Wailing at the wall

Men pray at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, September 2009.

Muammar Awad APA images

Some subjects seem to bring out the hypocrite in all sorts of people. The Women of the Wall group has claimed for years to be campaigning for gender equality at the last remnant of the ancient Jewish Temple, its Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. Yet they’ve expressed no qualms about the brutal repression of Palestinian worshipers at the mosque atop the same site.

In fact, one of their most prominent American boosters, Phyllis Chesler, is a vocal Islamophobe.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews who oppose women reading aloud from Torah scrolls or donning formerly male-only prayer garments claim to be trying to protect the “holiness” of the Western Wall in keeping with Jewish “tradition.” That might make sense if “holiness” didn’t include pelting women with dirty diapers while they try to pray, or if an ultra-Orthodox man hadn’t recently burned a Reform prayer book he filched at the wall because it referred to “new Gods” such as “the God of Sara, the God of Rivka, the God of Rachel.”

Is it really news to the Torah’s “defenders” that the matriarchs of Scripture worshiped the same God as their husbands?

Frankly, as an Orthodox Jew myself, I find it difficult to care much about either side in this hullabaloo — or about the compromise now being enacted to facilitate non-traditional prayers at the ancient site. Don’t get me wrong: the bullying and harassment endured by the Women of the Wall has been appalling by any standard. A Haredi rabbinate that has not forcefully and unequivocally condemned such behavior (and this one hasn’t) should be ashamed of itself.

But it seems to me that there are bigger problems connected with the Western Wall than whether women wear t’fillin — or which prayer book the worshipers read from. It’s remarkable that in all the wailing over who gets to do what at the Wailing Wall, no one seems to be interested in the real issues.

Crime scene

First of all, there’s the question of occupation.

The Western Wall is, after all, located in East Jerusalem. That makes it part of occupied Palestinian territory under international law — a point affirmed in 2004 by the International Court of Justice. As long as the occupation continues, every Jewish worshiper who takes advantage of Israel’s control over that site is participating, deliberately or not, in the forcible seizure of another people’s property.

Actually, it’s worse than that. When you recite your prayers on the polished stone “plaza” that faces the wall, you’re quite literally standing on a crime scene. In June 1967, Israel bulldozed scores of homes to clear that space for Jewish visitors, driving hundreds of residents off their land and killing one woman whose apartment was knocked down on top of her.

Perhaps, at the time, neither the anti-Zionist Haredim nor the followers of the liberal-minded Reform movement endorsed that cruel policy. But then, why must they fight so fiercely for control over a blood-stained piece of stolen property?

Does “egalitarian” worship sanction ethnic cleansing? Do strictly Orthodox religious principles condone theft?

And then there’s the matter of religious ideology. It’s one thing to affirm that everyone has the right to pray as she chooses. It’s quite another for women who call themselves religious progressives to insist on praying at the ancient Temple site, a place where an all-male priesthood ritually slaughtered and burned animals 2,000 years ago.

If you want to purge Judaism of its tribal and patriarchal past, a remnant of the Temple complex really ought to be the last place you’d want to pray.

And if, like me, you incline to traditional Judaism? Well, doubtless others will disagree with me, but I really can’t wax poetic about the old wall, even apart from its role in the occupation of Palestinian land.

Moral substance?

Let’s face it: what we call the Kotel was designed by Herod, hardly the most ethical of monarchs and a tool of the Roman Empire. And while the sacrifices performed on the site in ancient times are historically linked to aspects of the rabbinic prayer service, it’s a rare Orthodox Jew who would actually prefer the old blood-and-guts system of offerings to the milder rituals that now govern traditional Jewish life.

So maybe it’s fitting, in a way, that all the controversy over the Wailing Wall should contain so much wailing and so little moral substance. I have little use for “progressives” who are more attached to ancient animal slaughter than to the human rights of non-Jews.

And as for “tradition,” I would find the austere morality of the old rabbis a welcome change after the heckling and sloganeering that now seem to be the Haredi norm at the Kotel.

How, then, can one really care who comes out ahead in the Western Wall controversy?

Jews who have their priorities in order really should have better things to worry about. And all the arguments about who controls the wall have in common the depressing, if typical, omission of the one group of people with the greatest right to answer the question: Palestinians.

Michael Lesher, a writer and lawyer, is the author of Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities (McFarland). He is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace. Website: www.michaellesher.com




Unfortunately certain unethical and unscrupulous individuals use cover of religion (in the "Rabbis" case, Judaism), as well as a good causes (in Chesler's case, feminism), as cover for their own personal deficiencies and rotten personalities. Sadly it happens all too often.

Jim Crow in Palestine must go!

No equality, No Peace!