Sefer Torah Abuse

by Rabbi Avi Shafran

We rend our garments if a sefer Torah is, chalilah, desecrated. If one should fall to the ground, it is customary for those present to undertake to fast that day. I don’t know what the proper reaction is to seeing a sefer Torah employed as a prop in the service of a social cause, but a recent such exploitation made my heart hurt.

The exploiters, for their part, were jubilant. Members of the feminist group “Women of the Wall” had obtained a sefer Torah small enough to smuggle into the Kosel Maaravi plaza, where they proceeded to hold a “bat-mitzvah” ceremony, complete with a woman reading from the Torah and the 12-year-old reciting birchas haTorah.

“Today we made history for women @ Kotel,” the group announced on social media. “We must recreate this victory each month with great opposition.”

The latter phrase may have been incoherent, but the sentiment was clear. By flouting the Jewish mesorah (and current Kosel regulations) and by evading the Israeli police, the intrepid women had, at least in their own minds, scored points for their team.

For more than three decades, the Kosel has been a place — perhaps the only one in the world — where Jews of all affiliations and persuasions have regularly prayed side by side. What has allowed for that minor miracle has been the maintenance of a standard at the holy site that all Jews can abide.

Last year, to maintain that uniqueness, Women of the Wall was assigned an area in front of part of the Kosel, Robinson’s Arch (or Ezras Yisrael), for their “non-traditional” services. But the feminist group’s leader, Anat Hoffman, blithely dismissed that equally holy area as a “sunbathing deck.” With its recent incursion into the main Kosel plaza, the group has made it clear that it has no interest in avoiding offense, but rather, on the contrary, is committed to being “in the face” of the vast majority of regular visitors to the Kosel for tefillah, whom it views as the enemy.

Part of the recent verbal victory dance was performed by Women of the Wall’s Executive Director, Lesley Sachs, who seized upon the fact that the small scroll, which she said was 200 years old, had likely been written to avoid its seizure by enemies of Jews. “This time,” she explained, it was used to avoid “Jews imposing restrictions on Jews.” That would be the Rav of the Kosel, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, and those who, like him, wish for the standards of Jewish tradition to mediate public services at the Kosel.

It wasn’t only the sefer Torah that was conscripted for the cause. So was the bat-mitzvah girl.

The daughter of an immigrant from Russia, she was one of four whose images appeared in recent bus ads in Yerushalayim that were part of Women of the Wall’s campaign to hold such ceremonies at the Kosel. The Hebrew text of one, featuring a young girl in a tallis and holding a Torah, read: “Mom, I too want a bat mitzvah at the Kotel.”

After the celebration, the honoree shared that, amid the merriment, she had become “very emotional” at the Torah reading, and “just had a lot of fun.” As, from all appearances, did her minders.

Predictably, the mainstream media were full of praise for the successful subterfuge, and the cause in which it was committed. Among the effervescent expressions was a piece by Lexi Erdheim, a rabbinic student at a Reform institution and a “Women of the Wall Intern.”

Ms. Erdheim wrote that she “could only imagine” the “overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment” felt by those who had been fighting for years to obtain “women’s right to free prayer at the Kotel,” and who were finally able to “witness a young girl chant from a sefer Torah.”

But she injected a note of reservation, too, since, “despite this momentous occasion, the battle is not over.” Still and all, she wrote, she was “reminded of a quote from Pirkei Avos: ‘You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it’.”

Another Mishnah in Pirkei Avos, though, is more fitting for the occasion of a sefer Torah employed as a PR prop. It was cited well before Ms. Erdheim’s piece appeared, by Leah Aharoni, a co-founder of the mesorah-respecting group “Women For the Wall”: “Rabi Tzaddok would say… ‘Do not make the Torah a crown to magnify yourself with, or a spade with which to dig.’”