Thursday, December 31, 2009

Against the Wall

Civil society is founded on respect for the law and customs, including laws and even customs that many may not like. When laws and customs are in conflict, there are valid reasons to challenge one or the other and, at times, both. When they are in harmony, they possess greater legitimacy and there is consequently a greater obligation to accord them respect. When either has been challenged in court and the judicial outcome supports the status quo, there is a yet greater obligation to accept, not necessarily attitudinally but surely in practice, that which society, legislators and judges have agreed to.

These understandings should serve as a frame of reference when we consider the efforts of a small group of women to challenge rules and regulations that do not permit them to conduct an alternative service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. That should be the end of the story, except that it never is in Jewish life. We are afflicted by a heightened instinct to challenge religious norms. Of course, all religions are prone to schisms. In ours, there is the tendency to go far down the road of religious deviance.

I have no doubt that the Women of the Wall, the fringe group whose aim is to change the rules governing services at the Kotel, are sincere as is Nofrat Frenkel, the young medical student recently arrested when she attempted to conduct an unauthorized service. This sincerity is embedded in egotism, in the attitude that what I/we want trumps long-standing religious practices, the sensibilities of others notwithstanding. If these women would be in a Christian, Islamic or Buddhist setting, the powerful likelihood is that they would adhere to restrictions in dress, prayer or other behavior. They would be compliant. Judaism, however, does not enjoy an equal right to respect.

For all of Ms. Frenkel’s wrongful behavior, it was foolish and wrong to arrest her, foolish because she was thereby elevated to undeserved sainthood or some equivalent status and, more importantly, wrongful because it is preferable, perhaps obligatory, in these situations to deter persons from what they are attempting to do without bringing to bear the gratuitous weight of criminal charges.

The Kotel is a place for tefila, not heroics. Admittedly, too many men, specifically including the Orthodox, are unmindful of this setting and obligation, thereby violating the sanctity of the place. The schmoozers, schnorrers and protestors all act contrary to the sense of kedusha, the sanctity that the Kotel mandates. Two wrongs, as we are often reminded, do not make a right.

As expected, Ms. Frenkel is now widely admired as a hero, including by this newspaper, which isn’t surprising when we reflect on how our media cover religious matters. But even a biased outlook should have room for objectivity, should be able to reflect on the totality of circumstances when considering whether this woman’s actions were justified.

It should matter that, in the words of the New York Times headline on the story, Ms. Frenkel challenged “traditions at the heart of Judaism.” Should it not matter that the challenged arrangement is incorporated into Israeli law through legislation enacted by the Knesset? Should it not matter that Israel’s Supreme Court, notorious or famous depending on one’s outlook for upsetting the religious applecart, has rejected a challenge to the ban on the service that Ms. Frenkel sought to conduct?

These should be powerful considerations for those who believe that, in Winston Churchill’s great formulation, democracy is the worst form of government except for all of the others. If none of this counts, what about Israeli public opinion? I have some involvement in surveys of how Israeli Jews look at religious issues and though to my knowledge there are no statistics on the Kotel issue, based on other data I would hazard a guess that overwhelmingly Israelis would endorse the current arrangements at the Kotel.

Another factor that merits consideration is the unwelcome impact of any alternative service on the tefila of the many women who come to the Kotel to pray in a traditional manner.

It is also noteworthy that despite abundant publicity and other support, little headway has been made by those who seek to challenge and change Orthodox liturgical practices, whether here or in Israel. This specifically includes among the Modern Orthodox, a subgroup that clearly is not insensitive to questions about the place of women in religious Jewish life. There is little interest in alternative services that purport to elevate the role of women. Even as the role of women has evolved in much of Orthodox life, it remains that within synagogues and in liturgical and ritual matters there is a powerful reluctance to yield to fads or ideological preferences that are antithetical to our heritage.

I know that there are persons who will read this as apologetics for antiquated rules that are contrary to contemporary standards. I wonder whether it is all that difficult to understand that what has been labeled for far too long as out of touch or fundamentalist has proven to be essential to our survival as a people. For nearly two-thousand years we yearned in our prayers and in our hearts to return to Jerusalem so that we could pray there and serve G-D. We did not pray or yearn to behave in a destructive fashion or to change the way prayer has been conducted.