A very old religion that prohibits women from full participation in their faith is feeling the wrath of some women who feel unfairly disenfranchised. What religion would that be? Why, Judaism, one of the oldest religions around. It seems that a bunch of women gather once a month at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall to pray. Nothing odd there, since the place is something of a shrine for Jews. What is unusual, is that the women are donning talit and prayer shawls, garments traditionally reserved for men.
The wearing of talit and prayer shawls by women is forbidden by Israeli law, yet another example of why America’s Founding Fathers were geniuses and the founders of Israel were not. The Americans insisted on a complete separation of government and religion and so far no one has been arrested in America for peacefully observing their faith as they see fit. The American founders attached very little importance to what they felt is a trivial private matter and knew from a quick glance at history that religion was the cause of more wars that all other reasons combined. Thanks, but…
While many nations, Israel included, have adopted democracy like America, few have taken the logical step of putting religion in its place, a private and non-influential place. Even with our ban on mixing government and religion, America has its hands full dealing with religions and all their many sub-sects, every one of them a pain in the ass claiming exclusive ownership of the truth and bugging the government to do things their way. We can only imagine how horrible that situation would be without our Constitutional mandate against mixing God and government.
Israel, on the other hand, proclaims itself a Jewish nation, where if they were smart they would have declared themselves a nation of Jews, thus leaving what it means to be Jewish and how to practice their faith up to each individual. In America, there’s a great many Jews who practice their Judaism in a variety of ways, or not at all. And who cares, really? It’s nobody else’s damned business, not even other Jews. Not so in Israel. Last month in Jerusalem, a woman was arrested for publicly wrapping herself in a talit. She bothered no one else, did not try to force another human being into practicing Judaism her way, and made no speeches.
It seems these Women of The Wall are annoying the crap out of the Orthodox sect that runs the Wall site, and as anyone with any experience with any religion knows, the biggest pains in the ass are always the Orthodox, the Fundamentalists, the Puritans among us. While they have a perfect right to practice what they preach, they have no right at all to force others to do as they do. To these backward-gazing zealots of every religion, there is only one credo: My way or the highway! The only difference is that in Israel, even though they form a tiny minority of the population and most Israelis don’t pay much attention to them, the law is on the side of the Orthodox.
So while this on the face of it seems a religious issue, without a clear separation of church and state it becomes a legal issue as well, with all the overlapping and conflicting interests that implies. In a democracy, individual rights are respected and legally protected. In Israel, equality between men and women has never been an issue, and womens’ liberation there predates America’s Women’s Liberation movement by decades. Israeli women are even drafted into the army to fulfill the mandatory military service the nation requires of its citizens.
Now these Women of The Wall claim their full rights as citizens and Jews in a Jewish country, and that nation’s courts may have to decide to reform a religion in order to avoid gender discrimination. The resultant court decision should be interesting. The Israeli Supreme Court has already sided once with the Wailing Wall constraints on women. Will they do it again, and expose Israel as just one more repressive theocracy? Or maybe they will recognize that women have every bit as much right to practice their religion as they wish as do men, or those who practice a different religion, whose rights are guaranteed in Israel.
And who knows, if these women succeed and Jewish religious law is changed by a mandate from a civilian court, maybe the Catholic Church will notice that they have oppressed their own women for their entire existence, barring them from entering the priesthood and challenging the all-male hierarchy of The Church. Or wonder of wonders, perhaps a huge portion of the Islamic world will stop imprisoning their women in their own homes, wrapping them in formless sacks and forbidding them to learn to read or drive cars! Fortunately for American judges, they won’t be the ones hearing these cases. Courts of law deal with things that can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and no religion can make that claim. They also deal with public morality, but morality, public or otherwise, is very different from religion.
Bad enough American jurists have to deal with people complaining about Nativity Scenes in town squares or copies of the 10 Commandments being displayed in courthouses, but reforming a religion from the bench of a court of law is just too absurd and is far too frivolous a concern for serious courts of law. No matter what the Israeli judges decide in the case of the woman arrested for practicing her religion in peace, there will be howls of protest from some segment of Israeli society. Maybe they’ll just do the smart thing and outlaw the merging of government and religion, reaffirm freedom of expression in public let the religious people sort themselves out in private, out of the public spotlight. They’ll save themselves a lot of headaches and maybe some violence too.