By Rabbi Dow Marmur
TORONTO–A scandalous aspect of virtually all religions has been their treatment of women. My own has shunned many excesses — stoning for alleged adultery, so-called honour killings or officially putting the ordination of women in the same category as pedophilia — but it nevertheless has a history of embarrassing discrimination.
One of the reasons for the growth of Reform Judaism, which this month marks its birth in Germany 200 years ago, was to bring about gender equality in worship and practice. Nowadays women and men have identical rights and obligations in Reform synagogues. Other Jewish religious streams have followed their example. There are now hundreds of women rabbis ordained by different rabbinic schools; about a dozen of them work in the GTA.
Though not a rabbi herself, Anat Hoffman is one of the leaders of Reform Judaism in Israel. She heads its Religious Action Centre that champions the rights of all citizens. She also chairs an interdenominational Jewish organization called Women of the Wall that conducts worship services at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest place. The aim is to challenge the misogynist franchise that the Israeli ultra-Orthodox rabbinate has arrogated to itself there and with which political parties in power cynically collude.
At a service at the Wall earlier this month, Hoffman was arrested for carrying a Scroll of the Torah in the women’s precinct. The ultra-Orthodox custodians regard this as sacrilege and a provocation. In its effort to keep the peace, the local police tend to placate the fanatics at the expense of the women. Hence the arrest.
A couple of days later, Hoffman was in Toronto. When I suggested to her that normative Judaism celebrates holy events, not holy places, she said that the monthly worship services the women hold at the Wall are indeed holy events. It’s the only opportunity anywhere in the world for Jews across the denominational spectrum to pray together. In the 22 years that her group has existed — 21 of them with her as leader — countless women, many of them Orthodox, have participated and been greatly enriched by the experience.
Hoffman insists that the remnant of an outer wall that once surrounded the ancient Temple in Jerusalem isn’t an Orthodox synagogue that would entitle its male worshippers to relegate women to the back, or exclude them altogether, preventing them from even touching Torah Scrolls. She argues that the Wall is a national monument that must be accessible to all. To give one group sole rights to the exclusion of all others goes against Israeli democracy.
But, I ventured to suggest, in view of Israel’s precarious diplomatic and security situation, its leaders have more urgent matters to deal with than gender equality at the Wall. She disagreed and argued that religious fanatics can be no less dangerous than armed terrorists. Erosion from within may turn out to be an even greater threat than attacks from without. The women are defending the soul of Israel, she told me.
They also reflect an important trend in contemporary Jewry. Gender equality has had a profound effect on all Jewish denominations. There are now even Orthodox congregations in Israel and elsewhere that encourage women to be full and equal participants in worship, including holding the Torah and reading from it. A maverick Orthodox rabbinic school in New York ordains women rabbis.
A seemingly local skirmish in Jerusalem is the tip of an enormous iceberg that stands in the way of dramatic changes in the very fabric of Judaism. Anat Hoffman and her group are pioneers. People of all faiths committed to religious freedom and women’s rights have reason to applaud and support them.
Rabbi Marmur is spiritual leader emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. This column appeared in the Star of Toronto.
By Rabbi Dow Marmur
JERUSALEM — Mimouna is a colorful tradition that North African Jews brought to Israel. It celebrates the end of the festival of Passover. Activities include much public jollification and eating of post-Pesach dishes made from recipes from the old country. It has also become an occasion for Israeli right-wing politicians (who traditionally have courted Oriental Jews in contrast to the Socialist founders of the state who tended to ignore them) to make speeches of the kind Mimouna audiences would want to hear.
Early media reports this year had much to say about the celebrations in the fast growing West Bank town of Ma’aleh Adumim, situated close to Jerusalem on the way to Jericho and the Dead Sea. The event was used by several government ministers to assure the local population that Ma’aleh Adumim was there to stay, irrespective of what the United States administration and the rest of the world may say about settlements.
One of the speakers this year was Israeli Ashkenazi chief rabbi Yona Metzger, presumably trying to make nice to the Orientals as a way of compensation for the ill treatment to which the Ashkenazi establishment, including the rabbinate, subjected the arrivals from North Africa in the earlier days of the state.
Metzger isn’t known for his talents for political analysis (or for many other talents for that matter). This time he couldn’t resist the temptation to support the government position by an original historic observation. He’s reported to have said that long before Columbus discovered America, King David discovered/founded Jerusalem. The inference is obvious: in the same way as the United States is to remain the one indivisible super-power in the world, so Jerusalem will remain the one and indivisible capital of Israel – with much greater seniority in making its case and challenging the US president.
All this would be quite irrelevant hadn’t these speeches appeared to seek to replace Israeli diplomacy. Instead of trying to find a way of coming to an understanding with President Obama and his administration, Israel’s government seems to believe that by rousing the crowds back home at jolly Mimouna celebrations it’s really responding to the diplomatic challenges that it’s currently facing.
The country’s most popular daily, Yediot Achronot, reported another diplomatic initiative of the same ilk. Prime Minister Netanyahu is said to have asked Elie Wiesel, the best known Jew of our time, to use his alleged friendship with President Obama to persuade the latter to be nice to Israel. For many centuries the ghetto used shtadlanim, go-betweens who were highly regarded by the Jews and useful to the local squire, to intervene on behalf of their coreligionists with the authorities.
If the newspaper report is correct, the prime minister of the sovereign Jewish state is resorting to a similar method instead of formulating a policy and showing diplomatic acumen to meet the new challenge. This is a far cry from the way Abba Eban made Israel’s case before the community of nations.
Trying to make sense of what seem to be reactions by the government to the demands of the United States to curb settlement expansion and building in Jerusalem, it’s difficult not to conclude that they reflect embarrassing ineptitude. Perhaps King Abdullah of Jordan wasn’t as wrong as we’d like him to be when he told the Wall Street Journal on the eve of his US visit that Israel is isolating itself in the way of North Korea.
Rabbi Marmur is spiritual leader emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. He now divides his time between Canada and Israel.
By Rabbi Dow Marmur
JERUSALEM–If Orthodox Jews we tend to describe as “ultra” (to distinguish them from those we call “modern” or “nationalist”) aren’t obsessed with sex (manifest, for example, in segregated buses on certain routes), they’re preoccupied with the dead. Ostensibly in the name of Jewish law which seeks to preserve the dignity of corpses, they find ancient gravesites in the most unlikely places. This gives them excuses to demonstrate against archeological digs and the erection of buildings on reputed cemeteries. They don’t seem to feel they’re serving God unless they make life unbearable for God’s creatures.
When they’ve political clout, they use it mercilessly. That’s what happened in the case of building a much needed emergency unit in the Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon. In view of the continuing rocket barrage from nearby Gaza on Jewish settlements, and the danger to life and limb this entails, such a unit is of vital importance for the region. Everybody agrees that it would save many lives.
But when they started work to lay the foundations, they found some human remains from ancient times. The bones are probably not Jewish, but their very presence was enough for Deputy Minister of Health Litzman (he doesn’t want to be minister, because then he’d sit around the Cabinet table of a government whose legitimacy his ultra-Orthodox party doesn’t recognize, so he occupies the top job without being part of cabinet decisions) to object and seek to move the unit to another place thus delaying its construction for a couple of years and increasing the cost by some fifty million dollars.
On the eve of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s departure for Washington, the Cabinet approved the change of plans. The vote was tight: eleven members agreed with, ten opposed Litzman’s proposal. Had it not passed, Litzman said he’d resign and his party would cease to support the coalition. Therefore, one of those to vote in favor was the Prime Minister himself, even though some members of his own party – plus the Cabinet members of Labor and others – voted against.
The decision was, of course, purely political, intended to save the coalition. The damage inflicted on would-be patients will be enormous and the cost to the country great. Echoing the outrage of the medical profession, the Director-General (i.e., the top civil servant) of the Ministry of Health resigned in protest.
Yossi Sarid, the former leader of Meretz and a member of several governments, called the decision in his Ha’aretz column “Necrophilia.” Like several other commentators he rightly accused the ultra-Orthodox of caring more for the dead than for the living: further evidence of their scandalous behavior in the name of religion.
No doubt the matter will now be taken by some group that opposes the decision to the Supreme Court. Having in mind the Court’s record as a champion of justice, decency and human rights, it’s reasonable to assume that it’ll overrule the Cabinet. The Prime Minister, who in this case chose the guise of champion of Orthodox Judaism and Jewish law, may have a crisis on his hands, unless, of course, he’ll either brazenly ignore the law or corruptly bribe Litzman’s party with something else to induce it to stay.
From where I stand, a so-called coalition crisis would well serve the Israeli public and force the Prime Minister to reconfigure his government. If he gets rid of Lieberman and Yishai at the same time, Livni and her Kadima party are likely to join him.
Marmur is spiritual leader emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. He now divides his time between Canada and Israel.
JERUSALEM–Zionism has shown us the way out of the ghetto and given us the option of living in a sovereign Jewish state. That’s one reason why I’m a Zionist. Before the term had become a cliché, I wrote in my The Star of Return (1991) that Judaism has undergone a paradigm shift: the Holocaust represents the cruel and murderous end of enforced ghetto existence, Israel the beginning of a new way of being Jewish with new challenges and, alas, new problems. That why, for example, David Hartman when affirming the new reality of Israel was critical of Emil Fackenheim’s Holocaust-centred theology.
But old habits die hard. The more a paradigm is on its way out, the more vociferous it’s being defended. The ghetto is no exception. The world may no longer keep Jews in a ghetto, but the tendency by its enemies to regard Israel as a pariah ghetto state is still widespread with serious internal and external political repercussions.
Even more ominously, many Jews seem to want to create their own ghetto. I’m not only thinking of the haredim who believe that we must patiently await the Messiah and not regard Israel as “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption,” but also of many secular Jews who act as if they were still in the ghetto, not least when they present themselves as passionate and patriotic defenders of Jewish sovereignty.
The piece about Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman by Joshua Hammer in the New York Review of Books is a telling illustration. Quoting a source, Hammer describes Lieberman as “a figure shaped by his insecurities, his estrangement from his Moldavan homeland, and his interest in history.” His political strength is largely due to his appeal to Israelis with a similar background: many of the million strong Jews from the former Soviet Union. Hammer quotes the Ha’aretz columnist Gideon Levy: “Lieberman is doing everything possible to push everyone into the corner and isolate Israel.”
The reason often given why some haredi youths spit on Christians in Jerusalem isn’t about faith but memory. The youngsters “remember,” not from personal experience but from what others told them, how Jews were humiliated in the Diaspora. They thus feel entitled to repay in kind. One gets the same feeling about many of the statements and policies of Lieberman’s party. The concluding sentence of Hammer’s article reads: “Lieberman’s interpretation of reality seemed to find an ever more receptive audience.”
This brings to mind something I once read by Moshe Dayan how he would be attracted to the Arabs around whom he grew up. His father, on the other hand, would freeze in their presence. It took a long time for the son to realize that the father didn’t see the Arab as he was but as the hostile goy he remembered from his childhood in Eastern Europe. Much of the anti-Arab sentiments expressed by Lieberman, and the legislation his party would want to introduce, may have a similar source. The fact that it’s probably subconscious accounts for its popularity and persistence.
There may be more truth than we like in the old adage that you can take a Jew out of the ghetto, but you can’t take the ghetto out of a Jew. In private life that may just be an affectation; I suffer from some of it myself. But when it’s translated into the foreign policy of the sovereign Jewish state, it’s a menace of monumental proportions. Much of what I struggle with in Israel, especially when I’m here, seems to be about that. I realize now more than ever the importance for all of us to try to rid ourselves of the syndrome.
Rabbi Marmur is spiritual leader emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. He divides his year between Canada and Israel.