It’s easy to dismiss the antics of Warrior of the Wall Anat Hoffman. Her guerrilla gatherings of women in vocal prayer services at the Kosel Maaravi, or Western Wall, in defiance of an Israeli Supreme Court decision and in affront to the traditional Jewish men and women who most frequent the prayer site, are legend. That’s largely because Ms. Hoffman, head of “Women of the Wall” and executive director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, makes sure the media are summoned and present to record her activities and detainments, which number eight at last count. She can bank, too, on the support – although some of it is uneasy – from the non-Orthodox American Jewish community.
Even those of us, however, who see danger and disunity in Ms. Hoffman’s goal of “liberating” the Wall from Jewish religious tradition – halacha forbids Jewish men from hearing the voices of women singing or chanting – would do well to realize that not all the women who flock to the activist’s side are political agitators. Some are surely sincere, and deserve our own sincere consideration.
Imagine a woman raised in a Reform or Conservative environment, who read from the Torah at her bat-mitzvah and for whom services led by women in the presence of men are the norm. When she visits Israel and is drawn to the Kosel she may well feel that something is somehow “wrong,” that while many women are present and praying, only men are conducting group services and reading from the Torah. Can we not empathize with her? If we can’t, we are lacking. Even misguided feelings are feelings.
There are powerful arguments for maintaining the status quo at the Kosel: Halacha is the historical heritage of all Jews. The Kosel is a remnant of the courtyard wall of the Second Holy Temple, where “Orthodox” services were the only ones there were. And permitting non-traditional group services at the Kosel main plaza will invite proponents of atheistic “Humanistic Judaism” to claim their fair share of the area, not to mention “Hebrew Christian” groups seeking their own time-share.
Making the case for halachic standards at the Kosel with reason, though, is one thing. More important than arguments in the end is empathy – on all sides.
For tradition-revering Jews, empathy means not confusing rabble-rousers with heartfelt Jews, not dismissing the feelings of differently-raised fellow Jews of good will.
And for those latter Jews, empathy means trying to feel what traditional Jews at the Kosel will feel if they are compelled by their commitment to halacha to leave the plaza during vocal women’s services.
I once queried a young granddaughter of mine about what she brought to school for lunch. She listed an assortment of sandwiches but an iconic one was missing. “What about peanut butter?” I asked. Her eyes widened and she said, “Oh, no. We don’t bring peanut butter into the school. Some kids are ‘lergic to it!”
The following week I was interviewed on a Jewish television program about the “Women of the Wall.” I had not planned to recount my conversation with my grandchild but it unexpectedly sprung to mind and I did. It surely inconveniences children with a fondness for peanut butter, I mused to the interviewer, to be unable to enjoy it for lunch. But concern for the sensitivities of others trumps our personal preferences, as it should. I suggested that sensitivities come in different colors. A halacha-abiding man may not be literally ‘lergic to women’s chanting. But in a way he is.
No doubt, Ms. Hoffman and others would proclaim that they are equally hurt by being unable to hold services “their way” at the Kosel, that their own tradition is insulted by halachic restrictions. But I think that a sincere, agenda-less non-Orthodox Jew will find the claim unpersuasive.
For more than forty years, the Kosel has been a place – perhaps the only one in the world – where Jews of all affiliations and persuasions have regularly prayed side by side. That has been possible because of the good will of non-Orthodox Jews – Israelis and Westerners alike – who, although they may opt for very different services in their own homes, synagogues or temples, have considered the feelings of those who embrace the entirety of the Jewish religious tradition.
Recapturing that good will amid a manufactured and media-seductive “War of the Wall” will not be easy. We Orthodox, though, might begin with empathy for fellow Jews who were raised very differently from us. And perhaps, in turn, that will merit us their empathy as well.
© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran
“It’s All in the Angle” (Torah Temimah Publications), a collection of selected essays by Rabbi Shafran, is now available from Judaica Press.