Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Anat Hoffman and Religious Coercion

It's somewhat old news.  Anat Hoffman (pictured above in handcuffs) is the Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy wing of the Reform movement in Israel.  As many readers are likely aware, Anat Hoffman was arrested back in October just as she was reciting the Shema for her role in organizing a women's Torah reading and prayer service in the women's section of the Western Wall.  Her arrest received much coverage in Israel and particularly throughout the diaspora.  Liberal Jewish theological and political advocacy groups throughout the world were outraged.  Many Americans, born and bred on the notion that there ought to be a wall of separation between church and state, found it difficult to accept that the Western Wall, the site of our ancient Temples, was one of the few places where certain Jews might actually be arrested merely for their style of religious worship. 

Notably, the Orthodox position and reaction has been quite different, and somewhat monolithic.  In Orthodox circles, the discussion has centered around the fact that these practices have never been allowed at the Western Wall before, and that since such practices are an affront toward the traditional gender roles embodied in the classical Rabbinic tradition, they are offensive and must be stopped.  Many worshipers are offended by having to witness new and problematic innovations at their holy site, the thinking goes.  

Moreover, Orthodox Rabbinic control of the Western Wall absolutely must be maintained, in much the same way that all of Jerusalem must always remain unified.  This is what I hear in what has become the Orthodox echo chamber.  This event is only regrettable in that the arrest brought to the public's attention the issue of freedom of worship, and that this very attention threatens to eventually uproot Orthodox control of holy sites and potentially the state Rabbinate as well. 

Writing as an Orthodox Rabbi, I am struck by a fundamental problem.  In general, the Orthodox community to which I belong seems to speak of control in terms of political power.  Winning is an end unto itself, and control of the state Rabbinate and holy sites is regarded as vital, if we are ever to defeat the well-intentioned yet misguided forces of liberal Judaism.  In short, the aim is for us to win and for the others to lose.

In my view, this type of thinking is clearly wrong, both from a human perspective but also from an Orthodox perspective.  We passionately believe that the prophetic writings of the Torah and Tanach, as well as the collective wisdom of our rich and diverse faith as developed and handed down throughout the millenia, represent a moral imperative and a divine mission to live upstanding moral and ethical lives.  In that regard, it is indeed disappointing that so many have rejected Judaism.  It is more disappointing when supposed "representatives" of the faith (Rabbis and other religious leaders) pervert the mission on a daily basis with institutional fraud and subsequent cover up, all while stringently observing only the most superficial trappings of Judaism.  

The core of our divine mission is to model both ethical behavior and loyalty to the one God, as a group.  If many members of the group fail to join the effort, we are all weaker for it.  And so our aim should be to foster ties and reconciliation in a divided Jewish world.  This is all the more true because we (the Orthodox community) have much to learn from others and have failed miserably (on the whole) when it comes to the modeling ethical and spiritual group behavior.  In our society, it makes less than no sense to suggest that others will come to appreciate God or the Torah if we force them to observe our rules and norms, especially when we have so much to clean up in our own house.  People may be persuaded by the beauty of the Torah, but not when it's strictest interpretation and least sensitive iteration is shoved down their throats.  For God's sake, we ought to let up on others (especially those who want to worship, albeit in non-traditional ways), and focus on becoming better individuals ourselves.  Then, it's possible that we'll actually deserve control of the institutions we currently abuse for political purposes of power and self-aggrandizement.  If our control keeps distancing people (and it most certainly does on the whole), why do we care about the control?