Question: My daughter who is spending time in Israel told me she is planning to attend a service held by Women of the Wall. I don’t believe she should be getting involved in such divisive issues but I have been unable to dissuade her.
Rabbi Naftali Brawer
Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.
The real issue of Women of the Wall is not about the Western Wall at all. It is about religious pluralism in the modern state of Israel. The women — and their male supporters — who protest at the Western Wall each month are essentially taking a public stand against Orthodox hegemony over all aspects of religious life in the State.
I suppose that as an Orthodox rabbi you would expect me to be satisfied with this status quo. However, I am not and my sympathies lie with those who wish to see a more pluralistic religious environment in Israel.
Orthodox Jews tend to fear pluralism because they mistakenly conflate it with relativism. To be a relativist in religious terms means that one withholds judgment on all aspects of religious belief and practice. For an Orthodox Jew (and indeed for Progressive Jews), this is neither desirable nor possible.
The reason I am an Orthodox Jew is precisely because I don’t believe that all strands of Judaism are equally compelling and I have chosen to follow the strand that, at least to me, appears most authentic and inspiring. A Progressive Jew can make the same argument in terms of what he believes.
And yet while being no relativist, I am a religious pluralist because I believe that in the same way that a particular expression of faith appeals to me, other expressions and interpretations appeal to others. I can only state with any certainty what feels true to me. I have no right to deride others for what feels true to them.
Pluralist societies ensure freedom of religious expression to all and compel none. This is precisely what makes Britain such a wonderful place to live for people of all religious persuasions. Orthodox Jews are the beneficiaries of pluralistic societies in the diaspora so how can it be moral or just to deny this benefit to other Jews in the state of Israel?
Too many Jews see the Orthodox–Progressive divide as a zero-sum game where one side can only win at the expense of the other. Pluralism is based on the notion that both sides can win. This is not a cliché but a fact of life apparent in all pluralistic societies.
Your daughter is not only sensitive but also courageous. You should be proud of her and support her effort to bring greater religious expression to all of Israel’s citizens. p>
Rabbi Jonathan Romain
Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.
V I am stunned that you present this as a problem when you should consider yourself extraordinarily fortunate.
First of all, your daughter is in Israel. You speak as if she is relatively young, so I shall assume she is on a gap year or just after university age. She could have been travelling through Tibet, yet she has chosen to spend time in Israel. Wonderful.
Moreover, in Israel, she could be sunning herself in Eilat, but instead she is in Jerusalem attending a service and taking her faith seriously. Many parents would envy you.
As for Women of the Wall, there is no reason to be wary of them. They are a group of women — both Orthodox and Progressive — who care enough about their Jewish identity to pray at the Western Wall. They also wish to do so using symbols that are traditional to Judaism, such as wearing a tallit, blowing a shofar and carrying a Torah.
It is worth remembering that although, even according to Orthodoxy, women are not obliged to do any of these, neither are they forbidden from them. Yet the custom not to do so has become akin to a fatwa forbidding it. We are seeing the Talibanisation of Judaism in some circles.
It is also worth remembering that the Wall belongs to all Jews, not a limited section.
When Israeli soldiers fought in 1967 to capture it, they did not lose their lives in order for a small group of Jews to dictate who can pray there and how.
For men to throw dung in plastic bags at women and scream abuse – all in the name of a loving God — is one of the greatest Jewish heresies of modern times. It is astonishing that the one place in the world where Jewish prayers are violently disrupted is now Israel. She should be commended for standing up to Jewish antisemitism.
Your question raises a larger issue: to what extent can parents control their offspring once they are past a certain age? The answer is we cannot — after all, we get due warning of that as early as bar/batmitzvah — which is not only about them growing up, but about us letting go.
All we can do is influence, not through force or threats but through example. In your case, you can be delighted that you seem to have done so well.