Two weeks ago, we read in Parashat Shmini how Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron the
High Priest, brought a “strange fire in front of Hashem [God]” and were consumed
by a “fire that went forth from before Hashem.” Targum Onkelos translates a
“strange fire” as one “not commanded by Hashem.”
Their sin was to bring
the incense offering that only their father Aaron was designated to
Later this summer, we will read of Korah and his followers. Korah
made a specifically democratic argument against the “appropriation” of any
special role in the Divine service by either Moses or Aaron: “For the entire
assembly – all of them – are holy...”
Nor can there be any question of
the sincerity of the followers of Korah. Moses warned them that only one of
those who brought the incense offering would survive, and yet 250 showed up the
next morning and placed the incense on their censors.
sincerity did not avail them, and each perished in the same fashion as Nadab and
From these two famous episodes, we learn three things. First, when
it comes to Divine service, modern categories, like “rights of religious
expression” (see the Jerusalem Post editorial “Solomonic solution,” April 113)
and “equality,” are misplaced. God has the ultimate say in how we relate to Him
and about the form of the relationship. And He may not be egalitarian – the
second thing we learn. Korah’s challenge to the unique status of Moses and Aaron
was also a challenge to the truth of the prophecy received from God, and
punished, as such, with unusual severity by God Himself.
sincerity – i.e., the desire, even intense desire, to worship God in a
particular fashion – is not enough. As we saw, Korah’s followers sincerely
wanted to draw close to God.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the preeminent
Modern Orthodox thinker, made this point once to a woman who sought his
permission to wear a tallit while praying. He told her she should first try
wearing a four-cornered garment without the tzitzit (ritual fringes on the
corner). (Tzitzit on four-cornered garments are not halachically required for
women because the mitzva is a time-bound one.) She returned to Rabbi
Soloveitchik after three months and told him that her prayers had never been so
inspired and exhilarating. He pointed out that her exhilaration stemmed from an
act that had no halachic significance, and forbade her from wearing a tallit.
Rabbi Soloveitchik’s point was that emphasis on the subjective emotional
experience reflects a pagan, not Jewish, approach to prayer.
prayer takes place only within the context of the Divine
SINCERITY, AS a religious determinant, knows no bounds. More
than 20 years ago, I asked one of the early leaders of Women of the Wall – who
described herself as religiously observant – on what grounds she would oppose
Jews for J. conducting their own minyan at the Western Wall. She could not
Nor did she dismiss their doing so out of hand.
Shakdiel, another early WoW activist, envisioned the Western Wall becoming a
sort of center for religious rites as performance art, where “different people
dynamically evolve various forms of worship so that Jews and Muslims and
Christians can pray together to God.”
The power of the Western Wall
derives from the fact that it is the last link to the Temple that once stood on
the Temple Mount above, and as such is the enduring symbol of Jewish continuity.
For it to become a showplace for whatever is avant-garde in religious rites
would remove that power.
Even those who claim the right to worship at the
Western Wall as their heart desires, and their supporters worldwide, apparently
recognize some limitations on “sincerity” as the ultimate desideratum.
have not heard of any Reform or Conservative fund-raising campaigns to aid the
Temple Mount Faithful in their desire to conduct communal prayers on the Temple
Mount. Yet no one denies their sincere desire to do so.
NOT THAT it
matters, but I’m not convinced even of the religious sincerity of most of those
who come to the Kotel on Rosh Hodesh to conduct services in tallitot
. Those gatherings strike me as more political than religious. The first
such gathering was timed to coincide with an international conference of Jewish
feminists in Jerusalem more than 20 years ago. It’s safe to say that few of
those at the conference were regular attendees at Rosh Hodesh
They came to the Kotel to make a political statement: We reject
any gender distinctions in Judaism.
The specific attraction to forms of
garb worn for prayer by men and public prayer in a quorum, which is only
halachically incumbent on men, without first being meticulous on all matters of
observance equally obligatory on men and women, is a feminist statement, not a
An acquaintance of mine was once sitting on a plane to
Israel next to a newly minted PhD student from Michigan, who told her that her
trip to Israel to study at a “non-Orthodox yeshiva” had been fully funded. Asked
what specifically she would be doing in Israel, the young woman replied
excitedly she would be going to the Western Wall “to put on a shmatte [old
rag].” Noting the older woman’s puzzled look, she continued, “You know, a
shmatte,” while miming putting on a tallit. The prime attraction of the Kotel
for her was the frisson of causing Orthodox Jews to gnash their
Anat Hoffman, the leading voice of WoW, is also the executive
director of the Israel Religious Action Center (Reform). Yet the Reform movement
does not view the Western Wall as possessing any special sanctity. A 1999
statement of the Progressive Rabbis in Israel declared, “One should not consider
the Western Wall as possessing any sanctity... The approach of the Progressive
Jew toward worship and prayer is opposed to any renewal of the Temple, opposed
to the restoration of sacrificial worship....
The Western Wall does not
represent Jewish cleaving to God nor the experience of prayer nor Jewish thought
for our times.”
If the Western Wall, however, possesses no special
sanctity, why is Hoffman so eager to pray there in tallit and tefillin? Secular
journalist Hillel Halkin long ago asked the question: “Were they to come to the
Wall without prayer shawls, as a simple gesture of respect for the traditions of
the place, against what sacred principles of their faith would they be sinning?
Are there no other places to practice Jewish feminism in the world, in Israel,
or even in Jerusalem that they must do it at the one site where it is sure to
infuriate large numbers of Orthodox Jews?” THE ANSWER to that question is
twofold. First, WoW and the heterodox movements seek validation of their rites.
Their first response to Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky’s proposal to
partition the Western Wall into three sections – men, women and egalitarian –
was to insist that all three sections have a common point of entry. As Anat
Hoffman put it last December, “I want to see and be seen.”
“Be seen” by
whom? If Hoffman means seen by God (as in Genesis 22:14), I imagine that even
she would admit that His view extends the entire length of the Western Wall. So
she must mean some human audience. But the notion that the State of Israel or
the distinguished chairman of the Jewish Agency can confer validity on any
particular form of prayer by forcing its public viewing is, frankly, pathetic –
at least if one conceives of prayer as directed to God.
While the Western
Wall may possess no special holiness for the heterodox movements, it does offer
the maximum potential for confrontation. And Anat Hoffman is canny enough to
know that casting herself as Rosa Parks circa 1955 guarantees maximum photo-ops
in The New York Times.
And those, in turn, help fill the coffers of the
minuscule Reform movement in Israel and energize the heterodox movements abroad
by providing them with a cause – “equal religious rights.” No matter how spruced
up and expanded the new area for egalitarian prayer, the heterodox movements
will cavil at the Sharansky plan out of fear that with the potential for
confrontation reduced, the area reserved for them will quickly fall into
THE OVERWHELMING majority of Jews who come to the Western Wall
every year – men and women, religiously observant and not yet observant – come
not to engage in public prayer, but to pour out their whispered supplications to
God. Every Jew – and even non-Jews – can address any prayer to God, in whatever
language they want, without fear of harassment.
Anat Hoffman and her
cohorts should try it.The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources,
has written a regular column in T
he Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is
the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.