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Sunday, December 21, 2014

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A morning with Women of the Wall

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Though I spend much time in Jerusalem I never pray at the Western Wall – for religious reasons. The reflection by the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the great Jewish teachers of the 20th century, that Judaism has holy events, not holy places, resonates with me.

In view of its history, the Western Wall is most effective as a symbol of national rebirth. Thus, for example, I was greatly moved when, a couple of years ago, I attended my grandson’s swearing in as an IDF soldier there. The fact that it has been turned into a shrine over which haredim claim hegemony and which others legitimately challenge is another sign of the lethal mixture of religion and politics that bedevils Israeli public life.  

Lately, the group Women of the Wall – with members across much of the Jewish denominational spectrum – has claimed equal access to worship there. Seeking to revive the Jewish tradition of Rosh Chodesh, the new moon, as a special day of celebration for women, they assemble every month in the women’s enclosure of the Wall to conduct their own services.

Many ultra-Orthodox Jews are up in arms. Contrary to what they consider to be Jewish law, women are heard singing, some don tallitot and a few even put on tfillin. Jerusalem police have until now used a legal provision that allowed them to prevent such “sacrilege” by arresting participants.

In order to show my 12-year-old granddaughter on a visit from England the charade, and to “smuggle” her aunt’s – the soldier’s mother’s – tallit (which might otherwise have been taken from her at the security barrier), I broke my rule and spent the morning of Rosh Chodesh Iyar (April 11) at the Wall. I stood on the plaza behind the women’s section with many other men to express my commitment to gender equality in Judaism.

It was a less than edifying experience. Haredim were shouting across the barrier in an effort to disrupt the women’s prayers. Cameras, many in the hands of journalists, dominated the scene. 

The previous day, Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, whom Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had charged with finding a solution to the impasse, unveiled a much-publicized plan to American Jewish leaders purporting to give all streams what they want by creating a third section to the south of the present enclosures where women and men could worship together, non-Orthodox style.

A former staffer in the prime minister’s office has recently written that Netanyahu finds it very difficult to make decisions. To avoid annoying the ultra-Orthodox on the one hand and disappointing Israel’s American-Jewish backers on the other, he may have chosen to outsource the problem to Sharansky. The latter, conscious of the egalitarian sensitivities of American donors, is now seeking a way to appease them with a non-solution.

The fact that, despite the media hype, neither haredim nor liberals have persuasively objected to Sharansky’s proposal suggests they know that it won’t fly. Archeologists and engineers have already expressed misgivings about it, and the Muslim Waqf, responsible for the Temple Mount, is bound to seek to disrupt it. But the public seems to be weary of the whole issue and thus keen to hail any ruse as a solution. 

However, even in the unlikely event that it works, the proposal won’t make the Wall more religiously significant. Though this remnant of the outskirts of the ancient Temple tells of a national tragedy some 2,000 years ago, it also reminds us that much of it may have been precipitated by religious zealots.

Hiding behind expressions of piety and reverence, their spiritual descendants today aren’t only praying with Orthodox Jews for the improbable rebuilding of the ancient sanctuary, but they also make quixotic and dangerous plans to put it into effect. Should their scheme ever materialize, the devastation of the land and the people of Israel would be infinitely greater now than it was then.

With this in mind, the best way we can serve Judaism in general and Israel in particular is to leave the Wall for secular occasions, for tourists and perhaps for the few pious Jews who pray there daily.

Though gender equality in Israel is of vital importance for its future, and despite a favourable recent ruling by an Israeli court, the champions of equal rights for women should consider more suitable, even if less photogenic, ways of pursuing their just cause.

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