What happens when the values of pluralism held dear by American Jews conflict with the values broadcast by Israel’s government and its ultra-Orthodox minority? How can we U.S. Jews take pride in Israel’s many extraordinary accomplishments, and identify with the Jewish homeland, while critiquing Israel’s lack of religious tolerance?
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One of the crucibles of this debate about Jewish identity and pluralism is the issue of Women of the Wall. About to mark its 25th birthday as an organization dedicated to securing for women from all denominations the same prayer rights at the Western Wall assumed by men, it is also marking 25 years of attacks, assaults, curses, deafening whistles, detentions by the police and even arrests, because of their pluralistic worship.
A few months ago, the Jerusalem District Court ruled that women praying out aloud (tefilla) at the Western Wall, with prayer shawls (tallitot) tefillin and Torah - “the 4 Ts” - do not violate “local custom” or create a provocation; therefore, there was no reason to limit their prayer there.
So on what basis is the conflict continuing?
Opponents of women’s pluralistic prayer at the Kotel say: pluralism is not a Jewish value. They say: honoring our tradition means limiting prayer custom at the Kotel to Haredi custom. They say that the 11 percent of Israeli Jews who are Haredi must control every religious practice at the Kotel for all time, and ban the practice of non-Haredi Judaism, which they find offensive, in the name of preserving Judaism. And now, Minister of Religious Affairs Naftali Bennett, in defiance of the Jerusalem court's ruling, has stated that the Kotel “will receive official recognition as a prayer site to be used solely for Orthodox services.”
In fact, these assertions of fundamentalist control over Judaism’s holiest site fail to consider some of Judaism’s most fundamental values. Mishnah Eduyot 4:8, an almost 2000 year old rabbinic text, presents our tradition’s classic disputants – the schools of Hillel and Shammai. Their disputes covered fundamental boundary issues, including marriage eligibility and ritual purity, that were as critical in their day as questions of Jewish identity are in ours. Yet the Mishnah tells us: “[A]lthough these pronounce unfit and these pronounce fit, Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from [the daughters of] Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying women from [the daughters of] Beit Shammai. And in the case of all matters of purity and impurity in respect to which these pronounce pure and these pronounce impure, they did not refrain from preparing foods requiring a condition of purity each by means of [the vessels of] the other.”
Not only didn’t they ban one another, they married each other - even though their marriage suitability rulings conflicted. They trusted the acceptability of each other’s food – prepared according to conflicting standards.
And that’s not all.
The Babylonian Talmud narrates: “For three years the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel disagreed. These said that the halakha was according to us, and those said the halacha is in accordance with us. A heavenly voice emerged saying: ‘Both these and those are the words of the living God, and the halakha is in accordance with the school of Hillel. Since both these and those are the words of the living God, why was the halacha established in accordance with the House of Hillel? Because they were polite and forbearing and would teach both their own views and the views of the House of Shammai. Moreover, they would place the views of the House of Shammai before their own.”
Hillel and Shammai disagreed so profoundly that the dispute lasted for three years, yet both supported the words of the living God. If the core issue were purely a religious-legal decision, then both held equally legitimate positions in the eyes of God – and yet, our tradition tells us, we always follow Hillel. Why?
Hillel knew that more than “being right,” the holiness and authenticity of halakha require “doing right.” Hillel discerned God’s highest teaching - to honor and accept disputing views is indeed to walk in the ways of God, which extend beyond discerning purity, to the true fundamental value - choosing tolerance and pluralism. When we accept other Jews’ views despite ritual differences, we act in the “words of the living God” and preserve ourselves as one Jewish people - am echad.
The last surviving speaker from the civil rights March on Washington 50 years ago, John Lewis, spoke again last week. His words resonate equally in the U.S. and in Israel: “Too many of us still believe our differences define us instead of the divine spark that runs through all of human creation…we are one people, we are one family, we are all living in the same house.” And in Israel, our hearts cleave to worship at the same house – the last remnant of the Bet haMikdash, our Temple, where all Israel gathered in unity.
As we begin this New Year together, may we respect our differences, and stand unified, rather than divided. May our prayers for the restoration of fundamental Jewish values include the fundamental values of tolerance and pluralism. And let us live by “God’s living words” when we gather at the Kotel, support Israel, respect all Jews and join to honor Israel’s true fundamental values.
Rabbi Iris Richman is a Conservative rabbi and an organizer of Jewish Voices Together, which advocates religious tolerance and pluralism in the U.S. and Israel, and which sponsored several pray-ins in New York in support of religious tolerance and Women of the Wall this year.