Human RightsIsrael

All or Nothing at the Western Wall

All or Nothing?

A friend asked an interesting question the other day.

“If Israel can’t be the Israel you envision, is it better to not have Israel at all?”

Many of the haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) clearly feel that way. They are anti-Zionist and believe the current state of Israel, run by a secular government filled with treif (unkosher) eating Sabbath violators is an affront to God. They’d rather live under Palestinian rule until the Messiah comes and we are ruled as in a fictional day of old with a king descended from King David guided by a council of 70 rabbis called the Sanhedrin.

But do I, a liberal Israeli Jew feel the same way?

That wasn’t exactly her question – but it really is what she meant by her question, so I’ll try to explain. And a lot of people might not like my answer.

The context of the discussion was about the current flap in Israel over an egalitarian prayer section at the Kotel (Western Wall). She finds it terrible that there is such discord in the Jewish world. She envisions the Muslims looking down from their perch on the Temple Mount, Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, and seeing all of the division in the Jewish people and seeing an opportunity for them to win and drive us out. We’re so divided. “Those Jews can’t agree on anything, it’ll be easy for us to defeat them.”

So she asked, “is it better to have the Kotel the way it is (an ultra-Orthodox synagogue) than to not have it all?”

I dodged answering the question at the time. “I don’t see that as the choice.” But it was a dodge. I wasn’t sure what I felt. I didn’t really want to answer the question.

But I’ve given it some thought. And my answer is “better to not have it all.” But I have to explain that answer.

The battle at the Kotel isn’t really about praying in front of a bunch of rocks. To a certain degree, I could agree that’s not so important. God is everywhere. What the battle is about is the heart of soul of Israel. It’s about freedom of religion for Jews in Israel. That’s what makes this battle so important, and why both sides are so passionate about it.

There’s a teaching in the Talmud that says “who is wise? “Haroeh et hanolad,” one who can see at the outset where something is leading.

There is no freedom of religion for Jews in Israel. The fact that Judaism’s holiest site, the Kotel, is an ultra-Orthodox synagogue is just the tip of the iceberg. The same ultra-Orthodox control who can marry who. Intermarriage is against the law in Israel. It’s against the law for a kohen, a man who’s a descendant of the priestly class, to marry a woman who’s been divorced or who’s a convert (because the Torah seems to feel they are somehow “damaged” or “impure,” not suitable for the sanctity required to serve in the Temple). Never mind that the Temple was destroyed 1,947 years ago and priests no longer serve those functions. The ultra-Orthodox have a monopoly on the word “kosher.” Nongovernmental kosher certification authorities aren’t allowed to use the word “kosher.” You can’t even be buried without interference from the ultra-Orthodox.

Israel has no Constitution. There is currently no protection for minorities – such as Arabs and non-Orthodox Jews – enshrined as part of the country’s fundamental code. What will happen if the haredi keep up their high birth rates, and the secular continue to seek opportunities to leave the country? What will happen 50 or 60 years from now if the haredi become a majority and can really run things the way they want to?

They could choose to stop recognizing weddings performed overseas if the parties are both Jewish Israelis. Which could have a lot of financial and other consequences for my secular friends. They could completely shut the country down on Shabbat. They could ban non-kosher food. They could install “modesty police” and insist that everyone in the country dress “appropriately.” Israel could become Saudi Arabia with a streimel (an ultra-Orthodox fur hat).

It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Most secular Jews, such as my friend, don’t care about the battle for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. They don’t go there, they don’t care, they don’t mind that the haredi run the place. Having to go to Cyprus to avoid the ultra-Orthodox religious establishment when it comes to marriage is inconvenient, but it’s not that big a deal. A $100 plane and a day trip. Not worth making a huge fuss over.

What my secular friends don’t seem to understand is that this is both a human rights battle, and a battle for the future of Israel. Is Israel going to be an enlightened Western democracy that protects the rights of ALL its citizens, or is going to be a theocracy run by ever more extreme religious zealots?

The Kotel might not be important to my secular friends, but don’t they see that there are Jews for whom it is important who aren’t ultra-Orthodox, and they deserve to be free to worship according to their customs, with equal treatment and access?

If the choice is between Israel as “Saudi Arabia with a streimel” and nothing, I say nothing. We’d be better off going back to living in exile if we can’t create a country that lives up to the ideals of the Torah we hold so holy – a Torah that recognizes that each and every one of us, male, female, Jew, gentile, is created in the divine image and is entitled to respect and freedom based on that divine image. Our rabbis teach us there are 70 faces to the Torah. I feel no need to tell them how to worship and serve God; all I want is the same respect in return. I’m not saying dismantle the men’s and women’s sections – I’m just saying make room for a third section.

This struggle isn’t about the right for non-Orthodox Jews to pray in a particular fashion in front of a rock wall. It’s much much bigger than that. It’s why we Israelis can’t give up, and why our brethren overseas need to let their dollars speak by supporting organizations that work on behalf of freedom of religion and human rights for ALL of Israel’s citizens (and those living under Israeli government control) secular or religious, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Humanist, Muslim, Christian, “other,” male, female. We’re ALL created in God’s image.

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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