Friday, June 07, 2013

When bad behavior is kosher

(This post originally ran on January 12, 2005.)

“What you’re doing is a sin! If you read the Torah here, God will never forgive you!” The woman’s soft European accent contrasted with the stridency of her tone as she leaned closer to us and added, “When you stand before God eventually and seek forgiveness for your deeds on earth, He will not grant it. Do you understand what I am saying? He will not forgive you!”

I asked her, with a trace of humor, “Are you God, then?”

“Yes!” she shot back, carried away by her own momentum. Catching herself, she tried to amend her answer, but I turned away, not knowing whether to giggle or sigh. I had heard enough.

Jewish tradition speaks of a merciful, compassionate God Who is close to us all our lives and especially near in time of trouble. Yet as the woman in the dark snood continued her warnings of terrible divine punishment I sadly realized that she was describing God as no better than the most vindictive of human beings. And as she and the others continued to shout at us, I also reflected that people who would ordinarily never dream of indulging in bad behavior find it all too easy to do so where women—particularly women who do not stay in their place—are concerned.

My prayer group, Women of the Wall, has been holding women-only prayer services in the women’s section of the Western Wall every Rosh Hodesh—the start of the Hebrew month—since December 1988. Contrary to an oft-cited misconception, we are not members of the Reform movement. (I confess that charge has always stumped me. Why on earth would the Reform movement, which holds mixed prayer services as a matter of course, need to promote women-only ones?) Nor do we pray as a minyan (a quorum of ten men). We define ourselves as a women’s tefilla [prayer] group, of which there are dozens in Israel and throughout the world, and modify our prayer service accordingly. (A number of such groups have rabbinical support and meet in established Orthodox synagogues.) Contrary to what our opponents would like to believe, the majority of our core members are religiously observant—in fact, the group was founded in large part by an Orthodox woman from Brooklyn.

In 2004, Women of the Wall held two prayer services that included a Torah reading in the women’s section of the Western Wall. In contrast to the group’s tumultuous beginnings, these services were completely calm and peaceful. I remember how some of us wept with joy, feeling that our long journey was finally over, that after nearly fifteen years of struggle women could finally pray as a group and read the Torah freely and without disturbance at our holiest accessible site. But at the end of our service a woman—a respected teacher in her community—approached us to express her pain and sorrow over our Torah reading. I felt confused. How could a person who considered herself religious feel pain over Jewish women reading from the Torah? And what, I wondered, did this teacher feel about the pain of women who, for centuries, had been denied the opportunity to learn their own scriptures?

Yet, saddened as I was by her attitude, I had to admit that at least this woman had behaved with civility and courtesy. Many others who have disagreed with us over the years do not feel bound by manners at all, to say nothing of the very religious law and tradition they claim to champion.

In June 2004, as we arrived at the women’s section of the Western Wall to begin the morning service, a long-time opponent of our group approached us. Carrying printed sheets of text in her hand, she tried to persuade us to study the laws of minhag ma-makom [local custom] with her instead of worshipping. When we refused she tried to steal our Torah scroll, which was a gift to us from Jewish women abroad.

In December 1988, opponents of Women of the Wall physically threw the Torah scroll the women had brought with them. A member of the group who was pregnant at the time caught the scroll on her abdomen rather than allow it to be desecrated by falling. Perhaps our opponents believed that a Torah scroll in women’s possession is not truly a Torah scroll and therefore unworthy of the great respect normally accorded such a sacred object. Perhaps this opponent of ours held a similar opinion regarding the theft she was attempting to commit.

If our opponent’s respect for the Torah scroll was lacking, so was her respect for her fellow human beings. As we defended our Torah scroll, she kept shoving one of our members, who was carrying her infant son, even as the young mother begged her to stop for the baby’s sake. Our opponent, who surely regards herself as a devoutly religious woman, ignored the pleas of my colleague, who finally sent the baby away with one of her older children for his own safety.

This woman then began to incite other women present at the Wall, who bombarded us with shouts and taunts. One woman tapped her hand to her lips over and over, hooting in the same way that my classmates and I used to imitate “Indians” when we were small. At one point a red-bearded man stood on a chair in front of us—in the women’s section!—and worked himself up into an inarticulate, hysterical harangue that went on for several minutes. Meanwhile, our opponent retired to a protected spot—away from the rioters she had incited as well as any police who might arrest them—to survey her handiwork from a distance.

We realized right away that the disturbance was a calculated move on our opponent’s part or on the part of whoever had sent her. A governmental delay in carrying out a ruling by Israel’s High Court of Justice had temporarily enabled our group to read from a Torah scroll legally in the women’s section of the Western Wall. The two peaceful Torah readings we subsequently held there must have worried our opponent, or those who had sent her, so much that she came all the way from the coastal city where she lives—approximately two hours from Jerusalem by car—to create a disturbance rather than allow us to hold a third one.

As we continued to pray, one of the rioting women slapped one of our members across the face. Another threw a stone. As they shouted and chanted childish slogans, at one point dragging chairs along the ground to drown out the sound of our praying (did they think they would be able to keep God from hearing us?), I couldn’t help imagining a classroom full of unruly first-graders. Apparently the women our opponent incited have no tools beyond that level to deal with ideas different from their own—and besides, the looks on their faces showed how much they were enjoying letting their hair down, so to speak.

It was probably the most fun they’d had in years.

* * * *

Some time ago a local columnist published an article about Women of the Wall, filled with the usual prejudice we’ve sadly come to expect from our opponents. In it, he referred to us as “media darlings.” I found this ironic since most of the time the Israeli media, who have no idea who we are or what we’re about, are usually anything but sympathetic. For example, some time after the disturbance our opponent incited, the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv ran an article describing her as “defender of the simple women,” implying that she had protected the innocent women worshippers at the Western Wall from a bunch of deviously clever interlopers seeking to impose their foreign ways. But the truth is that she did not defend those women at all. On the contrary: she used them. These “simple women” still hold the mistaken belief that Jewish women may not touch a Torah scroll. This highly educated woman, who knows perfectly well that this is not accurate, did not bother to disabuse them. Instead, she exploited their lack of knowledge for her own—or perhaps others’—reasons.

But what really confused me was the columnist’s description of how members of Women of the Wall supposedly stood behind the fence at the rear of the men’s section and shouted the morning prayers at the top of their lungs, with the specific intention of disturbing the men. I was there that day, and we did no such thing. Unlike our opponents, we respect all worshippers at the Western Wall, and we would never engage in such atrocious behavior. Why would the columnist write such a thing, then?

I would like to believe that he thought he was telling the truth, that perhaps he encountered a particularly ill-mannered group that day and chose to believe, based on his own prejudices and failure to check his facts, that it was Women of the Wall. Though I would rather believe that than the alternative—that he slandered us for his own purposes—I have difficulty doing so.

Here’s why. Several years ago this columnist founded a group to oppose Women of the Wall. This group sponsored a short film supposedly showing how dangerous our group is to Jewish tradition. I watched this film and was shocked at the lengths to which it went to portray us negatively. At one point it focused on a woman with an unusual hairstyle whom I have never seen with our group. The intended message was, plainly, “Look at the kind of freaks this group attracts. Do you want weirdos like this praying next to you at the Kotel?” At another point the film used misleading editing to give the impression that members of our group wear tefillin at the Western Wall. (The film’s intended audience cannot abide the idea of women wearing tefillin anywhere, and they would certainly be infuriated to see women wearing them at the Western Wall.) Yet we have never worn tefillin there as a group; when we meet at the Western Wall for prayers, those of us who have taken on the mitzvah of tefillin fulfill it elsewhere. But the film did not see fit to make this distinction. It had an agenda to promote, so the facts didn’t matter.

More recently, another opponent of our group wrote a predictably scurrilous attack on us, but from a new angle. Since high-level Jewish study is now available to women (and halakhic sources are readily available on the Internet), these days our opponents are more cautious about asserting that what we do is a violation of Jewish law. Now they say that although our actions may be technically permitted, our motives are impure. This article went even farther, asserting that our group is, knowingly or not, an arm of various movements inimical to traditional Judaism and that the sincere Jews in our group are being manipulated by sinister anti-Jewish forces.

(Well, at least the author admitted that members of Women of the Wall can be sincere Jews. That’s a first.)

As a friend of mine once observed wryly: “If you don’t have facts, there’s always innuendo.” To which I would add: If you don’t have facts, you can always make some up to suit your purpose. As far as I know, none of these columnists has ever bothered to contact a single one of us, yet they claim to have intimate knowledge of our motives. So where are they getting their information from?

* * * *

Our opponent did not come to our next prayer service. For various reasons beyond the scope of this piece, she didn’t know where or when we would be meeting. (For a time, neither did we.) Learning that a filmmaker had captured her bad behavior on camera probably put a damper on her enthusiasm as well. Shortly before our next service, she called one of our members to apologize for that behavior—and in the same phone call asked that all her appearances be edited out of the film.

During our service I rejoiced in the quiet around us, unbroken by any disturbance. Then I noticed a woman regarding us with a sour expression. She listened as one of our members gave a talk on the weekly Torah portion and then approached another member, muttering, “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

“You can speak here too if you have something pertinent to say,” my colleague offered. “Just bear in mind that everything this woman is saying has a basis in Jewish sources.”

“That doesn’t matter,” the woman said. “I don’t like it.”

And there it is. It doesn’t matter that Jewish law allows women to pray as a group and read from a Torah scroll. It makes no difference that the learned ones among us—and in dozens of women’s tefilla groups throughout the world—can cite chapter and verse to prove it. Some people would simply rather not be bothered with the facts. They don’t like what we’re doing; it makes them feel uncomfortable—and so they believe that this gives them the right to behave in ways that would earn them censure and perhaps even arrest under almost any other circumstances.

I don’t like it. My grandmother never felt the need to do that. (Oh, really? Did you ever ask her? I think you might be surprised.) It’s unfamiliar to me. It makes me feel uncomfortable. Therefore I may steal, shove, shout, slap, stone and slander. Love my neighbor? Judge my fellow human being favorably? Tell the truth? Pursue justice? Only when I agree with you; not otherwise.

This is the attitude of people who claim to be defending Jewish tradition.

It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Put on the brakes

I posted the following on the Facebook page of Women for the Wall.

* * *

W4W leaders and members, please listen.

Communicating over the Internet is like taking a joyride in a powerful automobile. The ability to reach hundreds, even thousands, of people with just a few keystrokes and clicks can be compared to the surge of power under the hood and the freedom of the road. They can be delightful. They can also be addicting, and they can, and often do, cloud judgment.

The rhetoric on this page is becoming increasingly vicious and full of hate. Likening WOW to Amalek, saying that their motive is to destroy Judaism, wishing a divinely-administered death on WOW’s members — this is inflammatory speech, and to allow it on this page, in the name of protecting Judaism, is irresponsible, to say the least.

I would like to believe that the admins of this page simply don't realize how dangerous this rhetoric is. The alternative — that they realize it and are letting it happen — is far worse.

Please. Step back. Think. W4W leaders, please take a good look at the rhetoric on this page and consider whether this is the kind of speech you want representing you and your cause.

I ask you with all my heart: show leadership. Take control, take responsibility, put on the brakes. Because joyrides like this can land people in the hospital — or, God forbid, in the morgue.

* * *

End quote.

W4W names Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller, Rebbetzin Baila Berger of the Ahavat Yisrael Project, Rabbanit Melamed of Yeshivat Beit El and Sarah Yoheved Rigler as supporters of their cause, specifically of the gathering they are planning at the Western Wall this coming Rosh Hodesh (Sunday morning). Other W4W supporters include Jonathan Rosenblum and Rabbi Avi Shafran.

I don’t know any of them personally or whether any of them is on Facebook. But I want to believe that however much they may dislike the idea of women wearing tallit and tefillin (which Jewish law allows), however much they may disagree with Women of the Wall, they would never condone the vicious and inflammatory rhetoric that is on W4W’s page.

I’m not allowing comments to this post, and I’m sure I don’t need to explain why.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A show of force

I wasn’t at the Western Wall on Friday morning, but from the photos I have seen so far and everything I’ve read about the incident before and after, I believe that the W4W’s intention was to organize not a prayer rally, but a show of force.

I believe that the organizers knew perfectly well that there would be violence. (If they claim they did not, they are being naive at best.) And yet they insisted on bringing out the seminary girls to block the women’s section of the Kotel. I believe they put those young girls in harm’s way.

If I were a parent of one of those seminary girls, after seeing the photos of the incident yesterday morning, I would be giving the W4W organizers a piece of my mind. And I would keep my daughter home from the next one.

As for calling such a gathering a prayer rally for Jewish unity, I have only one word for that:


(Here are some photos from last Friday morning at the Western Wall. Pay particular attention to the last few.)

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Hissing the difference

Frying pan 2
A frying pan is heated red-hot as part of the kashering process

One Shabbat many years ago, I was walking through the Haredi neighborhood of Geula on my way home from a meal. As I crossed a street, the sound of a hiss suddenly pierced the afternoon quiet.

Startled, I turned to see where the hiss was coming from. There was no one in the immediate area except myself and a teenage girl with a baby carriage. As I stood there, uncertain whether to approach, the girl glared at me and hissed again. Perplexed by her hostile behavior, I walked on.

A similar incident happened some years later. There’s a place in Geula where people can take their kitchen utensils to be kashered — made fit for use in a kosher kitchen — every Friday. When a friend of mine relocated a few years ago, she gave me some high-quality pots and pans as a parting gift. I took them there for kashering one hot Friday morning and watched the process, which took some time and was fascinating.

When the work was finished and it was time to go, I turned to the young woman on line next to me and said, “Shabbat shalom.” She didn’t seem to hear me, so I smiled and said it again. She frowned at me and turned away.

That seemed to be a replay of the hissing incident from years before, and again, I was perplexed. I hadn’t broken any of the rules. In the first incident, I’d been dressed modestly, and in the second, I’d come there on a hot Friday morning to have my kitchen utensils kashered. I’d never met either girl before in my life. So why did they behave toward me with such hostility?

Eventually, I figured it out. I had broken a rule — the most important rule of all. I wasn’t a member of their tribe. Although I’m Jewish and observant, I wasn’t one of them. I was an outsider, a foreigner. A threat.

As far as these girls were concerned — said their behavior — I did not belong in their neighborhood, not even if I went there for a reason connected with strict Jewish observance. It didn’t matter how much of my body I covered or how many kitchen utensils I brought to be boiled or blow-torched. I was committing the worst crime of all. I was different.

In a letter to the editor of the New York Times, the well-known psychologist and author Dr. Phyllis Chesler wrote: “Often, envy of a girl’s beauty or brains, but just as often, the slightest difference (whether someone is new, an immigrant from another country, or school) will be seized upon by a female clique and treated as a high crime, an opportunity to tribally bond with one another — and as permission to torment the chosen outsider” (emphasis mine). Dr. Chesler’s statement seems to apply in both instances I’ve just described.

Her statement also seems to apply to the recent controversy over Women of the Wall. It seems that to some of WOW’s opponents, if a woman wears a tallit and tefillin when she prays, if she reads from a Torah scroll as part of the service, if she doesn’t accept restrictions on female behavior that aren’t even part of religious law, then it doesn’t matter matter how learned, sincere or devout she may be. She’s an outsider. She’s different. She’s a threat.

In these politically-correct times, it’s not acceptable to admit to feeling hostility toward a person or group just because they’re different. So the opponents need a more compelling reason: they have to make the different person or group into the enemy.

These women are not harmless, WOW’s opponents say. Their motives are ulterior, impure. They’re too political. They have an agenda. They care about publicity, not prayer. They look down on us. They want to take something valuable away from us. And because they are a threat to Judaism, we’re exempt from the commandment to judge them favorably.

It appears that the current opposition to WOW is being led by women who want to create positive change in the Haredi community from within. But in conservative communities, change — indeed, anything less than full conformity — is seen as threatening and carries negative social consequences. Also, such communities often see women who join them later in life as “less than,” if not as downright suspect, because of the foreign, “impure” ideas and influences they were exposed to earlier in their lives. So what better way for women in this situation, who want to work for change or who don’t conform entirely, to show their bona-fides than to bash a common enemy — in this case, the nasty feminists?

What I’ve written above may seem extreme to some. But unfortunately, it’s what I see among some of WOW’s current opponents... and it’s nothing new in the Jewish world. Consider the case of the hasidim against the mitnagdim, with mutual accusations and excommunications that went on for centuries.

Consider also the case of Sarah Schenirer. Seeing the rising rate of assimilation among young Jewish women in Poland, this Jewish seamstress from Cracow founded a kindergarten for girls in 1917 that grew into the Bais Ya’akov educational movement. Schenirer’s idea to found Jewish schools for girls was so radical for her time that she was almost put into herem — the most severe sanction the Jewish community can impose — for her work. Even after her schools received approval from religious authorities, some parents still forbade their daughters from playing with girls who attended them.

Today, most religious Jews regard Sarah Schenirer as a heroine.

“Every truth passes through three stages before it is recognized,” goes the quote attributed to Schopenhauer. “In the first it is ridiculed, in the second it is opposed, in the third it is regarded as self-evident.” I take comfort in that sentence, no matter who wrote it. I look forward to the day when women’s prayer groups, whether affiliated with WOW or not, routinely hold prayer services, with tallit and a sefer Torah, in the women’s section of the Western Wall with as much fanfare as daily afternoon prayers at the local synagogue. I hope that by then, the idea that anyone ever opposed such services will seem a historical curiosity, as odd and distant as the fact that women in Western countries were once denied the right to vote.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Some recent photos

It’s raining. Unseasonable rain, I guess, but I’m not complaining, since the long, hot summer is around the corner. If this is the rain’s last hurrah until late fall, then, as Shakespeare famously said, let it come down.

In the meantime, here are a few photos.

Woodpeckers are camera-shy, so I was pretty happy to get this shot:


Woodpecker yoga?


More photos after the jump.

Guest Post: Irena Sendler and Life in a Jar

Although Holocaust Remembrance Day has passed this year, some memorial projects continue to run year-round. One such project is Life in a Jar, which commemorates the courage of a Polish woman who has become known as the “female Oskar Schindler.”

Irena Sendler (1910–2008) was a young Polish social worker when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. She helped Jews who were trying to evade the Nazis to find hiding places. Together with a group of friends she joined the Zegota, an underground organization dedicated to helping the Jews. When the Warsaw ghetto was created in 1940, she obtained false papers that identified her as a nurse so that she would be able to enter the ghetto as a “health worker.”

Sendler brought food and medications into the ghetto and managed to smuggle children out when she left each day. The children were often drugged and stuffed into suitcases, bags, toolboxes and even coffins. Together with other Zegota members, Sendler identified sewer pipes and underground passages that she could use to bring the children out of the ghetto. While most of the children were orphans, many of them had living parents. Sendler “talked the mothers out of their children,” convincing the parents that their children would be able to survive only if they left the ghetto.

Sendler recorded all of the names of the children that she rescued on tissue paper, together with their hiding places – convents, orphanages and with individual Polish families. She put the papers into jars and buried the jars in her friend’s garden. Sendler hoped that after the war, she would be able to reunite the children with their families or, at the very least, with the Jewish community.

In 1943, Sendler was captured by the Nazis. Imprisoned, tortured and sentenced to death, she never revealed any information about “her” children. Zegota comrades succeeded in securing her release and she lived out the rest of the war in hiding. Sendler, together with her comrades in the Polish underground, rescued about 2,500 Jewish children.

The story of Irena Sendler would have been lost to history had it not been for a few high school students from Kansas who, together with the LMC and funding from a Jewish education reformer, launched an awareness campaign of Irena’s story.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

For Passover: Song of the Four Brothers by Naomi Shemer

I first heard this song many years ago and loved it. It’s a whimsical take by Naomi Shemer (1930–2004), one of Israel’s leading songwriters, on the famous parable of the Four Sons in the Passover Haggadah.

But first, a little background. The four sons are mentioned in the Haggadah – the book of study, prayer and praise that we recite every year at the Passover seder. Here’s the text, in my translation:

The Torah refers to four sons: One wise, one wicked, one mild and one who does not know how to ask a question. What does the wise son say? “What are the testimonials, statutes and laws that the Lord our God commanded you?” You should teach him about the laws of Passover, [everything including the rule] that one may eat nothing for the rest of the night after eating the afikoman [the Passover offering].

What does the wicked son say? “What does all this work mean to you?” To you, he says, and not to him. By excluding himself from the community, he has denied a basic principle of Judaism. You should give him a sharp retort: “It is because of what God did for me when I left Egypt.” For me, you should say, and not for him; had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.

What does the mild son say? “What is this?” You should answer him: “With a strong hand God took me out of Egypt, from the house of servitude.”

As for the one who does not know how to ask, you should begin the discussion [by telling him the story], as the Torah says: “And you shall tell your child on that day, saying: ‘It is because of what God did for me when I left Egypt.’”

An enormous amount of commentary has been written about these four sons. Some say they are types of people – for example, mature, cynical (or alienated), passive, and lacking in Jewish background. Others say they are aspects of our own selves. Still others say that the text is not about the sons themselves, but about how to teach: different students require different techniques. There are dozens of interpretations out there, and they’re still being written.

But that’s for another discussion. In the song by Naomi Shemer, the four sons are four brothers who go out of the Haggadah to seek their fortune – in this case, wives. Each one finds a wife who matches his own character, and at the end, there’s a sweet surprise.

Song of the Four Brothers
by Naomi Shemer

On a bright and lovely day,
Out of the Haggadah
Came the wise son, the mild son and the terribly wicked son,
And the one who knew not how to ask.

And when the four brothers
Set out on the road
Right away, from all directions
Came flowers and blessings.

The wise son met a wise woman.
The mild son loved a mild woman.
And the wicked son got, for a wife,
A woman who was horribly wicked.

And the one who knew not how to ask
Found the loveliest woman of all.
He put his hand in hers
And went back with her into the Haggadah.

Where did fate lead
Each of the four brothers?
In this song of ours, my friends,
One mustn’t ask too many questions!

The Hebrew lyrics can be found here.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Catch my guest post at A Mother in Israel

A while back, A Mother in Israel asked me to write a guest post for her blog about conditions for women at the Western Wall.

I did, and now the post is up. Thank you, Mom in Israel!

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Herman Wouk and the locusts

A long time ago, I read Herman Wouk’s book This Is My God, an explanation of Jewish thought and practice written more than half a century ago, but still relevant today. When the locusts arrived recently in the south of Israel, the following paragraph from Wouk’s book, in the section containing notes at the back, surfaced in my memory:

On the eating of insects, the Bible law specifically permits grasshoppers of a certain variety. The grasshopper was widely eaten in the ancient Near East, and it still is. The locusts devour the crops; all the protein and carbohydrate are in them; the people recover their food supply by roasting or pickling the creatures and eating them. A brilliant short novel by David Garnett, The Grasshoppers Come, is built on the edibility of the locust. In Jewish common law the exact definition of the edible varieties of grasshopper became obscure, and so these insects passed under the general ban. But in some settlements of the Near East the knowledge of the distinguishing marks of the edible locust survives. I recently heard of a Yemenite medical student in a United States university, devoutly orthodox, who attended a laboratory class where locusts were being dissected. He told the instructor, a Jewish biologist, that the creatures were of an edible variety; and he pointed to a distinguishing mark, the Hebrew letter hes [het in modern Israeli pronunciation – RSJ] clearly marked on the insect’s abdomen. He proceeded to prove that they were edible and kosher (as least so far as he was concerned) by eating a few. I asked a rabbinic authority whether this conduct was acceptable. Perfectly, the answer was; based on the Talmud rule, “He has a continuous tradition from his fathers.” I gather that if I caught a grasshopper with a hes on its abdomen it would not be an available morsel for me, since I have no such tradition. I submit to this deprivation with fortitude.

Don’t you just love that last sentence? I do. For me, the above paragraph is a distillation of the clarity, depth and humor of Wouk’s book. I think I’ll read it again.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Found a grave

My guest post, The Lost (and Found) Grave of Joan Winters, is up at Robert Avrech’s excellent blog, Seraphic Secret. Thank you, Robert, for allowing me to post on your blog!