is and isn’t considered proper Jewish behavior with respect to religious sites like the Kotel. The Rabbinate is in charge. Not an outside group that wants to change things. Israel therefore has every right to thwart challenges and enforce the law.

Protesters pushing their way into a holy place where traditional modes of prayer are taking place creates a distraction at best and possibly even havoc. Furthermore these protesters cynically used Seifrei Torah as shields.  This in turn caused the usual extremists to react badly. I wouldn’t be surprised if the organizers of this protest anticipated the reaction by the police hoping to generate sympathy for their cause.

Personally I have no sympathy for either the protesters or the extremists that reacted. One may be sympathetic to the goals of one side or the other. But one cannot – should not - be sympathetic to their methods. This was an outrageous attempt by outsiders to challenge the authority of the rabbis that are legally in charge of the Kotel. Their purpose was clearly to advance their agenda. The only question is - what is their agenda, really?

None of this is new. Nor is the fact that there was an actually compromise proposed in the Keneset that was unopposed by the Charedi parties. That should have ended the conflict. Which is why I reluctantly supported it. It would have given these people their own place to practice any version of worship they claimed to be legitimate to Judaism. It would have allowed the Kotel Plaza to retain its traditional Orthodox character and not be constantly disrupted by the nontraditional forms of worship.

(Although that compromise would not have satisfied the Women of the Wall since many of them  they do not consider egalitarian prayer services to be legitimate. But that is beyond the scope of this post.)

Why do I bring this subject up again? Because, I am dismayed at a report in Ha’aretz about the heavy handed way the religious parties have recently responded to this phenomenon - no doubt fueled by that last protest. They have proposed a law that actually mandates either a stiff fine or even jail time for something as simple as a woman wearing a Talis at the Kotel Plaza. From Ha’aretz
The new bill was initiated by Shas, the ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi party. It was signed not only by all the members of the two ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset – Shas and United Torah Judaism – but also by three members of the Likud, Oren Hazan, David Amsalem and Miki Zohar, and by three members of the religious pro-settler Habayit Hayehudi, Bezalel Smootrich, Motti Yogev and Nissan Smoliansky.  
Even though that last protest caused me to be even more determined to oppose them, this proposed new law has the opposite effect on me. Furthermore if it passes it will no doubt backfire.  The last thing the government needs is to generate sympathy for a group they oppose by coming down too harshly on them. What will be gained?  If anything the opposition will become even more determined. And more fierce. Protest will surely increase and possibly become more violent! And if the report in Ha’aretz is true (there are conflicting reports) it would end any possible compromise: 
It would also prevent men and women from holding mixed services at the area known as the upper plaza, right above the gender-separated prayer plazas adjacent to the actual wall.  
I have been told by an Orthodox rabbi involved in the original compromise that it would have been reluctantly accepted by the religious parties had not the Reform and Conservative movements demanded recognition by the government be included. If I understand correctly, that demand is what scuttled the deal. 

I would have preferred that a compromise be reached that would have given the protesters a place to worship God in their own way – misguided though I believe them to be. But the leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements weren’t satisfied with anything less than full recognition, thus undermining any progress they might have made. 

At the same time, though, this proposed new law may end up aiding them more than any protest they have had in the past. The religious parties are playing right into the hands of the very people they are fighting. If this law is passed it will surely generate sympathy for their egalitarian cause and more animosity for the rabbinate. Is pursuing this law really a good idea? I don’t think so.