If you were to read just the headlines – which is how much of the world follows the news today – the Women of the Wall movement appears to be a burning and discreet issue. I am upset and ashamed: upset that Jewish women can’t pray aloud together at Judaism’s holiest site, ashamed that this occurs under Jewish auspices.
But when you look beyond the headlines, you see that the Women of the Wall is actually just one battlefront of a larger war of ideas: what are the boundaries of Jewish community?
I want to explore the bigger picture, which is the larger context of religious pluralism. Also relevant is the diaspora’s ongoing role in shaping Israeli Judaism, which the upcoming Passover story illuminates.
The Kotel is the holiest place on earth for today’s Jews for two reasons. It’s holy because of its status as part of the Temple, the site where God reached out to Jews. And it’s holy because it draws countless Jews of all backgrounds for prayer, the place where Jews reach out to God. However, currently only Orthodox prayer is permitted in the Kotel plaza. How can Jews pray – a primarily communal activity – when they are not permitted to pray with their community?
Let me be clear: those who prefer the Orthodox prayer setup should be given their space to do so. So should those who do not.
The absence of religious pluralism also is the core issue in understanding Israel’s decisions about matters of personal status: standards for conversion, marriage, divorce, etc. Did you know that the growing number of Israeli Jews who want a non-Orthodox rabbi to officiate the wedding must leave Israel to do so? It gives new meaning to the term “forced marriage.”
In Bergen County, we can be proud of our success in creating models for a pluralistic Jewish community. The Jewish Standard, the Jewish Federation of the Northern New Jersey, Jewish Family Services, the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, and similar organizations give space and voice to all segments of the Jewish community. Of course, no community is perfect – ours included – but we can celebrate these accomplishments.
Outside of Israel, Jews of all denominations have had to stick together because Jews almost always were in the minority. We have always needed to pool resources – money, schools, prayer spaces – because otherwise we were too small to succeed.
Israel, on the other hand, is the one place where Jews are in the majority, and there is no external reason to share.
It turns out that there exists a compelling internal reason to share space: pluralism. When people create their own spaces instead of sharing, they fracture the community instead of unifying it. A community can be diverse without being fractured. I acknowledge that sharing spaces with Jews of other backgrounds can be very uncomfortable. But that shouldn’t negate our national mission of being a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Note that the nouns are singular, not plural.
When the wicked Pharaoh conspires to kill the Jews in Exodus, he speaks of us in the singular as “Am Bnei Yisrael – the nation, the Children of Israel.” Our unity threatened him because our unity was our power.
I believe the following lessons from the Passover story should strengthen the efforts of the brave Women of the Wall:
â€¢ The diaspora has much to teach the global Jewish community – even Israel.
â€¢ The Jewish people forged its identity outside of Israel. We became a nation when we departed from Egypt. We received our “constitution” – the Torah – at Mount Sinai. Neither pivotal event happened in Israel. The ultimate Jewish leader, Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our teacher, was a diaspora Jew through and through. He never set foot in Israel. He had an Egyptian name and looked the part.
The diaspora historically has contributed mightily to world religious Jewry. The Babylonian Talmud is but one example. The diaspora should not cease its Silicon-Valley-like creativity. Certainly Israel has much to teach worldwide Jewry. But the diaspora should be confident in its own ideas, beginning with modeling a functional pluralistic community.
â€¢ People must take matters into their own hands.
The Exodus’ most spectacular miracle actually featured a human initiative, followed by a divine response. As the Jews stood trapped between the Sea of Reeds on one side and the Egyptians on the other, Moses reassured them that God would save them. God responded surprisingly: “Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the Israelites and have them march forth!” The midrash understands that Nachshon took the lead by walking into the standing water. His faith and initiative prompted God to split the sea. The message is that Jews don’t wait for God so much as God “waits” for us.
â€¢ The Israelite women, all together, praised God. Why can’t ours?
The Torah teaches that after the sea split, Miriam led “all the women” in song, dance, and praise of God. Neither God, nor Moses, nor Aaron, nor a single Israelite objected. Apparently the women sang separately from the men, but at least they had their own space. Why can’t ours?
The Women of the Wall have been struggling for 25 years to pray aloud to God and read aloud from the Torah. In that time, they have seen the worst of Mother Nature and human nature. They seek to open the Kotel to others who wish to connect to God in the same way. This is the mission they share around the world.
I don’t believe that everybody must pray according to these particular women’s customs. But I do believe that they deserve a prayer space to continue the tradition begun by Miriam and all the Israelite women.