Women: Talk To The Wall

From Open Zion, a feature of The Daily Beast, where I have a regular column. 

When I first got to Israel, just after the 1967 war, and then through much of the 1970s, the Western Wall carried its grandeur with a disarming humility. It was a warm, softened, empty-cream space, implying a revered history, but inviting you to project your emotional state, something like what I imagine an empty canvas was to Mark Rothko.

The night my son was born, in June, 1973, I came to the Wall to speak with my parents, by then dead, but available in the crevices. You prayed, if that's the word; but your homage was as personal and idiosyncratic as the note you shoved into it. Pick-up minyans were scattered around, but they mainly left you alone; nobody seemed to own the place other than the municipality of Jerusalem and Jews-in-general. The plaza in front of the Wall was something like a shrine, but not much like a shul. When the Camp David Accords were finally signed in 1979, Teddy Kollek invited Yehudi Menuhin to play there on a cold windswept night. We rushed to celebrate the peace at the place of commonwealth.

I don't remember when things changed there; in a way, everything changed when Menachem Begin and his forces had taken over in 1977, but the transformations were not dramatic at first. I do remember that, by the end of the 1990s, I stopped going or taking visitors there, except to visit the archeological digs. Anyway, I go to the Wall today with the same defensive anxiety with which I walk into Mea Shearim. Hating what the Wall has become is a touchstone of identity.

And it is this oppressive atmosphere at the Wall that the Women of the Wall are presumably trying to loosen up. The Orthodoxy that prevails there must make room for other, more spacious Judaisms. Women, in this view, are the perfect foil for Orthodoxy: they are always the objects of male intimidation, a symptom of primitive religion; in contrast, they enjoy egalitarian services in Reform Judaism. So the Jewish state should not privilege Orthodoxy over Reform at the Wall any more than privilege Orthodoxy regarding conversion abroad. Even the Supreme Court has ruled that the Women of the Wall are justified in expecting equality at a public space

Ah, but then how to divide up the space, when women wearing a tallis or reading the from the Torah so offend the ultra-pious men crowding at the stones? Enter Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, who has weighed in with a compromise--one North American federations endorse. An "egalitarian" space will be opened at Robinson's Arch, so that the Wall will, in effect, be made to expand. Women, say, may organize a bat-mitzvah there, and even wear a tallis (though tfilin are still up in the air, I believe). Women may be called to the Torah, presumably, but out of Orthodox sight.

Too little, too late? Apparently not. The leader of Women of the Wall, Anat Hoffman, a former progressive member of the Jerusalem city council, who has received death threats, seems on the verge of accepting a version of the compromise. She aims, she insists, to further "pluralism"; "We made history," she said. Live and let live. "This is about more than our holiest sites," write Susan Silverman and Dahlia Lithwick; "To us, this dispute is about a juncture between a narrowing, hardening Judaism and the promise of Sinai. We are fighting for Sinai."

Now, I have boundless respect, and not a little affection, for Anat Hoffman. I do not underestimate the courage shown by all Women of the Wall and fully understand the depth of their liberalism and determination to make a stand. But I confess the fight they've taken on seems to me pretty nearly a complete missing of the point. A liberal's conception of tolerance presupposes what we once affectionately called "the Enlightenment." The idea of "proximity to holiness" concedes to Orthodoxy the very game at which liberals lose by default. Nor does one advance pluralism in Israel by arguing for equality of privilege in a jurisdiction the government of democratic society has no business exercising in the first place.

Imagine that Italian archaeologists dug up what were almost certainly the nails used to crucify Jesus, smuggled out of Judea in Roman times, and that the modern Italian state put them, properly, in a museum of antiquities; then imagine that a series of Italian governments, bowing to Vatican pressure, slowly turned this part of the museum into a shrine administered by papal officials. Now imagine that government coalitions, continuing to bow to the Pope, allowed prayer at the shrine, and the priests administering the site allowed this only by Catholics who had gone to confession every week for five years. Then imagine that Catholics professing liberation theology, or Evangelicals, for that matter, petitioned the Italian government, insisting that they, too, had a right to venerate the nails. Imagine that the Jesuit Curia in Rome offered a compromise, which the state accepted.

Would liberals (not to mention what's left of Jewry) in Italy argue that the petitioners furthered "pluralism"? Or would they say the petitioners were merely trying to gain recognition of equality for themselves in Christian precincts, without challenging state's right to be an arbiter in those precincts, indeed, that the Italian state was seriously debasing democratic standards by presuming to determine what a good Christian is and how people might pray?

My point, of course, is that a democratic Jewish state is a social contract in the Hebrew language--no more, no less. It is certainly not the impresario of religious "unity" or the custodian of whatever "Judaism" happens to be hegemonic at the moment. Nor is Israel a big congregation with a liturgy committee. The state's business, rather, is the maximization of liberty for its citizens, that is, the guarantor of an individual's conscience. Sharansky, the former prisoner for whose release radical liberals around the world were once mobilized, now thinks he's a regular Solomon, deciding how to divy-up state-endowed liturgical privilege. Shame on him.

The Wall should never have been turned into Israel's Great Synagogue. It should become again a precious ruin inflected by historical pathos, a place of spontaneity--also worship for people if they choose, but worship in voluntary association. If Habad acolytes want to pray on the sidewalk in front of the Brooklyn home of their arguably dead Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, that is their right. But even if Habad dominated the Brooklyn city council, they would not have the prerogative to determine how prayer might be conducted there.

Besides, satisfying the claims of any movement in Judaism means not honoring the religious imaginations of the majority, which is devoid of religious conviction. Haaretz reports that the latest Israeli Democracy Index survey, commissioned by the Israel Democracy Institute from Chanan Cohen and Prof. Tamar Hermann, asked, “Do you feel that you belong to one of the denominations of Judaism and if so, to which one?” The survey found that 3.9 percent of respondents felt an affinity to Reform Judaism, 3.2 percent to Conservative Judaism and 26.5 percent to Orthodox Judaism. "The rest said they felt no connection to any denomination or declined to respond."

"The rest," if I'm doing the math correctly, is something like two-thirds of Israelis: people who consider themselves citizens of a Jewish state; a country whose national life has cultural roots in historic Jewish civilization but who expect no interference in their spiritual decisions. It is diversity itself that needs "pluralist" champions. Which, in a way, is also Judaism at its most valuable. My wife, Sidra Ezrahi, has written that Judaism flowered by approaching "holiness" through substitutes; that the great spiritual insight of diaspora Jews was the presumption that they could never touch the real thing. When it comes to the Orthodox (and their local champions), the Women of the Wall might as well be talking to one. But why, in God's name, compete with Orthodoxy in the worship of idols?