Friday, June 7, 2013

Jerusalem's Threatened Soul

Photo: David Majewski

This blog has, since its start, been focused on highlighting the multicultural nature of the Jewish people, an aspect of our history that I think is often overlooked. While some may see the diversity of Jewish customs in Israel and the Diaspora as a controversial issue and a basis for conflict, I see it as a motivator for dialogue, an inspiration for defining the commonality that links us all. After all, diversity speaks to the richness and wisdom of a culture as much as it does to the unexplained and often minor differences of opinion.

Kessim (Ethiopian Jews) praying. Photo: Benny Voodoo
Multiculturalism means that we have been around and survived long enough to find beauty and adaptability in other cultures, as well as our own. It means that despite thousands of years of dialogue with other religions and cultures, we have continued to find our own distinct voice.

But this week I find it difficult to offer a story from which to draw motivation and promise. Not because there aren’t many still to be explored. North America, South America, Africa, Europe, Asia and of course the Middle East all offer tales of the prevailing Jewish experience.

This week, like many Jews across the globe, I find my attention drawn to another, much sadder incongruity. 

Last Monday the Chief rabbis of Israel, and the administrator of the Kotel received letters threatening them with bodily harm “if the Women of the Wall are not allowed to pray in accordance with (their) customs.”  The letter contained the image of a handgun, along with the words, “your end is near.”

Equally disturbing was the fact that the letter was penned in the name of Women of the Wall. For their part, the organization immediately issued a press release condemning the letters and disavowing any knowledge or responsibility for the act.

Like everyone else, I of course want to know who the author is of this unsettling letter. After all, it’s human nature to want to get to the “bottom” of something disturbing, if only to reassure ourselves that it is “under control.”

But while Israel’s security personnel will no doubt be investigating that question with speed, it seems to me that the real issue at hand isn’t who did it, but how.  How a Jew – any Jew – could possibly see this as a viable path to our self preservation as a religious people.

Many, like I, doubt its purported source. A few writers have ventured down the path of accusations, suggesting either outright or in veiled language that an organization that has spent the better part of 25 years fighting in the courts for the right to peacefully pray in public could, on the dawn of their accomplishments, throw it all away for one vindictive letter. It’s an argument that makes no sense.

Photo: Michal Patelle
Those who have followed WOW’s journey over the past 25 years know that a defining characteristic of their efforts has been their commitment to pluralism and to peaceful unity of the Jewish people, particularly at the Kotel. These are virtues that even in the midst of conflict defy an act like this.

Even when pelted by rocks, disrupted by the clamor of chairs being thrown at them, attacked and accosted with slurs while they prayed, they have never campaigned for anything but peace and tolerance, particularly at the Kotel.

Even on the rosh chodesh Sivan, when they were threatened by angry crowds that were more than ten times the size of their gathering, there was no effort to fight back or to return the threats they received. They entered peacefully and the departed just as they had arrived: ringed by security, no doubt frightened and wary for their safety, but resolved in their belief that Judaism’s many movements and beliefs can indeed share space and share unity.

Since that time, rabbis and cantors across the world, some who share the movement’s goals, and others that are still wary of a non-Orthodox tradition, have spoken out to condemn the threats. Many have defended WOW as an organization that eschews violence and is dedicated to pluralistic thought.

So have journalists. Even conservative-leaning Israeli publications like the Jewish Press were willing to ask whether someone could be “framing” Women of the Wall, something that its writer Tzvi ben Gedalyahu admits could be the case, despite his criticism of WOW’s liberal values. 

But again, the question seems to be not “who” but “how”: How could we have arrived at this point?

As Jewish history has unfortunately already proven, in the end religious conflict is never a matter of one against the other, or who wins and who loses. History may appear to keep count, but loss is always inestimable, always profound.  

A pluralistic society can’t succeed if only some of us want it. It also can’t grow if we hold grudges against those who fear its message. Pluralism speaks not just to who we are or who we want others to be, but who we become when faced with the disappointing reality that we still have farther to go in being accepted for our views. As Rabbis for the Women of the Wall*so eloquently demonstrated in their June 4 letter of support to the Chief Rabbis in Israel:  

“It is deeply disturbing that at this point, when negotiations about freedom to worship at the Kotel are taking a new turn, such a threat should be issued. May the Chief Rabbis of Israel be sheltered beneath the wings of Shechinah, along with those who seek to pray in peace. May they have the courage to model open-mindedness and love of all their people.” 1

“May those who sincerely support religious pluralism be blessed, so that bim'heirah, b'yameinu (soon in our day), Ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox, and non-Orthodox Jews may be able to pray in safety and dignity. Ken y'hi ratzon. (So may it be.)” 2

* Also known as Rabbis Support Pluralism
1Rabbi Peg Kershenbaum, The Association of Rabbis and Cantors and International Vice Chair of Rabbis for the Women of the Wall.

2Rabbi Yocheved Mintz of the Reconstructionist, Renewal Congregation P’nai Tikvah in Las Vegas Nevada, and International Vice Chair to Rabbis for the Women of the Wall.

Photo: Julien Menichin

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