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Haredi rabbis see the writing on the Wall
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Haredi rabbis see the writing on the Wall

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Shavuot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals when Jews travelled to Jerusalem to offer their first fruits in the Temple, a Thanksgiving for a new harvest. All Jews were required to make the trip to worship at the Temple.

Unfortunately, this past week before the holiday saw events in Jerusalem that were hardly a reflection of the conviviality and joyous celebrations associated with Shavuot. Rather, what they saw was religious strife at the Western Wall with ramifications among all segments of the Jewish community, from haredim to secular and all gradations in between.

The demands of the Women of the Wall for the right to conduct services at the Kotel as they wish have been developing for years. Thanks to a new government and a solution proposed by Natan Sharansky, it seemed a modest solution was in reach. However, when the women went to pray last Rosh Hodesh, they were met by thousands of young haredi (fervently Orthodox) women — mainly young seminary students — who were themselves dispatched by their rabbis. The Women of the Wall were also swarmed by haredi men who pelted them with water, garbage, and other assorted objects. Only as a result of police intervention were the sides separated and was some semblance of order restored, with the battles to resume in the courts, in the Knesset, and next month at the Kotel.

The haredim understand that underlying these confrontations is a major political battle — that despite their high birthrate, they will not win. The last election demonstrated that Israelis are fed up with the haredi agenda, from coercion in public places to their exemption from military service.

One wonders why they would make a stand and alienate even more of the Israeli public when Israel faces a series of important security debates — over Syria, Iran, and Hizbullah, to name a few. Why, when they have some negotiating leverage over the military exemption issue, would they opt to challenge Women at the Wall?

One answer may lie in the tight budget proposed by the new Finance Minister Yair Lapid, himself a leader of a party that in some ways gained strength from its challenge to the haredim. Threatened with losing services and subsidies, perhaps the haredim waged a surrogate battle against one of their biggest foes in the government.

The better answer might be that there are internal battles within the haredi community for power — led by those who believe their influence relies on being hard line at every turn. Many are closely watching the forthcoming election of the new Chief Rabbis, positions which carry with them considerable financial largesse. Meanwhile, voices within the religious Zionist camp — the Modern Orthodox world — challenging these rabbis have been rather tepid.

For non-Orthodox Jews, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, this confrontation was infuriating. While many considered Sharansky’s compromise inadequate and timid, many Conservative and Reform Jews were prepared to accept it as a first step towards some heightened form of equality and even religious pluralism in Israel. Certainly they want a much more progressive approach to conversion, as well as equitable government funding for non-Orthodox religious institutions and fuller participation in local religious councils. The non-Orthodox groups also were signaling the new government that they were prepared to use their political muscle in future elections, if this new coalition is too weak or unwilling to follow through on their pre-election platforms.

The Jewish people who received the 10 commandments at Mount Sinai did not engage in this debate. Moses did not single out the more zealous or the more punctilious of the Jews who left Egypt to receive the Word. It belonged to all the Jewish people — a point lost amidst the anger and hostility waged among Jews last week in Jerusalem.

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