A couple of weeks ago, while attending the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly (the professional organization of Conservative rabbis) in Atlanta, I heard Israeli journalist and nascent politician Yair Lapid declare that Israel is the only place in the Western world where Jews are not free to practice their religion as they wish. He was referring to recent events that have resulted from the unseemly alliance of government and right-wing Jewish religious interests: a tourist group of Conservative teens being denied the use of a sefer Torah at a hotel run by a secular kibbutz, the constant police presence and occasional arrest of participants at Women of the Wall's monthly service at the Kotel / Western Wall.
Speaking to a room full of Conservative rabbis, who are committed to a Judaism that is both firmly rooted in tradition and yet open to modern ideas and the principle that Judaism has never existed in a vacuum, Mr. Lapid said:
"I believe the Jewish identity is in danger and you are the gatekeepers, the people who believe Judaism shouldn't be a jailhouse of ideas, but a liberator of ideas. No one can claim ownership over the Jewish God." (as quoted in Haaretz)This was, of course, an easy applause line for that audience. Nonetheless, the sentiment here is very powerful, and very important for the future of Judaism in Israel and the Diaspora.
Three rabbinical students from the Jewish Theological Seminary were detained on Tuesday for praying at the Kotel while wearing their tallitot / prayer shawls in the same way that men do. They were not arrested, but merely roughed up; one was approached by a policeman while reciting the Shema, when it is halakhically impermissible to respond.
This is not freedom of religion. Since the Kadima and Likud parties have reunited like old brothers, and the next Israeli election cycle will be a year and a half away, Mr. Lapid and his Yesh Atid ("There is a Future") party will not have the opportunity to address these issues in the Knesset any time soon. Let's hope that change comes sooner.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
For a video of the three women talking about their experience, click here.
For a reaction piece from Jonah Rank, another rabbinical student who was there, click here.
For more information about Women of the Wall, click here.