Three weeks ago, on Friday, July 29, the first day of the month of Av, Lucia da Silva, a 13-year-old girl from Seattle, was violently prevented from celebrating becoming a bat mitzvah by reading a section of Numbers 28 from a Torah scroll at the Kotel, the Western Wall.
As the freelance journalist Noga Tarnopolsky reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “thousands of black-attired young yeshiva students, both male and female,” vehemently protested Da Silva’s attempt to celebrate this religious rite of passage in the way she had so ardently prepared to do. This mob included “clutches of girls dressed in black [who] set upon the women, calling them whores and heretics and hollering that they should burn in hell…,” Tarnopolsky reported. “From a raised platform behind the women’s section, young men taunted them with coarse gestures and insults….”
Da Silva’s mother, attorney Ada Danelo, served on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Washington State board for several years. She and her family, she said, “sometimes felt attacked for their Zionism back home in Seattle,” Tarnopolsky reported. “In Israel…, they were ‘attacked for being…Jews.’”
Such violent confrontations involving women attempting to pray at the Western Wall Plaza, the main area in front of the Kotel, has become commonplace in recent years. Prayer, though, is only one form of discrimination against women at the Kotel. On May 19, a female IDF officer was barred from leading a swearing-in ceremony there because the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the government body that manages the site, objected to a woman leading the ceremony.
Israel does have a special section for egalitarian prayer—Robinson’s Arch, located at the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount. Violent confrontations have become frequent even there, however, in this case because the worshippers are not Orthodox.
Retired TV executive Gene Greenberg, an Anti-Defamation League regional board member and past president of his Conservative Las Vegas synagogue, described in a Times of Israel blog post what happened at the bar mitzvah service held for his grandson Seth Mann, whose mother, Sari Mann, is AIPAC’s Nevada state director. Greenberg wrote: “The calmness and serenity of the morning prayers were interrupted by…delinquents [who] attacked us. I understand their shameful rabbis arranged for a bus, dismissed them from class, and instructed them on how to disrupt non-Orthodox services….”
Seth’s father, attorney Joel Mann, wrote in the Times of Israel that his heart broke when he “realized that not even in the State of Israel, the homeland for the Jewish people, am I allowed to pray freely and safely. My son, on his bar mitzvah, is told he is not Jewish.”
In the Torah reading for next Shabbat, August 27, all Israel is warned, “Lo titgodidu.” (See Deuteronomy 14:1.)
This requires some explanation. In full, the verse states, “You are the children of the Lord your God; you shall not gash yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead,” with “lo titgodidu” meaning “you shall not gash [or cut] yourselves.” On the surface, then, it would appear that “lo titgodidu” has nothing whatever to do with the subject of this column. Appearances, however, can be deceiving.
First, the verse in a sense is redundant because Leviticus 21:5 gives a similar prohibition regarding the priests, and by inference all of God’s “kingdom of priests,” meaning all Israel, for “all the congregation are holy, every one of them.” (See Numbers 16:3.)
It is also redundant in fact, not just in inference, because Leviticus 19:28 applies it generally, and not just in times of mourning. As it tell us, “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead or carve any marks on yourselves.”
Such redundancies caused our Sages of Blessed Memory and the commentators who followed them to look beyond the plain text.
That leads us to the second reason appearances here are deceiving. The phrase used in Deuteronomy differs from the ones in Leviticus (“lo titgodidu” vs. “lo yisritu saratet” and “v’seret…lo titnu”). Obviously, the word titgodidu is odd-man-out here. To find the reason for the redundancy, then, means determining why this word was used in place of a form of the root word sarat.
Our Sages noted that “lo titgodidu” is an anagram in Hebrew for “teled agudot,” which means “give birth to factions.” Since the plain text is a negative, so the anagram must be a negative. Thus, the Sifre, the extra-rabbinic commentary on Deuteronomy, states bluntly of verse 14:1, “Do not divide yourself into factions, but be one faction.”
There is a third reason, as well: Grammatically, noted the sage Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, Deuteronomy 14:1 should read “lo tigodidu,” not the reflexive form “lo titgodidu.” Resh Lakish reasoned, therefore, that what the text actually means is “do not create individual factions.”
However we get there, then, it is clear that from the earliest days of Judaism, it was considered a sin to separate out of the general community. Thus, the great sage Hillel warned in Mishneh Avot 2:4, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” In other words, do not create separations (divisiveness) within the community.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th century biblical commentator and founder of Neo-Orthodoxy, put it this way regarding Deuteronomy 14:1: [It is a commandment] not to allow differences in the teachings and decisions of the laws to lead to dividing into different communities, not to allow them to lead to ‘splits’ in the nation…; but rather that all such kinds of differences of opinion should be brought to an agreed decision made on the basis of the rules for decisions in such cases by the Torah itself….”
From the standpoint of the medieval commentator Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, violating this commandment is also a direct defiance of God. “Once you realize that you are children to God and that God loves you more than a father [loves] a child, do not cut yourselves [off] from anything that God may do, for everything that God does [for you] is for [your] good,” even though we may not understand how that can be.
Judaism thankfully is not monolithic. Because there are few (if any) black-and-whites in Judaism, differing interpretations are built into the system and even celebrated. Such differences, however, must never be used to divide the community as a whole.
The State of Israel is a Jewish state and is accepted as such by the overwhelming majority of the community, with the possible exception of some segments of our rigidly observant sects. Indeed, many of us see the state’s very existence as the fulfillment of prophecy and the harbinger of the messianic age. For those of us who believe, as I firmly do, the existence of the State of Israel clearly is something that “God did.” After all, God said it would happen after a spate of calamities had befallen us (see Leviticus 26:42), and it did happen — five years to the day after the fall of the Warsaw Ghetto. To then deny or otherwise impede Jewish observances by non-Orthodox and even some modern Orthodox groups, especially in full public view at Judaism’s most venerated site, is to violate the commandment of “lo titgodidu.”
There is more wrong, however, with this violent behavior at the Kotel, especially when it is targeted at women who want to read from a sefer Torah. The Babylonian Talmud tractate Megillah 23a says that “all are qualified” to publicly read from the Torah, even “a woman,” but then it adds that “a woman should not [be allowed to] read from the Torah out of concern for the honor of the congregation.”
In those days, being called up for an aliyah meant actually chanting from the Torah scroll; there was no such officiant as “a Torah reader” to do it for those given an aliyah. What that statement in Megillah 23a means, therefore, is that if a woman is called to chant from the Torah, someone could say that there were fewer than seven men present in that congregation who were learned enough to read vowelless Hebrew with the proper cantillation, and that would dishonor the congregation.
It was a specious argument then, and it is even more specious now because there is a Torah reader to do the actual reading, so no one’s honor is threatened.
To be truly ritually observant means to take seriously all of the Torah’s commandments, including “lo titgodidu.” It also means taking seriously a mitzvah that is repeated several times in Deuteronomy in one form or another: “Do not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it but keep the commandments of the Lord your God….” (See Deuteronomy 4:1-2.)
To deny a woman a right even the Talmud admits is hers violates that commandment, as well. It also violates the whole notion of “a kingdom of priests” tasked with teaching the world by our example “how good and how pleasant it is when people dwell together.” (See Psalm 133:1.)
Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.