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.