Orthodoxy and equality at the Western Wall

A few days ago a compromise; now a controversy. So it goes when religious sensibilities clash. This week, the remarkable … Continued

A few days ago a compromise; now a controversy. So it goes when religious sensibilities clash.

This week, the remarkable Nathan Scharansky produced an actual plan to solve the problems at the Western Wall. It would end the Orthodox monopoly over the national shrine by calling for the expansion of the Western Wall Plaza to encompass Robinson’s Arch, where non-Orthodox services could be held without harassment or police interference.

But Thursday there were arrests. Five women wore tallitot, prayer shawls, and one Haredi (ultra—Orthodox) man burned a woman’s prayer book. All were arrested. So it goes in the holiest spot in the world for Jews.

Is there something useful to say beyond head shaking, sad-eyed, sputtering indignation? To one who wears the tallit, it is an expression of piety. To one who grew up in a world where such a thing is rare, it appears as a provocation whose sincerity cannot be believed. The gulf in perception is as wide as the anger is deep.

Into this divide step the police. Here analytic faculties collapse. Because although it is true that some on the women’s side of the wall experience a woman wearing a tallit as an unforgivable breach of the sanctity of the place, to arrest someone for wearing a religious symbol at a religious place, an essentially non-coercive act, has to be wrong. A democracy can create special rules; women may not pray on the men’s side of the Kotel and vice-versa. That is why Sharansky’s proposal creates an enhanced area to permit mixed worship. But a free society cannot legitimately carve out egregiously anti-democratic preserves, and enforce people’s private worship styles with a badge and a gun.

The balance between freedom and religious fidelity is not an easy one. Absolutists on both sides pretend that there is a simple solution to a complex interaction of deeply held beliefs and necessary tolerance.

Still, lines have to be drawn. Arresting for offense is the slipperiest of slopes. Burning books is a deeply offensive, crass and historically ignorant act. A Jew who burns books knows as little of Jewish history as he does of the tradition he claims to defend. Arresting him makes a state issue of a private indecency. Arresting women wearing tallitot makes a state issue of a religious choice. If it comes to blows, the offender should be arrested. But I wonder if anyone involved pondered the irony: one rabbinic interpretation of the reason we do not wear a tallit in the evening service is that the tallit provides protection, and in the evening we say the prayer “hashkiveinu” which provides protection instead. “Hashkiveinu” is the evening prayer for peace. Maybe we should start saying it during the day as well.

Wolpe is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and author, most recently, of “Why Faith Matters.”

David Wolpe
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  • Alan B. Levy

    As a Jew who later became a “born-again” Christian, Methodist Pastor, and later a “messianic” leader, as of late re-united with the historic Jewish community, I want to say that, after coping with Christian Flat-Early Earth pre-Medieval Fundamentalists for a VERY long time, it chaps my TUCHUS to see the same mentality in Judaism….tradition, smadishion…..it’s people covering their pre-Enlightenment ignorance and cultural backwardness in the name of TRADITION…

  • ThomasBaum

    Just because some believe that God had to do things their way does not in any way mean that God had to do it their way.

    As I have said many times, God does not fit into any “box” that anyone has constructed for God.

    Many of those that “know” God’s Name seem to know pretty much nothing else about God and have a “conception” of God that I totally disagree with.

    In God’s Plan, God became One of us for ALL of us and God has had this Plan since before creation and God’s Plan, which is unfolding before our very eyes, will come to Fruition.

  • sydneyplants

    there is no such thing as a god. anyone who believes there is has a serious mental issue and should seek help. the orthodox jews are – to put in bluntly – insane.

    the sooner anyone who believes in a deity and believes they are better than someone else because of a belief in a fictitious being is ridiclued openly the better. lets get religion out of society.

    in the meantime our open society will laugh at these people whilst they continue to believe they are “the chosen ones”.