August 21, 1997
Pushing Each Other’s Buttons
Predictably, it happened again. Conservative and Reform Jews choseto demonstrate their right to worship at the Kotel in their way, menand women together. This time, however, the worshipers had officialclearance. But their permit did not help. Sadly, but alsopredictably, Orthodox Jews prevented them from praying in their way.Passions flared. The scene became ugly. Religious extremists,unconcerned about Torah prohibitions against striking another person,became violent. Hurt and humiliated, the non-Orthodox worshipers wereforcibly removed by the police. And, of course, the media had beenprepped. The cameras were ready. They captured the tears of thevanquished and the jeers of the violent. The angry scenes wereflashed across the world.
I do not doubt that the only motive of most of the Reform andConservative worshipers was to experience Tisha B'Av in the precinctsof the Temple, whose destruction they had come to lament.
But I do have a sneaking suspicion that the organizers of theservice had something else in mind also.
I am a veteran of political demonstrations. During the apartheidera in South Africa, I learned how to get the most attention for thestruggle against racism. I simply had to figure out which buttons topush in order to enrage the other side and make it react violently.It was easy to do. It transformed the demonstrators into innocentvictims, and their attackers (usually the police) into vicious thugs.The media was always advised that a good story was in the making.Sympathy for the victims and odium for their powerful attackers wereinstantly seen on television screens around the world. Obviously,these tactics served a holy purpose -- the eradication of anauthoritarian, intolerant and evil system.
Which Orthodox buttons did the Conservative and Reform workers atthe Kotel push? What irreconcilable principles were at stake?
Principles in Conflict
The non-Orthodox worshipers asserted two principles by coming tothe Kotel to pray in their way. They wished to demonstrate thatJudaism's holiest site belongs equally to all Jews, that it is not anopen-air Orthodox synagogue. They also wished to demonstrate thattheir mode of worship is as valid as gender-separated Orthodoxprayer.
Their Orthodox opponents were motivated by equally powerfulprinciples. Worship in the ancient Temple had always beengender-separated. In the 30 years since the liberation of the Kotel,this ancient tradition had been honored. The insistence on mixed,egalitarian worship in the Kotel precincts was regarded as no less anact of chutzpah than would be the forcible intrusion of asimilar group into an Orthodox synagogue for non-Orthodox worship.
These were the buttons. These were the principles. All theingredients for a good television story were present.
Tisha B'Av Tragedy
The violence at the Wall could not have come at a worse time. Thenews of the battle between the Jews in Jerusalem broke while I wasteaching my congregants the Talmudic account of the destruction ofthe Second Temple. The Talmud asserts that the destruction was theresult of causeless hatred between the Jews of that generation. Is itnot tragic that hatred should characterize the contemporaryobservance of Tisha B'Av? Have we learned nothing from our history?
The Talmud also records a dispute between a certain RabbiZechariya and the Sages. Under normal circumstances, both parties inthis dispute would have agreed that the imperatives of the Torah areabsolute and that there is no room for compromise on halachicprinciple. But, on this occasion, the Sages felt that even venerableprinciples should be compromised for the sake of the common good.Rabbi Zechariya refused to allow the Sages to take the initiative inbending the law to save the Jewish people. The Talmud records thathis insistence on placing principle above peace caused the Temple tobe destroyed and the Jewish people to be exiled.
Alternative to Confrontation
We have witnessed the bitter consequences of the refusal tocompromise this Tisha B'Av. Neither side would budge. Like adysfunctional family, each pushed the other's buttons, and theconflict escalated.
May I suggest a workable compromise. The southern section of theKotel has been newly excavated and is the site of a beautifularchaeological park. There is no tradition of gender-segregatedworship there. It is far from, and out of the line of vision of, thefar more numerous Orthodox worshipers at the other end of the Kotel.Bat mitzvah services are already held there. It could easily bededicated for Conservative and Reform prayer. All Jews could worshipG-d in their own denominational way.
Am I optimistic that this kind of solution will be acceptable?Although it makes sense, I do not believe that it will happen.Demonstrators have more to gain from political conflict than fromspiritual tranquillity. Confrontation alone will keep the strugglefor denominational acceptance alive and in full view of unhappy Jewsaround the world.
Therefore, I predict that there will be more confrontations, morevictims and more violence.
But I am hoping against hope that I am wrong. The Jewish peoplecannot afford to relive the Tisha B'Av experience. The State ofIsrael cannot afford more wrenching conflicts. The Jewish Diasporacannot be made to stand up against the Jewish State. Perhaps saner,gentler counsel will prevail and an intelligent compromise will beoffered and accepted.
Abner Weiss is rabbi at Beth Jacob Congregation of BeverlyHills.
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