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Yom Haatzmaut & Tazria-Metzora

Today, five women were arrested at the Kotel, the Western Wall.  Why?  They were praying at their monthly Rosh Hodesh service and were arrested for wearing tallism and singing out loud.  In a ground breaking decision the judge dismissed the charges and the request of the ultra Orthodox rabbis who control the Kotel that the women be barred from praying at the Wall for the next three monthly services.  The judge stated that the women are not in fact disturbing the public order with their praying.  Instead she argued that the disturbance is created by those publicly opposing the women’s prayers.

In Israel today there is a struggle over the control of Judaism’s holiest site.  At the Wall the prayer area is divided between a men’s section and a women’s.  Over the years the women’s section has grown increasingly smaller.  For the past twenty five years Women of theWall has gathered on the first of the Hebrew month to offer prayers at the Kotel.  They are often arrested and frequently harassed.  Their argument is mine.  All Jews should be allowed to pray as they see wish at the Western Wall, the last remnant of the ancient Temple, the place that has served as a source inspiration for countless generations.    

This week’s Torah portion begins with a discussion about childbirth and concludes with leprosy.  (When I was in rabbinical school I never imagined discussing such topics with 13 year old boys and girls!)  The ancients were terrified of blood, as well as diseases about which they understood little, and therefore prescribed rituals to overcome what they believed to be their defiling nature.  Curiously after giving birth, a woman had to wait two weeks before performing these rituals if it was a girl rather than one for a boy.  After my students overcome their disgust with the Torah’s details and their embarrassment talking about these matters with their rabbi, they often object to this discrepancy.  Both boys and girls ask, “Why do you have to wait two weeks for a girl and only one week for a boy?  That is not fair!”

Although Yom Haatzmaut is a day deserving of great celebration, I would like to dwell on this continuing discrepancy.   I agree with my students’ evaluation.  Unfortunately the Torah’s ancient perspective still holds sway over many Jews’ hearts and minds.  I appreciate the opinion of Jewish tradition that men and women are given different obligations.  Men are obligated to pray; women are not, the tradition reasons.   Furthermore a woman’s singing might distract a man from his prayer obligations.  Such are not my beliefs.  If a man finds himself distracted then he should look within rather than out.  He alone is responsible.  Each of us is responsible for our own actions. Yet my commitment to pluralism must allow for other Jewish beliefs to coexist with my own. 

In fact, Natan Sharansky, the Soviet Jewish dissident, recently proposed the building of a third prayer area at the Kotel.  There egalitarian praying would be permitted.  There men and women could join in prayer together.  I would welcome such a change.  For too long the ultra Orthodox perspective has been allowed to define the customs and traditions of the Wall.  For too long the Wall has divided the Jewish people rather than uniting.  My dream for this place is that at the Kotel we can become again one Jewish people, while holding on to different Jewish traditions.

What is lacking in the modern State of Israel is this commitment to Jewish pluralism.  This is something that American Jewry can offer to our Israeli friends.  It is desperately required.  We should not be shy about advocating this teaching to the state we so dearly love.  Otherwise the Jewish state will also become a source of division rather than unity. 

There is much to celebrate about the modern State of Israel.  We have returned to our ancient land, resuscitated an unspoken language and restored the Jewish people to being masters of their own fate. Despite enemies who continue to attack the State of Israel, the Jewish nation thrives and prospers.  Still there is much to be done. 

I remain hopeful.  If we can do this much in the span of three generations, then I have faith that we can also one day soon restore to the Jewish state a desperately needed commitment to pluralism.