Sunday, 18 July 2010

On Anat Hoffman, David Rotem and a Jewish Life Lived Behind Blinkers


I spent Shavuot, 9 years ago, in Jerusalem.

Having stayed up studying all night I wandered down to the Kottel to daven shacharit at dawn.

It’s a well known tradition in Jerusalem.

The whole area was packed.

There must have been 8-10,000 people who had been up all night and were now getting ready to daven as the sun rose, a recreation of the moment of revelation.


I was planning on davenning with a group of other Masorti Jews. And arrangements had been made for us.

We were shepherded into a fenced off-pen.

Around that row of fencing, was a sort of moat and then another fence – we were doubly penned in.

All for our own protection.

By half way through the services it became clear why we needed the protection.

Bottles – plastic bottles, but bottles none the less – were being thrown at us, principally by Haredi kids perched high above the plaza.

And the occasional nappy.

All because we were davenning on what they perceived to be their Kottel plaza.

How dare we seek to address God, in the language and prayers of our shared ancestors, without accepting every dictate of Haredi or Ultra-orthodox Judaism.


Standing there, hiding under my tallis while the bottles were flying, I developed a whole different understanding of the importance of asking this question - who owns Judaism in Israel.


The famous story is that Israel’s first Prime Minister – the avowedly secular – David Ben Gurion met with Rabbi Avraham Karelitz, the Chazon Ish, one of the great idealogues of early C20 Haredi Judaism.

Karelitz cited a passage from the Talmudic tractate Sanhedrin.[1]


The Talmud demands that when two camels meet on a narrow mountain pass the camel bearing goods has the right of way. The camel without goods is expected to defer. Karelitz said that since religious Jewry was bearing the tradition, secular Jewry would have to defer to religious Judaism – to him.

Ben-Gurion refused to accept that secular Judaism was ‘empty,’ but it’s hard to read the history of Ben-Gurion’s relationship with the Haredim without thinking that he did accept Karelitz’s premise.


In the years that followed Ben Gurion agreed that the right to register all Jewish weddings in Israel should be given to the Haredim. He also allowed Yeshivah Students to be exempted from military service and gave Haredi religious girls the right to be exempted from Sherut Leumi – a programme of non-military civic service which was already an exemption from full military service designed specifically for the religious.


It’s widely acknowledged that Ben Gurion made one mistake, but I think he made another.

The mistake he definitely made is that he thought Haredi Judaism would melt away in Israel. He couldn’t understand who would want to cling on to the ways of the Shettl and Ghetto when the option was the Zionist Dream. He got that wrong.

The original exemption for Yeshivah students, in the early 1950s, applied to 400 individuals.

Today there are 60,000 exemptions from military service claimed by Yeshivah students.

Today 25% of all Jewish primary school-age children are enrolled in Haredi institutions which discourage their students from serving in the IDF. In ten years the number of Haredi exemptions is expected to double.

And in 20 years from now it’s estimated that 40% of Jewish children will attend Haredi schools all of which discourage their students from serving in the IDF.


It turns out that Haredi Judaism is more attractive than Ben Gurion thought.

It certainly turns out that Haredi Jews procreate at a far faster rate than Ben-Gurion expected.


But it’s the second mistake Ben Gurion made that interests me most.

This is the mistake of believing that another group, usually Haredi or Chasidic, can be trusted to look after Judaism properly.

I’ve encountered, particularly in American Conservative communities or British United Synagogue ones, members of a Shul like this one who nonetheless give significant amounts of charitable support to the Ultra-orthodox as a kind of insurance policy.

It’s a terrible mistake.


I think this is what Ben Gurion must have felt in discussion with Karelitz.

In that argument about whether the Zionists or the Ultra-Orthodox were carrying the hopes, dreams and aspirations of Judaism on their backs as, like two camels on a mountain pass, he must have consciously or sub-consciously, accepted Karelitz’s premise.

It’s easy to be impressed by the beard.

It’s easy to be impressed by the Yiddishisms and affect of authenticity many ultra-orthodox speakers specialise in.

It’s easy to think that just because so many Ultra-orthodox Jews spend day and night with their nose to a page of Talmud, they must care about Jews like us and Judaism like ours.

And that would be an error; historically, philosophically and theologically.


I don’t want to over-generalise.

There are certainly long-bearded, Yiddish-speaking, Talmud studying moderates, but the history of ultra-orthodox Judaism in the last 150 years has been a history of the Ultra-orthodox pursuing entirely isolationist and selfish agendas that not only take no notice of the needs of liberal Jews, but actively and passionately ride roughshod over any claim that anyone other than a Haredi could possibly speak with authenticity about a faith they claim belongs to them uniquely.


I think contemporary Judaism is finally waking up to the dangers of handing over to the Haredim our faith.


In 2002, some two years after my experience at the Kottel the Supreme Court of Israel decreed who could and couldn’t pray on the Kottel Plaza. The Haredim got the front of the Plaza, the bit directly facing the Western Wall.

But an excavated area of the Southern Wall of the Temple, known as Robinson’s Arch, was made available to Masorti, Reform – more progressive groups.

We were to be allowed to pray, our way, just around the corner.

Not ideal, but a workable compromise.

Among the groups who use Robinsons Arch are the Women of the Wall. Women who want to be given the chance to take hold of their Judaism at the most important site in Judaism.

One of their leaders I’ve known for 20 years – Anat Hoffman.

Anat is a former Jerusalem Municipal Councillor, a native born Israeli, a wonderful and passionate voice for decency in so many different forums.

And this week Anat was arrested, for carrying a sefer Torah across the Kottel plaza on her way to Robinsons Arch.


Police surrounded Hoffman and tried to take the Torah off her. She was arrested, fined 5,000NIS and banned from the Kottel for 30 days.

She’s a seasoned campaigner and knows how to put a soundbite together, but there is truth in what she told reporters –


The police, Hoffman said, took it upon themselves to reinterpret the Supreme Court ruling — and that is a very dangerous development. It’s a slippery slope. Today they say women cannot hold the Torah. Tomorrow it will be, women cannot look at the Torah. Then it will be women cannot be at the Kotel at all. Before you know it, all of Jerusalem will be segregated. That is where we are headed.


I think what she meant is that the police, sub-consciously or otherwise just assumed that the Haredim represent the more laden camel – that they must be right when it comes to interpreting Judaism, that they must ‘own’ the most holy places in our faith.

But I reject the notion that the Kottel belongs to the Hareidim.

I reject the notion that the Hareidim are the laden camel.

Norman Solomon, in his Jacobs Memorial Lecture a couple of weeks ago is absolutely right.

When the Haredim read the Talmud they see nothing other than pure pristine Judaism.

They don’t understand how the whole apparatus of rabbinic law and lore only makes sense as a meditation on our relationship with the surrounding non-Jewish world.

The language of the Talmud is the vernacular.

The technical terms and rhetorical structures are borrowed from the Greeks.

The structures of commerce are massively influenced by the surrounding Sassanian culture – actually that’s a truth that Rabbi Jacobs explored and charted in his PhD.

The Talmud doesn’t want us to live our Jewish lives in black and white, ignoring anything that smacks of the challenges of modernity.

They Talmud is suffused with shades, with nuance.

The Talmud is pre-eminently concerned with how we live our Jewish lives while engaging with the challenges of the modern and the contemporary.

The aim is not to cut ourselves off, seal ourselves in and draw up a drawbridge.


It’s not just the Talmud.

How could a person possibly read Moses Maimonides, the greatest Rabbi – the tradition jests – since Moses of Biblical fame - and not understand how important it is to engage with the contemporary culture in all its scientific, academic, philosophic and sociological splendor.

Judaism is not about keeping our head down and paying attention only to internal voice of Talmudic dialectics.

It is about keeping our head up, reading everything seeking to understand again and again as time passes and natures shift, how to keep the tradition we have received fresh, relevant and vital.

Karlevitz was wrong when he claimed that the Haredi represents the most heavily laden camel. It is the Masorti Jew, us, who are most heavily laden camel.

We carry our tradition, but we also carry an understanding of genetics and evolution, quantum mechanics and astral physics, Friedrich Hegel and Immanuel Kant, Feminism and Freud, Mozart and Beethoven.

It’s the Haredi Jew, carrying only the Talmud, who should be making way.


And there is one other terribly worrying development in Israel this week that shares its origin with Ben Gurion’s second mistake about Haredi Judaism – the mistake that thought Judaism is safest when entrusted with the extremists. The Orthodox MK David Rotem is advocating a Bill that restricts the way in which Jews may convert. And this week the Bill passed through committee and will now go to the full Kenesset.


At present a Jew can go and live in Israel under the Law of Return if they have an ethnic connection to Judaism (a Jewish grandparent, parent or spouse) or if they have converted under the auspices of a legitimate Bet Din, such as ours.

Under this new proposed law, the only people who will be able to make aliyah through conversion alone will be people who convert under the supervision of the Haredi Municipal Rabbinates in Israel.


The Bill hands over the right to determine who can become a Jew to the Haredim.

It’s a disastrous Bill.

At the peak of the Russian Aliyah, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon tried to set up a more moderate conversion system to normalise the legal status of tens of thousands of these Russian Jews.

As most of us know those conversions have now been retroactively annulled by the Haredim.

David Rotem seems to think that putting yet more power into the hands of the Haredim will help.

He seems to think that taking the diverse range of access points into different streams of Jewish life and placing them all into the hands of the Haredim will result in a more benign and open-hearted form of Judaism.

It’s hard to know whether he is being foolish or disingenuous.

It’s impossible for me to see how giving the Haredim yet more power will result in a more open form of Judaism.

It’s impossible for me to support this mistake of Ben Gurion – a mistake predicated on the notion that the Haredim would ever be looking after the best interest of Jews like me, Jews like us, Judaism like ours.


L’Havdil, we hear this language in the context of decisions to engage, or not engage with Hamas.

The argument goes that we have to empower the moderates, we can’t allow the extremists to be the representative voice of what we understand to be the people in the street.

It should be the same thing with Judaism. We can’t empower the Haredim. We have to do everything we can to empower the moderates.

Not least because we represent the more industrious camel in this mountain stand-off.

Not least because if we do leave the Haredim in charge we should expect our kind of Judaism to be penned behind fences and pelted with bottles and nappies.

And that’s not what the Jewish State is meant to be all about.


I’ve nothing against fervent Judaism. Indeed we could do with more of it in this community and many others.

The problem is the blinkers. The problem is the belief that Judaism should be lived in a self imposed Ghetto in which contemporary values and contemporary challenges have no place.

Eizeh hu hacham

Who is wise, said the Rabbis,

Mishelomed mi kol adam - one who learns from every person – Jew or non-Jew, frum or secular, iconoclast or non-conformist.


We protect the future of Judaism by opening up, embracing, engaging.

Not by sheltering ourselves away and penning ourselves in

And any development which suggests that Judaism is safer in the hands of those who view the Jewish world through blinkered eyes needs to be opposed.


Shabbat shalom

[1] 32b

1 comment:

Religion and State in Israel said...

Thank you Rabbi for such a heart-felt post.

Re: "In the years that followed Ben Gurion agreed that the right to register all Jewish weddings in Israel should be given to the Haredim."

For the first decades of the State, the Rabbinate was controlled by National Religious rabbis. Control by Haredi and "Hardal" (Haredi-National Religious) rabbis is relatively recent.

Re: "He also allowed Yeshivah Students to be exempted from military service and gave Haredi religious girls the right to be exempted from Sherut Leumi..."

All girls who declare themselves to be religious receive an exemption (including not only Haredi, but also "Hardal" and many National-Religious). The IDF has recently begun to examine more closely the veracity of such declarations.

Joel Katz
Religion and State in Israel
@religion_state on Twitter

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