Sunday, June 13, 2021

A Preventable Chilul HaShem

Charedi extremists tearing up a prayer book (TOI)
Two wrongs do not make a right. That little piece of wisdom is something we ought to learn quite early in life. But don’t tell that to the hooligans who took what should have been an exercise of their legitimate right to peaceful protest and instead turned into a Chilul HaShem! 

A few days ago, a feminist group that calls themselves the Women of the Wall (WOW) led by Reform Rabbi Anat Hoffman took part in their monthly prayer service at the Kotel. While many of the women that participate in this prayer group are Orthodox and sincere in their desire to serve God in a way that is spiritually meaningful to them -  and that technically does not violate halacha, it has been made clear more than once by its leaders that the primary purpose of this monthly exercise is to break another ‘glass ceiling’. 

Most Orthodox Jewish leaders consider this kind of service a break from tradition and an unnecessary provocation in the name of the most egalitarian form of feminism. Which in my view has no place in Judaism. Just because someone has a positive personal spiritual experience in doing something - that does not mean it  should be done. If WOW disturbs people who are practicing traditional modes of prayer - egalitarianism ought not be pursued. That’s just basic common decency. 

It’s kind of like when a bunch of people celebrating Simchas Beis HaShoeva - which entails vigorous dancing while singing loudly - keep doing it at the top of their lungs late into the night when neighbors  nearby are trying to sleep.  It is a selfish thing to do despite the spiritual inspiration it may give the participants. 

But what has happened more than once is that violence breaks out from some of the people protesting this monthly WOW event. And what happened in this latest attempt was more of the same and purely evil. From the Times of Israel: 

Dozens of Haredi extremists harassed Women of the Wall worshipers at their monthly service at the Western Wall on Friday, snatching a suitcase carrying their prayer books and tearing out the pages.

Several of them shouted that the prayer books were “sifrei ha-minim” — “books of the sectarians,” which Jewish law orders be destroyed. 

First of all, if these prayer books were the traditional prayer books used by Orthodox Jews all over the world, they are NOT sifrei ha-minim. There is no reason to believe that the Orthodox women participating would use anything other than traditional prayer books published by reputable Orthodox publishers. Tearing them up is a grave violation of the biblical level law forbidding the erasure or destruction of God’s name. Which is of course printed many times in prayer books. 

But the people doing this are ignorant extremists that care only about causing trouble – using a legitimate protest to do that. In doing so they have caused a major Chilul HaShem. If their goal was to prevent this from ever happening again, that will clearly not work. It never has – even when these women were physically attacked. What it does instead is create worldwide sympathy for WOW.  Especially in a world that increasingly sees egalitarianism to be the highest ethical imperative superseding all other values – including biblical ones. 

The last thing those of us that oppose this monthly feminist event need is negative publicity. That will not serve our purpose. It serves theirs. 

The question is, how did it come to this? What motivates these hooligans to constantly cross all lines of legitimate peaceful protest? I think there is a lot of blame to be shared by both sides. The rhetoric by some of the Charedi leadership and Charedi members of the Keneset has been pretty inflammatory. It may not be their intent , but that rhetoric is taken by protestors a a clarion call to do whatever is necessary to stop WOW. Even if they need to resort to violence. 

On the other hand, when WOW organizers attempt to violate the conditions of those monthly prayer services with provocative measures like trying to smuggle a Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) into the Kotel Plaza, they should not be surprised that it is going to incite protestors to act more aggressively. 

The irony of all this is that a compromise had almost been worked out where WOW would get their own Kotel space near the Kotel Plaza. That would have (hopefully) eliminated all the friction and bad publicity. Unfortunately the devil in this case is what it always is: in the details. Agreement couldn’t be reached and that is where things stand now. 

If there is going to be any solution to this monthly problem - executing that comprise is it. It ought to be one of first things to be resolved by the new Keneset. It may not be the most important item on their agenda. But it should be one of the easier ones to resolve. All it needs is to have people of good will on both sides to reach a compromise that everyone can live with. 

In the meantime the hooligans that were involved in that Chilul HaShem ought to be treated with the severity their Chilul HaShem requires. Perhaps a significant amount of time in the hoosegow will chastise them enough to never attempt that kind of behavior again. Will it happen? Probably not. But one can hope…