Women of the Wall 521.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Are these debates for the “sake of Heaven”? (Pirkei Avot 5:20) The debates
raging in the press and throughout the Jewish world about whether or not Jewish
women should have equal access the Western Wall as men do are not only about the
Women of the Wall. The arrests and debates have gained so much attention (in The
Jerusalem Post, The New York Times, Haaretz, the LA Jewish Journal and the New
York Daily Forward, some of which were in response to my piece with Yossi Klein
Halevi in the New York Jewish Week and our ensuing debate) precisely because, at
its core, this debate is about the collective future of the Jewish democratic
state and of the Jewish people. The legal and political issues being discussed
are really about the meeting of modern Jewish values – egalitarianism, pluralism
and democracy – with the realities of Israeli politics and the pre-modern views
of some ultra-Orthodox leaders. These encounters represent the deepest
challenges of Judaism and modern life.
Let’s be clear; whether or not one
identifies with liberal Judaism, with the Women of the Wall (a
multi-denominational group of Israeli women), with the mainstream Israeli status
quo politicians, or with the ultra-Orthodox (and their disproportional control
of most of Israel’s religion budget, ceremonies, synagogues and sites), the core
issues are as follows, and our future here will depend on how we respond to them
and whether we demand that our nation’s leaders respond to them: 1. The humanity
and equality of Jewish women in general and in the Jewish democratic State of
Israel in particular. Can women be sent to the back of the bus, forced to be
relegated to secondary spaces and institutions and be made absent from the
public sphere? 2. The legitimacy of non-Orthodox Judaism.
egalitarian movements (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and all
other non-Orthodox groups) have equal representation, equal access and equal
resources in Israel? Or will they continue to be treated as second-class
citizens, receiving lesser resources and their rabbis not being recognized even
while they are required to pay taxes and serve equally in the IDF? 3. The
current and future connection of non- Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora to Israel
and to Jerusalem. Should Diaspora Jews – their leaders, such as Rabbi Rick
Jacobs (president of the Union for Reform Judaism) and the many non- Orthodox
major philanthropists who contribute enormous resources to Israeli institutions
and initiatives, such as Birthright, continue to focus on Israel as the homeland
of the entire Jewish people even when the modern Judaism of millions of these
Jews is rejected, thus allowing a minority of ultra-Orthodox men to continue to
control many aspects of Jewish Israeli political life?
AN ARGUMENT that is “for
the sake of Heaven” will have a positive outcome, the sages of the Mishna argue
(Pirkei Avot 5:20). Conversely, according to the famous statement, an argument
that does not have a positive outcome is not “for the sake of Heaven.” Rabbis
Hillel and Shammai are brought as examples of the former and Korah and his
followers as models of the latter.
Finding positive resolutions to these
issues will require deeply pluralistic respect, such as the respect that the
Houses of Hillel and Shammai had for one another, as well as prophetic
capacities to understand what lies ahead. Regardless of how such matters are
resolved in the short term, the discussion around these issues should and must
be a civil discourse and very much a debate “for the sake of Heaven” because its
consequences will determine our future.
To the extent to which our future
is determined by our leadership, whom we support in the upcoming election should
then be determined – at least in part – by if and how our political candidates
address these questions: 1. Do they believe that women are fully equal to men
and should have the opportunity to be equal in every aspect of the public
sphere? Politicians today will always answer yes.
2. Do they accept
today’s too-vague definition of “who is a Jew”? Do they believe that multiple
ways of living a deep and meaningful Jewish life strengthen the Jewish people in
Israel? 3. Do you believe that the ongoing connection to Israel of Jews
throughout the world is essential for Israel’s and the Jewish people’s survival?
Won’t politicians always say yes to these questions? Or is that beside the point
for our purposes here? This is the time to decide that we do not want to be
divided further, and instead to find a way to live together in a Jewish
democratic State that allows for full equality for women, for pluralism, for
sharing resources among various recognized streams of Judaism and thus a
possible shared future. Otherwise, I fear that we are headed toward a future
determined by sinat hinam (senseless hatred), which destroyed the second Temple
according to our talmudic sages.
We must find a way to respond to these
issues together if we want to claim for our descendants, like Abraham wanted to
claim when he buried Sarah here, our eternal, unbroken collective connection to
this sacred land. A connection and claim maintained by Jacob and Joseph even
when they lived outside the Land (as we see in this week’s Torah portion,
Ironically, we have found a way to compromise even with the
Muslim Palestinian community at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and use
special security forces and legal powers to ensure peace and equal access. Even
with the great differences among Jews in Israel and around the world, I believe
we will one day find a way toward new and creative possibilities for the Jewish
people, even at the Western Wall.
Then we will know that the debates of
today were “for the sake of Heaven,” in the spirit of Hillel and Shammai, who,
despite their deep differences, found a way to respect and even integrate each
others’ opinions along the way.
Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, PhD,
is a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and teaches at the Hebrew
Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. Her column appears