Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Thursday, September 28, 2023
In This Moment: Israel's Culture War Explodes - Over Gender Segregated Prayer; All About Sukkot
In This Moment
Israel's Religious Culture War Explodes...on Yom Kippur!
Headline of Yediot the day after Yom Kippur, speaking of Dizengoff incident:
"The Square of Strife!"
It's kind of stunning that when Israel's current internal tensions spilled over into a full fledged culture war, the match to ignite it was a staple of American Jewish life: mixed seating at prayer services. This issue combines many of the big ticket controversies that have embroiled Israeli society for years: sex-segregation in public places, the subjugation of women, and the encroachment of ultra orthodoxy into secular areas. It's one thing to have gender separation in public squares of B'nai Brak, or even parts of Jerusalem, but for it to happen in the heart of secular Tel Aviv feels like a deliberate provocation. As the Times of Israel reported before the incident:
On Friday before Yom Kippur, the Supreme Court rejected a petition to allow gender-segregated prayers in the square. The justices thus sided with the ruling of a lower court in favor of the Tel Aviv municipality, which forbade Rosh Yehudi from holding the event with a gender divider.
That ruling should have been the end of it, but it was barely the beginning. Israelis are not used to fighting over prayer spaces in public areas. It's not a major concern of theirs because each neighborhood follows its own customs. In Tel Aviv there is an enormous Friday night service with mixed seating at the port. There would not be a gender segregated service there, because Tel Aviv is the most progressive city in the country. In other places with larger Orthodox populations, services in public areas have gender separation. But to push this matter in Tel Aviv breaks what had been a long lasting status quo, an encroachment, with the intent of staking out new territory for Orthodoxy - to create a "fact on the ground." And the response to that was one of those "enough is enough" moments for the seculars. I do sympathize with that, having faced similar situations both there and here, but resorting to violence was not tactically smart. So the fact that fighting over a mehitzah (partition)became front page news in Israeli papers (and not just the English ones) was a big deal.
I concur with Yossi Klein Halevi, who wrote:
In past years, Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur was a model of tolerance. There was no secular outrage against a mechitza in the streets. What changed this year is the government’s war against liberal Israelis, who are fighting for the survival of their Israel, their ability to continue living in this country. This year a public mechitza in Tel Aviv was especially provocative, given the growing phenomenon of women being pushed to the back of the bus – metaphorically and sometimes literally – around the country. I wish the protesters had resisted the provocation of Rosh Yehudi, but I understand their desperation.
Read some of the reports below, and think about how unacceptable enforced separate seating has become in non-Orthodox settings here. What used to be tolerated as the "least common denominator" back in the days before women could be rabbis and count in the minyan, has now become, in the eyes of many, a moral outrage. It's just another example of the widening culture war among Jews. Right now, no one seems interested in bridging that gap. Prime Minister Netanyahu had an opportunity to be a statesman but instead tried to stoke the flames and tie this violence to the judicial reform protests, in order to divide and conquer, banking that some Israelis who resist judicial reform might also resist mixed seating and might be lured over to his side. Protest leader Shikma Bressler (whom I spoke about on Yom Kippur) had this response on X (see below; the Google translation isn't perfect - it's not "support his brother" but "pitting his brothers against one another").
I suspect this incident will recede as new stories involving the Supreme Court, the Saudis and instability along the borders fill the news cycle. I doubt the number of protesting marchers will be any smaller this Sat. night (remember, for Israelis, the second day of Sukkot is hol hamoed). But the line has drawn in the sand. Tel Aviv, for secular Israelis, is holy ground.
** Here are two incidents of where enforced gender separation disrupted the prayers of groups I was leading:
When I was in Israel with our New England “March of the Living” group in 2010, our mostly non-Orthodox group stayed in a nice Youth Hostel near the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem. Our group arranged to have access to the hostel’s synagogue, a simple meeting room with an ark, for a private Kabbalat Shabbat service. No other group was in there at the time. The Orthodox members of our group decided to daven with a mechitza in another location in the building – it was an arrangement that worked well throughout our trip. About ten minutes into our egalitarian service, our group leader came up to me – as I was leading the service – and said that the hostel’s manager had told him that our service cannot continue unless we separate the boys from the girls. Now this was a group of seventy teens who were, for the most part, experiencing Israel for the first time. Just days before we had cried at Auschwitz and stood silently by the remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto. They were exhilarated to be in Israel and I was trying not to douse their enthusiasm by interjecting the sorry state of Israeli pluralism into their experience. So rather than tell this group that this state-run hostel was hostile to the way they pray, I looked for an escape hatch – literally. There was a door in the back of the room, leading to a large outdoor patio overlooking the city. The weather was perfect, and I had planned to take them outside for Lecha Dodi anyway, so I stalled for time until we got there (as my group leader stared at me nervously, I stared back defiantly), and then, as we reached Lecha Dodi, we danced out the door and onto the patio, where we danced and prayed for the remainder of the service.
For two thousand years men and women stood and prayed together at the Western Wall, right up front. Even after 1967, when a mechitza was installed, this practice continued farther back in the plaza. In 1987, I brought a group from my previous congregation to the Wall and we prayed, men and women together, about halfway back, nowhere near the segregated men's and women's areas, which we respected -- as we should. We even saw a Beth El group there, led by Hazzan Rabinowitz. It was just a few days before I was to come to Stamford. In 1994, my group from here was forced to end our Friday evening service abruptly by Haredim and police -- it was a shock to the children, and to me. Subsequent TBE groups, on Friday nights, prayed other locations entirely. If we had tried to gather at the Kotel, we wouldn't have had a prayer. But in 1994, we prayed in unison in Tel Aviv, right next to the beach. No one bothered us at all, though several onlookers stopped to see this curiosity of American Jews who prayed so differently from what they were used to seeing. And some stopped because they had no idea what we were doing.
In Stamford, there have been other issues that have made unified prayer difficult, and at times impossible. But we've also been able to work things out from time to time. See what I wrote about Shabbat Across Stamford in 2015. We just won't countenance what is demeaning to women anymore, even if some believe "separate but equal" is not.
I'll be welcoming these heretics to our service on Sunday. We'll discuss whether or not they truly deserved their infamy and we'll decide who deserves to be our special guest heretic of the day. And who might be nominated from our day.
Yom Kippur Sermons
Video and text of my Yom Kippur sermons are now available online:
Kol Nidre: Counting to One - "Counting to One" - Seeing hope in Israel's moment of truth. Can unity emerge out of the attempted judicial coup and the unprecedented massive reaction to it? We cannot give up that hope. Nor can we afford to be late to the game. Our Israeli "achim" have taken to the streets. And they are waiting for us to join them. Teach us, O Adonai, to count to One.
Yom Kippur Day: The Keys - "The Keys" - In his final High Holidays message in Stamford, Rabbi Joshua Hammerman looks at what it means to be "all-in" in work and in life. Looking at key moments in his 37 years at Temple Beth El, he describes the existential dilemmas of his chosen profession, saying he would never recommend it to anyone, "but I wouldn’t trade these 40 years in the rabbinate for anything. It has made me a much better person than I ever would have been."