The Peril of Pluralism

The essay below appeared under a different title in Haaretz earlier this week. I share it here with that paper’s permission.

Those of us who believe that the Torah, both its written text and accompanying Oral Law, were bequeathed by G-d to our Jewish ancestors at Sinai, and that its commandments and prohibitions remain incumbent on Jews to this day, obviously hope that Jewish movements lacking those beliefs remain marginal forces in Israel.

But that’s a hope born of the perspective of a particular belief-system (albeit the conviction of all Jews’ ancestors until two centuries ago). Leaving such blatant subjectivity aside, though, would the growth of non-Orthodox Jewish theologies be a boon or a bane to Israeli society qua society?

The answer may lie in the example of the United States, where the Reform and Conservative movements, as well as less popular groups like Reconstructionism and Humanistic Judaism, had and have free rein to lay claim to Jewish authenticity. And here in the American diaspora, the results of the Jewish Pluralism experiment? Decidedly banal.

On the one hand, Jews who, for whatever reason, choose not to embrace the demands of a traditional (in this context, Orthodox) Jewish life have … Read More >>


Why the Radical Politics of WoW’s Leaders Matter

Is it merely a coincidence that so many of Women of the Wall’s leaders have numerous close associations with radical, anti-Israel groups? Or could it be that WoW is a useful vehicle for advancing an anti-Israel narrative that leaves Israel increasingly isolated internationally? Is concealing that agenda the reason why WoW tried to suppress the story of its leaders’ ties to fringe anti-Israel NGOs?

In early November, journalist Rachel Avraham posted a story at Jerusalem Online, the English-language website of Channel Two News, detailing the connections between WoW, vice-chairwoman, Batya Kallus and chairwoman Anat Hoffman and various anti-Israel groups.

As program director for the Moriah Fund, Kallus helps facilitate funding for such groups as Adallah, Ir Amin, Yesh Din, and Mossawa. Adallah rejects Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, and has been active in promoting Israel Apartheid Week on North American campuses and in the dissemination of the Goldstone Report accusing Israel of war crimes in Operation Cast Lead. The Goldstone Report cited “evidence” provided by Adallah 38 times.

Yesh Din categorizes Israel as an apartheid state and supported Turkey’s position after the Mavi Marmara incident, in which Israel naval commandos attempting to interdict the Gaza Flotilla … Read More >>

So, You Thought It Would Never Happen?

A private business owner in Seattle has been told that he will face fines and penalties if he refuses to bake “wedding” cakes for deviant couples in violation of his religious faith. If it’s “racist” to discriminate against deviant couples having a “wedding,” then it’s wrong for a Rabbi to refuse to marry them, as well.

Is Women of the Wall Anti-Israel?

Matzav.com is running an article entitled “EXPOSED: Women of the Wall Linked To Rabidly Anti-Israel Groups,” which it reprinted from Jerusalem Online. But if you go looking for the original article, you won’t find it. It has been taken down. In a comment posted to Matzav, the reporter, Rachel Avraham, doubles down on her accusations against Women of the Wall:

Women of the Wall threatened Jerusalem Online News with legal action, hence why it was removed. This is a routine scare tactic of radical leftists, since they only can tolerate having their own views published and are opposed to dissent. However, all of the facts in the article are documented and have been checked numerous times before publication. I am a serious investigative journalist and would not have published it otherwise. I want to thank Matzav.com for reprinting the article, so the article will be public at this moment. Women of the Wall had the article taken down because they threaten news organizations that don’t publish what they like. Since I proved beyond a doubt to my editor that Women of the Wall representatives lied to him about the accuracy of the article so he would be pressured … Read More >>

Al Jazeera and the Jews

Even as Al Jazeera America – the new offshoot of the Qatar-based news organization – was making its broadcast debut recently on cable carriers in the United States, its parent organization back on the Arabian peninsula featured a commentary by former Muslim Brotherhood official Gamal Nassar, in which he claimed that the Egyptian military (and currently political) leader Abdel Fattah Al Sisi is a Jew. He didn’t mean it as a compliment.

Mr. Nassar cited an Algerian newspaper (“All the slander that’s fit to sling”?) to the effect that Mr. Al Sisi’s uncle was “a member of the Jewish Haganah organization” and that the nephew “is implementing a Zionist plan to divide Egypt.”

The Al Jazeera commentator helpfully added that “Whoever reads The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the writings of [the Jews], including those who were writing in the U.S., realizes that this plot was premeditated.”

Maybe it’s not fair to visit the sins of the father – Al Jazeera in Arabia – so to speak, onto the son – Al Jazeera America. The latter organization claims to be “a completely different channel from… all of the other channels in the Al Jazeera Media Network” … Read More >>

Black Peril, White Knights

A lengthy piece in the New Republic asserts – or, more accurately, hopes – that “an unlikely alliance between Orthodox and progressive women will save Israel from fundamentalism.” The latter word, of course, is intended to refer to traditional Orthodox Judaism.

Heavy on anecdotes about charedi crazies harassing sympathetic women, the piece, titled “The Feminists of Zion,” details how demographic changes in Israel have brought the decades-old peaceful co-existence of secular and charedi Jews to something of a head. The “once-tiny minority” of charedim “now comprises more than 10% of the population,” it informs. And it warns that “as their numbers have increased, so has their sway over political and civil life.”

That sway has resulted in things like “an increase in modesty signs on public boulevards and gender-segregated sidewalks in Haredi neighborhoods,” not to mention “gender-separated office hours in government-funded medical clinics and de facto gender segregation on publicly subsidized buses,” among other affronts.

In 19th century America, there was much anxiety about the “Yellow Peril,” the pernicious effect that Chinese immigrants were imagined to have on the culture of the union. During the Second World War, the phrase was applied to Japanese Americans (iceberg, Goldberg, what … Read More >>

Two NYT Pieces Say It All

Two recent articles in the New York Times conveyed as informative a picture of Palestinians and Israel as might be imagined. One, on August 4, profiled the “culture of conflict” nurtured by West Bank Palestinians, focusing on Arab teenagers’ delight in throwing large stones at Israel soldiers and Jewish residents of nearby communities, and younger boys’ games imitating their elders’ activities.

“Children have hobbies,” one teen, Muhammad, is quoted as explaining, “and my hobby is throwing stones.”

When a 17-year-old, arrested for his stone-throwing, was released in June after 16 months in prison, the article reports, “he was welcomed like a war hero with flags and fireworks, women in wedding finery lining the streets to cheer his motorcade.”

The second Times piece, the next day, described how, in its headline’s words, “Doctors in Israel Quietly Tend to Syria’s Wounded.”

Most Syrian patients “come here unconscious with head injuries,” said Dr. Masad Barhoum, the director general of one of the hospitals, the Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya. “They wake up after a few days or whenever and hear a strange language and see strange people,” he continued. “If they can talk, the first question is, ‘Where am I?’ ”

“I … Read More >>

They’re Not Us

The teaser e-mail alert from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency read: “Hasidim for Iran”; and the headline of the linked article, about a Neturei Karta member arrested for allegedly spying for Iran, was: “Haredi Israeli charged with spying for Iran.”

Well, yes. But one has to wonder if, say, a “progressive” anti-Zionist Reform Jew had allegedly offered his services to an enemy of Israel he would be similarly described by his religious affiliation. And we certainly (and thankfully) didn’t see headlines back in 2008 about Bernie Madoff reading: “Jew Accused of Bilking Thousands of their Savings.”

The accused spy, who reportedly visited the Iranian Embassy in Berlin in 2011 expressing his wish to replace the Israeli government with one controlled by gentiles and saying he was willing to murder a Zionist, did indeed wear the sort of clothing associated with charedim. And he’d probably call himself one. But just like a psychopath who happens to be a doctor is hardly a representative example of his profession, neither is a charedi who aids a murderous regime (assuming the fellow is guilty as charged) anything more than an outlying grotesquerie.

That seems to fly over some heads, like that of the … Read More >>

A Clear Contrast

The media has done a good job presenting the Women of the Wall as a group of innocents, just coming down to the Western Wall to pray. Meanwhile, they say the Women For the Wall are inciting violence and responsible for people shouting and throwing things.

For anyone confused, this video is a must. No comment needed!

Women of the Wall: Praying, or Disturbing Prayer?

It is a pleasure to note that two active members of the Women Of the Wall, Susan Silverman and Dahlia Lithwick, have attempted to address several arguments which, they claim, have been made by writers who oppose them, especially the founders of the Women For the Wall (The Kotel is for Us, Too: The Forward, June 14, 2013, also published as Dispelling nine myths about Women of the Wall: HaAretz, June 11, 2013). Dialogue is something which the leaders of W4W, Ronit Peskin and Leah Aharoni, have consistently invited, yet until now they have been rebuffed. Nonetheless, I think it would be premature to call this truly a dialogue between the two groups — and, perhaps predictably, neither HaAretz nor The Forward was interested in publishing a response to the challenges laid down.

If there is one thing upon which secular and Jewish scholars agree, it is the importance of referring back to primary sources. Whether it comes from Shakespeare, Einstein or Maimonides, that I may quote an idea accurately does not make it mine. If we look again at Silverman and Lithwick’s examples of arguments against them, we find that most of them are well sourced … Read More >>

Wake Up!

Shabbos Parshas Chukas was the annual “Shabbos of Chizuk,” when leading Rabbis at the Ner Israel Rabbinical College (which is located in Baltimore County, about 5 miles north of the Orthodox neighborhoods of Northwest Baltimore) spend Shabbos in the community, speaking to encourage Torah study and learning. The Rosh Yeshiva [Dean] himself, HRH”G Rav Aharon Feldman, shlit”a, spoke at the Agudath Israel of Baltimore after mincha.

I was surprised that he chose to speak about the situation going on now in Israel, on a Shabbos talk intended to strengthen learning and attachment to the Yeshiva. But the Rosh Yeshiva explained that this discussion is critical. The situation is very serious, and many American Jews don’t understand the extent to which this is so. People think, what is wrong if Orthodox Jews serve in the Army? And what is wrong if they study math and science, like American students do?

The following day, I wrote up my best recollection of the Rosh Yeshiva’s remarks, for his corrections and approval before publication. But even better, the Rosh Yeshiva was invited to deliver an improved and expanded version of his remarks to a larger audience in Toronto, via video. With appreciation … Read More >>

Meet Cindy

Meet Cindy.

A single mother living in the Midwest with her three young children, she’s deeply unhappy because of the news she received the other day.

Although Cindy does some sales work from her computer at home, her income is insufficient to cover the monthly mortgage payments for her small home and food and clothing for her family. Until now, though, she has managed to make ends meet, with the help of various social safety-net needs-based programs like WIC and food stamps.

Earlier this week, though, Cindy, and hundreds of thousands of others like her, received word that the government is ending those programs. Budgetary concerns were one reason given but the letter Cindy received also noted that she could still qualify for some of the benefits she was receiving if she found and accepted a full-time job. “When citizens like you, Cindy,” the personalized form letter explained, “are a regular part of the workforce, it benefits not only you and your family, but the economy as a whole. And that is something that every loyal citizen should appreciate!”

Well, says Cindy to herself somewhat bitterly, I don’t. The state of the economy is important, but improving it isn’t … Read More >>

Outmaneuvered by Two Young Women

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 … Read More >>

Crime and Prejudice

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 … Read More >>

Remember that “Hate Crime”?

If you’ve followed the news in Israel at all, you probably remember the shooting rampage at an “LGBT Youth Center” in Tel Aviv. [If you don't know the acronym, good for you, and please let me not be the one to inspire you to look it up.] With absolutely no evidence whatsoever, it was immediately assumed that the shooter was charedi, and that it was a hate crime:

“This hate crime needs to be a turning point and to give strength,” [MK Tzipi] Livni told hundreds of Israelis who rallied in Tel Aviv to protest the attack, in which 15 people were also wounded.

Mike Hamel, the head of the Aguda, Israel’s LGBT organization, said such an attack was unprecedented in Israel.

“We have joined the list of ‘civilized’ countries in which hatred is the standard,” he said. “I don’t know whether the incident was directed at youth, but it appears that it was directed at the community. This is baseless hatred that cost us dearly – this is what needs to be understood.”

Hamel said that “elements represented by [Shas leaders] Eli Yishai and Benizri that are fostering hatred are still stronger than the increasingly favorable attitude … Read More >>

Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

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 >>

A Piece of the Wall

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 >>

Political Provocation Not Welcome

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 >>

Understanding the “Other”

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 >>

Women For the Wall

I’ve never hidden my disdain for the “Women of the Wall,” and with Anat Hoffman’s new “compromise” proposal to rip down the Mechitzah on a daily basis, that’s not about to change any time soon.

A woman I’ve known for several years is now heading up a new group called Women For the Wall, for “preserving the sanctity of the Wall.” It’s not just a counter-movement, it’s a group of traditional Jewish women celebrating who they are.

Please check them out, and support the right of the majority to pray undisturbed!

When Sincerity Is Not Enough

Two weeks ago, we read in Parshas Shemini how on the day of the dedication of the Mishkan, Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aharon Hakohein, brought a “strange fire in front of Hashem” and were consumed by a “fire that went forth from before Hashem.” Targum Onkelos translates a “strange fire” as one “not commanded by Hashem.”

Later this summer, we will read of Korach and his followers. Korach made a specifically democratic argument against the “appropriation” of any special role in the Divine service by either Moshe Rabbeinu or his brother, Aharon Hakohein: “For the entire assembly – all of them – are holy. . . “

Nor can there be any question of the sincerity of the followers of Korach. Moshe warned them that only one of those who brought the incense offering would survive, and yet 250 showed up the next morning and placed the incense on their censors. Their evident sincerity did not avail them, and each one perished in the same fashion as Nadav and Avihu.

From these two famous episodes, we learn three things. First, when it comes to Divine service, modern categories, like “rights of religious expression” and “equality,” are misplaced. Hashem … Read More >>

The Women of the Wall and their Kotel Kontroversy

The Women of the Wall must be one of the most offensively misnamed groups in history. They don’t represent the Wall, they don’t represent the vast majority of the women who pray there, and they don’t represent sincere prayer.

As she was led off by police, their director, Lesley Sachs, was caught on video shouting out: “to all women from all denominations, there is more than one way to be a Jew!” Her actions were never about joining the others in prayer, but about disrupting them.

MK Michal Rozin said it best: “It’s not a religious issue, it’s a political issue.” Of course, it’s a religious site, and thus the first question should have been whether or not it is appropriate to stage a political protest in a place where others are accustomed to praying in peace.

This is why the proposal from Natan Sharansky, much as it is being celebrated in the press, is actually drawing a more positive reaction from Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz than from the group. According to the Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Rabinowitz said that he will not oppose the plan “for the sake of unity and out of … Read More >>

The Sharansky Plan for the Kotel

A short personal observation about the Sharansky plan is here.

Obama Comes Clean

Back in 2009, I was troubled by the reaction of many of my friends to President Obama’s speech in Cairo to the Muslim world.

I had shared the same concerns they had about Mr. Obama during his first campaign for the presidency – his Chicago politics background, his attendance of a church headed by a rabid racist, his association with other distasteful characters, the suddenness of his rise to political prominence. But after his election (which happened somehow, despite my vote for his rival) I tried to focus not on the past but the present. And I found his Cairo speech pleasantly surprising.

That he chose to address the Islamic world in itself did not disturb me. Were I in his position, I reflected, were I a person of color who lived in a Muslim environment as a child and now the leader of a free world plagued by Islamic extremism, I would have made the same choice, seized the golden opportunity to try to reach the Muslim masses with a message of moderation.

And, continuing my thought experiment, I imagined myself saying much what the new president did. He spoke of Islamic culture’s accomplishments, extended a hand of … Read More >>

Can We Do Anything to Lessen the Hatred?

Already five years ago, a prominent American rosh yeshiva told me that we might be approaching the end of a miraculous period in which the secular Israeli government became the prime supporter of Torah learning on a scale unprecedented in Jewish history. If the new coalition guidelines are implemented, that moment has arrived.

The incoming government coalition results from a concatenation of long-range political trends and a series of inexplicable blunders by veteran politicians. First, we’ll consider the long-range trends. From 1977 until 2005, the Israeli public was divided primarily over the “peace process,” a trend that became even more pronounced after the signing of the Oslo Accords. Each side was willing to offer the chareidi parties whatever was required to join their coalition to prevail on the issue of paramount importance to them.

Since the failure of the 2005 Gaza withdrawal, Israelis have soured on the possibility of peace and concluded that further territorial withdrawals will only result in the creation of another launching pad for rocket and terrorist attacks. That consensus closed the great fissure in Israeli politics. With issues of war and peace dormant, the possibility of new coalitions around other issues arose. Chareidi parties no longer hold the balance of power on the issue of paramount importance to most voters. Indeed for much of the non-chareidi public, the chareidim themselves are the most important issue.

Still, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was eager to retain the traditional alliance between Likud and the chareidi parties, in forming his new government. One does not sever old and reliable allies when the political roadmap ahead is filled with potholes. Unfortunately, the math did not work out. For one thing, Netanyahu made two bad decisions: He did not time new elections to coincide with the height of his popularity, and he decided to merge Likud and Yisrael Beitanu, whose leader, Avigdor Lieberman, immediately found himself under criminal indictment. As a result, Netanyahu ended up with ten less mandates than anticipated.

Second, Shas leader Rabbi Aryeh Deri feared having Bayit Yehudi headed by Naftali Bennett in the coalition, where it would threaten Shas’s control of the state religious establishment. Netanyahu had his own reasons for not wanting Bennett in the cabinet. The result was to drive Bennett’s settler party into the arms of the yuppies of Yesh Atid party, whose leader Yair Lapid has been a persistent critic of the settlement enterprise.

That unlikely pairing could unravel rapidly if President Obama pressures Israel for concessions to the Palestinians in return for American action on Iran. But it held rock firm throughout the drawn out coalition negotiations. The issue upon which Lapid and Bennett found common ground was “equality of service” – shorthand for greater chareidi participation in the IDF or national service. Interestingly, in an interview with Mishpacha during the campaign, Bennett did not once mention “equality of service.” He presented himself as someone who would provide Netanyahu’s “backbone” against negotiations leading to a Palestinian terror state.

Continue reading → Can We Do Anything to Lessen the Hatred?