For well over a decade, I ran a media relations office in Jerusalem on behalf of Agudath Israel of America. I used to think I did a pretty good job. Not any more.
For the past six weeks, I’ve been watching from the sidelines as Ronit Peskin and Leah Aharoni have run a multipronged response to the well-oiled publicity machine that is Women of the Wall. Despite spotting WoW a 24-year head start, they have managed in that brief period to completely reset the terms of the public debate. And they have done so while raising families and running their own businesses, and without taking a penny in salaries.
A successful campaign to change public opinion today is not a matter of writing op-eds at a stately pace or putting together a documentary of traditional women speaking about what the Kosel means to them — all of which I once did. It is more like a rapid-play chess game. There is no respite. One has to keep changing tactics in response to shifts on the chessboard. An understanding of modern media and the ability it provides to reach large numbers of people quickly is absolutely essential.
Responses must be instantaneous. When police put a cordon around the Old City on Sunday, Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, in order to allow WoW to conduct their rites at the Kosel, Leah Aharoni, one of the founders of Women For the Wall (W4W), already had a piece up on the Jerusalem Post site within hours pointing out the heavy price of WoW’s “freedom” to worship as they wished — i.e., large numbers of Jewish men and women who wanted to daven at the Kosel that morning were unable to do so and school children from outside the Old City were not able to get to classes.
After the Old City was closed down on their behalf, WoW complained that they had been “caged in” at the Kosel. Ronit Peskin countered immediately at the Times of Israel that placed in a “VIP lounge” would be a more accurate description. Peskin was denied entry to that “lounge” to talk to the reporters who were there with WoW.
When WoW PR director Shira Pruce accused W4W of responsibility for a rise in violence against WoW since they began their activities, Aharoni again pounced within hours. She pointed out on the Times of Israel Web site that WoW has been complaining of violence against them for decades and W4W came into existence just two months ago. She quoted extensively from such complaints both new and ancient. (Part of the media battle consists of knowing everything your opponents are saying or have ever said.) In short, Pruce had conveniently forgotten all past complaints in order to delegitimize a group of women who have become a real thorn in WoW’s side.
Aharoni was able to point to videos of herself, Ronit Peskin, and a third member of the group, Jenni Menashe, telling chareidi young men at the Kosel to stay away from the WoW group. One of those videos had already been shown on Israel Channel 2 News and remarked upon by Shmuel Rosner, a prominent Israeli journalist.
Aharoni and Peskin have been able to exploit WoW’s “Palestinian problem.” Just as the Palestinians consistently present one message in Arabic and quite another in Hebrew, WoW has multiple — and often contradictory — messages, depending on the audience they are addressing. At times, they present themselves as seeking to liberate observant women from the patriarchy and expose them to feminist religious practice; other times they are ethereal spiritual beings, deeply moved by the Kosel, and acting well within the bounds of halachah. To raise large sums of money and provide the American Reform movement with a cause around which to rally, WoW must present their worship as the civil rights struggle of our time and raise as much ruckus as possible; at other times, they proclaim their desire to be just be left alone
But contradictory messages can be a problem if someone else is paying close attention to everything you say.
W4W’s efforts are taking place on multiple fronts: in the Knesset lobbying MKs, writing op-eds for the local press — Jerusalem Post, Times of Israel, Maariv; being interviewed by the local and foreign media –— Army Radio, Channel 2, Christian Science Monitor, LA Times, the Forward, Le Monde, German TV, and a wide variety of Jewish religious sites; maintaining contacts with religious MKs and city councilors; connecting to Jewish women abroad concerned about the sanctity of the Kosel (via Webcam last Rosh Chodesh); writing explanatory materials on feminism for potential baalei teshuvah; and debating WoW in a variety of public forums.
The latter must be particularly galling to WoW, who has had the world media eagerly lapping up their “freedom narrative” for 20 years, with no one to counter it. Suddenly, they find themselves before the international press at Jerusalem’s Media Central together with W4W, and the media is fascinated to see an earnest, non-strident counterview.
At the recent Media Central event, the foreign press was shocked when WoW refused to stay in the room during Ronit and Leah’s presentation, and fascinated to see some of their stereotypes upended, such as when W4W’s Leah Aharoni said there is something profoundly misogynistic about assuming that prayer is only meaningful when it apes that of men. When asked why her group rejects Robinson’s Arch, WoW’s Peggy Cidor responded that it is too reminiscent of destruction. A German reporter asked her, “But isn’t it called the Wailing Wall?” Facing pointed questions for the first time, the WoW representatives became testy.
Just contemplating W4W’s whirlwind of activity makes me feel old. And delighted that such talented young women appeared out of nowhere to carry the banner for preservation of the kedushah of the Kosel.
This article first appeared in Mishpacha.
My first encounter with the legendary Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z”l, the late president of Agudath Israel of America and the man who hired and mentored me as the organization’s spokesperson, was an unexpected phone call offering praise and criticism.
It was the mid-1980s, and I was a rebbe, or Jewish studies teacher, in Providence, Rhode Island at the time. Occasionally, though, I indulged my desire to write op-eds, some of which were published by the Providence Journal and various Jewish weeklies.
One article I penned in those days was about the bus-stop burnings that had then been taking place in religious neighborhoods in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel.
Advertisements on the shelters in religious neighborhoods began to display images that were, to put it genteelly, not in synch with the religious sensibilities of the local residents, for whom modesty was a high ideal and women were respected for who they were, not regarded as means of gaining attention for commercial products.
Scores of the offensive-ad shelters were either spray-painted or torched; and, on the other side of the societal divide, a group formed that pledged to burn a synagogue for every burned bus-stop shelter. It was not a pretty time.
My article was aimed at trying to convey the motivation of the bus-stop burners, wrong though their actions were. Imagine, I suggested, a society where heroin was legal, freely marketed and advertised. And a billboard touting the drug’s wonderful qualities was erected just outside a school.
Most of us would never think of defacing or destroying the ad but most of us would probably well relate to the feelings of someone who took things into his own hands. For a charedi Jew, gross immodesty in advertising in his neighborhood is no less dangerous, in a spiritual sense, and no less deplorable.
Rabbi Sherer had somehow seen the article and he called to tell me how cogent he had found it. But, he added – and the “but,” I realized, was the main point of the call – “my dear Avi, you should never assume that the culprits were religious Jews. Never concede an unproven assertion.”
I was taken aback, since hotheads certainly exist among religious Jews. But I thanked my esteemed caller greatly for both his kind words and his critical ones. I wasn’t convinced that my assumption had really been unreasonable, but, I supposed, he had a valid point.
To my surprise, several weeks later, a group of non-religious youths were arrested for setting a bus-stop aflame, in an effort to increase ill will against the religious community. How many of the burnings the members of the group, or others like them, may have perpetrated was and remains unknown. But Rabbi Sherer had proven himself (and not for the first or last time) a wise man.
What recalled that era and interaction to me this week were the reports from Israel that arrests had been made in the 2009 case of a gunman who entered a Tel Aviv youth center for homosexuals and opened fire on those inside, killing two people and wounding 15 before escaping.
Both Israeli and western media freely speculated at the time that the murderer was likely a charedi, bent on visiting his idea of justice upon people who live in violation of the Torah’s precepts.
What has apparently turned out to be the case, though, as my colleague Rabbi Menken has pointed out in an “In Brief” item here on Cross-Currents, is that the rampage at the club had nothing to do with either charedim or religious beliefs. It was reportedly a revenge attack in the wake of a minor’s claim that he had been abused by a senior figure of the club. A family member of the minor allegedly went to the club to kill the suspected abuser but, unable to find him, opened fire indiscriminately.
(Unsurprisingly, but worthy of note all the same, none of the media pundits or bloggerei who laid the shooting at the feet of charedim have offered apologies.)
There are, to be sure, unsavory people in charedi communities, as there are in every community. Religious dress and lifestyle are no guarantees of what kind of person lies behind the façade. The Talmud includes a difference of opinion about how “Esav’s personification,” the angel with whom Yaakov wrestled, appeared to our forefather. One opinion holds that the malevolent being looked like “a mugger”; the other, “like a religious scholar.”
But for anyone to assume that any particular crime must have been the work of someone in the charedi community – or in any community – bespeaks a subtle bias born of animus, whether recognized by its bearer or not.
And such assumptions are criminal in their own right.
© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran
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Mishpacha provided the American Torah world an enormous service in its special “sharing the burden” issue. A half dozen articles offered background, statistics, depth and context to perhaps the most difficult times that our Israeli brethren have faced in a half-century. Chazal require us to take active steps to feel the pain of other Jews. I would think that taking the time to read the issue should be mandated in partial fulfillment of that requirement.
Still, some of the answers raised other questions. It should be worthwhile to at least ask them, either to fill in the gaps, or because we must recognize that we have an obligation to understand the pain of less observant Jews, who also feel like aggrieved parties. I will ask some of those questions, not because I have settled on an opposing position, but because I am still searching for greater clarity.
Jonathan Rosenblum’s piece was one of the shortest, but the single most valuable one to me, because it offered a compact summary of the problem, one that I will share with others outside our community. (Full disclosure: He’s a good friend, and I usually value his opinions over my own.) It was non-hysterical, balanced, and full of recognition that, in his words, “we must address the human needs that are not being met.” (Aside: I completely disagree with his criticism in a different piece of the RCA for inviting MK Dov Lipman. I may or may not put some of that disagreement in print. Some of the impetus has disappeared, now that the RCA has invited Jonathan to present the other side of the issue at their upcoming convention.)
Rabbi Avraham Edelstein, the talented director of Ner LeElef, consciously brings the perspective of a mekarev to the world of political discourse. He reminds us of what we forget too often: it is not about being right, but about communicating effectively. Arguments that cannot be heard by the other side are simply not valuable. He opines that we cannot convince secular Jews that Torah study protects them, but we can get them to appreciate values of the charedi community that overlap with theirs. This can only happen, however, where there are relationships between people, where people talk to each other and genuinely want to understand the other. I am not sure I grasp how to implement a nationwide dialogue in time to defuse the crisis at hand. Minimally, however, he offers one of the most practical bits of advice in the issue: don’t walk smugly away without genuinely understanding the other side. It is in that vein that I continue this essay.
Rabbi Grylak asks “Am I Paranoid?” in rejecting the draft of yeshiva students. He wants us to conclude that he is not, based on ample evidence that many look to the draft not as a source of military manpower, but of liberating charedim from the shackles of primitivism. He quotes the proper extremists. I am not sure whether this is the best message with which to leave the reader. He is correct, to be sure, about many. (Even among those we might ask whether they resent being reminded of a religion they have abandoned, or whether they really fear the economic consequences of a larger and larger part of the Jewish demographic that does not seem to participate in the fuller life of the nation.) But is this attitude the source of the seventeen seats that Yesh Atid garnered in the last election? Aren’t there other, different concerns, primarily ones of equity and a backlash against what they see as decades of contempt for them by charedim? Aren’t some of the examples of over-the-top language used by charedi critics attributable to hyperbolic expression? Are we the only ones allowed to use hyperbole when some in our midst speak of sonei Torah, ovdei avodah zarah, and compare government figures to Lavan, Korach – and worse? It is understandable for us to use exaggerated invective, but not for others? I think Rabbi Grylak gave readers too facile a way out.
During our frequent Klal Perspectives strategy calls, I frequently disagree with Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky. But I thoroughly enjoy listening to him disagree with me, because his sensitivity and yiras Shomayim swamps that of the rest of us! His contribution to the Mishpacha issue does not disappoint – but I am left with questions. He makes the case quite well that the army poses an inordinate threat to an impressionable young person, particularly when it is designed to be an instrument of social cohesion. But this begs the question of whether Tzahal must be a spiritual sakanah. Could the army design programs of service that do not pose a threat? A later article shows the dramatic failures of the IDF in some cases – but successes in others. It cobbles together horrible statistics about religious failure among religious Zionist recruits – yet all of us know people who more than weathered the storm, and emerged stronger for it, while living lives of tremendous kiddush Hashem while serving in Israel’s military. Could it be that what is needed is enough will – and enough guarantees? Should broken promises in the past prove that no guarantees will ever be adequate – or is that not the way we lead our lives in so many other areas where we structure agreements through legal language, when it is really important enough for us?
Rabbi Lopiansky writes that quite aside from the negative impact of army service, “the robbing of our youths’ formative years as a ben Torah would be a price that we could not pay.” Agreed. But how do we ask other, reluctant Israelis to pay a different price so that we don’t have to pay ours? Who gave us that right? Similarly, he writes that the imposition of the core curriculum, including instruction in “citizenship [which] can mean whatever they want it to mean…is a perfectly reasonable request from their end, but totally unacceptable to us.” But if it is reasonable to them, how do we tell them that they must be the ones to pay for our unreasonable (to them) system of education?
Binyamin Rose does an incredible job marshaling context and statistics in addressing five different economic issues relating to government spending on charedim and their low rate of participation in the work force (relative to the rest of the country). He shows how government spending on charedi schools is already a fraction of what it is for the rest of the population. He shows that the entire basket of social services (child support, income supplements, etc.) for charedim amounts to only 1% of the State’s budget. He and others show how devastating cutbacks will be for the charedi population – all for a very small gain. (Some of his figures are necessarily based on extrapolation and guesswork, where no figures are available. In some cases, they skirt on the unbelievable. Based on data from the spending of college students in the US and Canada, Rose believes that foreign students studying a year in Israel spend $30,000 a piece. If my kids did that, I’d cancel their credit cards.)
Yet, I am not sure whether his reasoning is entirely convincing. It does not own up to the fact that all parts of Israeli society are getting hit by draconian cutbacks, not just charedim. When, after years of reckless spending, some belt tightening takes place, is it not reasonable to pursue any and all ways of saving a few million shekels? I don’t see in his article the projections of what will happen in just a few years, as the charedi community becomes a proportionally greater part of the educational system and of the potential workforce. Isn’t that what Yesh Atid voters really fear? And are his stats inclusive enough? Can you calculate the “cost” to other citizens just by considering the grants, without considering infrastructure, collecting the garbage, providing medical care? Here in California, we are used to proponents and opponents of immigration reform massaging the data to prove that illegal immigrants either provide a wonderful stimulus for the economy – or sap it of its strength. I wish I had the perfect formula, but something tells me that Binyamin Rose has not given us all we need to know.
When all is said and done, I cannot say that I have a much better grasp of the totality of the issue. I still need to understand how the positions of the charedi community in Israel can satisfy the legitimate concerns of other Israelis. I do know that my attitude has changed drastically in the last two weeks. When the coalition agreement was announced, I wrote a response that neither embraced nor demonized it. It could have been worse; it showed much wisdom in ensuring that the gains of the last years would not be erased. The Peri Committee’s decision to criminalize non-compliance wiped out any tolerance I had for the original agreement. It has set the clock back a decade, and strengthened the position of the most extreme rejectionists in Israel, who can triumphaly announce, “We told you so! They are out to stamp out Torah as we know it.” I don’t believe that the Israeli electorate is monolithic. Not even the anti-charedi sentiment all comes from the same place. It may not be too late for sanity to be reintroduced into the equation. Perhaps, through tefilah and through making our voices heard through proper channels (not street demonstrations in Lower Manhattan organized by those who wish to see the destruction of the Jewish State), there may still be room for change.
For decades, Israel’s government has resisted all attempts to impose a solution on the Israel/Palestine problem. Such an intractable problem, we have told the world, can only be solved by negotiations between the parties themselves. I am having a hard time understanding why the kulturkampf between charedim and the rest of the country is any different, and amenable to an imposed settlement. Here, too, it would seem, negotiation should be the way to go – not show of force.
I was recently privileged to spend the good part of a week on the tree-studded rural campus of my alma mater, Yeshivas Ner Yisroel (the Ner Israel Rabbinical College, according to the sign at its entrance). As always, visiting the place where I studied some forty years ago was an enthralling experience.
There have been changes, to be sure, at Yeshiva Lane, the winding private road that is the yeshiva buildings’ address. What was the main study hall in my day now serves the yeshiva’s high school division; and a magnificent newer beis medrash stands where, in the 1970s, an old house occupied by a faculty member’s family sat on a hill. New housing has risen up for faculty and married kollel students – there is a long waiting list of kollel-fellow families living “in town” (that is to say, Baltimore and its suburb Pikesville) who are anxious to move onto the yeshiva campus. (Kollel fellows who can no longer afford to be engaged in full-time Torah study understand that their campus apartment or townhouse should be offered to a full-time kollel fellow’s family.)
Torah life and study, and children, permeate Yeshiva Lane. Students and staff members walk to or from the study hall, often in studious conversation with one another; and parents driving cars and vans shuttle their children to schools “in town.” After school hours, the bevies of bicycles lying near the entrance of each of the apartment buildings welcome their owners back. A small playground suddenly comes to life, echoing with the sweetest sound in the world, happy kids at play.
On the Sabbath, the scene is idyllic. With no traffic, carpools, appointments or any reason to rush, a special calm settles over the campus. The songbirds that must have been there the entire week suddenly stand out, adding avian Shabbos songs to the ambiance. In the afternoon, after services and the festive Shabbos meal, parents sit on the balconies of their homes, watching their children at play, or study or just relax. A special lecture is offered for women, and husbands take a break from their studies to allow their wives to attend. Everyone looks after everyone else and everyone else’s children. The community is a model of caring. Every neighbor is neighborly.
Life on Yeshiva Lane unmistakably revolves around the study halls, where a total of close to 900 boys and men delve into the Talmud and other Jewish sources, usually studying in pairs. And the dynamos that are the batei medrash operate on Shabbos no less energetically than during the week, and are filled with young and not-so-young men from early morning until late at night.
I took the opportunity to spend a couple hours in one of those study halls; it was hard to find a seat. I applied myself to my own studies for most of the time, and then listened in to several of the pairs of students studying in my vicinity. It was as if I had been transported four decades into the past; the material and method of learning were more than familiar. And four decades hence, I realized, the room’s walls would hear the same sort of academic conversations, about the same texts. The Torah has been the focus of Jewish minds over millennia; and always will be.
Like all good things, though, my visit came to an end and I returned to a very different “ultra-Orthodox” world, at least a very different depiction of it than the one I had just experienced.
My job immerses me in the media. And awaiting me were the usual reports and blog postings about Orthodox Jews’ real or imagined crimes and misdemeanors, and the regular opinion pieces equating Orthodox belief and standards with backwardness, sexism, “phobias” and intolerance.
A special welcome-back “present” was a long frothing-at-the-mouth diatribe in a respected Jewish periodical, written by a self-described “polymath” angrily decrying the growth of the charedi community and its “Jewish fundamentalism,” which, he contends, “threatens the fabric of American Jewish life.” The would-be dragon-slayer railed against “the coercion and ignorance prevalent in American ultra-Orthodox communities”; asserted that charedi lives are “a distortion of Judaism” and fuel an “apparatus of fear, manipulation and power mongering”; sees something sinister if not criminal in the acceptance of Pell grants by yeshiva students who qualify for them; and sounds a dire warning that, because of charedi Jews’ generally large families, “New York Jewry, within a generation, will be fundamentalist, poor, uneducated and reactionary.”
Two depictions of the same subject, one a Rembrandt, the other a Picasso. What comes to mind is the famous musing of the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu. “Last night I dreamt that I was a butterfly,” he told his students. “Now I do not know if I am Chuang Tzu, who dreamt himself a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he is Chuang Tzu.”
No, reality wasn’t what I returned to last week, but rather what I left behind. The portrait painted by a jaundiced media and the precious polymath is the dream, a fever dream. What I saw in Baltimore – which is duplicated in every charedi community I’ve lived in or visited – is the reality.
© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran
Spending time with Natan Sharansky as I did a week ago helps one understand Avrohom Avinu. “Vayakam Avraham mei’al pnei meiso” – Avrohom arose from before his dead. Avraham did not take the loss of his wife in stride. He turned it into an opportunity to propel himself even higher in his avodas Hashem. Listening to Sharansky handle a crowd, you realize how much he gained from the years in the gulag where his captors tried to break him, but during which he instead inflicted irreversible damage on the Soviet system.
Sharansky, as one of the icons of the last half of the twentieth century, can electrify a gathering simply on the strength of his story. I have met him a number of times previously; this was the first time that I saw what adversity had done for him. His mission in the US is not enviable. Prime Minister Netanyahu hand-picked him to defuse an issue that threatens what remains of a face of unity that Jewish allies of Israel show the rest of the world, at a time that Israel must deal with a number of extraordinary threats. The feelings and fervor invested by both sides in the battle for the Kotel sometimes eclipse all other concerns, even existential ones. He accepted the job, knowing that there were no easy solutions. “My job,” as he put it, “was not to make everyone happy, but not to leave them terribly unhappy.”
Having stared down the Soviet oppressor for years, he is unfazed by powerful dissenters, confident that his will can prevail. He owned the room – a room full of some pretty outspoken and strong-willed clergy of all colors of stripes (and one black stripe.) It was a small gathering at Federation of rabbis of all denominations. Attendance was by invitation. He was able to cut through the posturing and the irrelevant, and get to the real point, a skill likely developed in his many years of having to focus in his cell on what was really important to him.
His take on the Kotel and his manner of presenting were fascinating. I will share the points that should be most interesting to our readers.
“There are no villains.” This was the most powerful sentence he uttered, and it completely transformed the meeting from one of posturing and confrontation, to one of sincere listening. I know that I came to the meeting, hoping to “score” the most “points” for the right side. I can’t suppose that those on the other side, i.e. everyone else, had any different purpose. Yet, that one line moved the meeting to a different place. Everyone could ease up a bit, because they knew they did not have to fight to justify their position. He had already conceded its validity.
He explained his modus operandi. By listening for weeks to voices from both sides, he was able to detect the issues that were of the greatest concern. He realized that for us, the Orthodox, it was maintaining the Kotel as a halachic makom tefilah. For the non-Orthodox, it was feeling that they, with their belief system, are stakeholders in Israel who cannot be treated as second-class citizens. He realized that he could give both sides their key desire – but not more.
Before explaining how he would do that, he fleshed out the two positions, and why he understood both. He recounted how he was finally freed in exchange for a Soviet spy in 1986. He was whisked off to Jerusalem, now in the company of his wife from whom he had been separated so many years before, right after their marriage. The first stop, of course, was the Kotel. He clung to Avital’s hand to remind himself that this was no fantasy, no dream from which he would wake up in solitary confinement once again. Nearing the Wall, however, he and Avital had to briefly part company, as Avital was shunted off to the women’s side of the mechitzah. People thrust some tefilos at him to say – but he knew nothing of them, wanting only to use the Tehilim that had accompanied him in prison. He did not convey this with any resentment. (Avital is frum, as are his kids. When he goes to shul, he told us, it is to an Orthodox one.) He understood at that moment that the Kotel serves as a place to pray for those who believe in prayer. But it also serves as a powerful focus of non-religious Jewish yearning and aspiration. The analogy used by frum people of Muslims attempting to pray at the Vatican is not appropriate, he said. The Vatican has no meaning other than a religious one, as a historical center of Christianity. It does not tug at other forms of self-identification. This is not true of the Kotel, he argued.
He arrived at his sense of the two positions after listening to many people on both sides, in person and by email. There were 10,000 of the latter. Initially, they were mostly on the non-Orthodox side; by now, he said, the Orthodox are catching up. His “no villains” line owes to the presentations of people on both sides, particularly leaders. Those leaders, he said, all act and think responsibly, including doing their best to preclude violence.
His compromise, therefore, was to create two spaces at the Kotel, one for each way of understanding it. The Orthodox would continue to use the existing area (everything to the left of the Mughrabi ramp), under the auspices of the Rav HaKotel. Nothing would change. To the right of the ramp, the government would create a platform of comparable size for the non-Orthodox. It would be accessible 24/7. Control would be in the hands of a mixed board, which would include Jewish Agency representation, and through it, Reform and Conservative rabbis outside of Israel would have a voice. Everyone would enter the general Kotel area through a common entrance. Key permits for the beginning of construction are already in place. A third area – the Kotel “plaza” – has been used for many years for non-religious ceremonies, such as IDF inductions. Recently, some in the charedi community have tried to insist that there be separate seating at such events. He insisted that this was unacceptable; the Western Wall Heritage Foundation oversight of this area would have to change to include more voices, who would not permit the imposition of such rules.
He credited R Rabinowitz, the Rav HaKotel, with working to convey to charedi leadership how damaging violence and ugly confrontation will be to charedi interests. According to Sharansky, it was R Rabinowitz who convinved Rav Ovadiah shlit”a not to come to the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh Tamuz. Such an appearance would have drawn an estimated 100,000 people – and who knows what the other side would then do to spin it to their advantage.
On the other hand, he did not shy away from dishing it out to all parties. “Dishing it out” is an infelicitous way of describing it. He used so much finesse, and so much warmth in his voice that was free of any condescension, that it might be better describe as delicately spooning it out. For example, he said that it was a bad move on the part of charedim to push for the arrest of WOW members for saying kaddish at the Kotel. It created an avalanche of bad PR for the traditionalist side, and more importantly, launched the current match of reciprocal outrages that led to each side pulling back from the compromise, fearful of what next step would be taken by the opposing side. In the other direction, he quipped that last Rosh Chodesh a few thousand seminary girls came to the Kotel who knew how to daven but not how to demonstrate. They were opposed by sundry politicians who knew how to demonstrate, but not how to daven!
More startling was the response he gave to a questioner who asked what they in the US could do to support his efforts. He said that they should do more to support the State, taking a cue from the Orthodox. “When you want to build in Israel, you come to us at the Jewish Agency for financial assistance. The Orthodox build institutions all the time – and don’t ask us for funding.” He also let on that it would not be a bad idea to every now and then credit Bibi Netanyahu for the good things he does. “Bibi knows that no matter what he does, the non-Orthodox are not going to praise him.”
He called himself a citizen of both Israel and the Diaspora simultaneously, and he understands the quirks of both. Jews in Israel have to learn, he said, that they still have to be Jewish! Diaspora Jews have an advantage over Israelis in their ability to sit and talk to those with whom they completely disagree. At least sometimes. He pointed to his own experience while incarcerated in the Soviet Union. Different – and competing – organizations sprang up to work for liberating Soviet Jewry. Some of their leaders gained access to him in jail. On several occasions, he needed to send information back to the US about conditions in Russia. He had to risk the safety of multiple people at times to send identical information to two organizations headquartered on the same street in Manhattan, because it was certain that what one organization received would not be shared with the other. The animosity between the two ran very deep. Yet, the Soviets didn’t see it that way. They once accosted him with a list of foreign agitators working on his behalf. There was only one list – and it combined the names of people working for both of the NY organizations.
Those organizations saw themselves as separate and distinct, but to the enemies of Klal Yisrael, there was no distinction. They targeted everyone dedicated to the cause of the Jewish people. He suggested that there was a lesson in this for all of us.
It is difficult to focus on what we share in common as Women of the Wall escalate their antics each month. On the other hand, knowing that someone close to the Prime Minister understands much more of the full picture than we might think is reassuring. It might give us the confidence to define for ourselves the objective that is most important, i.e. preservation of the Kotel as an authentic makom kodesh, while resisting the temptation to be drawn into the provocations of Anat Hoffman et al, which is counterproductive to our interests. Reform claimed a victory in today’s demonstration, in which far greater numbers of WOW supporters showed up than previously, and far fewer charedim. This, however, is spin that will quickly wobble. The real picture that emerges – and cannot be lost on Israelis, including those in the government – is one of a huge population that deeply cherishes and makes frequent use of the kedushah of the place, contrasting with a group of agitators who have worked without success at building up interest in their cause for twenty years. The latter have succeeded in attracting sympathy only when met with violence from charedi outliers.
All of this suggests a different course of action than the one some people have been taking.
Flash! As a result of fearless and intelligent intelligence, your intrepid reporter has uncovered an authentically fictive memorandum from the inner sanctum and nerve center of Women of the Wall, presented here exclusively for the faithful readers of this column:
Top-Secret Memorandum to WoW:
We are winning the battle for the Wall, but we must not rest on our laurels. The next major battleground involves not merely our right to wear a Tallis at the Wall, but our right to wear a proper modern Tallis, one that is appropriate for the 21st century. And a modern Tallis is one without those strings — what the ultra-Orthodox call “tzitzis.”
This is a cause whose time has come. We must fight for the right to wear our own kind of Tallis, one that is stylish and fashionable — not the kind dictated by the ultras. No longer shall they decree what is, and what is not, acceptable prayer attire.
In addition, we demand custom made Tallises for every individual. We will no longer tolerate the current one-size-fits-all Tallis absurdity. Our feminine self- respect demands individualized Tallises.
Remember several crucial points:
During prayer at the Wall, be sure to hold … Read More >>
A number of years ago I shared the essential thought in the essay below with subscribers to my mailing list at the time. But I believe it’s a thought worth repeating, for the benefit of new readers, and worth re-pondering for the rest of us.
My wife and I recently accompanied our second son to the chuppah. It was an elating experience, understandably, and the sight of the new couple recalled to me the unsettling, if simple, observation of the Netziv.
The Netziv – an acronym meaning “pillar,” by which Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (1817-1893), the famed dean of the Volozhin Yeshiva, is known – noted that the first marriage in history differed in an essential way from all the matrimonial unions that came to follow. Because, according to a widely cited Jewish tradition, Adam and Eve were created as a single entity, a man-woman coupled back to back, with the “forming” of woman described by the Torah more accurately envisioned as a separation. The word often translated “rib” is in fact used elsewhere in the Torah to mean “side,” and so should be understood in the light of that tradition as referring to the woman-side … Read More >>
By Avrohom Gordimer
A current opinion piece in The Jewish Week, authored by two leaders of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), opens with the celebration of an upcoming watershed event in Orthodox society:
Orthodox women are making history in front of our eyes. On June 16, three women will be ordained to serve, in effect, as Orthodox rabbis, given the title of Maharat (an acronym for the Hebrew words meaning leader in legal, spiritual and Torah matters). They will graduate from Yeshivat Maharat in New York City, the first and thus far only women to receive institutional ordination as religious and spiritual leaders in the Orthodox world… Next month’s graduation will mark the first time Orthodox women will be formally and publicly ordained with institutional recognition for the profound role women rabbis can play in Orthodox communities…
Following the celebratory section of the article, it turns negative:
Indeed, the Rabbinical Council of America recently came out with a statement condemning the Maharat graduates: “The RCA views this event as a violation of our mesorah (tradition) and regrets that the leadership of the school has chosen a path that contradicts the norms of our community”…This position is … Read More >>
by Rabbi Shneur Aisenstark
[Editor’s Note: Rabbi Shneur Aisenstark, an extremely well-regarded veteran educator in Montreal penned an article in last week’s Mishpacha Magazine that created some confusion among readers. “Unconditional Love Has Its Limits” seemed to be both a contradiction in terms (by making unconditional love very much conditional) as well as quite dangerous in the estimation of professionals who have dealt for many years with off-the-derech (OTD) children.
One day, people will begin writing not only about OTD children, but the related phenomenon of the great number of those children (at least anecdotally) who return to Torah observance. If there is one factor that is important in producing the BOTD (back on the derech) child, it is the unconditional love of his or her family. Professionals warn not to scrimp or be sparing on the love shown to the errant child. Love needs to be unconditional; it is not synonymous with acceptance, which may allow for setting expectations and limits.
Rabbi Yakov Horowitz is no stranger to these pages. Also a veteran mechanech, he heads up Agudah’s Project YES. His creativity in curricular areas is famous – but he is perhaps most famous for his … Read More >>
Call them what you will — ultra-Orthodox Jews, “fervently Orthodox” Jews, Haredim, black hats. They will soon become the majority of affiliated Jews in the metropolitan New York area, and the religious majority in Israel. The results will be catastrophic.
So begins Forward contributing editor Jay Michaelson’s extraordinary appeal for the development of a New York yevsektsia to thwart, as his piece is entitled, “the creeping Jewish fundamentalism in our midst.”
That fundamentalism is responsible for a variety of vices and sins, claims Michaelson, reciting a litany of real and imagined haredi crimes. He does not make it so clear how those sins impact the lives of non-haredi Jews, but the thought that haredim of various stripes will take over is reason enough for panic. After telling us that he has their well-being in mind, he launches into his action plan:
We are abandoning thousands of our fellow Jews to this hierarchy of power and abuse. We are doing nothing to help them….Demographers tell us that 49% of New York’s Jewish children are Haredi (either Hasidic or “yeshivish”). Especially in light of non-Orthodox disaffiliation, New York Jewry, within a generation, will be fundamentalist, poor, uneducated and … Read More >>
It might not be quite up there with the first day of spring or grandchildren, but one of the undeniably wonderful gifts the Creator has bestowed on mankind is the ripe avocado.
The buttery consistency, the unique pastel coloration, and the divinely subtle taste all combine to make it truly a fruit to be thankful for. I have a few slices each morning, joined by lettuce and tomato on toast; a wondrous, nutritious and flavorful start to the day.
And most every time I open one of the fruits and gently rock the point of a sharp knife into its pit before easing it out, I think back at how clueless I was as a teenage yeshiva boy in Israel forty-odd years ago.
I had never eaten – or even seen – an avocado at that point. If supermarkets in my childhood’s Baltimore even stocked the fruit, my mother had never bought one. We did fine on Jewish food, the Eastern European kind, and had our share of American fare too. But exotic fruits weren’t part of my family’s culinary offerings.
Then, suddenly, in a new and very different clime, avocados were everywhere. I didn’t find much beyond tomatoes … Read More >>
An Open Letter to Allison Josephs
As I am usually a fan of your work at Jew in the City, I am both surprised and a bit dismayed with your latest piece. I feel that you don’t understand the agenda of the Women of the Wall, and have proposed a “solution” that favors the provocateurs over the innocent.
As a group, the Women of the Wall has a radical agenda. As two of the founders describe it:
WOW models to all Jewish women who pray at the Kotel that women can take control over their own religious lives. When haredi women, and haredi men, and haredi children see women leading services, wearing tallitot, and even handling and reading from Torah scrolls, their world view is changed. Like it or not, the sights and sounds of women leading services may initially shock them but then, when they get used to it, it will, it has to, change their world view. Women will no longer be seen as following men when it comes to communal prayer, allowing men to lead, but as individuals who are able to function religiously, on their own, without the “help” of men.
Do you understand, Mrs. Josephs? You are controlled by men, with their misogynist views [another WOW leader] and iron hand [yet another], and they’re going to show you the light. That is why they refuse to pray at Robinson’s Arch, which has all of the same Kedushah… but lacks the ability to impose their Judaism on other women.
The idea that it’s them against the Rabbis is just as false as their claim that all they want to do is pray. Their real problem is you: a woman who is confident, educated, forthright, and Orthodox… and a Ba’alas Teshuvah at that! You know all about feminism and women wanting to chant from a Sefer Torah at the Wall, and yet… you disagree with them, and even say so in writing!
They have me pegged — I’m one of those fundamentalist ultra-Orthodox Rabbi types, one of the rioting charedi men who oppose them. But you? You make no sense to them. You put the lie to everything they are trying to accomplish. You might even be able to reach out to their younger members, who are sincere and really have no idea what the conflict is all about, and be mekarev them [bring them close to Torah]. Their entire agenda is predicated on the idea that people like you don’t exist, that traditional women are subjugated, dependent, and ignorant [again, all their words, not mine].
Continue reading → A Solution Greater than the Problem
A member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of America once remarked to me that things would be going splendidly in our world were it not for our propensity to continually shoot ourselves in the foot. What took place at the Kosel on Rosh Chodesh Sivan provides a textbook example.
The enduring image of the Rosh Chodesh davening should have been of thousands upon thousands of religious girls and women davening and reciting Tehillim with intensity, their voices never rising above a whisper. Nowhere in today’s world is such purity to be found as in a gathering of Jewish daughters praying or reciting Tehillim. Even before I reached the Kosel, the sight of so many Bais Yaakov girls brought tears to my eyes.
The images broadcast worldwide should have been of the tiny Women of the Wall (WoW) group totally engulfed in the much, much larger group of religious women praying at the Kosel — numerically batul beshishim.
The idea of filling the area directly in front of the Kosel and almost the entire KoselPlazawith frum women and girls completely flummoxed WoW. When they first got wind of the large numbers of women who would be at the Kosel, they … Read More >>
I really must avoid spicy foods – even my wife’s scrumptious jalapeno pepper-laced cornbread – before retiring at night. The recipe’s great, but for someone approaching 60, it’s a recipe, too, for indigestion-fueled nightmares.
The scene: the Kotel Maaravi, or “Western Wall” in Jerusalem. The time: some future point, may it never arrive, when Anat Hoffman’s vision of the holy place has been realized.
Ms. Hoffman, of course, is the famously melodramatic chairwoman of the feminist group “Women of the Wall,” who has orchestrated countless demonstrations (with adoring media and bevy of cameras in tow) in the form of untraditional prayer services at the holy site; who has reveled in being arrested for her provocations by Israeli police; and who is celebrated by temple clubs and coffee klatches across the United States as the Jewish reincarnation of Rosa Parks. She recently told a Jewish newspaper in California that the Wall should become, in effect, a timeshare. “For six hours a day,” she explained, “the Wall will be a national monument, open to others but not to Orthodox men.”
Those “others,” in Chairman Hoffman’s hope, will presumably include not only the group she leads (and which she characterizes as … Read More >>
The thought, a staple in the writings of the celebrated Jewish thinker Rabbi E. E. Dessler (1892-1953), is best known to people unfamiliar with his thought and writings from a famous and evocative paragraph written by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years,” Emerson mused, “how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of G-d which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”
Rav Dessler, who wrote poetry too but was above all a keenly incisive philosophical thinker, explains that there really is no inherent difference between nature and what we call the miraculous. We simply use the word “nature” for the miracles to which we are accustomed, and “miracles” for those we haven’t previously experienced. All there is, in the end, is G-d’s will.
That we are inured to the magnificence of the stars in the sky is unfortunate. We city dwellers can still capture some of the grandeur of Emerson’s “city of G-d” if we journey to less light-polluted places. I recall the shock I felt as a young … Read More >>
When a “movement” has more media appearances than members, do we notice something amiss? When a group claiming to favor prayer calls for dismantling a place of worship, do we smell smoke? And when leaders of an organization demand “Ahavat Yisrael” and then express outright revulsion for all who oppose their agenda, do we finally penetrate the veneer?
This is the tragic saga of the “Women of the Wall,” which portrays itself worldwide as advocating for “women’s rights,” but in Israel is known primarily for dishonoring a Holy Site with political circus – and sowing offense and discord.
They claim to speak for women, but disparage their spirituality. Chair Anat Hoffman referred to traditional prayers at the Wall as “men-only,” discarding those of millions of women annually. Founding member Phyllis Chesler asserted that recognition of their group will “acknowledge women as spiritual and religious beings, capable of non-coerced autonomous, independent, and halachic prayer.” She imagines that traditional women, “forced to obey ultra-misogynist views,” are lacking in all of the above.
But founding and current member Prof. Shulamit Magnus takes the crown. She claims that only women ignorant of Judaism oppose them, and having invented this fact, then declares that … Read More >>
by Moshe Hauer
This week the Jewish world will celebrate the 46th anniversary of the liberation and reunification of Jerusalem in the Six Day War. This miraculous event restored unity to the city that symbolizes Jewish unity, described by the Psalmist as “the city that is united together” (Psalm 122). In fact, King David only established Jerusalem as Israel’s capital after mending the divisions within the Jewish People and gaining their unified support (Samuel II, chapter 5). As such, and with keen awareness of all that continues to divide our People – especially in Yerushalayim – I would like to share three quotes from Rav Avraham Yitzchak haKohein Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Palestine. The quotes present a concept and a strategy of Jewish unity.
The Concept The quote below comes from Rav Kook’s “Ayn Ayoh” commentary to the Aggadaic passages in TB Berachos (64a), and is also found in his “Siddur Olat Riyah” (quote translated by Chanan Morrison). It presents a concept of peace and unity that clearly guided Rav Kook’s communal thinking and activities.
“Rabbi Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Haninah: Torah scholars increase peace in the world. As it says, “All of Your children … Read More >>
It’s a story I tell a lot, since, well, its point comes up a lot. Blessedly, my audience, at least judging from its response, hadn’t heard it before.
The psychiatrist asks the new patient what the problem is. “I’m dead,” he confides earnestly, “but my family won’t believe me.”
The doctor raises an eyebrow, thinks a moment, and asks the patient what he knows about dead people. After listing a few things – they don’t breathe, their hearts don’t beat – the patient adds, “and they don’t bleed very much.” At which point the psychiatrist pulls out a blade and runs it against patient’s arm, which begins to bleed, profusely.
The patient is aghast and puzzled. He looks up from his wound at the slyly smiling doctor and concedes, “I guess I was wrong.”
“Dead people,” he continues, “do bleed.”
I interrupted the laughter with the sobering suggestion that it’s not only the emotionally compromised victims of delusions, however, who see the world through their own particular lenses. Most of us do, at least if we have strong convictions. And the yields of those sometimes very different lenses are the stuff of conflict.
My brief presentation took place … Read More >>
We routinely turn away contributors of “pure” halacha and hashkafa pieces. Not that our regular contributors undervalue them. To the contrary, I believe that every one of our authors consider pure Torah pieces more valuable than any of our blogging activity. However, we tell ourselves that readers will have no trouble finding a full assortment of quality Torah pieces elsewhere. What we try to do at Cross-Currents is slake the thirst of many – for better or worse – for treatments of applied Torah, or the intersection between Torah thought and the unfolding of events in the world around us.
A review of a new volume of teshuvos would then seem to be out of character for Cross-Currents treatment. It would be that, were it not for their extraordinary author, Rav Asher Weiss, shlit”a. As we shall see, both the scope of his work and the ease with which he addresses the complexities of cutting-edge issues are breaths of fresh air to people who have not given up on a Torah enthusiastically and confidently confronts the world at large.
The personality of the author entirely predicts this work. Rav Weiss is upbeat, optimistic, and accessible. His appeal does not … Read More >>
The Talmud in Eruvin [47b-48a] discusses the unusual case of a lake situated between two villages, such that each end of the lake is within the Sabbath limits of one or the other village. Because the water mixes, and thus someone who goes out and draws water might be removing water from the Sabbath limits of the other village, Rebbe Chiyah says you can’t draw water without an iron wall dividing the lake. The Talmud continues that Rebbe Yosse bar Rebbe Chanina disagrees — and laughs at Rebbe Chiyah.
The Talmud asks… why? Without focusing upon the rest of the story, and the actual reason behind the laughter, it’s interesting to note what the Talmud discounts. “Because his logic goes with a lenient view, he laughs at someone who teaches a more stringent opinion?!” The Talmud finds that inconceivable!
So you might think, as I did, that obviously the rabbis of the Talmud did not understand the blogger mindset. You know, the type of person who will make fun of anything that his shallow mind doesn’t understand? Perhaps the rabbis didn’t know such people!
But then I realized, no, of course not. The Talmud isn’t talking about your average … Read More >>
A discomfiting feeling crept over me as I watched the fellow remove his head.
Well, not his head – though that would have been discomfiting too, even more so. This was just a costume head, that of the Sesame Street character Cookie Monster. The scene: a small island of concrete in the middle of lower Broadway in Manhattan, where a moment before, Mr. Monster had been happily (at least his expression seemed to say so) posing with a pair of happy children (their expressions left no doubt), the latter’s parents pointing their phones at the photogenic performer and progeny.
My discomfiture arose from discordance, the jarring contrast between the friendly furry face, now dangling from a hand, and the entertainer’s actual own face, heavily stubbled and sneering. Grumbling and angry, he was clearly not enjoying his job.
It might be a professional hazard. A year or so later, an Elmo in Times Square began shouting anti-Semitic rants (with his head on, so to speak) and blocking traffic before being arrested. Another Cookie Monster in the same area stands accused of shoving a 2-year-old when he deemed his mother’s tip insufficient for his services. (“He was using words that … Read More >>