The pivotal breakthrough which now seems likely to oblige Haredim to share the burden in terms of conscription and gainful employment, heralds a belated and dramatic review of the relationship between the State and Religion. The question is whether these changes will intensify the trends towards divisiveness and polarization or lead to mutual understanding and national unity.
So far, the hysteria and sensationalism surrounding secondary issues such as the Women of the Wall brouhaha continues to be blown totally out of proportion. There is surely madness in the air to have women, including prominent secular activists affiliated with the far left Meretz party, gathering for prayers at the Kotel, wrapped up in traditionally male tallitot (prayer shawls) and in some cases wearing tefillin (phylacteries). It provide ingredients for a slapstick comedy.
There are of course also genuine followers of Conservative and Reform Jewish streams who reject traditional gender separation and are accustomed to egalitarian prayer. A small number of traditionally observant women also attend halachically-based women’s services which are not totally egalitarian but are still frowned upon by most Orthodox rabbis. And prior to 1948, men and women were not separated at the Kotel.
The case against this agitation is that the bulk of the 10 million Jews who pray annually at the Kotel are, at best, uncomfortable and in many cases distressed and outraged at being disturbed during prayer by women they consider to be acting in breach of the tradition in which they were nurtured.
It is all very well to insist on minority rights which, under ideal circumstances, should apply. But human behavior and especially religious sensitivities of the majority must also be taken into account. It is unlikely that ‘Women of the Wall’ would flaunt their independent approaches to worship if they knew that they were offending Christian or Muslim worshipers.
Indeed, the Israeli authorities have taken sensitivities to the most absurd and extreme level by actually denying Jews the right to worship on the Temple Mount at any time and at any location.
The number of active Reform and Conservative Jews residing in Israel is minimal and thus, until recently, the average Israeli was disinterested or bemused by these protests.
However, the issue exploded after Israelis were shocked by the excessive reaction of the Israeli police who, pressured by the ultra-Orthodox, arrested and jailed women for wearing prayer shawls at the Kotel. The ugly and offensive Haredi demonstrations at the Kotel also created a furor and received such wide international media coverage that the issue was transformed into a major Israel-US diaspora confrontation. Public opinion obliged the Prime Minister to intervene, which led to the acceptance of the Sharansky proposal to extend the Western Wall plaza to include Robinson’s Arch specifically to provide access for the ‘Women of the Wall’ to gather and pray as they desire.
Had both factions to this dispute not deliberately polarized the situation, we would have been spared this pain and ridicule. Had the women prayed quietly, with or without tallitot, the authorities should have ensured that they be left in peace. Had the haredim ignored the women and avoided these confrontations, there is little doubt that, in the course of time, at least the secular leftist political activists would simply have stopped “praying” at the Kotel.
The ‘Women of the Wall’ issue also gained public support because it became perceived as yet another example of efforts by the combined forces of the Haredim and the more right-wing religious Zionist elements to impose their stringent interpretations of Jewish law over the entire nation.
Many Israelis also, mistakenly, bracketed this issue with recent efforts to impose gender separation in transportation, public functions and in some cases even in the streets. The current attempts to enforce prohibitions against listening to a woman singing and the separation of the sexes – even in some sections of Bnei Akiva, the religious Zionist youth movement – was never the approach of mainstream Judaism by even the most revered former orthodox rabbinical leaders such as Chief Rabbi Herzog, Chief Rabbi Goren or Rabbi Soloveichik.
Needless to say, extremists on both sides are elated that this Kulturkampf is polarizing the country, despite the fact that it encourages mutual loathing and intolerance and deepens the chasm between the Orthodox and nonobservant.
It is clear that the increasing rigidity and efforts by the ultra-orthodox to impose their standards on the entire nation, combined with the failure of their rabbis to encourage their students to carry the burden of the draft and earn a livelihood rather than being dependent on state welfare, has alienated the nation against them. They are now often perceived as selfish, obscurantist, and unwilling to share the burden of civic responsibilities.
On the other hand, there is no denying that many of those graduating from the secular school stream, are utterly ignorant of Judaism or its practice and could be well be described as Hebrew Canaanites. Much of the ignorance of Jewish tradition amongst non-observant Israelis is due to the failure of the Education Ministry to include Jewish heritage in the mainstream curriculum. Alas, many rabbis have even preferred to have secular students educated in a totally atheist environment rather than have Jewish tradition taught in a non-orthodox environment. And in contrast to the outreach approach of diaspora Jews, Israeli children from non-observant homes are discouraged from enrolling in the state religious school stream.
In the early years of the state, graduates of the secular stream were at least proficient in Tanach (Biblical studies) but after a number of Meretz ministers headed the Education Ministry even this was substituted by greater emphasis on Third World studies and more contemporary subjects.
The appointment of Rabbi Piron as Minister for Education is likely to restore and infuse Jewish values and heritage into the secular educational system. His track record indicates that he will avoid coercion or attempts to enforce religious belief or observance. The Tali system created by the Conservatives is a role model which may be emulated.
We are now facing major changes in the relationship between religion and state. These have the potential of either intensifying the polarization which has been dividing the country or alternatively creating an environment in which Jewish values will be extended to a much wider section of the Israeli population. The determining factor will be the extent to which both sides display tolerance and understanding of each other’s sensitivities and seek to ease rather than exacerbate prevailing divisions.
I see hopeful signs that we are moving in the right direction. Over recent years there has undoubtedly been a greater inclination on the part of non-observant Israelis to become more closely connected to Jewish traditions and values.
That will only succeed in the absence of coercion and the recognition that whilst the ultra-Orthodox are fully entitled to impose upon themselves the most stringent interpretations of halacha, they will only create division and generate anti-religious attitudes if they seek to impose their way of life on the entire community.
The writer may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom