An Open Letter to Leah Aharoni, on Behalf of Religious Freedom in Israel

I, a Women of the Wall sympathizer, am not trying to 'liberate' you as an Orthodox Jew, but raise my status from second class to equal.

“Finally,” I thought after reading that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharanzky the green light to move ahead with his plan for egalitarian prayer services at the Western Wall.  “Finally, we are headed in the right direction.”

I truly believed this would mean that we were moving beyond religious inequality in Israel. I kept thinking - and hoping - that next month I will be able to reap the benefits of Israel’s democratic process, wherein the laws of the Jewish state will finally stride toward accepting a wide range of religious practice.

However, the battles for religious authority and the ability to practice one’s religion as one chooses without harassment or legal sanctions continues. Once again this month, without fail, I read something so profoundly enraging, so problematic and so offensive, that I feel with every step forward there are those trying to make us take two back.

This time it was Leah Aharoni, in her opinion article, “The misogyny of the Women of the Wall” in The Times of Israel. In her article, Aharoni writes:

“So, dear Women of the Wall, please don’t try to liberate me. Empowerment and victimhood are a choice, not a circumstance ... I have liberated myself from the need to predicate my identity on becoming ‘one of the boys’ ... I have tapped into a 3,000-year old tradition, which validates women … I am profoundly grateful to have the privilege, denied to generations of my foremothers, to visit the Kotel, touch its stones, and pour my heart out to the One Above. He hears me, alright. No paraphernalia necessary.”

And so, I share with you an open letter to Mrs. Aharoni:

Dear Mrs. Aharoni,

No one is trying to liberate you. You, unlike me, the members of Women of the Wall and their supporters, have the right to pray as you choose each and every day at the Kotel. You, unlike me and other Jews who believe and practice non-Orthodox Judaism, have a right in Israel to live by Jewish law as you wish, including, but not limited to, how you pray. You, unlike my community members and fellow non-Orthodox Jews in Israel, can choose which rabbi will officiate at your wedding and sign your Ketubah, and have that marriage recognized by your state. Your rabbis, unlike my rabbinic colleagues in Israel, can walk someone through the journey toward choosing a Jewish life without being questioned. In every way, you are free to be who you are as a Jew in private and in public.

I, however have no such luxury. Nor do any other non-Orthodox Jews.

Non-Orthodox Jews like myself are treated as second-class citizens in terms of our religious identities. Non-Orthodox Jews pay the same taxes and serve in the same army, but are unable to worship where and how they want in the most holy of public spaces - the Kotel. Non-Orthodox clergy are treated without authority, authenticity or respect by the state, and find themselves battling to simply live the Jewish life they want.

The Women of the Wall and their supporters aren’t trying to liberate you; we are trying to liberate Judaism from the ties of an Orthodox hegemony. We are trying to build an Israel that allows all of us - yes, including you - to practice Judaism with equal treatment under the law, even though our way of doing so looks very different.

We both have the right to practice our Judaism with our own beliefs and our own way of living a Jewish life. Isn’t this what “lihiyot am hofshi be’artzeinu” is all about - a nation free from the tyranny of religious hegemony and domination, not only from outside forces, but from internal domination as well?

Sincerely, Rabbi Elianna Yolkut

Many years ago in Orthodox day school, I was taught the rabbinic dictum, “kol yisrael aravim ze lezeh” – all of Israel as one is responsible for the other. I used to think it was about protecting one another against external forces like anti-Semitism or a community’s responsibility to lift up a person dealing with loss, financial strain or disaster. Now I have come to understand it in entirely different way – we are all obligated, in a religious sense, to ensure we have the right to freely practice our Judaism in Israel and the Diaspora. Without doing so, none of us are a free people.

Rabbi Elianna Yolkut works throughout N.Y.C. and beyond, teaching, speaking and writing Torah. You can find her at www.rabbielianna.com

AP