Religious Freedom at the Wall Is a Right, Not an Option

Women at the Wall call attention to legitimate concerns about the status of women in Israeli society, and for that they deserve our thanks.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

I am grateful to David Landau. His attack on Women of the Wall was so outrageous, absurd, and misinformed that it can only increase support for the values and the causes that these women advocate.

Landau, a smart and usually careful journalist, got just about everything wrong.

He claims that current ultra-Orthodox prayer patterns at the Wall must be respected in the same way that the prayer customs of Westminster Abbey must be respected. But this makes no sense because while Westminster Abbey is a church, the Western Wall is NOT a synagogue. It is a place of national and historic importance venerated by Jews of every sort and a symbol of the Jewish return to Zion; in the past, some Jews have chosen to pray at the Wall, while many others have not. Turning the Western Wall into a synagogue to be governed by a particular brand of Orthodox practice is a recent and deplorable development, intended to preserve the political prerogatives of one group of Jews at the expense of everyone else.

He claims that since Israel is a product of European culture, it is right that it should follow the European model of having a state-religion. But this makes no sense because Israel does NOT follow the European model at all. It follows what I would call the Medieval/Middle Eastern model. In England, it is true that there is an official state-religion; yet it is also true that in England all religious groupings are officially recognized; all clergy can perform weddings; funding is provided on an equal basis to the institutions of all religious denominations; and no citizen is forced to go abroad to marry because the religious establishment questions his or her marriage partner. Most non-Orthodox Jews could easily accept an Orthodox Chief Rabbi in Israel as the ceremonial head of the Jewish religious community if all the other conditions that exist in England were to exist in Israel as well.

He claims that if non-Orthodox American Jews want to influence religion-and-state issues in Israel, they need to move to Israel to augment their numbers. But this makes no sense because in modern democracies, fundamental freedoms—including freedom of religion and conscience—are NOT dependent on numbers. Modern democratic theory mandates that religious freedom is a right, not an option; Jews have demanded and now enjoy this freedom in the United States and in every western democracy, despite being a tiny percentage of the population. Surely Reform and Conservative Jews are entitled to religious equality in the Jewish state, even if their numbers are modest.

Landau does make two arguments that have partial validity.

The first is that Anat Hoffman and the Women of the Wall are engaged in a “stunt.” Well, yes, I suppose, in the sense that they are organizing things in a way that will maximize press coverage and draw attention to their cause. But so what? Israel has a vigorous press that is followed closely by Diaspora Jewry, and there is fierce competition for press attention from both the right and the left. The pro-settlement forces organize a “stunt” of their own practically every week. I can think of no reason why those advocating religious freedom and equality for women should not make use of every political lever at their disposal to advance their cause.

The second is that it is wrong to portray Israel as a “misogynist backwater.” Fair enough. Israel is not Saudi Arabia; Israeli women enjoy legal equality, and in some respects, women’s rights are more advanced in Israel than in other western democracies.

Nonetheless, there are reasons to worry. The day after the Landau article appeared, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a rabbi of great influence and one of the leading figures of the National Religious camp, was quoted as telling his Yeshiva students that women should not serve in the Knesset. (He subsequently said that he was speaking only of an “ideal situation,” while recognizing that such a situation does not exist today.) And we should remember that the views held by Aviner and the rabbis of his persuasion have practical implications. Not only are their schools and youth movements segregated by sex in a way that they never were before, but the simple fact of a group of women soldiers singing at a military ceremony has become controversial; some religious soldiers have preferred to defy orders rather than attend such an event. My point is that there are legitimate concerns about the status of women in Israeli society, constant vigilance is required, and to the extent that the Women of the Wall call attention to these concerns, they deserve our thanks.

David Landau presents himself as a liberal, but you can’t be a liberal without a commitment to religious freedom and the equality of women.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.

Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of the Women of the Wall organization, holds on to a Torah scroll as Israeli police attempt to take it from her and detain her, outside the Western Wall in 2010.Credit: AP



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