Sometimes the debate over gender equality around the globe is easy to decide. Women in Saudi Arabia should be able to drive cars and compete in sports. Yes, of course, girls in Pakistan should get equal education.
Other times, it’s not a matter of obvious civil rights. That’s the case in Jerusalem, where members of an organization called Women of the Wall have, for two decades, endured taunts, threats of violence and arrest to pray at the sacred and iconic Western Wall. It’s not the fact that they’re praying; it’s the way that they choose to pray. They are Jewish women who, in defiance of Orthodox ritual and teaching, choose to pray out loud as a group -- a practice reserved for men -- and to don the prayer shawls and tefillin that are also customarily limited to men. Traditionally, women pray quietly at the wall in a section set aside for them.
To the ultra-Orthodox Jews who have overseen the wall -- and whose control of many institutions in Israel is increasingly a sore point for the less Orthodox -- members of the Women of the Wall are nothing short of sacrilegious. To the women's supporters -- not surprisingly, many are in the U.S. -- they are brave trailblazers.
I certainly see them that way. To me, these are respectful Jewish women who want to pray as men have done for centuries.
I think most religions should be more progressive in their outlook. I want to see the Roman Catholic Church ordain women and marry gay couples at the altar. But I also understand that, short of a religion engaging in criminal behavior, neither I nor the U.S. government has the right to tell a religion how to conduct its rituals.
But determining how people pray at the Western Wall is different from ruling on how people pray in an Orthodox temple.
The Western Wall, a retaining wall for the Temple Mount upon which the Jewish temple stood, is a very public and iconic site that, like Israel itself, draws people of all backgrounds from around the world -- and Jews who observe in different ways. Why should one Orthodox group determine the way that all Jews are allowed to pray at that site? Shouldn’t the Western Wall be a place to embrace religious pluralism, not tamp it down?
Israeli officials seem to be getting that. The preposterous arrests of these women for praying out of line, so to speak, at the Western Wall were stopped by order of a court earlier in the spring. Now the police who once arrested the women are there to protect them from demonstrators who oppose them.
And, at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request, Natan Sharansky, leader of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, has drawn up a plan that would accommodate various manners of prayer.
Sharansky’s model would still have men and women supplicants in segregated sections along the wall. But the plan calls for the area along the wall known as Robinson’s Arch to be enhanced and expanded and opened round the clock for nontraditional, more egalitarian prayer.
It’s not a perfect answer -- it somewhat ghettoizes the women off to the side of the main prayer area -- but it’s a good start toward a more religiously tolerant operation of the Western Wall.
[For the record, 11:35 a.m. June 13: An earlier version of this post referred to the Western Wall in Jerusalem as "a remnant of the ancient Jewish temple." It would have been more accurate to say that the Western Wall was a retaining wall for the Temple Mount upon which the Jewish temple stood.]