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.”