Tuesday, Apr 16, 2024

Women of the Wall: When Sincerity Is Not Enough

Two weeks ago, we read in Parshas Shemini how on the day of the dedication of the Mishkan, Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aharon Hakohein, brought a “strange fire in front of Hashem” and were consumed by a “fire that went forth from before Hashem.” Targum Onkelos translates a “strange fire” as one “not commanded by Hashem.” Later this summer, we will read of Korach and his followers. Korach made a specifically democratic argument against the “appropriation” of any special role in the Divine service by either Moshe Rabbeinu or his brother, Aharon Hakohein: “For the entire assembly - all of them - are holy. . . “

Nor can there be any question of the sincerity of the followers of Korach. Moshe 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. Their evident sincerity did not avail them, and each one perished in the same fashion as Nadav and Avihu.


From these two famous episodes, we learn three things. First, when it comes to Divine service, modern categories, like “rights of religious expression” and “equality,” are misplaced. Hashem 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. Korach’s challenge to the unique status of Moshe and Aharon was also a challenge to truth of the prophecy received from Hashem and, as such, met with immediate Divine punishment.


And third, sincerity – i.e., the desire, even intense desire, to worship Hashem in a particular fashion – is not enough. As we saw, Korach’s followers sincerely wanted to draw close to Hashem.


Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, the preeminent Modern Orthodox thinker, made this point once to a woman who sought his permission to wear a tallis while praying. He told her that she should first try wearing a four-cornered garment without the tzizis. 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 came from an act that had no halachic significance and forbade her from wearing a tallis. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s point was that emphasis on the subjective emotional experience reflects a pagan, not Jewish, approach to prayer. Jewish prayer takes place only within the context of the Divine command.


SINCERITY, AS A RELIGIOUS DETERMINANT, knows no bounds. More than twenty years ago, I asked one of the early leaders of Women of the Wall (WoW) – who described herself as religiously observant – on what grounds she would oppose Jews for J conducting their own minyan at the Kosel. She could not answer. Nor did she dismiss their doing so out of hand.


Leah Shakdiel, another early WoW activist, envisioned the Kosel 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 Hashem.”


The power of the Kosel derives from the fact that it is the last link to the Bais Hamikdash, which once stood on the Har Habayis above, and, as such, 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 Kosel as their heart desires and their supporters worldwide apparently recognize some limitations on “sincerity” as the ultimate desideratum. I have not heard of any Reform or Conservative fundraising campaigns to aid the Temple Mount Faithful in their desire to conduct communal prayers on the Har Habayis, yet no one denies their sincere desire to do so.


MOREOVER, there is no reason to grant the sincerity of those who come to the Kosel on Rosh Chodesh to conduct services in talleisim and tefillin. Those gatherings are more political than religious. The first such gathering was timed to coincide with an international conference of Jewish feminists in Yerushalayim more than twenty years ago. It’s safe to say that few of those at the conference were regular attendees at Rosh Chodesh minyanim.


They came to the Kosel 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 minyan, which is only halachically incumbent on men, without first being meticulous in all matters of observance equally obligatory on men and women, is a feminist statement, not a religious one.


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 that she would be going to the Kosel “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 tallis. The prime attraction of the Kosel for her was the frisson of causing Orthodox Jews to gnash their teeth.


Anat Hoffman, the leading voice of WoW, is also the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center (Reform). Yet, Reform does not view the Kosel 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 towards 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 Hashem nor the experience of prayer nor Jewish thought for our times.”


If the Kosel possesses no special sanctity, why is Hoffman so eager to pray there in tallis 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, the WoW and the heterodox movements seek validation of their rites. Their first response to Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky’s proposal to partition the Kosel 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 being seen by Hashem, I imagine that even she would admit that His view extends the entire length of the Kosel. 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 Hashem.


While the Kosel 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 disuse.


THE OVERWHELMING MAJORITY OF JEWS who come to the Kosel – men and women, religiously observant and not yet observant – come not to engage in public prayer, but to pour out their whispered supplications to Hashem. Every Jew – and even non-Jews – can address any prayer to Hashem, in whatever language they want, without fear of harassment.


Anat Hoffman and her cohorts should try it.



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