A growing number of American Jews have been following with increasing outrage the plight of the Women of the Wall, the small group of activists in Jerusalem seeking to pray as a group at the Kotel (the Western Wall) in prayer shawls, kippot and tefillin.
It’s embarrassing and shameful that they have at times been treated like criminals by the police, whose forceful behavior has only drawn greater attention to and sympathy for the women, culminating in a district court ruling this week that it was wrong to arrest them.
But the truth is that focusing on their treatment, disgraceful as it may be, has masked the far more serious offenses against women and non-Orthodox religious institutions by the state and its rabbinic authorities.
A woman being dragged away from the Western Wall plaza in a prayer shawl makes for a dramatic photo, but behind the scenes large numbers of Israeli women continue to be treated as second-class citizens, and worse, each day in divorce proceedings, which are conducted by the rabbinical courts with a long history of favoring husbands over wives in domestic conflicts.
Some women are unable to free themselves from marriage for years, if at all, as agunot, dependent on their husband’s willingness to release them.
There are no civil marriages in Israel, and in order to avoid onerous religious requirements by some rabbis, about one-third of Israeli couples marry outside of the country.
What’s more, the increasingly rigid rabbinic standards for conversion have kept the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who came from Russia in the last two decades from joining the Jewish people, jeopardizing the stability of Israel’s Jewish majority.
And of course there is the fact that non-Orthodox rabbis are not recognized in Israel to officiate at marriages or divorces, making many liberal Jews in the diaspora feel like they are second-class citizens in the eyes of Jerusalem.
Surely there are haredi leaders who must be smiling at the widespread attention received by the Women of the Wall members who come to pray each Rosh Chodesh at the Kotel while large swaths of Israeli society suffer in silence, in ways large and small.
For the last 20 years there has been frustration and anger over the haredi control of the rabbinate by every other segment of the society. Now, just when it appeared that a moderate, inclusive Zionist, Rabbi David Stav, would be elected to the 10-year post of Ashkenazi chief rabbi, with the help of Minister of Religion, Naftali Bennett, who is himself Modern Orthodox, political pressure from the religious right is taking its toll. If Bennett endorses Rabbi Stav he could virtually ensure that the Chief Rabbinate be restored to a position of dignity, serving the needs of all Israelis. But so far the leader of the new Bayit Yehudi party appears to be wavering, unwilling to risk his political capital in ways that could benefit not only the majority of Israelis, but Jews throughout the diaspora. And a vigorous, complex campaign is under way to keep the Chief Rabbinate in the haredi camp.
This is a moment of opportunity that may not come again for decades, if ever. If elected, Rabbi Stav cannot perform miracles as chief rabbi, entrenched as the system has become in bureaucracy. But he is committed to righting wrongs rather than continuing the stultifying status quo that has alienated the majority of Israelis from their Judaism. He is the only candidate committed to welcoming rather than rejecting converts, making weddings a time for Jewish joy, and introducing methods of reducing the agunah problem.
Naftali Bennett should feel the pressure from an American Jewry that longs to feel aligned with, not marginalized by, the Israeli rabbinate. It is right to express indignation over the treatment of women seeking to pray in peace at the Kotel; it is even more important to speak out for the great majority of the Jewish people, in Israel and around the world, who want to see an Israel where the Judaism practiced by its religious leaders is a source of pride, not shame.