An Open Letter to Naftali Bennett on ultra-Orthodoxy, Jewish Pluralism and the Women of the Wall

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Dear Naftali – or should I say – esteemed Minister of Religious Affairs, I really don’t envy your position when it come to Women of the Wall. Your party, Habayit Hayehudi ("The Jewish Home"), represents the national religious public, a group that is stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the controversy that erupted with such ferocity on Friday.

It’s so easy for the ultra-Orthodox, the haredim – they have a clear-cut position that what the Women of the Wall want to do is unholy and unnatural. They are not only against the Reform and Conservative members of the group who want to wear ritual garments like tefillin and tallit, but even object to the practices of the Orthodox feminists in the group who want merely the right to engage in public women-only prayer at the Wall.

The issue is equally simple for those in the non-Orthodox movements who believe in pluralistic Judaism, and feel that the holy site of Western Wall should belong to all Jews, and every Jew should be able to pray there according to his conscience and that the site should not be limited to conventional Orthodox practices.

The national religious citizens of Israel – or as they are more commonly known abroad – the modern Orthodox – are stuck in the middle. By and large, you disapprove of the way in which the haredi rabbis have conducted themselves in this matter – I’m sure you don’t believe that shouting curses and throwing garbage at praying women is appropriate behavior.

And yet, like most Orthodox Jews, you are inherently uncomfortable with the prospect of women praying, wrapped in tallitot and wearing tefillin, and reading from the Torah, in a manner which you feel should be restricted to men. This, despite the fact that the non-Orthodox Women of the Wall respect the gender segregation of the site and don’t expect to engage in mixed prayer as they are accustomed to.

Although you may know in theory this is how they pray in Reform and Conservative synagogues in Israel and abroad, to you it still feels like a deliberate provocation in a holy site. The truth is many of the leading national religious rabbis wish as fervently as their haredi counterparts, that the non-Orthodox streams in Israel would stay in the closet, keeping their abominations behind closed doors. They are much more comfortable with a setup where the secular keep to their non-kosher restaurants and bars and making their television shows and clubs, and leave the realm of public worship and prayer exclusively Orthodox.

In view of your party’s position and your role as Religious Affairs Minister, you’ve decided to step in. It was reportedly your request that made the Women of the Wall refrain from fanning the flames and bringing a Torah scroll to the Wall on Friday, and it was announced that you are working on formulating new regulations on prayer at holy sites, presumably to enshrine in law a solution that would limit the possibilities for prayer at the Wall more strictly than the recent District Court decision that moved police to make the switch from detaining the Women of the Wall to protecting them. Many fear that given your orientation and that of many in your party, you will work to roll back the court victories that the recent worship at the Wall represented for the Women of the Wall.

It is legitimate for you to get involved and search for a solution that will keep the peace. But as you do, I hope you seriously consider why you personally carry a special responsibility to remain especially sensitive to Reform and Conservative Judaism and must not put forth a plan that demeans or degrades non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

Unlike many of your counterparts – as the child of immigrants from the United States – you have special personal reason to understand their importance.

We know that your father was a fifth-generation San Franciscan, who can trace his family’s Bay area origins back to the days of the California Gold Rush, and your mother’s family came from Eastern Europe with the great wave of immigration in the early 1900s. We also know that your parents were “longtime members of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.” If you read up on the congregation's history, you learn that this synagogue - the oldest west of the Mississippi - was, in fact, founded by German Jews who came to the area during the Gold Rush in the 1840s and ever since, has represented “a beacon of Reform Judaism” in the community.

In its mission statement, the synagogue declares among other goals, like embracing diversity and reaching out to intermarried families, that it believes in “strengthening the connection of our members to the State of Israel and worldwide Jewry.” This clearly worked on your parents, as it led them to take a vacation in Israel, a vacation that turned into a permanent stay. As they lived in Israel they became more observant; you went to state religious schools and became active in Bnei Akiva.

Think for a moment what would have happened if, in the United States, during those long decades between the time your ancestors made their way from the shtetl to the U.S. seeking security and prosperity, their only alternatives had been strictly Orthodox Judaism or assimilation. Without Reform Judaism, without synagogues like Congregation Emanu-El, do you think there any chance you would be Jewish or Israeli today? Or did the synthesis of Jewish practice and identification with a modern non-Orthodox identity, keep a flame burning that helped your family stay Jewish, eventually brought your parents to Zionism and Israel, and your identity as an Orthodox Israeli? Without it, don’t you think chances are high that you might well be named Norman Bennett and attend an Episcopal Church in San Francisco?

A few weeks ago, I attended the Bat Mitzvah of my niece at in Boston. Temple Israel, the equivalent of your parent’s San Francisco synagogue: a large established Reform synagogue – one of the pillars that maintain the Jewish community there. My little niece stood, wearing a multi-colored tallit, and read her Torah portion.

There were certainly many elements of the service and the celebration afterwards you wouldn’t approve of or identify with, but there was a spirit there, a Jewish spirit, of belonging and identification, of comfort with the liturgy, the synthesis of Jewishness and the American mainstream without full assimilation that isn’t something one can take for granted. How can my niece – and her family – identify and love and support a Jewish state that won’t allow her Israeli counterparts to worship as she does, and that they feel doesn’t respect it?

Preserving the free expression of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism at the Western Wall and giving them a place of equality and dignity, isn’t just about feminism, civil rights or power struggles with the haredim. While it is certainly about all of these things, it also importantly, about protecting the connection to the wide spectrum of Jewish religious practice around the world. You know that without these practices, including those with which you don’t personally identify or feel comfortable with, you almost certainly wouldn’t be who you are today – the Minister of Religious Affairs in a Jewish state.

Women of the Wall, May 10, 2013Credit: Tali Mayer
Naftali Bennett, godfather of the proposed Jewish identity agency.Credit: Emil Salman
Women of the Wall protests, May 10, 2013Credit: Tali Mayer

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