Worshippers clash with Women of the Wall, March 4th 2022
Worshippers clash with Women of the Wall, March 4th 2022 Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

At the end of last month, Israeli media reported that,

Three families were holding bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies at the Wall’s egalitarian area — specifically established for gatherings of Jews whose approach does not require the gender separation imposed at the main area of the Western Wall — when their celebrations were set upon by dozens of mainly ultra-Orthodox youths.

The celebrants, Conservative Jews, were denounced by the ultra-Orthodox rabble as everything from Christians, to animals, to shiksas (a derogatory term for a non-Jewish woman), to Reform Jews, to…. Nazis.

What are we to make of this vile attack? Rightly, it has been denounced by prominent Orthodox rabbis as a desecration of our Holy place, but we are still left with trying to comprehend what it means when Orthodox men and youth descend upon fellow Jews in such a painful manner.

God has, at various times, appointed judges to make determinations about the correctness of our behavior. There have also been other times when individuals have taken it upon themselves to be “guardians” of what it means to be Jewish.

While we can never be too vigilant when it comes to the spiritual and physical health of our Jewish community, we must always remember that it is the community that must be preserved and protected, not the sensibilities of those who claim the mantle of righteous guardian.

Our metric for judging the passion and zeal of those who act “in God’s name” must always be, how do their actions uplift the Jewish community in its entirety? That is, how do their actions preserve the Jewish community?

How should the Orthodox Jew, who lives and loves Torah and who must walk modern streets, conduct his life?

Rabbi Yaakov Rabinowitz Z’L addressed this question clearly in the first issue of Ten Da’at:

We can expect a feeling of love for all Jews, whatever their background, whatever their status. There will be those whom we will applaud, those whom we will oppose, those who will give us pain, even make us cry. But we will try never to forget that we are one and that the inner door should never be closed. And we will keep an outer door, to the outside world, open as well. To be sure, it will have a screen. Not everything is needed or wanted. But it is, after all, God’s world and we live in it, not despite it.

And yet, we see too many in the Orthodox community use their fervor to build walls rather than doorways. They are zealous, but what is the true nature of their zealotry? And perhaps more important, what must be our response to their zealousness and extremism?

In Parshat Pinchas we learn of Pinchas’ zealotry. When he killed Zimri and Kosbi, a great controversy was unleashed among the people. Were his actions correct? Were they murderous? Ultimately, we learn that his zealotry was correct, as God rewarded him with “the covenant of eternal kehuna” and the “covenant of peace.”

His actions were those of an extremist; he took the law into his own hands, which certainly, from legal, moral, social, and educational perspectives, constitutes a dangerous precedent. We know his actions were condemned by the people and by the leaders. And yet, in the face of this extremism, he is rewarded.

Why?

Ka’naaut, extremism, is rejected and unacceptable (ein morin lo kein). Extremism is too often based on false motives. The only possible defense of ka’naaut must be based on authentic and genuine interests in the glory of God.

And how do we, as a Jewish people, glorify God? By fulfilling His mitzvot which, by necessity, uplift His people, our people, the Jewish people.

In Torah Temimah, Rabbi Baruch Epstein explains how to distinguish holy zealotry from extremism:

Such a deed must be animated by a genuine, unadulterated spirit of zeal to advance the glory of God. In the case, who can tell whether the perpetrator is not really prompted by some selfish motive, maintaining that he is doing it for the sake of God, when he has actually committed murder? That was why the Sages wished to excommunicate Pinchas, had not the Holy spirit testified that his zeal for God was genuine.

Indeed, dividing the Pinchas episode between two Parshiyot, the act of extremism in Balak and the reward in Pinchas, teaches us that the motives and goals of any act of ka’naaut, even of a Pinchas, must be thoroughly reviewed, examined and scrutinized to assess its sincerity. Such scrutiny demands time, perspective, and honesty.

If the motives are found to be real and pure, then God will bestow His approval, reward, and blessing. If not, then the act deserves the rejection of God and the people.

A fundamental benchmark for assessing whether the zealot is authentic or not is by ascertaining whether his ka’naaut separates him from the community or whether he remains b’tocham – among them. If the act separates him, it must be of necessity an act of extremism. I would suggest even more that if the act divides the Jewish people and damages the fundamental integrity of our broad, diverse, often at-odds community, it is an act which must be universally condemned.

Which necessarily brings us to the recent events reported in the Israel’s media.


Three Jewish families were holding Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies at the Wall’s egalitarian area when they were set upon by a pack of dozens of mainly ultra-Orthodox youths.

These hooligans who likely envision themselves to be modern-day “Pinchases”, denounced these families with vile slander and viscous slurs! They rained terror and ugliness upon these families at the very moment when they sought to enjoy one of the happiest moments in their lives.

Our discussion – and our powerful condemnation of the actions and behavior of these observant Jews – is not about the egalitarian section of the Wall. The area, known as Robinson’s Arch, is the result of political maneuvers, compromises, and other machinations typical of the intrigues of the Israeli coalition government.

That said, make no mistake, we do not condone this space. We are opposed to its existence and to the methods and manner that brought it about. It is an area where there is no mechitza, no gender separation, no conformity to our centuries-old traditions and halakhic requirements during Tefilah, and even more so at our most scared Kotel. Our discussion is not whether it is halakhically-sanctioned for the families to have done as they did. It is not.

The simple fact is the space exists and this was where these families came to celebrate as they knew to, and as they desired. This was where they sought to engage Jewishly in a way that was meaningful to them. This was where they came to celebrate their children coming of age.

So, it is not the space that draws our attention now. The only thing that concerns us now is that these families gathered to celebrate their children and their celebration was ruined by an unruly mob of Orthodox men and youth.

The pack believed their extremism was righteous and appropriate; they believed anyone who prayed at the Kotel in any way different than how they prayed was no better than a Nazi.

How do we respond to their extremism? How do we know they were wrong?

How do we differentiate extremism from zealotry?

The notion that any act of ka’naaut, even by the most pious, requires scrutiny and examination is corroborated in Haftarat Pinchas, which focuses on the life of Eliyahu Hanavi. Chazal were of the opinion that Pinchas and Eliyahu are one and the same. Each exhibit forms of kanaaut. As Eliyahu escapes to the desert fearful of Izevel, who seeks his life, God inquires, “What are you doing here, Eliyahu?” Eliyahu replies, “I have been very zealous (kano kineiti) for the Lord God of hosts, for the children of Yisrael have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your altars, and slain Your prophets with the sword, and only I am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.”

What passion! Certainly, we must agree, Eliyahu Hanavi is a true soldier of God!

Or not.

Chazal bring a somewhat different sense to this dialogue. When Eliyahu says, “And he said I have been very zealous for the Lord God . . . for they have forsaken Your covenant” God responds, “My covenant? Perhaps your covenant?” So too when Eliyahu says, “Thrown down Your altars.” God says, “My altars? Perhaps your altars?”

“Your prophets they have slain with the sword.”

“And of what concern is this to you?”

“And only I am left, and they seek my life to take it away.”

Eliyahu argues for his zealousness for God but God reacts with disdain and doubt, “…and of what concern is this to you?”

Ultimately, it was not Eliyahu’s place to make the argument. God rebukes Eliyahu because his zealousness is inappropriate. He reappears to him in wind, in earthquake, in fire, and finally in a still, small voice. It is then that God inquires once again, “What are you doing here, Eliyahu?”

What would these hooligans at the Kotel have said in answer to God’s question, “What is it to you?” What could they have answered? They would be struck dumb by the question. Their hate was about them, not God, not Torah. Not the Jewish people.

Ultimately, Eliyahu is called upon to guarantee his unswerving commitment and uncompromising love for the Jewish nation by being an agent for its ultimate redemption.

Does the act of zealousness help or hurt the Jewish community?

In his Shu’t Mayshiv Davar, the Netziv is clear that baseless hatred is not just defined as being directed towards people for petty iniquities but that it includes a hatred for “any Jew who practices their avodas Hashem in a different manner than them.”

Could there be a clearer, more direct condemnation of the actions of these hooligans? Implicit in these words is the attitude we are to have for all Jews.

The call is to love Jews. All Jews. The saintly Klausenberger Rebbe zt’l, whose yahrzeit was observed this past week, once said there was, “…one thing I miss about the Holocaust.” What could someone who had suffered so at the hands of the Nazis have possibly missed abut that terrible experience?

“When we went on the death march, we were all clean shaven and our hair was shaved off too. We marched side by side, and no one knew if the person next to them was a chosid or a litvak, no one knew I was a rebbe. We all just held our arms around each other and tried to keep warm and tried to keep our fellow Jews warm…”

Those who set upon the celebrants at Robinson’s Arch acted against the holy understanding of the Klausenberger Rebbe. In doing so, they certainly besmirched his memory and worse, demeaned the holiness of the Kotel; they desecrated God’s Holy Name.

Halakhically, it is not at all easy to do Teshuvah and repent for creating a Chillul Hashem, for desecrating God’s Holy Name. Yet that is my fervent hope and prayer, that one day soon, those hooligans will be able to attain Teshuva. Perhaps more, I pray that those families who came to celebrate at our holiest site, as they knew best, will one day find it within themselves to forgive those who knew not better how to love fellow Jews.

But either way, I assure those families, wherever and whoever you are, we love you, we do very much want to hold arms with you. We must first and foremost love one another; we must be one community, united.

We are all the Jewish people.