Thursday, April 10, 2003

Mark Kleiman, who's normally very thoughtful and reasonable (ask Amitai Etzioni), completely loses it in response to a recent Israeli Supreme Court ruling that upheld the Orthodox religious authority's prohibition against women carrying a torah or wearing a tallit at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Suggesting that Israel is "in the grip of misogynist religious fanatics", he accuses the country of forbidding "open worship by women", and compares the situation to "how the Jordanians forbade Jews to pray at the Wall".

As Kleiman may or may not be aware (the article he links to is suspiciously ambiguous about this), women certainly are allowed to pray, publicly, at the Wall. They're not allowed to carry a torah or wear a tallit, because the Orthodox religious authorities consider it inappropriate for women to do so. (I doubt the reaction would be any different if, for example, a group of men insisted on trying to pray at the Wall without covering their heads.) Reform and many Conservative Rabbis strongly disagree on this particular point, and have periodically tried to hold services at the Wall according to their own rules. In other words, this is all an internecine dispute between religious factions about proper liturgical practice. It has nothing whatsoever to do with human rights, "misogynistic fundamentalist fanatics" (some consider the Orthodox as such, but this particular issue is a lousy justification for doing so), or permitting "open worship by women".

In fact, it's perfectly commonplace for religious sites to be governed by religious authorities, who then protect the sanctity of the site by placing restrictions on behavior there. It's also (unfortunately) commonplace for inter-sect disputes to cause tensions over correct practices at such sites. (Anyone who thinks the conflict over the Wall is bad should look into the situation at the nearby Church of the Holy Sepulchre.)

Now, I'm certainly not going to defend using the threat of rioting to enforce one faction's view of correct practices, as was apparently done in this case. But neither is the Supreme Court entitled to meddle with the government's choice of religious authority over this particular holy site. (Note that the current Israeli government is one of the most secular-leaning in decades. On the other hand, this particular issue is not a very high priority for the secular majority, since it only affects the fairly small Israeli Reform and Conservative communities.)

In any event, likening the recent ruling to the Jordanians' complete ban on Jewish worship at the Western Wall, prior to 1967, is just absurd.

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