The need for theological humility

What prompts such hostility and anger?
We entered the plaza to the sounds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox men screaming insults and throwing garbage. The difference this week was that instead of the police dragging women off in handcuffs they made a barrier of blue uniforms holding back a sea of men trying to fall upon us. The angry crowd could not drown out our songs of joy at this victory.”

So wrote Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, in the May 13 issue of “The Pluralist,” her organization’s online newsletter. Hoffman, who also serves as chairwoman of Women of the Wall, was reporting on the events surrounding the group’s monthly morning prayer services at the Kotel, Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

This particular Rosh Hodesh (new moon/new month) service took place on the first day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, this year corresponding to Friday, May 10.

Why was this Women of the Wall Rosh Hodesh service different from all of the organization’s previous Rosh Hodesh services?  What prompted such massive resistance by the ultra-Orthodox (the haredim)?  Why did so many haredi men and boys – a number of them yeshiva students excused from classes for their protest – feel compelled to attack the women who had gathered together to pray according to their own non-Orthodox interpretation of Jewish custom?  For what reason did haredi women scream at the Women of the Wall for defiling kedushat ha-makom, the holiness of the place – apparently blind to the actions of their sons, their brothers and their husbands who were “sanctifying” this sacred space with garbage, with spittle, with abusive language?

The answer to these questions is that this past April 25, Jerusalem District Court Judge Moshe Sobel determined that the actions of Women of the Wall did not contravene “local custom”; for the first time in 24 years, these women had the legal right to pray with tallitot (shawls), with tefillin (prayer phylacteries), with joyful song expressed in full female voice.

Unfortunately, Judge Sobel’s decision has led to some toxic sequelae.  Not long after the confrontation at the Kotel on May 10, Peggy Cidor, a board member of Women of the Wall for the past 15 years, found graffiti spray-painted on both the door and the stairwell of her apartment.  The Hebrew threats translate into English as “Women of the Wall are wicked,” “Peggy, your time is up,” “Peggy, we know where you live.”

When more than 300 members and sympathizers of Women of the Wall came to worship on Sunday, June 9 under heavy police protection at the Kotel for Rosh Hodesh Tammuz, they faced hundreds, as opposed to thousands, of haredi hecklers.  The women were able to worship without incident, although the police did prevent them from reading from the Torah scroll they had brought with them.  It is still too early to know whether responsible haredi leaders will continue to be able to contain the more extreme and violent elements of their community.
What is to be done?  I find the seeds of an answer in the words of Rabbi Amy Levin, current president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.  Speaking at an interfaith/interracial panel discussion in November 2011, Levin stressed the need for what she called “theological humility” among Muslims, Christians and Jews.  No one religious tradition should have the chutzpah to claim exclusive knowledge of who God is and what God requires of us.  She agreed with her fellow panelists that each of these three “Abrahamic faiths” holds a wide range of views and that we must be careful not to judge these richly complex cultures by their most intolerant and fanatical elements.

In terms of the ongoing conflict over who “owns” the Kotel, I would suggest that just as theological humility is an essential requirement for serious interreligious dialogue, so, too, must theological humility lie at the core of any attempt to bring Jew and Jew closer together, to overcome the sin’at hinnam, the baseless hatred, which now poisons the sacred space of the Kotel.  Theological humility means that no Jew or group of Jews should claim to speak for all Jews, that no Jew or group of Jews should claim to possess a monopoly on “approved ways” of responding to our individual experiences of God.

Those of us nurtured and nourished in the democratic values of tolerance and pluralism should not find it too difficult to admit that we do not have all the answers, that we cannot claim certain knowledge of life’s deepest mysteries.

But what of those for whom a tolerant and pluralistic outlook is not held to be a virtue?  What of those who are absolutely certain that the Torah – or more precisely, their interpretation of the Torah – is the word of God?  From their perspective, who are we mere mortals to deliberately and provocatively contradict God’s laws?  Who are we to desecrate the Kotel by our failure to be “Torah true”?

Is theological humility ever possible for those who claim to know who God is and what God requires of us?

Where is the meeting ground between tolerance and absolute certainty?  How do we begin this conversation that seems to be impossible, yet is so necessary if we Jews are to remain one people?

JAMES B. ROSENBERG ( is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim, the Reform synagogue in Barrington.