A major theme in the Chanukah story is the struggle for equality and religious freedom for all citizens. Today in 2016 in Israel, women and Conservative and Reform Jewry struggle for the right to pray at the Western Wall. The controversy is described like this on the Jewish Agency website:
“Over the past few years, the public dispute over freedom of choice in worship and gender equality at the Kotel has intensified. “Women of the Wall”, a very active group comprised of Reform and Progressive and Conservative Jews from around the world has struggled to pray according to their traditions for years. Unfortunately, the ultra-Orthodox have continuously waged aggressive protest against these prayers. This dispute has made it necessary to rethink the current prayer spaces at the Western Wall. To this end the Prime Minister appointed a team to consult on the issue. After examining all of the perspectives, and listening to the different parties involved, the team formulated a proposed plan which, at its core, aimed to expand the options of prayer at the Western Wall in a way that enables each person who wishes to worship there to do so according to her/his belief and custom. The plan attempted to balance the rights of all of the parties- to respect, equality, freedom of religion and freedom of expression- while preserving the special historic, national and religious status of the Western Wall for ALL of the Jewish people. The plan is based on the Supreme Court decision on the issue of the struggle of Women of the Wall. The plan integrates the old with the new: retaining the existing custom of those who currently worship at the Western Wall, and creating a new space, physically and conceptually, for diversity of Jewish prayers and customs. The plan intended to provide for adequate expression of Jewish pluralism, allowing for prayer and worship of the pluralist denominations on the southern end of the Western Wall, while still preserving the existing prayer option at the northern part of the Western Wall and all of this, in the name of religious freedom and equality.”
So, that was the plan. And then on Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, 5777 (November 2, 2016), Women of the Wall marched towards the Kotel accompanied by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Steven Wernick, President of the North American Conservative Movement and hundreds of supporters – all looking to support religious equality and egalitarian worship at a site that is so precious to World Jewry. The march was led by a line of ten Jewish leaders, including Women of the Wall Chair Anat Hoffman, carrying Torah scrolls, hoping to pray as equals at the Wall. Equality that had been negotiated and confirmed by the leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements with the Israeli government.
And so a peaceful procession proceeded towards the security area of the Kotel, and then the following happened as told by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beechwood, Ohio: “Fellow Jews swore at us. Their children called us Nazis. They tried to grab Torah scrolls from our arms and we had to push back to protect them. I didn’t have to throw a punch or duck one, but others did. A man spat in my face. Shoving, pushing, fighting, and intimidation were laid bare. I saw with my own eyes the very thing our rabbis warned us about at the ancient Temple: sinat chinam, abundant, unchecked hatred. The live feed of the demonstration showed my congregants back home an unusual sight: their rabbi shoving and pushing to protect others from such hate. I was jostled between Israeli police and counter-demonstrators, both groups seeking to stop us from worshipping the way most of the world’s Jews pray. None of these actions is pious. They are not proper observance of mitzvot. What we encountered at the Kotel was stupefying, ugly conduct. We witnessed actions well beneath the level of human civility. Although I realize it is difficult to see people practice our faith in a way that expresses different values, placing others in harm’s way is entirely out-of-line and unacceptable.”
This struggle at our most precious and holiest of Jewish sites pains me very much.
As a Jewish people we are considered an “Or le Goyim”, a light unto the nations. If we cannot share our goodness and kavod and menschlikeit with each other, how can we ever be a dugma ishit, a personal example for the rest of the world.
So, perhaps as we light our Chanukah candles in 2016/5777 and celebrate the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem we should also rededicate ourselves to ensuring that the lessons we have learned from the Chanukah story and the struggles of the Maccabees more than 2,000 years ago are not lost forever.