Walls, women and an ongoing argument

“At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”

This story isn’t just about women’s rights: “Jews Rally Around Woman Arrested for Praying at Western Wall.”

Jews from Manhattan to Mozambique held prayer vigils [last week] to protest the arrest and incarceration of an Israeli feminist as she was leading 250 American Jewish women in prayer at the Western Wall.

The Oct. 16 arrest of Anat Hoffman, who co-founded Women of the Wall to enable Jewish women to pray together at the wall, has elicited outrage, especially from American Jews, the vast majority of whom do not practice Orthodox Judaism.

The wall, one of the holiest sites in Judaism, has segregated prayer sections for men and women. Israeli regulations on holy sites forbid “conducting a religious ceremony contrary to accepted practice” and “wearing unfit attire.”

Hoffman was officially arrested on charges of “disturbing public order.”

Police have recently begun to arrest women praying at the wall for wearing black and white prayer shawls, the type traditionally worn by men. Hoffman was wearing a brightly colored shawl worn by many Women of the Wall members.

In the temple, women were kept outside the inner house of God and restricted to the court of women. Even further out was the court of the Gentiles — which suggests that this story is fraught with theological meaning for those who are, like me, Gentile Christians.

This story illustrates a central and pervasive dispute in the Bible and reminds us that this dispute continues even today. It’s the millennia-old argument between inclusion and exclusion. Was Abraham chosen by God to except him from the rest of humanity? Or was Abraham chosen in order to bring the rest of humanity to God?

The clearest biblical statement of this clash — albeit a lopsided, biased and mean-spirited polemical description of it — can be found in the book of Jonah. The prophet Jonah took one side of this dispute. The author of the book of Jonah took the other.

We can also see the lines of this dispute clearly drawn in the conflict between the earliest Christians in Jerusalem and our own English Bibles. Did God raise up the dwelling of David “so that all other peoples may seek the Lord” — as the prophet Amos said according to the apostle James? Or did God raise up the dwelling of David so that God’s exceptional people “may possess the remnant of Edom” — as our modern English Bibles translate that identical passage from Amos? (See Amos 9:11-12 in an English translation, then compare with Acts 15:15-17.)

This remains the central argument, the essential dispute, among Christians today. “We are God’s children,” all Christians say.

For some, that means we are exceptional and special, elect and uniquely blessed so that we will be given “the remnant of Edom” — the plunder taken from our unblessed cousins, those others who are not God’s children (women, gays, the “unsaved,” the un-elect, etc.).

For some that means we have a calling and a commission. It means we have an exceptional obligation to invite and include “all other peoples” (the same “other peoples” ex-cluded by the first party).

The irony is that this ancient argument continues even among Gentile Christians — people whose faith, by definition, is dependent on the triumph of the most radically inclusive arguments of the most radically inclusive faction.

It really is deeply, deeply weird for Gentile Christians to still be insisting that women — or anyone else — be kept to the outer courts of their houses of God. That requires not just hypocrisy, but ingratitude.

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  • Rupaul

    This is not related to your post, Fred, but you and your family are in my prayers as Sandy approaches. Stay safe.

  • aunursa

    Police have recently begun to arrest women praying at the wall for wearing black and white prayer shawls, the type traditionally worn by men.

    It’s called a tallis.  It’s worn for morning services and for all services on Yom Kippur.  When I was growing up in the Reform movement, the only time I wore a tallis was for my bar mitzvah service.  In the Conservative movement men are expected to wear them during morning services, and many women also wear them.  In the Orthodox movement, only men wear them.

    If you visit a synagogue, keep in mind: If you are not Jewish, you should not wear a tallis.  This custom is different from that of the yarmulke (head covering).  All men, Jewish and Gentile, who are attending an Orthodox or Conservative synagogue service are expected to wear a yarmulke.

  • IIRC the version of Amos from Acts is from the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) while the Masoretic Text  is used for translating the actual book. How accurate either translation is I can’t say since I know neither Koine Greek nor ancient Hebrew.

    But again IIRC this isn’t the only place the two texts differ significantly.

  • D9000

    The more influence the frummers have in Israel, the more I worry for the peace of the world.

  • AnonymousSam

    I think it says something when the response to sincere, heartfelt prayer in any form is “How dare you?!”

  • RogerWilco

    I’ve heard Anat Hoffman speak – she’s a powerful, persuasive voice for a modern and egalitarian Judaism. With the peace process stalled (at best), the work of reforming Israel’s religious culture has become key to the Israeli left. It can do a lot of good. As D9000 says, the dominance of Israeli orthodoxy is unhealthy in lots and lots of ways. If you want to support Hoffman, you can check out her organisation: http://www.irac.org/ . Disclaimer – I’m a supporter, but then, I’m a supporter because I believe in the work they’re doing.

  • It seems that I, like most Americans, would side with Hoffman’s right to lead a prayer group at the Wall. After all, we see rules like those prohibiting her inclusion as those of backwards foreigners. But, before I get inflated with self-righteous Americanism, I remind myself that the two largest American Christian denominations (the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention) still do not ordain female clergy. 

  •  But for all how much those two religions suck, they don’t mandate segregation in worship.

    Talk about a low bar to clear.

  • Helena

    Why is she named after a Canaanite Goddess?

  • I don’t like the Catholic Church or the Southern Baptist Convention either, so I don’t see how not liking this is in any way hypocritical. 

  • … seriously? That’s what you’re going with?

  • Peter T

    Re: Amos, I don’t think the conflict is between the early Christians and modern English Bibles. Rather, if memory serves, the Book of Acts has James quoting from the Septuagint (i.e. the Greek translation of Amos), which, understandably, tones things down a bit from the original Hebrew, so as not to offend its Greek-speaking audience. Modern English Bibles will tend to follow the Hebrew when translating Amos, because Amos was written in Hebrew, while following the Greek when translating Acts, because Acts was written in Greek.

  • Oh, right.  If there’s one rule we follow here at Slacktivist, it’s to never, ever, go off on any tangents.

  • Carstonio

     Those are simply different degrees of segregation, and it doesn’t make those Christian denominations any more moral than ultra-orthodox Judaism. I’m still angry at the bishop who told Cokie Roberts that the Church doesn’t have permission to ordain women. Hey buddy, how about equal rights for the sexes because it’s the right thing to do?

  • Lorehead

    Thank you for bringing this up.  I was raised in the Conservative movement, and the cantor who taught me the prayers as I was studying to become a Bar Mitzvah was a woman, who wore a tallis.  When my youth group visited Israel, the girls wore talliot, and I once led a mixed group in prayer perhaps a hundred feet from the Kotel.  So I suppose I’m as “guilty” as she.

    This is one of a number of things the Orthodox movement in Israel does that is deeply alienating to many American Jews.

  • Dea Syria

    Yes. Canaainite religion is one of areas of specialization, so the fact stood out to me. Strange a Jew would name his daughter after Baal’s sister. It seems even odder than all the Orthodox Greeks named Athena.