Hillel Halkin knows the power of words. An acclaimed author and renowned translator (of the likes of A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, Shalom Aleichem and Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon), he has written extensively and with care on the turns of phrase gracing languages spoken by Jews.
He is also a man who readily admits that, from the standpoint of Jewish practice, he falls between the Israeli distinctions of secular and (non-Orthodox) traditional. On the whole, he notes, "the religious customs and rituals that I don’t observe vastly outnumber those that I do."
Which is why it came as something of a shock when he wrote the following last week in an opinion piece in the Forward newspaper:
"The Women of the Wall, as they’re called, are childish provocateurs. They have all of Israel in which to pray with tefillin and tallitot. Doing it demonstratively at a site that is and always has been heavily frequented by observant Jews who find the spectacle of women in traditionally male ritual garb repugnant has nothing to do with religious freedom. It has nothing to do with any sane kind of feminism. It has nothing to do with rational political protest. It has to do only with the narcissism of thinking that one’s rights matter more than anyone else’s feelings or the public interest."
When I first came across this, I thought that I must have misread it. I thought, this could not be as demeaning as it sounds on first reading, as gratuitously ugly, as sweepingly dismissive of serious people of rare and true valor, originality of vision, and profound awareness of past as well as future.
I was wrong.
There's much here to deal with, and doubtless others will. I'd just like to ask a question about that last sentence:
Why should the feelings of Haredim at the Wall trump the rights – and, for that matter, the feelings – of Women of the Wall, or of any of the rest of us? They don't own the Kotel, certainly no more than any of the rest of us. Nor do they necessarily respect our feelings with any more sensitivity than we respect theirs.
As far as I can tell, no one to date has paid much attention to the feelings of most Israelis as they find themselves forced to pay sporadic humiliation tithes to ultra-Orthodox apparatchiks fully as corrupt as the summer day is long.
When I was new here, and the Jewish dietary law officials came to the kibbutz every year to collect their bribes from us in order to allow us to make a living, I don't recall much concern on their part as to our feelings on the matter.
Nor when I told them whatever they wanted to hear, in order to get their permission to get married. Nor when they speak for me in the name of my religion and my people, declaring, among other things that, in wartime, Palestinians – even the unarmed, even children - should be annihilated without mercy.
I'll leave it to others to relate to other contentions of the Halkin piece. His accusation, for example, that the Women of the Wall are "besmirching an Israeli government that’s simply trying to keep the peace by portraying it throughout the world as reactionary and misogynist."
Or for the observation that no woman who seeks to make the Wall a venue for a struggle for equal rights, akin to the civil rights movement in the American South, "can really care about it as much as she pretends to."
Perhaps a year from now, thanks to the bravery of these women and an unprecedented tide of American Jewish support for their cause, a compromise may be in place, according to which the Western Wall plaza will be divided into two areas equal in size, one under the aegis and practice of the ultra-Orthodox, the other allowing egalitarian practice of all denominations.
It's not a perfect plan. There will be problems. But it recognizes, at least, that the feelings and spiritual yearnings of the non-Orthodox and the differently Orthodox are every bit as valid as the feelings and spiritual yearnings of the ultra-Orthodox.
It's not narcissism to seek to place the rights of the many ahead of the feelings of a few. It's democracy.
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