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A stern rejoinder to Minister Elazar Stern

MK Elazar Stern's remarks on the Kotel partition are riddled with misstatements, platitudes, faulty reasoning and sophistries. Op-ed.

One hopes that Elazar Stern is a better Minister of Intelligence than he is a commentator on religious affairs, as his endorsement of the Kotel’s partition (“The Kotel should be a Place of Unity for all Jews,” Jerusalem Post, December 24, 2021) is riddled with misstatements, platitudes, faulty reasoning and sophistries.

Obviously, a division of the Kotel to reflect the modern and contrived denominations of the Jewish people is the antithesis of unity; indeed, it renders the Kotel the symbol of the disunity of Jews who cannot even pray together as one people according to traditional law and custom. Stern premises his thesis on the fact that the Jewish people were divided into tribes and, contrary to Moshe’s desire, brought their offerings as individual tribes on the day of the Mishkan’s consecration. But he fails to note that each tribal leader brought the same offering. In fact, the service in the Bet Hamikdash was rigorously prescribed. It allowed for no individuality, pluralism, egalitarianism, reforms or modernization. There was one Torah for all, and that Torah had to be followed. This message was taught at the very beginning of our history when Nadav and Avihu, imbued with religious passion, brought incense “that was not commanded by God,” and lost their lives in the process. What is most critical in divine service is responding to the divine command and not catering to our own subjective religious impulses.

We are a nation that is governed by its Torah. It is true that there are twelve tribes but those tribes reflect the diversity of the Jewish people in terms of talents, character, predilections and temperament. There was no denominational split among the tribes of Israel. Our division into tribes assuredly did not reflect diversity of observance. There were nothing commanded to Reuven from which Dan was exempted nor any prohibitions on Shimon that were permitted to Asher. (The only exception was the tribe of Levi, spared the harshness of slavery in Egypt as they were exempted from mandatory conscription in Israel’s army, as they were all devoted to divine service and the study of Torah. One suspects that a modern analogy would be fiercely resisted by Minister Stern.) There were no “multiple” voices permitted to Jews. All Jews, without tribal distinction, uttered naaseh v’nishma, “we will do and we will obey,” or we would not be a people. We all accepted the Torah and are all bound by the mitzvot. It is true, as Stern notes, that the Talmud is replete with discussions and arguments – but it is also true that it usually comes to a conclusion with appropriate guidance for all, and if not, such guidance was provided by the Codes and the rabbis, down to this day. For sure there are certain differences in customs, and some stringencies adopted by different communities that were eschewed by others. But on most matters, including the configuration of the venue of prayer, and even the number of times we pray each day, there are no two opinions. That was uniform in Jewish life until it was infiltrated with a secular, Western value system that its proponents then presumed had to be “Jewish” simply because they adopted it. Since the Temple era itself, Jewish men and women have been separated in prayer, which adds to the bitter irony that at the very place where separate worship was formalized, there is now an effort to institute mixed prayer. This is both divisive and sacrilegious. It is also shameful that Stern looks to the precedent of the era of Ottoman and British rule when Jews were not allowed to have a mechitzah at the Kotel or even bring chairs and so men and women prayed informally without a divider. That is a precedent – when Jews lacked sovereignty over the land of Israel? Would he also ban the blowing of the Shofar as those alien governments also did?

It is pure sophistry to quote Rav Yitzchak Yosef, who opposes the Kotel reforms, as somehow supportive because he maintains that only the enclosed area for prayer at the Kotel has the status of a synagogue. And what about the rest of the Kotel – the Wall itself, rather than the plaza outside that area? Every part of the Kotel retains its sanctity and may not be used, for example, as a handball court. And by Rav Yosef’s definition, any part of the Kotel that is used for prayer has sanctity, and thus that prayer should reflect traditional Jewish norms as is befitting the place that sits in the shadow of the holiest site in the world. There is another critical point that eludes Stern. There is a system ordained for us in the Torah to resolve questions of Jewish law and practice through the authority vested in the Rabbis of the generation (Chinuch, mitzvah 495). That authority is a monopoly, much like the monopoly given to the elected government to command a nation’s generals to embark on a military campaign, and much like the monopoly given to generals and officers to issue orders to their soldiers. Soldiers can balk and question – even the propriety of expelling innocent Jews from their homes, to no avail – but as Minister Stern himself repeatedly stated, they have no right to refuse orders. There is a chain of command. Similarly, many Israelis are chafing under the perplexing and ever-shifting Corona directives of the government and its medical advisors that are ruining people’s lives while purportedly trying to save lives, but we are expected to comply. There is a chain of command. Why doesn’t Stern recognize the chain of command in the religious sphere? There is a Chief Rabbi – two, in fact – designated as Mara D’atra d’Eretz Yisrael, the religious authorities in the land of Israel. Are they to have no authority over what happens at the Kotel, or for that matter, over Kashrut, Conversion (Gerut), marriage and divorce? Is the mandate of Torah leaders inferior to that of military or health officials? That would only be the conclusion of people who do not accept the reality of Torah as divine, immutable and the source of our survival as a nation. And finding rabbis, of whatever stature, who disagree with any Chief Rabbi’s opinions should carry as much weight as is afforded the sergeants and colonels who disagree with their superiors and go their own way. Generally, they are court-martialed and dismissed. I am not Haredi nor defined by the pejorative “ultra-Orthodox,” but I do resent the recurring use of those terms to denote those who are opposed to the Kotel’s partition. Clearly they are being used on the assumption that the reader will recoil in horror and instinctively oppose whatever Haredim or the "ultra-Orthodox" support. Like all individual Jews and all groups of Jews, we have what we can learn from them and areas in which they can improve. But do not try to marginalize the issue by conveying the impression that only Haredim care about the Kotel. Such is false. Minister Stern, and a few of the other government officials pushing these reforms, delight in identifying themselves as Modern Orthodox. That is their right, of course, but it would be instructive to know what that moniker means to them. The way many use the term “Modern” Orthodox today, it carries the implication that they don’t take the Torah as seriously as do Haredim. They are “Orthodox,” but “Modern,” which apparently affords adherents the right to dissent from parts of the Torah that don’t fit their world view.

They are pluralistic, repudiating the idea that there is one objective truth. They are suspicious of religious authority. They have a concept of sin but a very narrow one, and certainly they would not let a sin cloud an otherwise sunny day. Carving out personal exemptions from Torah observance because one identifies as Modern Orthodox is as meaningful as those carved out by Jews who identify themselves as Conservative, Reform or unaffiliated. For sure, there are many self-identified Modern Orthodox Jews who would rightly reject the aforementioned symptoms, and just see themselves as Torah Jews in a Western milieu (as Rav Aharon Rakeffet has characterized it), without any fear of or hostility towards the best of Western culture. That is unequivocally valid and we would benefit from having more such Jews in Israel. I prefer just to identify myself as Orthodox, period, and try to uphold the Torah and its values accordingly. I try not to rationalize my sins by writing them out of the Torah or diminishing their importance; instead I just hope to improve myself in areas of weakness. I don’t see the Haredim or any other group of Jews as bogeymen, the measuring rod for everything that I have to be against, nor do I understand why anyone would. The barometer of our quest for perfection is the Torah itself and not how any group of Jews wishes to interpret, modify or condense it. We are witness now, for the first time in the history of Israel, to the attempt to weaken standards in every area of Jewish life – Shabbat observance, kashrut, gerut, prayer at the Kotel, etc.

One would hope that Israel’s government would try to foster closeness to Torah, which after all is our deed to the land itself, rather than discourage it and make religious observance more difficult. Hatred of Haredim, unjustified as it is and synonymous with the tendentious calls to “end the Haredi monopoly,” is not a valid reason to undermine the Torah in the land of Israel. And such will drive a deep wedge between Israel and the Torah community abroad of all levels of observance – the most faithful supporters of Israel today in the Jewish community. Those who wish to partition the Kotel will one day partition Jerusalem and then the land of Israel. Once we begin trampling on the sacred there are no boundaries or limits. Those who want to dilute the observance of Torah in Israel by re-shaping the Torah according to the values and neuroses of modern man are playing with fire. The problems we face in Israel require siyata d’shmaya, divine assistance, to overcome. That demands of us not pandering to those who have distorted the Torah or weakening its observance but rather strengthening the Torah that is the common heritage of all Jews. Rabbi Steven Pruzansky was a pulpit rabbi and member of the executive at the R.C.A in America for 35 years and lives now in Israel where he serves as Israel Region Vice-President of the Coalition for Jewish Values.

Originally printed in Arutz Sheva-


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