Jewish Identity and the Western Wall

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.” [Read more...]


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