Who speaks for Jewish values in Israel?

By Dow Marmur

Jerusalem (Feb. 5, 2016) – The decision by the Israeli government to create a parallel praying area at the Western Wall for egalitarian – largely Reform and Conservative – worshippers by extending the existing facility at the southern end has generated (a) enthusiasm from potential beneficiaries, (b) indifference from those who aren’t awed by the Wall, (c) objections from Orthodox women who want to stay in the women’s section yet be allowed to wear tallitot and tefillin and pray aloud, and (d) a lot of shameless invective from Orthodox quarters.

Eli Yishai was the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Shas party and held important ministerial positions while Arieh Deri was in prison and during the mandatory limbo that followed it. When Deri returned to reclaim his leadership and later a seat in the cabinet, the two men fell out. Yishai formed his own party but it didn’t get the minimum votes in the last election to gain seats in the Knesset.

He gave vent to some of his obvious bitterness when responding to the news about the new section at the Wall. Probably trying to get at Deri who voted against it but didn’t create a coalition crisis by resigning, Yishai lashed out publicly against the decision. The Jerusalem Post quoted him: “This is a horrible disaster, and an attack on the Holy of Holies….The next thing we’ll see is [Reform Jews] putting tefillin on dogs and calling them up to the Torah.” In other words: now it’s the women who put on tefillin and are called to the Torah, next it’ll be dogs.

Many but hopefully not all ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel believe that only they have the franchise on Judaism and that those who disagree with them must be abused if they can’t be silenced.

Meir Porush is the deputy minister of education on behalf of the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi Yahadut Hatorah party in the coalition. Not being a member of the cabinet he wasn’t in a position to vote on the matter, but he has strong views. He said – again according to the Jerusalem Post – that Conservative and Reform Jews having been “‘thrown out of the camp’ and …. assigned a place to pray which is appropriate for them – ‘near the Dung Gate,’ because they are people who ‘should be thrown to the dogs.’” Needless to say, he found evidence for his scandalous contention in this week’s Torah portion, because he’s faithful to the word of God.

Mercifully, not all exponents of Orthodoxy are abusive and vulgar. Dov Lipman is an Orthodox rabbi and was a member of the previous Knesset on behalf of the Yesh Atid party. This time he was too low down on the list to be re-elected. His article in last Friday’s Jerusalem Post was headed, “Fire Deputy Minister Porush” in which he cited all the appropriate sources reflecting tolerant Judaism.

Lipman is a product of American Jewry. The two others are not. Many but hopefully not all ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel believe that only they have the franchise on Judaism and that those who disagree with them must be abused if they can’t be silenced. Orthodox Jews living in the West have learnt from their Christian neighbours to co-exist however much they may disagree with each other. Israel is located within the Muslim world. Perhaps that’s one reason why fundamentalists here are so militant.

All this suggests that those who normally speak for Reform and Conservative Judaism shouldn’t award Eli Yishai and Meir Porush with responses but praise the commitment to Jewish teachings and the sensitivity to contemporary Jewish realities of Dov Lipman.

Rabbi Dow Marmur is Rabbi Emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. He lives in Jerusalem.

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