Jerusalem’s Sephardic chief rabbi, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, has lashed out at Reform Jews, saying we are worse than Holocaust deniers for defying Orthodox Jewish law on gender separation and insisting on the right to mixed-gender prayer at the Western Wall in the city.
His comments followed the recent Israeli High Court response to petitions filed by liberal Jewish organizations, including the Women of the Wall and the Israeli Reform and Conservative movements, to force the government to implement its pledge to build a mixed-gender prayer site.
Rabbi Shlomo Amar said: “It’s like Holocaust deniers, it’s the same thing. They shout about Holocaust deniers in Iran, [but] they deny more than Holocaust deniers.”
Continuing, he said that petitions to the Supreme Court to allow mixed-gender prayer have come from “wicked” people who commit “every injustice in the world against the Torah. They even marry Jews to non-Jews, they have neither Yom Kippur nor Shabbat, but they want prayer… and nobody should believe that they want to pray — they want to desecrate what’s holy.”
Having taken some time to absorb Rabbi Amar’s tirade and the appropriately indignant responses by leaders of the Progressive movements, I would like to offer a rather different insight.
First of all, Rabbi Amar’s connecting of Reform Jews to Holocaust deniers makes no sense whatsoever. It amounts to no more than bluster, deserving of no respect and therefore with no reason to counter.
On the other hand, his accusation that we are “wicked people” who do not really want to pray but rather to desecrate deserves a response. Several of his complaints about the non-observance by Reform Jews are undeniable. Few observe Shabbat even minimally. Most Reform Jews are marrying non-Jews. And yes, there are many who do not observe the High Holy Days. Most of these Jews might claim to be Reform but, in fact, they are merely non-observant. There are many Israelis who are not much different. Does this make all such people wicked? Of course not.
The essence of Rabbi Amar’s diatribe is that those who are pressuring for mixed gender prayer at the Western Wall do not really wish to pray but only to desecrate.
That is a strong word: desecration. How can one desecrate the Wall? For that matter, how does one desecrate a synagogue? There has been no desecration. If the Orthodox do not approve of what others are doing, they simply should not watch. If the conduct of others offends them, let them turn the other way. They can continue doing what they always do, and the Wall will not be the worse for wear, I am sure.
Still, Rabbi Amar is not entirely wrong. The majority of Women of the Wall and others groups from Progressive movements do not want to pray at the Wall. We should admit that. They have come to make a political statement: that our Judaism is as valid as Orthodox Judaism and therefore deserving of respect under the law, and not just at the Wall. Although attired in tallitot and tephilin, and carrying the sefer Torah, they have not come there so much to worship as to make a definite statement peacefully, I must add.
The remnant of the Second Temple, i.e. the Western Wall, does not have any special sanctity for Reform Jews. History and symbolism yes, but sanctity no. Actually, it reminds us of the practice of a Judaism that disappeared two thousand years ago, with ritual sacrifices performed by Kohanim, the descendants of Aaron. Therefore Reform Judaism does not attach to the Wall any greater sanctity than it does to any synagogue. We do not pray for the restoration of the Judaism of the ancient Temple. We should not pretend otherwise.
Our movement is staking out a legitimate claim, namely that Israel is as much ours as it is theirs. The Wall is important because it is the historical epicenter of the Jewish people, ancient and modern. Progressive Jews seek to assemble and worship there to challenge the arrogant claim that Orthodoxy is the only true Judaism. The Wall is a powerful symbol of our aspirations and expectations. We reject the notion that, as such, it belongs to them.
Our movement would benefit from a more candid admission, calling all this what it is, namely a political movement. We have come to the Wall and to the courts to stake our claim and thereby rejecting the Orthodox notion of exclusivity. The Wall and all the nation that it symbolizes belong to all members of the Jewish people. That is what this is all about, and we should be making that clear.
This case is an essential element of the necessary confrontation between Orthodoxy and Progressive Judaism. In its own way, this is a struggle for the soul of Judaism in the Jewish homeland. For far too long, the Orthodox have had their way, arrogating for themselves the privilege of defining Judaism for all Jews. They do not have that right. This movement directly challenges that arrogance far beyond the proximity to the Wall.
It is not surprising that their opposition is so vicious. But this is not a battle between the good and “the wicked.” Their defamation is the desperate attempt by those of privilege to hold on to what they wrongly claim is theirs against the will of a vast majority who no longer will acquiesce. They must not prevail.
Up until now, those involved in this struggle for equality have been peaceful despite the abuse to which they have been subjected. They have been attacked verbally; they have been intimidated physically. Some have been arrested. They have not responded in kind. All the while, they have preserved their dignity. They are fighting back in court, the proper venue for resolving disputes. If Israel is, in fact, a nation governed by law, then the rule of law must prevail. The government of Israel led by Prime Minister Netanyahu, despite its reliance upon the Orthodox, must support the rule of law. Upholding the intolerant demands of the Orthodox amounts to political blackmail for which they must be held accountable.
This much is certain. The struggle will continue until full religious and gender equality have been achieved. No matter how long it takes, our movement will persist. Justice may be delayed. It will not be denied.