Monday, June 26, 2017

Tradition, Sephardim, and the Kotel

Women of the Wall leader, Anat Hoffman 
One of the things I love about the Sephardi community is their Achdus. There is no such thing as a denomination in their world. Doesn’t exist. There is just one category: They are all simply Jews. No Orthodox. No Conservative. No Reform. Their rabbinic leadership resides in the man or men they see as the most learned of their time. As was the case with the late Rav Ovadia Yosef. 

It didn’t matter how observant one was. Even if not Shomer Shabbos. Rav Ovadia was the man that decided Jewish law for his time and if you were a Sephardi you didn’t dispute it. Sephardim did not look to other rabbis if they didn’t like what they heard.  If there was ever a community where Mesorah mattered, it is the Sephardi community.

How I wish this were the case among Ashkenazi Jewry. Alas, Achdus is not something we Ashkenazi Jews can claim with any degree of sincerity. We do have denominations. We even have denominations within denominations. There are people among us that are constantly thinking of ways to separate from the mainstream and do their own thing. It started in the 19th century with the enlightenment and Reform. And by now we probably have more movements and denominations than we can count. Each segment claiming their rabbis are the most direct conduit to knowing the will of God.
This phenomenon is one of the reasons we have the kinds of problems we are currently experiencing at the Kotel. Denominationalism (for lack of a better term) has caused the masses to veer away from the kinds authorities that we have always looked to in the past - as Sephardim do now. The world of Jewry has been led astray by the founders and leaders of these movements to believe that they too are following God’s law, even (as is the case in Reform) they do not require a single Mitzvah to be performed. Generations have been raised in this philosophy or variations of it in other denominations.

Back to the Kotel. Apparently Prime Minister Netanyahu has succumbed to pressure from the Charedi parties in Israel to renege on his deal with heterodox rabbis to create a space at the Kotel for egalitarian prayer. Although he is still allowing construction towards that end to continue (according to one report I saw) he has asked that a new deal be reached that will satisfy the objections Charedim have had to this one.

The response by heterodox rabbis and their constituents has been predictable. ‘Netanyahu has sold out!’  ‘He cares more about his coalition than he does about the support form the majority of Jews the majority of which are made up of heterodox Jews.’ He is only interest is retaining power – consequences be damned!’

Every editorial I’ve seen has attacked him along the above lines. One headline I saw in a supposedly respected Jewish newspaper used  ‘street language’ do describe Netanyahu’s actions toward liberal Jews.

Reform activist Anat Hoffman who heads the Women of the Wall is livid that she and her group can’t pray they way they choose to pray!

What about that? Why can’t we just let them do whatever they want? Live and let live! For me the answer has always been quite clear. We have a tradition that has had the backing of generations of devout Jewish souls that have come to the Kotel to pray. Why have we not heard the women of the past making this plaintive cry? Why wasn’t my mother or grandmother cursing out men for their lack of respecting their feminine aspirations?

Was there ever a single devout Jewish woman since the Temple era that has ever been recorded complaining about her role in Judaism? I tend to doubt it. Throughout Jewish history devout Jewish men and women accepted who and what they were. Lovingly devoting themselves in service to God in the role their parents transmitted to them. Prior to the enlightenment, I don’t think Jewish women thought of themselves as dominated by a paternalistic Jewish hierarchy. This is a modern invention.

Some will say that the Jewish women of the past were ignorant. That the enlightenment has given them insight. It has awakened mankind up to inequities between men and women. This may have been the way women were treated in general society. Jewish women were a part of it to a certain extent - albeit far less than they are today

But Judaism has been consistent in how it sees the roles of men and the roles of women. Both sexes have shared obligations to God. But each has their own as well. If there were women in Judaism that were treated badly it was not because of the roles God mandated for us. It was a reflection of the times in which they lived. But Halacha hasn’t changed. What it is now – it was then.

I therefore reject the hue and cry about the Kotel by all these liberal Jews. They clearly do not represent the Judaism of their forebears. They represent their own versions of it which  have been taught and promoted by their liberal Jewish leaders. 

All the clamor about the Kotel comes from people who care little about the traditions of the past. Enlightenment has taught them that they should be free to serve God in any way they choose. Tradition be damned. If Israel doesn’t give in to their demands…. ‘Goodbye!’

Now I realize that the ‘complainers’ are not evil people. I also realize that many of them are very sincere about serving God in their own way. Whether it be in the way the at Women at the Wall or through an egalitarian service… or simply by being active in worthy social causes like Civil Rights; or Gay Rights; or protecting the environment.

At the same time I see what their clamor is for now and compare them to their forbears. I look at the devout of the past and the devout of now and ask which ones do I believe to be best fulfilling the word of God?  I have to believe that our devout forefathers and mothers who did not have a personal desire to buck tradition are the ones more accurately fulfilling God’s will

Now I know that this approach will not win any accolades among my liberal friends (to say the least). But I believe that my traditionalist views can be found in the more pure and pristine culture of Sephardim. Which has not been diluted by denominational breakaways.  They do not look outside of their traditional rabbinic leaders for guidance. Even among those that are not all that observant - they respect them for the authorities they are.

Judaism does not look at the past and say we know better. We look at the past and say our devout ancestors did. Tradition! That is how we have been able to survive all of these centuries in hostile environments. And that’s how we will survive in the future.