A Tale of Shavuot in Two Cities


Shavuot at Northern Hills Synagogue was a wonderful holiday. On the first evening, after the service, I presented "The Sources of Judaism" to adults, while Haviva Horvitz told the story of the Book of Ruth to children. For the morning services, the synagogue was filled. Many congregants took part in leading the services, and the young people read the Torah.

Some Jews in Jerusalem, connected with the Masorti (Conservative) movement had a very different experience on Shavuot. They gathered at the rear of the plaza at the Kotel Hamaaravi (the Western Wall), to hold an egalitarian Shavuot service. They were soon attacked by haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) who spat at them ,tore their tallitot off and trampled on them, and screamed "Nazi!", "Whore!", and "Christian!" at them. The police seem to have regarded the Masorti Jews as the cause of the trouble and urged them to leave. Some of those present reported that, as they retreated through the Old City, human waste was thrown on them from the windows of a yeshiva.

This shameful incident represents a new escalation in the war of haredim against other Jews in Israel, but other non-Orthodox groups trying to pray at the rear of the plaza near the Wall have also received hostile reactions. Similarly, the Women of the Wall, a group of mostly Orthodox women who wanted to have organized services at the Wall, were physically assaulted by haredim.

I would make the following observations about these events:

1. People have a right to disapprove of the Conservative style of worship, of women wearing tallitot, or other "non-traditional" practices, but no one has a right to assault other people. The actions of the haredim at the Wall were simply criminal.

2. The often-heard argument that Conservative and Reform Judaism are American phenomena and have no place in Israel does not hold water in regard to this case (whatever validity it may have in general). The people trying to pray near the wall were Israelis. Some of them have lived in Israel for decades. Some of them have served in the Israeli army. I do not know the personal stories of all the individuals who were at the Wall on Shavuot, but I know that the Masorti movement is sufficiently "Israeli" that the children of Masorti Jews have by now served in the army.

3. We should not lump all Orthodox Jews (or even all haredim) together in our condemnation of these criminal acts. Many Orthodox Jews disapprove of such violence and would never think of committing it themselves. On the other hand, we cannot regard these criminal actions as an isolated phenomenon. To the best of my knowledge the only prominent Orthodox rabbis or public figure who has condemned the attack is Shear-Yashuv Cohen,

the Chief Rabbi of Haifa. Furthermore, the absolutist mind-set of Orthodoxy easily turns to fanaticism.

The lessons for us are:

1. We should not let our disgust at the criminal actions of some people turn into a weakening of support for the State of Israel. The issue of religious pluralism is only one aspect of our interest in and concern about Israel. At the same time, we should not allow ourselves to be silenced by the claim that the mention of anything negative about Israel threatens the security of the State. Support for the Land of Israel and the State of Israel are very important parts of Judaism, but, when the supposed interests of the State of Israel are invoked in order to suppress talk of justice or equity, then we are dealing, not with Judaism, but with idolatry.

2. We should not succumb to the temptation to move from the statement of our beliefs and positions, including our principled disagreement with other people, to personal attacks on those with whom we disagree. It is very hard to keep that distinction clear, because, when we condemn other people's actions, we are in a way condemning them. However, we should try as much as possible to focus our arguments and our polemics on the issues at hand.


Rabbi George (Gershom) Barnard

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