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March 31, 2016 6:33 am

The Western Wall Is No Place for Political Posturing

avatar by Yaakov Menken and Pesach Lerner / JNS.org

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A prayer service of Women of the Wall,. Photo: Women of the Wall.

A prayer service of Women of the Wall,. Photo: Women of the Wall.

JNS.org – Charlie Kalech is upset. Kalech is the Internet entrepreneur who broke Israeli law last year on behalf of the Women of the Wall (WoW), taking a Torah scroll from the men’s section of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Those scrolls may not be removed by law, respecting traditional Jewish practice. Kalech broke through the divider between men and women to give WoW a Torah scroll, and he was detained for his trouble. Now he feels betrayed — because WoW announced plans to hold a “birkat kohanot” this Passover, an imitation “priestly blessing” by and for women.

Large crowds come to the Western Wall twice each year for birkat kohanim, the Jewish priestly blessing. The blessing itself is hardly extraordinary — kohanim in Ashkenazi Orthodox synagogues perform it on each holiday in the Diaspora; Sephardim do it daily, as do all traditional synagogues in Israel. The special event at the Western Wall, however, held during the intermediate days of Passover and Sukkot, began less than 50 years ago.

It was initiated by the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Gefner of blessed memory, based on an 800-year-old teaching that when 300 kohanim deliver their blessing together, it is a sign that the Holy Temple will soon be rebuilt. This is why nearly 100,000 Jews now come to receive the priestly blessing from hundreds of kohanim. There is no mandate in Jewish law for this service or for conducting it at the Western Wall, and no reason besides simple convenience to do it specifically during the holidays. Yet this is what WoW aims to mimic.

Kalech is agitated because Israel’s Conservative Jewish movement does not approve of women performing this ceremony, and therefore WoW’s “birkat kohanot” will not be “inclusive.” In actuality, this particular idea is equally offensive to every denomination.

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There is, of course, no way to reconcile “birkat kohanot” with traditional Judaism, which defines kohanim as male descendants of Aharon, the original high priest. But the Reform movement also rejects birkat kohanim when conducted by anyone. They point out that priestly status itself is not egalitarian: it separates the kohanim from other Jews.

So WoW plans to show preference to daughters of kohanim over other women in a way unsupported by any version of Judaism, doing a “Jewish” ritual supported by no version of Jewish ritual, in imitation of a ceremony that aims to restore Judaism’s doubly undemocratic Holy Temple. And it claims to be doing all this in the name of egalitarianism.

If that reads like self-parody, so does Kalech’s complaint. He decries WoW for “blatant disregard for respect of different streams of Judaism,” and declares that the group has been “usurped by those who disregard halachic (Jewish legal) observance for their own political agenda.” Apparently he did not recognize this last year, although their “birkat kohanot” is no more or less religious, and conversely no more or less political, than their use of a Torah scroll. Kalech is absolutely right, save for his use of the word “usurped.”

The correct term is “founded.” From its inception, the Women of the Wall have demonstrated “blatant disregard for respect of different streams of Judaism.” Their behavior towards those praying at the Western Wall belies their claim to merely wish to pray in their own fashion and their own style.

One of their most active members uncomfortably admitted that her WoW colleagues consciously deviate from any normal style of prayer. On the contrary, she wrote, “they may not pray every morning at all. Some women pray/sing at the top of their lung [sic] in an operatic voice. I don’t think they would do that at home or in their local beit knesset (synagogue).” Another WoW member stated openly that she doesn’t even know how to pray, and that she came to “choose a potential victim to argue with” from among the traditional women there for prayers.

All of this is relatively obvious to anyone who has witnessed their behavior. Besides the aforementioned singing “at the top of their lungs,” they have 10 women blow shofar in unison before Rosh Hashanah, wave their prayer books overhead, and in general do as much as possible to attract attention. Although the new “Ezrat Yisrael” egalitarian prayer area at the Western Wall is sufficient for a group many times WoW’s size, it sits empty — WoW comes only to where traditional women are praying, and many of its members declare that they will accept no alternative.

This conduct reflects the expressed belief of WoW leaders that change must be forced upon other women. Bonna Haberman claims that WoW “catalyzes engagement in healthy democracy” by ensuring that “ultra-Orthodox” women are “aroused by the subversive possibility of women’s autonomous public prayer.” Anat Hoffman says that WoW’s presence in the women’s section is about “bringing about change in the Orthodox world,” while Susan Aranoff and the late Rivka Haut wrote that WoW will “shock” traditional women and “change their world view.” WoW’s agenda is politics, not prayer.

Perhaps it was possible until now to ignore these statements, and credibly believe that WoW simply wished to conduct their own services. But only an alternate agenda demands that they continually push the envelope — by, for example, inventing an entirely new “Jewish” practice. It is simple political theater, busing in women to ape Orthodox men, with a performance as foreign to traditional movements as to the most ardent traditionalist.

Perhaps WoW has finally taken things one step too far. Perhaps the media will finally ask why a group claiming to simply wish to pray “in its own fashion” keeps making its “fashion” more and more extreme. Perhaps people will wonder about a purported spiritual need for “birkat kohanot” found nowhere else in the Jewish world.

Even previous supporters of WoW must be discomfited, as Charlie Kalech is, now that WoW’s true agenda is manifest and undeniable: forcing feminism upon women who simply wish to pray peacefully, in their traditional fashion, at what they regard to be the holiest place for their prayers. The Western Wall is a religious site, and not the venue for WoW’s feminist politics.

Rabbi Yaakov Menken is the director of Project Genesis – Torah.org, and the co-editor of Cross-Currents.com, an Orthodox online journal. Rabbi Pesach Lerner is the executive vice president emeritus of the National Council of Young Israel.

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  • Yaakov Menken

    It would appear that Charlie Kalech’s first dispute is not with us, but rather with the news media, including the extremely WoW-friendly HaAretz which said he was detained “for passing a Torah scroll from the men’s section of the Western Wall to members of a feminist prayer group” http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/news/1.653805 and the JPost which said he was as “arrested for incitement after passing a Torah to a member of WoW” http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Man-beaten-arrested-for-passing-Torah-to-WoW-says-he-was-denied-medical-legal-aid-398825 . We never said he left the men’s section; we said he took a Sefer Torah from the men’s section and passed it to WoW. It may well be true that accomplices opened the divider for him, but they were not mentioned.

    It is interesting that Kalech refers to Hillel and Shammai to somehow buttress his assertion that there was never such a thing as “monolithic” halachah — especially as the Talmud concludes that the halachah follows Hillel, so much so that the opinion of Shammai “ayno Mishnah,” it is not the correct teaching and is not to be followed (except for a very limited set of decisions mentioned in Mishnah Shabbos).

    Kalech’s statement that Hillel & Shammai “rarely agreed” is fiction; the Mishnah only records their disagreements, not the 99.999% of Jewish thought upon which they agreed absolutely. And it is disingenuous, as the Reform movement rejected all Halachah.

    The conflict created by WoW is unrelated to halachic opinions. It is about the introduction of a political campaign for feminism into a place of prayer. The idea of “birkat kohanot” is completely consistent with the statements of WoW leaders which Kalech sidesteps rather than addressing.

    His comment is thus merely another attempt to hide WoW’s true agenda, and more is the pity.

  • Charlie Kalech

    With all due respect, Rabbi Menken and Rabbi Lerner, some statements in this article are factually incorrect:

    I never took a Torah out of the men’s section, nor did I “break through” the mechiza. I was only detained after I went to the police to press charges against an employee of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation who physically assaulted me indeed breaking both State law and Halacha. My detainment was a nuisance meant to intimidate me after I pressed charges against the authorities responsible for the Kotel. There is no law against what I did so the only charge they could come up with was disturbing the public order which was bogus and never pursued since there was no objection to what happened until twenty minutes after my role when the so-called ushers of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation did indeed violently break through the mechitza injuring me and another man. Not to worry though, the police defended the legal right of women to read from the Torah as established by the Israel Supreme Court and stopped the violence initiated by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation against their fellow Jews.

    One need only to watch the video which is online in numerous places to see that I never left the men’s section and that your portrayal of what I did is factually inaccurate.

    All that being said, it saddens me that you fail to recognise that there have been Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis who have supported WOW’s practices of a women’s tefilla in the Ezrat Nashim of the Kotel in which the women conduct tfillot for themselves, read Torah and those who so chose wear Tallit and Tfillin. In contrast I know of no Orthodox rabbi who supports birkat cohanot, the Masorti Movement has paskined against it and the Reform Movement has called it irrelevant with no place in a modern prayer services.

    How you can draw a parallel between these in light of this contrast is surprising and only displays ignorance and the disconnect between you and the majority of world Jewry. It is this divide in Klal Yisrael and the fallacies you promote which make me sad and mourn the damage such divisiveness causes.

    There has never been monolithic Halacha. The Talmuud is full of differing opinions. Hillel and Shamai rarely agreed. Why can you not accept halachic opinions which differ from your own? In my opinion, this is nothing short of hubris putting yourselves above the Tnaim and their example and advice for how to live with your fellow Jews.

    I look forward to the day when we learn to live together in mutual respect. Until then, perhaps you can start gathering the feathers you have spread according to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s (the Berdichever Rabbi’s) parable and turn your energy towards fixing the shlemut of Ein Sof instead of perpetuating and deepening His brokenness.

    Charlie Kalech
    Jerusalem
    March 30, 2016

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