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.