As an American, I take a lot of rights for granted. And when those rights are not available to all, I feel it in my bones. For this is America.
When it comes to prayer, I assume that I can prayer as I want, as long as I am not hurting anyone else. And while I understand that this doesn’t mean that I can walk into an Orthodox synagogue and disregard the mechitzah, it also means that Orthodox Jews can not come into a non-Orthodox space and tell me how to pray. The same holds true for our use of public spaces. One gets a permit and it’s yours to use for a group. Or you simply go to a park and do your thing. Not so in Israel. In Israel, there is no freedom of religion. The government determines who supervises prayer spaces and Torah, and the government funds these spaces.
In April I participated in a Rosh Hodesh minyan in NYC in support of the Women of the Wall. (And it seems that I was right next to the photographer!) Despite my recent ambivalence about wearing tefillin (that’s for another post) I wore them proudly because I believe that everyone has the right to pray the way they want to. That’s the American way!
For years, the WOW have been coming together to pray at the Kotel in celebration of the new month. During my year studying in Israel, I spent a few Roshei Hodesh with the WOW, as I have written before. In Israel, certain prayer spaces are not open to everyone and the government has creative ways to permit or deny prayer spaces and Torah usage. Is it a religious institution? Is it a national park? The Kotel is deemed to be an Orthodox synagogue.
I’ve always wondered why the you cannot have an egalitarian minyan at the Kotel, but there are egalitarian b’nei mitzvah at Masada. This article from the Jerusalem Post lays this out nicely. Although I wonder, could it possibly be that the real reason that you can have an egalitarian minyan at Masada is because it brings in so many tourist dollars and these are for outsiders? The Kotel is a place that people who live in Israel actually go to.
As an American, we talk about supporting Israel because it is a Democratic stronghold in the Middle East. So, I wonder, how can Israel truly be a democracy when the Kotel is a theocracy?
Mon, May 20,2013 11 Sivan 5773
Sunday May 19, 2013
Separating the Torah from government
Imagine a family donating a very expensive piece of medical equipment to a hospital in Israel. A device with the potential to save many lives. The family, however, makes one clear stipulation: the machine may only be used for Jewish patients – Arab patients may not be treated with the device.
If the hospital were to accept the equipment and follow the family wishes – indeed lives would be saved. Maybe many lives. But I would hope that most clear thinking people reading this column would tell the hospital that they must reject the device or break with the family wishes. A government funded medical facility cannot discriminate. (I would hope the same would be true of a private facility too). Imagine the public outrage if the Ministry of Health allocated resources by examining the political or religious leanings of those seeking medical services.
The religious, national, gender, or ethnic background may not be taken into consideration by our health system. All should be treated equally. In a democratic country this should be self-evident.
Yet, Israel’s National Parks Authority has been allowed to accept donations on condition that the donated item be restricted in terms of who may, or may not, use it.
While egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall is a hot topic right now – many families opt to observe a Bar/Bat Mitzvah at Masada. Masada is under the jurisdiction of the National Parks Authority. Various spots atop this Herodian fortress are used for such simchas. But since it is not a synagogue, groups had to bring a Sefer Torah along with them in order to conduct a service.
All of that changed when a generous family from North America donated a Torah scroll to be stored permanently at Masada. Just one catch. The family stipulated that the Sefer Torah could not be used if women were to be called to the Torah. (I should point out that one major tour company has a Torah scroll at Masada that may be used by any and all. But there can be a demand by more than one group at any given time and the company certainly has first priority if there are multiple demands).
So, there you have it. If a family observing an egalitarian Bar/Bat Mitzvah asks to use the Sefer Torah owned by the government – they can ask until blue in the face – they will be left high and dry. OK, but does not the current situation benefit many clients? Is it not better than having no Sefer Torah provided at all? I would ask in response: Does not the restricted use of medical machinery benefit many patients?
How absurd it is that the National Parks Authority can check on the theological approach of a family and on the basis of their commitment to a non-Orthodox practices deny them the use of a government owned Sefer Torah.
This brings back a memory of a group of NOAM (the Masorti Movement’s youth group) soldiers who served in an army Garin. The male soldiers chose to follow the tradition of refraining from shaving during the counting of the Omer. Normally one may not suddenly grow a beard while serving in the army – but during the period from Pesach to Shavuot one may. Yet the young men were told that they must shave or be denied an extended weekend vacation. Only the Orthodox could refrain from shaving. Those who were not sufficiently committed to tradition, as interpreted by the base rabbi, could not observe this Omer tradition.
This is an absurd case of the government being “Bochen Klayot” – presuming they know the intention of an individual and giving priority to one practice of Judaism over another. Ouch!
The officials at Masada should have no right to make such decisions either. If they want to make a Sefer Torah available – then it is available on a first-come-first-serve basis. They cannot be Bochen Klayot. They cannot show favor to one practice of Judaism over another.
Yes I get that the analogy is not perfect. The hospital machinery may actually save lives. But our tradition tells us that the Torah itself is “a tree of life to all who hold it.”