Ism Schism

Liberal-minded American Jews rightly regard Pamela Geller, who organized the Garland, Texas, cartoon-of Islam’s-founder contest earlier this month, as an irresponsible provocateur. What’s odd is that many of those very same liberal-minded American Jews enthusiastically champion (and generously support) another irresponsible provocateur.

That would be the “Women of the Wall” — the attention-addicted feminist group bent on holding vocal women’s services at the Kosel Maaravi that offend the sensibilities of the traditional Orthodox women and men who most frequent the site and have regularly prayed there in traditional fashion for decades.

It might seem at first thought that Ms. Geller’s stunts are in a category of their own. After all, by snubbing her nose at the Muslim world, she courts violence of the sort that extremists within that world so readily and joyfully embrace. In fact, her Texas event attracted not only a small crowd but two angry and armed Islamists who sought to spill blood but who were, baruch Hashem, killed before they could wreak the havoc of their dreams.

But Ms. Geller isn’t misguided only because of the violent reactions she invites. She is misguided because, put simply and starkly, it’s wrong to provoke people. There is nothing wrong with condemning Islamist terrorism or holding the banner of free speech as high as one chooses. But to try to make one’s points by insulting the sensibilities of all Muslims is boorish.

Which brings us to the “Women of the Wall.” They are free to make the case that their feminist vision should trump Jewish tradition. But seeking to flaunt their conviction in the faces of others for whom it is anathema is crass.

In its mission statement, the group declares its desire “to change the status-quo” at the Kosel, and that it stands “proudly and strongly in the forefront of the movement for religious pluralism in Israel.” Were it well-mannered, it would limit itself to lobbying Knesset members and making its case to the public in as reasoned a manner as it can. Instead, though, it chooses to push its program squarely and harshly into the faces of Jews who cherish the “status quo,” i.e. the Jewish mesorah, and oppose the “religious pluralism” that seeks to undermine it. That’s not advocacy; it’s indecent.

Celebrated writer and translator Hillel Halkin, no traditional Jew, doesn’t generally cover his head. Yet he has written that, “in certain places — on a rare visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, for example — I’ll put on a kippah even though I resent having to do it.” And, referencing the Women of the Wall, he shared his imagined reaction were a fellow non-kippah-wearer to invite him to “a demonstration of bare-headed Jewish men at the Wall [where] we’re going to pray and sing and keep coming back every month until our rights are recognized.” He would, he writes, “politely tell him to get lost.”

First, though, he writes, he would challenge the inviter: “Why insist on [forcing your issue] in the one place where it’s going to offend the sensibilities of hundreds or thousands of people?… If you need to go to the Wall, just cover your head and don’t indulge in childish provocations.”

Women of the Wall’s quest, Mr. Halkin asserts, has “to do only with the narcissism of thinking that one’s rights matter more than anyone else’s feelings or the public interest.”

That narcissism is even more pronounced these days, as — for better or worse — a temporary platform for “non-Orthodox egalitarian prayer” has been prepared at Robinson’s Arch, adjacent to the Kosel plaza, facing the Kosel and no less holy than where traditional prayer has been the norm. Women of the Wall’s leader, Anat Hoffman, though, has dismissed that accommodation as a “sunbathing deck” and “second-rate.” Her group has apparently opted to shun the alternate site, preferring instead to continue to try to upset fellow Jews in the place where they have prayed in the traditional manner since 1967.

Shavuos approaches. The anniversary of the moment when true Jewish unity was forged, when our ancestors — including those of Mrs. Hoffman and her American Jewish supporters — stood “like a single person with a single heart” at the foot of Har Sinai.

What unified Klal Yisrael then, of course, was their declaration of naaseh v’nishma, their embrace of the Torah whether or not they could “hear” everything it requires of them. It was a commitment, in effect, to place the Torah above all else, above all the “isms” of the time.

And of the future, something contemporary provocateurs and their supporters might do well to ponder.