As Vancouver’s winter gloom deepens, we have been immersed in the Middle Ages though a series of lectures on DVD offered by The Great Courses. We have reached the 14th and 15th centuries.
Medieval Europe conjures up pictures of ladies in distress, the court of King Arthur and Robin Hood, as well as the Magna Carta, for the lawyers in the crowd, and the rise of feudalism, for the social historians. More ominously, the period conjures up the Hundred Years War and the Black Death.
We have just reached the lecture on witchcraft. Witch-hunting, leading to the era of witch-burning, began in earnest in the 14th century, when the suffering population of Christian Europe was ripe for any seemingly reasonable solution to the Great Mortality (as it was known) that killed up to half the population of Europe.
How did this explosion of persecution come about? Current theories focus on the Inquisition (not a surprise). The Inquisition began by targeting suspected heretics who challenged Catholic Church doctrines. As the Inquisition progressed in viciousness, it began to conflate magicians, who had been viewed as misguided but harmless unless they practised harmful magic, with heretics. As a result, witchcraft also came to be regarded as satanic worship.
Most witches were old or isolated women who were unable to take shelter with a family or shunned by the community. But, of course, the Jews were persecuted, too.
The 14th century was a fertile time for hunting witches, as whole villages were dying in a few days and there was no reasonable explanation for the terrible curse being visited on them. Once let out of the box, fear and loathing of witches gathered steam well into the 17th century before simmering down and being replaced by more modern hatreds.
Why am I telling you this?
Well, once again the issue of women is the forefront of my mind: specifically women and the Kotel, the Western Wall. Once again, uppity women have been arrested for – gasp – praying out loud at the Kotel, not to mention wearing tallit and even tfillin, refusing to be pushed aside or threatened by stones, chairs or whatever missile comes to hand. The guardians of the Kotel, now aided by the state, have made the area in front of the Wall their permanent little empire. Woe to those women who would tread on their domain. Or pray.
This was not supposed to happen. The Kotel – the remains of Herod the Butcher’s retaining wall and not a part of the Temple at all – was to be a symbol of our return to Zion. It was to be a place for all Jews. All Jews. Those heady days after 1967, when we flocked to the plaza in front of the wall, weeping not with sorrow but with joy at once again having access to the place, seem a distant memory. In fact they are a distant memory. The Kotel is now the privilege of a few, and many have been banished. Tourists in paper kippot may come to gawk, but prayer for women who seek an experience outside a narrow interpretation of Judaism is out of the question.
That the Kotel was never a synagogue is irrelevant to its self-appointed guardians.
To me, it seems that women once again are the scapegoats of a misogynistic few. We may not be burned as witches, but we can be thrown into jail. Whence this fear and loathing? How is it that our own spiritual needs go unrecognized, unless expressed behind a curtain of cloth, wood or stone?
We shudder at the repression of women in the Islamic world, as Islamic regimes continue to suppress and persecute women. What would a theocratic Israel look like? Would it be so different? Is this little war over the Kotel symptomatic of larger trends underway in Israel?
The effort to control every aspect of personal life is already entrenched in Israeli law, handing over matters of personal status to those who consider themselves arbiters of the inner life of women. Oddly, both the Zionist and anti-Zionist groups on the religious right agree on one thing: women must not be allowed to sully the ears of men with their seductive voices or appear without proper garments. Or else they cause the men to sin.
I understand the Middle Ages. It’s the modern one that perplexes me.