Wednesday, October 1, 2014 Tishri 7, 5775

Feeling ​All Walled In

July 29, 2010
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When a member of the Israeli Knesset tried to ram through legislation on conversion that would delegitimize non-Orthodox Jews, American Jewry rightly responded with a chorus of protest.

Now that a woman has been arrested for carrying a Torah at the Western Wall, U.S. Jewry should respond with similar outrage. Both issues -- dubbed "Who is a Jew" and "Women of the Wall," respectively -- have been raging off and on for 20 years now.

Is this decades-long, cross-continental struggle for the religious soul of the Jewish state good for Israel and the Jewish people? Absolutely not. Is it necessary? Unfortunately, it is.

The problems, though different in nature, stem from the same source -- Orthodox control over religious affairs and political deal-making in the Jewish state.

The latest legislation that passed a Knesset committee last week would give authority over conversions to the Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate of Israel. A July 22 deal has put the bill on hold for six months, presumably defusing the crisis in the short term. But no one expects a resolution any time soon.

It is ironic that the strongest outcries by the Diaspora revolve around conversion legislation that would affect only converts in Israel -- or potentially, the relatively small number of non- Orthodox Jews by choice who make aliyah.

In contrast, the longstanding struggle of Jewish women to legally read from the Torah and wear a tallit at the Kotel affects a potentially far greater number. Orthodox and non-Orthodox women watch with envy -- and dismay -- as their male counterparts find spiritual sustenance from meaningful prayer services at Judaism's holiest site.

There are no easy fixes here, but these are matters of principle that require perseverance.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president and CEO of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said recently that you can't ask U.S. Jews to be advocates for Israel and then tell them, "in the same homeland that I'm advocating for that I don't matter, and that the Jewish expression that motivates me to fight for Israel as a Jewish issue is not good enough."

For her part, Anat Hoffman, chair of the Women of the Wall who was arrested earlier this month for carrying a Torah scroll at the holy site, wrote in the Forward earlier this year: "Simply put, our goal is to obtain the freedom to pray and to do everything that is halachically permitted for women on the women's side of the mechitzah," which separates men and women.

"The antidote to silence is action; we are now turning to the whole Jewish world, men and women alike, to help us reclaim the wall for all Jews. Hakotel l'kulam -- the Kotel is for all of us."

So, too, is Israel. And that is why, in both instances, we must not remain silent. 

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