Upon the End of 25 Years of Deception

For months, as the Women For the Wall fought for the right of women to pray at the Wall undisturbed, we have heard from many, even within the Orthodox community, that really W4W should just have ignored the Women Of the Wall. Or as one pulpit Rabbi put it, “The WOW were not proselytizing anyone, they were not trying to win converts, they were not trying to make a revolution.”

Oops. Actually, they were.

These rabbis, from Shlomo Riskin on down, are now left to contemplate their naivete concerning WOW. Since they ignored WOW founders Rivka Haut and Susan Aranoff, who wrote (many months ago) in the Times of Israel that the reason WOW must remain at the Kosel is because, in reference to religious women (esp. charedim), they will “change their worldview,” now they must deal with the reality of Anat Hoffman admitting that this poorly-hidden agenda was, in fact, their continuous goal. WOW’s leading cheerleader in the press, Judy Maltz of HaAretz, reported the following after Hoffman’s conference call with WOW supporters, in which she defended their recent decision to move (with a ridiculous collection of conditions, but that’s for another article) to Robinson’s Arch:

Among the factors that brought about the change of heart within the organization, she said, was the realization that changing the mindset of Orthodox Jews was not possible. “Women of the Wall is the right group for bringing about change in Israel but not the right group for bringing about change in the Orthodox world,” she said. “I’m not sure that a group which has members from all the different streams of Judaism is the right one for doing something like this.”

In other words, WOW’s mission statement, claiming that they only want “to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall,” was never more than a facade for WOW’s true mission, to “bring about change in the Orthodox world.” Having concluded that WOW is not “the right one for doing something like this,” Hoffman has decided to pack out for the greener pastures of Robinson’s Arch, where, of course, they will be able to wear prayer shawls, read from the Torah, and do whatever else they please.

Hoffman also went much further, conceding that a plaza equipped with a mechitzah, 100 Sifrei Torah, hundreds of prayer books and its own Rabbinic authority might, after all, be considered a traditionally Jewish religious space, and that those who use this space regularly have rights, as well:

Our Haredi sisters also have rights, and we saw last Rosh Chodesh that they really don’t want – maybe not all of them, but many of them – do not want to see a woman in a tallit and tefillin, and they also have rights. I think it’s absolutely fine that the state gives the Kotel rabbi absolute authority over the Haredi space.

This quite astounding achievement could not have been brought about without Women For the Wall. They basically saved the possibility of a place for traditional prayer at the Kotel for all of us (on Channel 2, Hoffman once contemplated an era where people would be shocked to learn that there had once been a mechitzah at the plaza)… and along the way, taught a few Rabbis what it means to trust a politician, like the former Meretz Jerusalem City Council member turned religious activist!

Not Just “Going Through the Motions”

One of the Commandments that Moshe Rabbeinu addressed again in Deuteronomy is that of returning lost property. In this week’s reading, the verse reads: “You shall not see the ox of your brother, or his sheep or goat, having wandered off, and ignore them; you shall surely return them to your brother.” [22:1] The earlier version of this Mitzvah was in the book of Exodus [23:4]: “When you come upon the ox of your enemy, or his donkey wandering, you shall surely return it to him.”

470_2601432There is a profound difference between these two versions of the same Commandment. In the first version, it says you should return your enemy’s property — isn’t it obvious that you’ll return your friend’s property too? But then the later one says the property is your “brother’s,” perhaps implying that you only really have to return the property when someone you love is involved. How should we resolve this contradiction?

Rabbeinu Bechaya says that the Torah is teaching us that this Commandment has another objective, even beyond the simple act of returning lost property to its owner. This act of giving to another person offers the opportunity to arouse feelings of love and generosity towards that person, and for reciprocal feelings of gratitude and love as well. It’s not just “great, I get to do a Mitzvah” — it’s that the deeper goal is to arouse feelings of love and brotherhood.

With some Commandments and opportunities, the heart is crucial to the whole process. For example, prayer said by just saying the words, with no concentration, is compared by our Sages to a body without a head.

The same can be said, and even more, about things like the Mitzvah of having guests. More than once recently I’ve heard people say something like “they only invite people over for Shabbos to make them religious,” as compared to inviting them over as “people.” But the whole warmth of a Shabbos meal would be lost if that were true. If you don’t care about the person, inviting him or her to be a guest is of little value.

This general principle applies to so many of the things that the Torah tells us to do. It’s not just about going through the motions, but the underlying training to be more godly in our actions and behavior — and feelings. It’s important to put our hearts into everything we do!

Women of the Wall: Praying, or Disturbing Prayer?

It is a pleasure to note that two active members of the Women Of the Wall, Susan Silverman and Dahlia Lithwick, have attempted to address several arguments which, they claim, have been made by writers who oppose them, especially the founders of the Women For the Wall (The Kotel is for Us, Too: The Forward, June 14, 2013, also published as Dispelling nine myths about Women of the Wall: HaAretz, June 11, 2013). Dialogue is something which the leaders of W4W, Ronit Peskin and Leah Aharoni, have consistently invited, yet until now they have been rebuffed. Nonetheless, I think it would be premature to call this truly a dialogue between the two groups — and, perhaps predictably, neither HaAretz nor The Forward was interested in publishing a response to the challenges laid down.

If there is one thing upon which secular and Jewish scholars agree, it is the importance of referring back to primary sources. Whether it comes from Shakespeare, Einstein or Maimonides, that I may quote an idea accurately does not make it mine. If we look again at Silverman and Lithwick’s examples of arguments against them, we find that most of them are well sourced in statements by the founders and leaders of Women of the Wall. Though they quoted Ronit Peskin, Leah Aharoni, Jonathan Rosenblum, Avi Shafran and myself, the simple fact is that the Women of the Wall are arguing with themselves.

For example, Silverman and Lithwick insist that “we have no objection to Haredi women, or men, praying as they choose, and no desire to evangelize or inspire them.” Their beef should not be with W4W, but with Susan Aranoff and Rivka Haut, two founders of WOW, for saying the opposite:

WOW models to all Jewish women who pray at the Kotel that women can take control over their own religious lives… This represents a revolution in haredi lives… Their women will be influenced, strengthened, perhaps even demand change… And that is why WOW must win the struggle to remain at the Kotel. Our cause transcends women praying, women wearing tallitot. It goes directly to the heart of Jewish women’s lives in all spheres.

To “live and let live,” Silverman and Lithwick will have to join a group that shares that philosophy. It is wrong for them to imply that W4W have no grounds to object, much less to imply that they do so violently. Both video and reports from Shmuel Rosner (hardly a W4W supporter) show that W4W have tried to get troublemakers to simmer down and/or leave. Unless Women of the Wall wish to take direct responsibility for the death threats against the Chief Rabbis, the Rabbi of the Kotel, and assorted Knesset members, they cannot impugn W4W, an organization of women only, based upon the misbehavior of the 50 young men who have assisted WOW with PR and fundraising since long before W4W was formed.

The writers, of course, deny that WOW wants media awareness — but you can’t run a public campaign to launch “a revolution in Haredi lives” without it, and once again they find themselves arguing with the rest of their own group. One of WOW’s only two staff people is their PR Director, and WOW has hired an external media consultant as well. Anat Hoffman said that she joined WOW not to pray, but to demonstrate: “I had a folding table and they asked me to join them. You know, for demonstrations you always need a folding table and a megaphone, and I have both.” Hoffman now Chairs their Board. After their most recent event, member Lior Nevo told the press: “at least they notice us now.” If they were coming to the Wall to pray to G-d, then where would being noticed by other human beings come into the picture?

The writers concede that WOW has a much broader agenda than prayer. Hoffman has both proposed that “for six hours a day the Wall will be a national monument, open to others but not to Orthodox men,” and stated (while wearing her Tallis on the BBC) that the Western Wall is merely a stepping stone: “when you change the holiest site for the Jewish people, you’re actually asking ‘why not?’ about a variety of other life choices dictated to Israelis.”

Thus the argument against WOW has nothing at all to do with typical non-Orthodox women. It is whether the women who are regular denizens of the Western Wall should object to being told that they have “secondary status,” worship an “archaic, alien and repulsive” Judaism, and are “forced to obey ultra-misogynist views of what women are allowed to do at a public holy site” — while they are trying to pray.

Is disturbing the prayers of others the right time and place to pursue change? One who answers “yes” evidences that he or she doesn’t have the faintest comprehension of what prayer is. Indeed, one of their recent attendees wrote that “I don’t know how to pray anyway,” and stated that her first activity, upon arrival, was to “choose a potential victim to argue with.”

While Hoffman, Aranoff, Haut and Reform Rabbi Elianna Yolkut clearly think this type of activity is appropriate, the paltry showing of the Women of the Wall each month indicates that most Israelis — those who pray regularly, and those who don’t — at least understand that prayer must be respected. When Likud MK Miri Regev saw for herself what WOW was doing, she said that they should have gone to the Robinson’s Arch section of the Kotel. The few exceptions, as the writers again concede, are primarily Americans.

While seven of its ten Board and Staff are American-born, the problem isn’t that WOW is filled with American immigrants, so much as American tourists. Lithwick herself is “living in Jerusalem for the year.” Project OTZMA and Hebrew Union College’s Year in Israel programs claim to be opportunities to learn from Israelis — yet WOW draws much of its numbers from those programs. Nor does it end there; Elianna Yolkut lectured Leah Aharoni (of Kochav Yaakov) about Judaism in Israel from her loft in New York. The land founded by refugees seeking religious liberty has become a leading exporter of religious colonialism.

As a teenager, a cousin’s Reform Bat Mitzvah was enough to give me a strong impression that what goes on in a Reform Temple is performance, not prayer — and the fact that WOW draws so much of its strength from American Reform Rabbinical candidates does precious little to change my mind. It takes a non-Rabbi to doubt the righteousness of their path; in a moment of honest self-reflection, Rachel Frank considered that she probably shouldn’t be telling Israelis how to do Judaism during her few remaining months in Israel.

So, should we then conclude that Americans don’t understand prayer or its importance? That would be an inaccurate generalization. Even most American visitors and students, when they see WOW’s activities, leave it a wide berth — thus after 25 years, their most aggressive publicity and busing campaign yet garnered only 250 people.

WOW has vastly more support among those in the United States who have never seen any of this for themselves, but learn of events only through the careful filter of the dominant Jewish media. From Silverman and Lithwick’s valient attempts to cover for the statements of WOW’s own leadership, it appears they understand that WOW’s support depends upon American Jewry continuing to believe that the WOW wants nothing more than to pray. The words of their own leaders, however, tell a very different story.

Remember that “Hate Crime?”

If you’ve followed the news in Israel at all, you probably remember the shooting rampage at an “LGBT Youth Center” in Tel Aviv. [If you don’t know the acronym, good for you, and please let me not be the one to inspire you to look it up.] With absolutely no evidence whatsoever, it was immediately assumed that the shooter was charedi, and that it was a hate crime:

“This hate crime needs to be a turning point and to give strength,” [MK Tzipi] Livni told hundreds of Israelis who rallied in Tel Aviv to protest the attack, in which 15 people were also wounded.

Mike Hamel, the head of the Aguda, Israel’s LGBT organization, said such an attack was unprecedented in Israel.

“We have joined the list of ‘civilized’ countries in which hatred is the standard,” he said. “I don’t know whether the incident was directed at youth, but it appears that it was directed at the community. This is baseless hatred that cost us dearly – this is what needs to be understood.”

Hamel said that “elements represented by [Shas leaders] Eli Yishai and Benizri that are fostering hatred are still stronger than the increasingly favorable attitude toward [deviance].”

This led to a global campaign of anti-Haredi incitement. A headline from a Dallas LGBT news source even acknowledged (after 50,000 people rallied in Tel Aviv in support of the “LGBT community” after the shooting) that maybe, possibly, the narrative that everyone was taking for granted was wrong: “Tel Aviv shooting update: Killer may not have been ultra-Orthodox extremist.” Really? Ya think?

Well, last week’s headline that “[that] community reels over arrests in youth center shooting” could hardly be more accurate. It turns out that one of those arrested is the Director of the Center… not because he was part of the shooting, but for the same reason the center he led was targeted.

Even now, of course, you’ll still find someone calling it a hate crime — in a desperate attempt to cover the fact that the director of the center is now accused of an assault upon one of the youth at the center, the younger brother of two of the shooters. Never mind, he says, that this was obviously a revenge killing — that the shooters came looking for the director, and then launched a rampage when they couldn’t find him. Since the two drop-outs involved “used to be” charedi, therefore “the hatred of [deviance] inherent in Jewish Orthodoxy rubbed off on them,” and therefore the Book of Leviticus is responsible after all. I kid you not.

It’s true that hatred and bigotry still flourish in society; obviously some people will never give theirs up, no matter how the facts prove them wrong.

Political Provocation Not Welcome

When a “movement” has more media appearances than members, do we notice something amiss? When a group claiming to favor prayer calls for dismantling a place of worship, do we smell smoke? And when leaders of an organization demand “Ahavat Yisrael” and then express outright revulsion for all who oppose their agenda, do we finally penetrate the veneer?

This is the tragic saga of the “Women of the Wall,” which portrays itself worldwide as advocating for “women’s rights,” but in Israel is known primarily for dishonoring a Holy Site with political circus – and sowing offense and discord.

They claim to speak for women, but disparage their spirituality. Chair Anat Hoffman referred to traditional prayers at the Wall as “men-only,” discarding those of millions of women annually. Founding member Phyllis Chesler asserted that recognition of their group will “acknowledge women as spiritual and religious beings, capable of non-coerced autonomous, independent, and halachic prayer.” She imagines that traditional women, “forced to obey ultra-misogynist views,” are lacking in all of the above.

But founding and current member Prof. Shulamit Magnus takes the crown. She claims that only women ignorant of Judaism oppose them, and having invented this fact, then declares that it “speaks volumes about the subjugated place of women in [traditional] society, and about the male structures that construct and control that society with an iron hand.” She describes traditional Judaism as “archaic, alien and repulsive.”

With the exception of their own monthly pilgrimages, the leadership doesn’t seem to find praying at the Wall all that momentous, either. As a leader of the Reform movement in Israel, Hoffman recently proposed dismantling the place of worship in favor of a “national monument” on a daily basis. Reform Rabbis in Israel declared in 1999 that “one should not consider the Western Wall as possessing any sanctity.” Why, then, the brouhaha?

Last week, Anat Hoffman confronted a Knesset Committee wearing a Tallit, and a Likud MK had a moment of comprehension. “This is not an Halachic argument,” he said. “It is about hegemony. They are trying to take over.” Hoffman made this explicit in an interview with the BBC: she wants to fragment Judaism in the Jewish state, and is using a place of worship for political theater.

In “secular” Tel Aviv there are over 550 traditional (what Americans might call “Orthodox”) synagogues with daily prayers, and one Reform Temple open only on Shabbat. The movement has scant footing in Israel, and Hoffman hopes to use this as a wedge issue to shore up support. Sadly, she seems to care little for the alienation she causes among Jews who needlessly fear their rights might be ignored in the Jewish state.

After all of the tumult and press coverage, and despite a board and staff of ten, only around 50 people go to the Wall itself on a monthly basis. Most women respect the sanctity and tradition practiced at the Wall for millennia, and are not interested in offending others in a place of worship.

Recently some of the heretofore silent majority launched a new group, striving to preserve the Kotel as the one place on earth where Jews of all persuasions pray peacefully, side by side. They are the Women For the Wall, and it is they who deserve our support and admiration.

Lessons from the Talmud

The Talmud in Eruvin [47b-48a] discusses the unusual case of a lake situated between two villages, such that each end of the lake is within the Sabbath limits of one or the other village. Because the water mixes, and thus someone who goes out and draws water might be removing water from the Sabbath limits of the other village, Rebbe Chiyah says you can’t draw water without an iron wall dividing the lake. The Talmud continues that Rebbe Yosse bar Rebbe Chanina disagrees — and laughs at Rebbe Chiyah.

The Talmud asks… why? Without focusing upon the rest of the story, and the actual reason behind the laughter, it’s interesting to note what the Talmud discounts. “Because his logic goes with a lenient view, he laughs at someone who teaches a more stringent opinion?!” The Talmud finds that inconceivable!

So you might think, as I did, that obviously the rabbis of the Talmud did not understand the blogger mindset. You know, the type of person who will make fun of anything that his shallow mind doesn’t understand? Perhaps the rabbis didn’t know such people!

But then I realized, no, of course not. The Talmud isn’t talking about your average ignoramus, but on the contrary, about one of the holy Amoraim, Rebbe Yosse bar Rebbe Chanina. Of course there are loads of people who would make fun of scholars who follow stricter opinions; the Talmud only said that that is inconceivable for a person of knowledge and intelligence.

The proof to this is Rebbe Akiva, who said about himself [Pesachim 48b] that before he went to study, if he would have encountered a Torah scholar he would have bit him “like a donkey.” His students asked, why say like a donkey, and not like a dog? He answered that a dog doesn’t break bones, meaning that the donkey’s bite is more violent.

There is another answer, though… when someone mocks scholars for their strict opinions, it’s not merely true that he shows himself to be lacking in both knowledge and intelligence. He’s also acting, like, well, a donkey…

Just saying.

The Women of the Wall and their Kotel Kontroversy

The Women of the Wall must be one of the most offensively misnamed groups in history. They don’t represent the Wall, they don’t represent the vast majority of the women who pray there, and they don’t represent sincere prayer.

As she was led off by police, their director, Lesley Sachs, was caught on video shouting out: “to all women from all denominations, there is more than one way to be a Jew!” Her actions were never about joining the others in prayer, but about disrupting them.

MK Michal Rozin said it best: “It’s not a religious issue, it’s a political issue.” Of course, it’s a religious site, and thus the first question should have been whether or not it is appropriate to stage a political protest in a place where others are accustomed to praying in peace.

This is why the proposal from Natan Sharansky, much as it is being celebrated in the press, is actually drawing a more positive reaction from Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz than from the group. According to the Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Rabinowitz said that he will not oppose the plan “for the sake of unity and out of a desire to distance the Western Wall from all argument and dispute” — but meanwhile, the Women of the Wall group has announced “that it would find any solution in which the group be forced to pray separately from the main plaza unacceptable.” One side is interested in letting Orthodox Jews pray in peace. The other … wants the very opposite.

In reality, there is nothing new or revolutionary about the proposal, from Natan Sharansky, to expand the Robinson’s Arch area. That revolution, if it could ever have been called that, came a decade ago, when the Israel Supreme Court acknowledged both the right of the overwhelming majority to pray according to Orthodox norms, as well as the right of others to do as they wish — and required that a space be provided for them at Robinson’s Arch — and the Conservative movement said yes. You wouldn’t know it reading the articles today, which talk about how liberal movements are taking the bold step of accepting this amazing compromise, but there’s nothing new about it. The conservatives accepted it 10 years ago, and were complaining about fees for access three years later (and I said, at the time, that justice was with them in that complaint).

The reason why the so-called “Women of the Wall” found that solution unacceptable is because they are not trying to observe their own practices, but change Orthodox ones. Let’s be honest, their chairwoman, Anat Hoffman, has never expressed interest in any form of prayer, except when it’s interfering with those of others. While she was still a member of the Knesset (with the rabidly anti-religious Meretz party) in the early 1990’s, she stated quite clearly that “if it weren’t for the media, I would find no reason to be here.” As the executive director of IRAC, she continues to fritter away Reform Jewish dollars for causes having nothing to do with Reform Judaism. As I wrote about their “news” section a few years back, “Articles about Reform, even adding a collection of one-sided portrayals of the ‘Women of the Wall,’ are vastly outnumbered by articles about their opposition to voluntary gender separation on buses, demonstrations against Orthodox Rabbis, interference with Charedi education and unsavory comparisons between Rabbis and Imams.”

But for the record, I do see a bright side. If the Sharansky plan is actually implemented, this tremendous waste of money will provide ongoing, daily evidence of the unpopularity of liberal Jewish streams in Israel. That section of the Kotel Plaza will be used by the IDF for induction ceremonies, on Friday nights by mixed groups on tours of Israel, for Conservative Jews who can’t even fill the small current space, the occasional mixed Bar (or Bat) Mitzvah, and the Women of the Wall. And in total it will see roughly 2% of the traffic of those streaming to pray at the site of S’rid Beis Kodsheynu, l’hispallel sheyibaneh bimheyrah b’yameinu.

It’s Not About Triumphalism

Here’s a synopsis of a Jewish dialogue that’s been going on for the past several decades:

Non-Orthodox: You guys are headed for the dustbin of history. Your ossified vision of religion is dying out, while we are the future.

Orthodox: You have it all wrong. Torah observance is what keeps the Jewish people alive… And look, now the data is proving us right. You need to turn back our way.

Non-Orthodox: Sha! You’re being triumphalist.

There’s a little bit more to this nonsense than simple hypocrisy. Yes, the numbers demonstrate that the observant community was right all along. Yes, observing that growth is delightful. But the idea that we’re enjoying the downside, that the assimilation of liberal Jews is part of the excitement, is an exercise in projection. Those who previously touted the decline of Orthodoxy, or who would enjoy seeing it happen today, imagine that we enjoy the turning of the tables against them. That’s not the way it works.

David Brooks’ recent NY Times Op-Ed, “The Orthodox Surge,” was a welcome respite from a steady drumbeat of articles in the general and Jewish media depicting the Orthodox in a bad light. It was an accurate and even complimentary portrayal of what goes on in real-world, normal Orthodox communities. So I guess it’s almost predictable that the Forward now has two pieces taking Brooks to task.

Rabbi Shafran has already looked at Jane Eisner’s crass editorial. Turning the old adage on its head, Eisner evidences the belief that “if you can’t find something hateful to say about the Orthodox, you shouldn’t say anything at all.” The Orthodox believe in differences between men and women! [Newsflash, Jane: I bet readers already knew that.] There’s a lot of Orthodox poverty! [Pomegranate, described by Brooks as an “island of upscale consumerism,” hardly attracts the poor.] And what about those accusations about YU? [On which aisle of the Pomegranate market should he look for that? And, perhaps more to the point, before she defends her inane assertion that YU is an institution of “ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn,” would Eisner similarly demand that all coverage of Princeton academics, administration or even student life mention the far more common evil that Princeton itself covers up?]

More recently, Jordana Horn took her turn at being angry. Her word, not mine. And her anger is quite revealing.

Why is she angry? Because she keeps kosher, the Jewish calendar governs her life, and she isn’t Orthodox. And what disturbs her is that “pieces like Brooks’s column… make it seem as though one cannot have a meaningful, multifaceted Jewish life outside Orthodoxy.” According to her, in Brooks’ view the Orthodox “are apparently the only people he can conceive of having a need or desire to shop at a kosher supermarket.”

Of course, that’s not what Brooks encountered, or wrote, at all. What impressed Brooks is that the Orthodox are (factually, not apparently) the only people forming communities with sufficient demand to justify entire kosher supermarkets. There are two others in Brooklyn that, like Pomegranate, I hadn’t heard of five years ago and are publishing full-page color ads today. Baltimore’s Seven Mile Market moved two years ago into a former Safeway location, nearly doubling its (and, for that matter, Pomegranate’s) size. And one thing all of these places share in common: no one checks religious (or Jewish) credentials at the door. They would be delighted to see more Conservative Jews like Horn shopping there. While it is true that adherents of the Conservative movement neither demand such markets of their own, nor shop more frequently at the existing ones, that isn’t something for which Brooks, Pomegranate, or the Orthodox can be blamed.

It doesn’t take long for Horn to admit that the Orthodox aren’t really the problem — rather, Brooks’ admiration of Orthodox shopping forces her to confront a harsh reality. As she writes:

I’m already worried enough about the potential demise of my chosen Jewish path. Because it all boils down to numbers. I’ve had four kids so far, but try as I might, I can’t single-handedly repopulate non-Orthodox Judaism. I fear that when my children grow up, they will encounter a world in which they will have to choose to be Orthodox or secular, and that no other options will exist — that while Conservative and Reform Jews were busy building gorgeous edifices of synagogues, they will have neglected to build communities that ensure their survival.

What bothers Horn so much is that according to Brooks, the Orthodox feel no similar trepidation. They are not worried that the path of Torah and Mitzvos might die out in America (r”l). As she quotes from his article, “Mainstream Americans have gravitated toward one set of solutions. The families stuffing their groceries into their Honda Odyssey minivans in the Pomegranate parking lot represent a challenging counterculture. Mostly, I notice how incredibly self-confident they are. Once dismissed as relics, they now feel that they are the future.”

I’m not sure the harried mother loading her groceries into that minivan would describe herself as “self-confident.” But Orthodox Jews believe their community will continue to grow, that the children hopping into the van will be part of the Jewish future, and kosher supermarkets will continue to pop up in response to growing demand. We’re not worried about “repopulating” Judaism.

It is this “self-confidence” perceived by Brooks that Horn finds so disturbing. She’d like Brooks to be able to find something similar in her circles, and she can’t. And instead of limiting herself to seeking improvements within her own circle, she expresses jealous anger against Brooks for highlighting the successes of others.

Instead of raging at Orthodox growth, she would be far better served by looking honestly at why Orthodoxy is growing at such a healthy rate today, especially in contrast to its failures in the early decades of the previous century. It’s not simply that her four children alone will not “repopulate non-Orthodox Judaism,” though her admission that “repopulation” is necessary is both stunning and healthy. It’s that she has no guarantee, nor even a particularly good reason to believe, that her children will prove to be part of a solution rather than further statistical evidence of the problem. While she writes about the importance of investing in a Jewish future, she can’t even bring herself to use the words “Jewish day school,” the one proven method for preserving that future. Whether you are looking for a “leaner, meaner Conservative movement” or “our cups to be full” as she would prefer, without Jewish education you have neither — and Conservative day schools are closing their doors across the country.

And this is where they will say, “Sha! You’re being triumphalist.”

The shoppers of Pomegranate do not feel confident in comparison to anybody else; they do not define their Judaism in comparison to anybody else. They are not looking over their shoulders, nor over their garden fences to look down their noses at Jordana Horn’s version of a Jewish life. They are happy to have the opportunity to raise Jewish families and see their children grow up to create Jewish families of their own. The fact that other Jews will never have that opportunity brings them no joy.

There is a reason why the Orthodox, both impoverished (perhaps as a result of paying full taxes plus day school tuition) and otherwise, are investing so much of what they have left not in “gorgeous edifices of synagogues,” but in giving Jordana Horn’s children a second shot at a real Jewish education: because every Jew is an entire world. Like the proprietors of the kosher markets, we don’t look for labels. It is not about Orthodox, liberal, American or other — it’s about the rich Jewish heritage they don’t even know they have.

Every Jew we lose is a world lost. As afraid as Horn is about the Jewish future she’d prefer to see, I am more afraid of the Jewish future of her kids. If she isn’t sending them to day school, it’s not difficult to predict where the future lies, and I hope we get to change that before it’s too late.

Triumphalist? I think it’s hard to find a triumph when you’d rather cry.

Everyone Makes Mistakes

Believe it or not, this week’s message was not inspired by the fact that the Catholic Church has chosen a new Pope; it just offers a convenient contrast. As you probably know, there is, in their beliefs, a doctrine of papal infallibility. When the Pope teaches the rules, he is always right.

It is natural to assume that Judaism has something similar. This is especially true, given the Torah’s demand that we listen to the Rabbis and Judges, and not deviate “right or left” [Deut. 17:11] from what they say.

We see from this week’s reading, though, that this is definitely not the case. The Torah prescribes special atonement for when the High Priest, the King, or the Sanhedrin [Lev. 4: 13-21], the High Rabbinical Court, makes a mistake. In other words, the Torah highlights for us that it is possible for the Sanhedrin to be mistaken.

This is not about a small matter, either. The commentaries say that the mistake described here is one in which the Sanhedrin teaches that it is permitted to do something, and the Sanhedrin later realizes that the behavior is prohibited — so much so that a person committing the act deliberately would suffer the punishment of Kares, spiritual excision [the exact definition of this is disputed, but severe]. Even in matters of religious law, where the Sanhedrin’s supreme authority is undisputed — even there, they could make a mistake.

So why, then, does the Torah tell us to listen to them? They could, after all, be leading us in the wrong direction!

One answer has to do with the power of unity. Different customs and practices are wonderful, but there has to be underlying agreement on “the basics.” One of the problems with calling different Chassidic groups “sects” is that a sect is “a dissenting or schismatic religious body.” Chassidic groups may be led by different Rebbes, but they don’t rewrite the rules. The disagreements of today are disagreements about shapes of branches on individual trees within a massive, unified forest.

And there is another answer, which requires still more humility. It is all well and good to say that everyone is fallible — but who is more likely to be making a mistake? The Torah gives leadership to people who dedicate themselves completely to Torah study, to learning the Torah’s “way of thinking.” Such people are inherently less biased by the latest news reports and the wise opinions of the chattering class, as we are. We recognize that it is much less likely that they will make a mistake, and that is why we trust their guidance.

My Contribution

5008885941_83fa4b319b_oWhen it came to constructing the Tabernacle, everyone was invited to contribute as much as he wanted. Since not everyone has the same financial portfolio, it’s obvious that some people ended up giving more than others. In fact, we are told that the leaders of each tribe made a mistake. They said they would cover whatever was lacking, rather than giving immediately — and then the Bnei Yisrael gave more than was needed. This is why the leaders came at the end to bring the Shoham stones, the precious gems on the breastplate worn by the High Priest. Everything else had already been given!

In this week’s reading, we find a different plan. For the annual upkeep of the Temple, each adult male gave a 1/2 shekel coin — exactly the same amount.

There is an obvious message here: every individual has something to contribute. Every member of the Jewish people is part of a greater whole, and no one should think he or she is irrelevant.

Our teacher R’ Shlomo Katz, in his HaMa’ayan class, points to a comment of R’ Moshe Feinstein zt”l. R’ Moshe says that a person can think that he doesn’t really know much, and can’t learn like a great scholar, so it doesn’t matter if he studies or not. He can think that he’s really not a powerful or influential person, so it doesn’t matter if he goes out of his way to do a good deed.

This, says R’ Moshe, is why the opening verse [Ex. 30:11] begins, “When you raise the heads of the Children of Israel according to their numbers…” By counting them, Moshe is told, you are raising their heads. Each person is significant, and has much to contribute. Each individual is obligated to learn and do good deeds, like everyone else. Tap your potential, and you’ll find you’ve been given more than you thought!