The pivotal breakthrough which now seems likely to oblige haredim to share the
burden in terms of conscription and gainful employment heralds a belated and
dramatic review of the relationship between the state and religion. The question
is whether these changes will intensify the trends toward divisiveness and
polarization or lead to mutual understanding and national unity.
the hysteria and sensationalism surrounding secondary issues such as the Women
of the Wall brouhaha continues to be blown totally out of
There is surely madness in the air to have women, including
prominent secular activists affiliated with the far-left Meretz party, gathering
for prayers at the Kotel, wrapped up in traditionally male tallitot and in some
cases wearing tefillin.
It provide ingredients for a slapstick
There are of course also genuine followers of Conservative and
Reform Jewish streams who reject traditional gender separation and are
accustomed to egalitarian prayer. A small number of traditionally observant
women also attend halachically-based women’s services which are not totally
egalitarian but are still frowned upon by most Orthodox rabbis. And prior to
1948, men and women were not separated at the Kotel.
The case against
this agitation is that the bulk of the 10 million Jews who pray annually at the
Kotel are, at best, uncomfortable and in many cases distressed and outraged at
being disturbed during prayer by women they consider to be acting in breach of
the tradition in which they were nurtured.
It is all very well to insist
on minority rights which, under ideal circumstances, should apply. But human
behavior and especially religious sensitivities of the majority must also be
taken into account. It is unlikely that “Women of the Wall” would flaunt their
independent approaches to worship if they knew that they were offending
Christian or Muslim worshipers.
Indeed, the Israeli authorities have
taken sensitivities to the most absurd and extreme level by actually denying
Jews the right to worship on the Temple Mount at any time and at any location.
The number of active Reform and Conservative Jews residing in Israel is minimal
and thus, until recently, the average Israeli was disinterested or bemused by
However, the issue exploded after Israelis were shocked
by the excessive reaction of the Israeli police who, pressured by the
ultra-Orthodox, arrested and jailed women for wearing prayer shawls at the
Kotel. The ugly and offensive haredi demonstrations at the Kotel also created a
furor and received such wide international media coverage that the issue was
transformed into a major Israel- US Diaspora confrontation.
opinion obliged the prime minister to intervene, which led to the acceptance of
the Sharansky proposal to extend the Western Wall Plaza to include Robinson’s
Arch specifically to provide access for the Women of the Wall to gather and pray
as they desire.
Had both factions to this dispute not deliberately
polarized the situation, we would have been spared this pain and ridicule. Had
the women prayed quietly, with or without tallitot, the authorities should have
ensured that they be left in peace. Had the haredim ignored the women and
avoided these confrontations, there is little doubt that, in the course of time,
at least the secular leftist political activists would simply have stopped
“praying” at the Kotel.
The Women of the Wall issue also gained public
support because it became perceived as yet another example of efforts by the
combined forces of the haredim and the more right-wing religious Zionist
elements to impose their stringent interpretations of Jewish law over the entire
Many Israelis also, mistakenly, bracketed this issue with recent
efforts to impose gender separation in transportation, public functions and in
some cases even in the streets. The current attempts to enforce prohibitions
against listening to a woman singing and the separation of the sexes – even in
some sections of Bnei Akiva, the religious Zionist youth movement – was never
the approach of mainstream Judaism by even the most revered Orthodox former
rabbinical leaders such as Chief Rabbi Herzog, Chief Rabbi Goren or Rabbi
Needless to say, extremists on both sides are elated that
this Kulturkampf is polarizing the country, despite the fact that it encourages
mutual loathing and intolerance and deepens the chasm between the Orthodox and
It is clear that the increasing rigidity and efforts by
the ultra-Orthodox to impose their standards on the entire nation, combined with
the failure of their rabbis to encourage their students to carry the burden of
the draft and earn a livelihood rather than being dependent on state welfare,
has alienated the nation.
They are now often perceived as selfish,
obscurantist, and unwilling to share the burden of civic
On the other hand, there is no denying that many of
those graduating from the secular school stream are utterly ignorant of Judaism
or its practice and could just as well be described as Hebrew Canaanites. Much
of the ignorance of Jewish tradition among nonobservant Israelis is due to the
failure of the Education Ministry to include Jewish heritage in the mainstream
curriculum. Alas, many rabbis have even preferred to have secular students
educated in a totally atheist environment rather than have Jewish tradition
taught in a non-Orthodox environment.
And in contrast to the outreach
approach of Diaspora Jews, Israeli children from non-observant homes are
discouraged from enrolling in the state religious school stream. In the early
years of the state, graduates of the secular stream were at least proficient in
Tanach (Biblical studies), but after a number of Meretz ministers headed the
Education Ministry even this was undone, as a greater emphasis was placed on
Third World studies and more contemporary subjects.
The appointment of
Rabbi Shai Piron as education minister is likely to restore and infuse Jewish
values and heritage into the secular educational system. His track record
indicates that he will avoid coercion or attempts to enforce religious belief or
observance. The Tali system created by the Conservatives is a role model which
may be emulated.
We are now facing major changes in the relationship
between religion and state. These have the potential of either intensifying the
polarization which has been dividing the country or alternatively creating an
environment in which Jewish values will be extended to a much wider section of
the Israeli population.
The determining factor will be the extent to
which both sides display tolerance and understanding of each other’s
sensitivities and seek to ease rather than exacerbate prevailing
I see hopeful signs that we are moving in the right direction.
Over recent years there has undoubtedly been a greater inclination on the part
of non-observant Israelis to become more closely connected to Jewish traditions
and values. That will only succeed in the absence of coercion and with the
recognition that while the ultra-Orthodox are fully entitled to impose upon
themselves the most stringent interpretations of halacha, they will only create
division and generate anti-religious attitudes if they seek to impose their way
of life on the entire community.
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