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December 26, 2014 | 4th Tevet 5775

Whose Wall?

Galilee Diary #477, February 10, 2010
Marc Rosenstein

The Council of Progressive (Reform) Rabbis in Israel views the Western Wall as an area that does not represent the Jewish attachment to God, the experience of prayer, or modern Jewish thought... For the Reform Jew the Wall may be a place of historical connection, but it does not have any place in a Reform theology.
-Responsum of the Council of Progressive Rabbis in Israel

It takes me about four hours to get to Jerusalem by public transportation; not a great distance as distances go in the world - and merely a fraction of the distance to the North American Diaspora. And Jerusalem is very familiar to me from living there and visiting frequently over the years. I even remember it before the unification of the city in 1967. Yet sometimes it looks, in my "peripheral" vision, like another world. And since it is the "center of the world," and the capital of Israel (depending on whom you ask), it represents Israel in the eyes of the world. Thus, sometimes it seems that the Jews of Boston and Omaha and Phoenix are more involved in the symbolic events occurring in Jerusalem than are we Galileans. You might say that Jerusalem looks to us like Washington DC looks to a Montanan: What's all the fuss?

This mismatch comes to mind in the wake of the most recent installment in the ongoing jousting match between the ultra-Orthodox and the liberal movements in Jerusalem: violating a court order, the Women of the Wall, a group of women who pray every Rosh Chodesh at the Western Wall, took their prayer out of the Robinson's Arch area that had been designated for them, and held it in the open plaza behind the "official" prayer areas at the wall. One of them even put on a tallit - and was promptly arrested (and released after a few hours "interrogation"). The repercussions have been continuing for weeks, almost entirely among liberal Jewish organizations here and abroad. Most Israelis, who are not affiliated with these movements, are not very interested in what seems to us to be a test-case for religious rights of a significance equivalent to Rosa Parks' historic bus ride. Indeed, they can't imagine why a woman would want to put on a tallit anyway.

In a climate of public discourse that can best be described as a conversation of competitive victimhood, we liberal Jews have jumped in with gusto. There is no group in Israeli society that doesn't see itself as victimized by those in power: Arabs, the ultra-Orthodox, residents of the periphery, settlers, peaceniks, the anti-religious, the state as a whole, etc., etc., - and now, Reform and Conservative Jews. And to highlight one's victimhood, it is generally useful to label the other side as an archetypal oppressor (Nazi, Taliban, Iran are common epithets). The trouble is that since everyone is busy cultivating his/her own particular victimhood, no one really has patience for or interest in anyone else's. So we find our cries of "gevalt" being mostly ignored. Moreover, in a country whose declaration of independence begins "In the Land of Israel the Jewish people arose..." it is not entirely self-evident to most people that we are all "endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights." The historical and ideological bases of Israel and the United States are quite different from each other. The problem of the Women of the Wall is not just a case study in the individual's right to free religious expression in a neutral, secular democracy. It is rather a call to set forth a vision of what we want the Jewish state to look like as a Jewish, democratic state.

As long as we Reform Jews speak the language of secular democracy and claim moral authority as a persecuted minority - so long will we continue to be considered an irrelevant nuisance here. Our strength is in offering a meaningful alternative at the level of the community, the school, and the synagogue, in realizing the vision of - and modeling - a Judaism that can meet the spiritual needs of the citizens of a modern state and can live in harmony with democracy.

It is too easy to say what we don't want (religious discrimination) and too difficult to say what we do want (i.e., do we really want Israel to look just like the United States? If so, how will it be a Jewish state?). We need to be the visionaries of a state that lacks them in our generation - not still another group of victims vying for headlines and sympathy.

Editor's note: Rosh Chodesh Adar is Monday, February 15 and the Women of the Wall will gather to celebrate at the Kotel. To follow their story and for more information, visit http://urj.org/israel/wow/.

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