Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

by Jonathan Rosenblum
Published in Mishpacha, 5/21/13

A member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of America once remarked to me that things would be going splendidly in our world were it not for our propensity to continually shoot ourselves in the foot. What took place at the Kosel on Rosh Chodesh Sivan provides a textbook example.

The enduring image of the Rosh Chodesh davening should have been of thousands upon thousands of religious girls and women davening and reciting Tehillim with intensity, their voices never rising above a whisper. Nowhere in today’s world is such purity to be found as in a gathering of Jewish daughters praying or reciting Tehillim. Even before I reached the Kosel, the sight of so many Bais Yaakov girls brought tears to my eyes.

The images broadcast worldwide should have been of the tiny Women of the Wall (WoW) group totally engulfed in the much, much larger group of religious women praying at the Kosel — numerically batul beshishim.

The idea of filling the area directly in front of the Kosel and almost the entire KoselPlazawith frum women and girls completely flummoxed WoW. When they first got wind of the large numbers of women who would be at the Kosel, they were left to issuing a pathetic “invitation” to all their “sisters” — including chareidi women — to join them at the Kosel for their monthly show, in an effort to spin the overwhelming presence of chareidi women.

When WoW leader Anat Hoffman arrived at the Kosel and saw the area in front of the Kosel entirely filled, her face registered astonishment. She and her group had no choice but to regroup in theKoselPlaza.

Moreover, the Rosh Chodesh prayer gathering offered the media a number of interesting back stories. One was the remarkable consensus between the national religious and chareidi worlds over the issue of the sanctity of the Kosel. For once, Israel’s religious constellation was fully unified about the importance of the issue. The leading chareidi gedolim, beginning with Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, and the most prominent rabbonim in the national religious world, all called for women and girls to go to the Kosel on Friday morning. And there were busloads of girls from national religious seminaries along with those from chareidi seminaries.

Thus, on the very day on which Israeli encamped in at Sinai as one person with one heart —vayichan sham Yisrael neged hahar — so did the religious community inIsrael achieve a rare degree of unity.

Another remarkable aspect of the gathering of thousands of women was that the entire initiative came from two women, one of them only 25 years old, from the off-the-beaten path settlement of Kochav Yaakov. They decided to do something to counter WoW after aJerusalemdistrict court ordered that WoW be allowed to worship as they like at the Kosel. And they did.

Just as Sarah Schenirer’s Bais Yaakov movement could not have spread as rapidly as it did without the support of the Chofetz Chaim and the Imrei Emes of Gur, so the thousands of women and girls would not have shown up at the Kosel without the call of the gedolim. But the idea originated entirely with these two women, and they conducted the media campaign.

That this was first and foremost a women’s initiative destroyed the image of downtrodden, subservient frum women, and WoW’s narrative that they seek to liberate chareidi women from their shackles. So ingrained is the image of passive frum women that Ha’aretz reporter Judy Maltz called Ronit Peskin, one of the founders of Women of the Wall, a liar, when the latter told her that her organization was behind the gathering.

UNFORTUNATELY, none of these images or stories made their way into the press coverage of the Rosh Chodesh davening due to the boorish behavior of a group of a few dozen young chareidi men. Had they been on the direct payroll of WoW, they could not possibly have done a more effective job of ensuring that the real story of what took place at the Kosel on Rosh Chodesh Sivan would not be heard.

Instead, the media lumped together the thousands of religious women, who did nothing more than daven, with the hooligans under the rubric of “chareidi protesters,” and twisted the explicit support of Rabbi Steinman and other gedolim for the women’s gathering into an endorsement of the wild behavior of a small group of young chareidi men.

Nothing could have been farther from the truth. Rabbi Steinman explicitly conditioned his approval for the women’s prayer gathering on assurances that there would be no violence. The whole point was to contrast the quiet, sincere prayer of religious girls and women with the camera-seeking behavior of WoW.

When I arrived at the Kosel a little past 7:00 a.m., police had already pushed back most of the male protestors to the ramparts on the northern side of the KoselPlaza, where they were periodically shouting and making it difficult to daven on the men’s side of the mechitzah. Their main “achievement” at that point was drowning out the beautiful singing of Hallel from a number of minyanim on the men’s side.

I was astounded to see the media cameras focused relentlessly on the small group on the ramparts and totally ignoring the presence of many thousands of women.

I do not claim to be a bochen kelayos, but it was clear to me that the young men on the ramparts were thoroughly enjoying the opportunity provided by WoW to let out their animal spirits. Their periodic shouting and later tossing of objects at WoW struck me as nothing so much as a plea for attention.

The Brisker Rav famously said that both the housewife and the cat want the mice out of the house. But the housewife wishes they were never there in the first place, while the cat is delighted to have them for supper. The group at the Kosel fell into the category of the Brisker Rav’s “cats.”

Perhaps they did not know that Rabbi Steinman had specifically demanded that any demonstrations be conducted without violence, but even that will not exculpate them from the charge of gross stupidity. That their attacks on WoW would play into the latter’s hands by turning them into victims should have been obvious to any sentient being.

Nor is gross stupidity a minor sin. As Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler writes in his commentary on the Al Cheit of Yom Kippur, the first sin is to be a fool.

The women were there at the direction of gedolei Yisrael. But whose direction were the rowdies following? When have gedolei Yisrael ever condoned violence?

Quite apart from serving as unwitting accomplices to WoW, the young men betrayed a certain gasus ruach. Anyone looking at the women’s side of the Kosel entirely filled with women davening should have sensed that this was the most effective response to WoW, both in practical terms and, more importantly, klapei Shamayim. Anything that detracted from that gathering could only do harm.

Still, I have no confidence that if Women of theWall were to organize a similar gathering next month that the results would be any different. I’m afraid that unthinking loudmouths would reappear and once again act as if on cue from Anat Hoffman.

Is there nothing we can do to prevent our communal agenda from continually be kidnapped by those who answer to no authority?