I’m Anat Hoffman’s Hero

by Rabbi Micah Segelman
Times of Israel

There was an impressively large turnout for her speech on a cold, wintry Rochester evening. I anticipated listening to a gifted speaker, and I wasn’t disappointed. Anat Hoffman, of Women of the Wall, is passionate, articulate, charismatic, and funny.

Unfortunately, her gifted oratory made her disparaging portrayal of Orthodox and especially Haredi Jewry all the more hurtful. I am not offended by constructive criticism — but unfortunately, her stinging rhetoric did not qualify.

I have never met a Haredi man incapable of finding the post office or writing a check. I take issue with a caricature of Talmud study and the implication that Torah scholars are unable to function in the modern world. Rabbis do not feel threatened by the superior secular education and earning power of women, and I am horrified that Ms. Hoffman accused them of responding to this perceived threat by oppressing women. Anat’s portrayal of Orthodoxy as backwards and misogynist is apocryphal and a device for furthering her political interests.

I commented from the audience, during the public question and answer session, that as an Orthodox Rabbi I was offended by her portrayal of my community. Though attempting to maintain a friendly tone, Anat responded by tossing out yet another insult — calling me a coward for not having the courage to condemn the violence and racism she attributes to the Orthodox community. She said I would be her hero if I publicly condemned violence.

If that is all it takes, Ms. Hoffman could have many Orthodox heroes. Every Rabbi, of any stripe of Orthodoxy, whose guidance I seek, whose opinion I respect, or whose friendship I value, demands nonviolence.

Anat claimed that “I could give you 49 names of Rabbis who are racist according to halacha, who are inciting for violence in Israel.” Presumably she was referring to a 2010 Rabbinic ruling regarding selling land in Israel to non-Jews. She asserted that I, as an Orthodox Rabbi, needed to criticize the ruling and said that “…until then your silence is support.” What she neglected to tell the audience is that the vast majority of the Orthodox Rabbinate had distanced itself from this ruling long ago. The most prominent authority on Jewish law at the time, Haredi Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l, strongly criticized the ruling. Preeminent Religious Zionist sage Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein did as well, as did the Rabbinical Council of America, which speaks for Rabbis from many parts of the Orthodox community. And finally, without condoning it, the ruling in no way advocated violence.

Ms. Hoffman apparently views violence and racism as endemic in the Orthodox world and feels that there is inadequate condemnation from within Orthodoxy when violence occurs, but she fails to demonstrate that this is the case. Yes, there are a relatively small number of violent individuals — something unfortunately true of virtually all communities. There was the “Beit Shemesh spitter,” there are vandals, and there were teenage boys violently protesting against Women of the Wall – until Leah Aharoni and Women for the Wall put a stop to them. There was also the recent assault committed against an Orthodox woman in Beit Shemesh by an Orthodox man who disapproved of how she was dressed. These acts are regarded as contemptible by the overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jewry, who vocally condemn them, as do I. I, along with the vast majority of Orthodox Jewry, am embarrassed and distressed by the small minority of Orthodox Jews who act in hateful, intolerant, and violent ways in exactly the same way that all Jews are embarrassed by criminals like Bernie Madoff, Ivan Boesky, and Michael Milken – who are no more representative of Jews than hotheaded zealots are of the Orthodox. Violent Orthodox extremism is a rare phenomenon, and when it occurs it is condemned.

Now that I am Ms. Hoffmans’s hero, I would like to ask her to reciprocate. Anat: inflammatory words can cause real pain. Please stop caricaturing Orthodox Jews. Don’t falsely depict Orthodoxy as primitive, violent, racist, and misogynistic.

Don’t tarnish Israel by demeaning Orthodox Jews and then exaggerating their influence. Don’t advance your political agenda by promoting stereotypes, demonizing the Orthodox, and maligning Israel.

You seem to want to change us. I suggest that you try to actually understand us first. You don’t even seem to understand the differences within Orthodoxy, as you incorrectly described Leah Aharoni as Haredi (full disclosure: I helped organize a subsequent speech in Rochester by Leah Aharoni of Women For the Wall, to respond to Anat Hoffman). Exaggerated criticism from someone who seemingly sees nothing of value in our community will not help the Orthodox community or anyone else.

And when others incite hatred against the Orthodox — like in 2013 when a senior government official called Haredim “parasites” (before apologizing), and more recently when an IDF colonel said she hated Haredim and hoped they die — I hope you’re the first to issue a condemnation. And when your words or deeds are the source of the problem, I hope you are brave enough to own them.

Anat — please become my hero too.