You couldn’t, he thought, find three Jews in the world who would agree on what it meant to be Jewish, yet there were apparently fifty million of these people who knew exactly what it meant to be German, though many of those on deck have never set foot in Germany.
Alan Furst, Dark Star, (1991), p. 380.
Who is a Jew? What is a Jew? Who decides who is a Jew? These questions lie beneath the surface of a Washington Post story that reports on the controversy of women worshiping at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The article entitled “Women challenge Orthodox practice at Israel’s Western Wall” links the political dynamics of the pressure being brought by American Jews upon the Israeli government to accommodate non-Orthodox Jewish worship at what the Post calls “Judaism’s holiest shrine” with an Israeli local news item. Yet the story could have fleshed out the religion ghosts — telling a non-Jewish, non-Israeli audience why this is the something more than a turf battle over worship space.
Because this article is written from an American secular Jewish perspective — the Post states its support of the protesters in its lede — only half the story is told. The presuppositions of the author — call them biases or perspectives or relative truths — prevents a reader from understanding the political and religious calculus here. It begins:
JERUSALEM — A long-running battle over worship at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest shrine, was rejoined Thursday as Israeli police arrested five Jewish women who wore prayer shawls at a morning service, contrary to Orthodox practice enforced at the site. The arrests came two days after disclosure of a potentially groundbreaking plan that could allow for non-Orthodox services to be held in the area on an equal footing with those conducted according to Orthodox tradition.
Note the verb being used in second clause of the lede sentence: “enforced”. The Post is characterizing the dispute as one of power — he who has power can enforce his will. What trajectory would the story have taken it different verb were used stating that Orthodox practice is not merely enforced but required by law? The story then moves to quotes from the women activists and an “ultra-Orthodox heckler”, before moving to the political, summarizing the history of the dispute, taking it up to recent discussions in the cabinet:
[Prime Minister] Netanyahu asked Natan Sharansky, chairman of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, to come up with a plan for worship at the Western Wall that would accommodate the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism that are dominant overseas. The move signaled an increasing awareness in the Israeli government that the confrontations over ritual at the Western Wall are driving a wedge between Israel and Jewish communities abroad.<
Sharansky’s solution presented to American Jewish leaders was to build a platform “south of the main prayer plaza; men and women could pray together there, and women could lead services.”The article closes with a quote from the Western Wall Orthodox rabbi who said he was in favor of the separate facilities and an Israeli reform rabbi who is given free reign to sound off on his views on the Orthodox hegemony of Judaism in Israel.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform movement in Israel, said that Women of the Wall had succeeded in making religious pluralism at the shrine a major issue of Jewish concern. “The Wall has become an ultra-Orthodox synagogue,” Kariv said, adding that Thursday’s arrests sent a signal that undermined Sharansky’s proposal. “You can’t make a serious attempt to reach a compromise while maintaining a situation where the rights of one side are seriously breached,” he said.
Still, Kariv predicted that if the proposal is implemented, the area set aside for non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall “will become the main platform for the vast majority of Israelis and Jews.”
I am not a Jew and have no dog in the fight between the traditional and progressive strands of Judaism. I am concerned with good journalism, though, and find this story unbalanced and incomplete.
Unbalanced because there is no explanation as to why the Orthodox object to bare-headed women leading prayers (as the accompanying photo from the Post shows) next to a gathering of Haredi men praying. While supporters of change have their say in this story supporters of tradition do not. I should say that I know the Talmud rejects the practice — but I do not know if other non-Jews know this. Without an explanation of the religious issues a casual reader might well assume that this is an issue of power.
It was an issue of power in 1928. On the Day of Atonement that year, 28 September 1928, a riot erupted when British police torn down wooden barriers separating male and female worshipers at the Wall. Protests from Jewish communities around the world greeted this action which in turn were followed by protests from Arabs in Palestine against Jews worshiping at the Wall. The British ban on sex segregation barriers became a ban on Jews at the Wall from 1948 1967 when it was under the control of Jordan.
When Israel took control of the Temple Mount area the Wall came under the authority of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. In the 1980s American and English emigrants to Israel began the Women at the Wall movement which sparked a riot by Haredi men at the wall in 1989. In 2003 Israel’s Supreme Court disallowed women from reading publicly from the Torah or wearing traditional prayer shawls at the plaza built by the Ministry in front of the Wall. However, it held the government must build a second area for women and mixed sex groups — as well as non-Orthodox Jews — on the site of Robinson’s Arch. Sharansky’s solution is to expand this site — which is not under the control of the Ministry.
Without explaining the religious elements — the objections of the Orthodox or the determination of Jewish women to worship at the wall rather than near — the story is incomplete. Without touching upon the history behind this section, it’s context, a casual reader might well suppose this is just about power.
What does the wall symbolize for the religious Jew or the secular Israeli? Is this a continuing chapter in the saga of who is a Jew, what does it mean to be a Jew, and who gets to say who is a Jew? Written for an American or Diaspora audience — the story is incomplete.