Prayer and Politics

I was heartened by the responses I received to my essay last week, in which I suggested that Jews of good will on each side of the issue of women’s prayer groups at the Kosel Ma’aravi make an effort to empathize with those on the other.

Even as someone who wishes to see the Jewish religious tradition of millennia upheld at that holy spot, I still consider it important to try to appreciate how women used to women’s or mixed-sex services might feel in a segregated national Jewish prayer area where the only group services are men’s. And I expressed my hope that those women, too, will try to put themselves in the shoes of men who embrace halacha and thus may not hear women’s voices raised in song. Where such empathy might lead was not my point; the empathy itself was.

I heard, among others, from several non-Orthodox rabbis who (even though they prefer a different setup at the Kosel than I) expressed their appreciation for what I wrote. Heartening too was that I didn’t receive a single communication from anyone in my own charedi community eschewing empathy for those unlike us. (Perhaps that shouldn’t have been surprising, but it was.)

Deeply unimpressed with what I wrote, though, was a Reform rabbi on the West Coast. In a blog she writes for, Susan Esther Barnes characterized my call for empathy as inconsistent and even “insulting” since I pointedly did not apply it to people like Women of the Wall’s leader Anat Hoffman, whose words and actions seem to be weapons wielded in pursuit of a political/social agenda.

It is true, and I made no bones about it. I am unable to summon empathy for ideologues like Ms. Hoffman. While a Jew who (justifiably or not) feels personally pained by the dearth of vocal women’s prayer groups in the main Kosel plaza deserves the sincere concern of other Jews, one who is motivated by the social activist cause of undermining Jewish tradition is a different matter. Someone who construes halachic standards at the Kosel as some intentional, nefarious “silencing… of women who comprise half of this nation,”(Ms. Hoffman’s words), as a moral wrong that must be fought and vanquished – and who proudly declares that by provoking arrest “we are reclaiming Judaism’s holiest site” (ditto) – cannot lay claim to my good will.

My critic insists that the purposeful disruptions engineered by Ms. Hoffman at the Kosel are nothing more than “traditional Jewish prayer,” as if praying somehow entails summoning an eager cadre of media to record it (and, of course, its predictable results).

Rabbi Barnes accuses me of “calling heartfelt Jewish women rabble-rousers.” But I did nothing of the sort. I called heartfelt Jewish women heartfelt Jewish women. It was rabble-rousers whom I called rabble-rousers.

It’s hardly my judgment alone. The presumably non-charedi op-ed page editor of the Jerusalem Post, Seth J. Frantzman, recently wrote that “If Orthodox Jews decided to abandon the Kotel, Women of the Wall would follow them, because it is the Orthodox Jewish method of worship [that disturbs them]… [it is] the need to ‘liberate’ the Jewish Orthodox women, i.e. colonize them, that unfortunately appears to motivate some of these actions.” The group, he contends, “seems too often interested only in itself and its narrow agenda.” I would not apply so broad a brush myself, but there is little doubt that there are indeed places that merit the tar.

Writing in Commentary, moreover, respected (non-charedi) journalist Evelyn Gordon, while raising a different issue, makes a similar observation. What, she asks, about “the thousands of women who visit the Western Wall every day not to ‘see and be seen,’ as Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman” described her goal, “but to pour out their hearts to G-d”? Should they be subjected, against their will, to services “conducted in as loud, public and disruptive [a] manner as possible”?

What Ms. Hoffman and like-minded social ideologues want, Ms. Gordon continues, “is to make a political statement.” Were they “more interested in prayer than in politics,” she suggests, “Israelis might be more sympathetic to their cause.”

There are women among supporters of women’s prayer services at the Wall who are sincerely interested only in prayer. Those are the fellow Jews for whom I feel, and counsel others to feel, empathy. Their goal is not to “see and be seen” or to “reclaim” the Kosel, but to pour out their hearts to Heaven. And whether they choose to pray at the Robinson’s Arch area of the Kosel set aside for vocal women’s prayer or quietly alongside their more tradition-minded Jewish sisters in the main plaza’s women’s section, they, along with all the men there for the same reason, are part of a unified, de-politicized, heartfelt Jewish presence in that peaceful, holy place.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

“It’s All in the Angle” (Torah Temimah Publications), a collection of selected essays by Rabbi Shafran, is now available from Judaica Press.

This essay may be reproduced or republished, unedited,
with the above copyright and note included.

(Communications: [email protected])

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