We should all be relieved - a great disaster has been averted in the heart of Jerusalem. A woman was arrested yesterday for causing a heinous threat to public order. She was carrying a document so subversive that it has been suppressed and vilified for thousands of years. She also donned an item of ritual wear so provocative that if she had not been stopped by the authorities there might have been cataclysmic results.
The criminal in question was a highly suspicious type, and she arrived in Jerusalem with the premeditated intention of engaging in Jewish prayer at the site of the Western Wall. As is well known, such intentions are roughly equivalent to obtaining uranium on the black market or releasing poisonous chemicals on the subway. The subversive book she was carrying was the Torah, and the offensive ritual item a prayer shawl.
If the water level of the Sea of Galilee had risen as high as the tide of intolerance and extremism sweeping over contemporary Israel, all our water problems would be solved. The law under which Nofrat Frankel (the woman caught wearing a tallit with intention to deprave) was detained is intended to protect society from inflammatory or insulting religious activities, and we now seem to have reached the point where for a woman to wrap herself in a prayer shawl is considered an outrage. The real outrage, of course, is that anyone thinks this is an outrage.
Judaism is being debased by officials acting less like instruments of the state and more like blunt objects. Judaism is being desecrated by a religious establishment apparently intent on thrashing the highest values of our tradition to within an inch of their lives. Judaism is being shamed by a public apparently inured to the quotidian reality of oppression, obscurantism and obtuseness.
I understand the would-be Torah terrorist was given an order to stay away from the precinct of the Kotel for fifteen days. Had this happened to me, nothing in my life would change. I will freely confess that the Wall plays almost no part in my religious life: I am stirred by the history and concerned about the archaeology, but unmoved by the theology. These days the Wall which most occupies my mind is the one disfiguring our physical and moral landscape, rather than Herod's monumental structure. (I know the Security Fence can be defended on security grounds, but that's for another blog.)
Furthermore, since in any scenario in which the Temple is rebuilt I am most likely to be pelted by stones as an example to the others or used as sacrificial target practice, I find it difficult to weep bitter tears at Herod's wall. I have spent a couple of decades in Jerusalem, and prayed at the Wall only a handful of times.
It may be the case that some of the women who attend the monthly services of the Women of the Wall feel the same way as I do about the Western Wall. But they have understood that sometimes a symbol cannot be ignored. They go to the Wall to express their belief that no single group has exclusive rights on sanctity, and that we should not reward bullies. Some may feel more at home at the Mall or at the Shul than at the Wall, but they refuse to give up on their rights or to ignore their responsibilities. Given the fact that the mere act of wearing a tallit is now considered a provocation, I expect we will soon see the creation of Women of the Shawl. The symbolic struggle matters because it represents a struggle for the soul of Israel, and it's a struggle we can't afford to lose.
In a few hours' time (I'm writing Thursday night), just a short distance from the Wall precinct, a quite different model of Orthodox leadership will be on display. Rabbi Michael Melchior will be receiving an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew Union College, a Reform institution. In keeping with HUC tradition, we will be placing a hood around his neck, and granting him the highest honor we have.
Rabbi Melchior's adversaries in the Orthodox camp occasionally accuse him of being less than truly Orthodox, but they are grossly misinformed. Though quite unorthodox in his political thinking and social attitudes, his commitment to Arab-Jewish dialogue and his championing of environmental causes, not to mention his pioneering leadership in the area of pluralistic education, Rabbi Melchior adheres strictly to halacha and is an immaculately Orthodox Jew.
Melchior is not Reform, nor does he pretend to agree with everything we stand for. But he is a true pluralist, and he has a commitment to the Jewish People which gives him a sense of perspective. He holds in his heart a vision of Israel which is the kind of place you would want your grandchildren to grow up in. Rather than throw someone in jail for expressing their Jewish commitments in a different way, he would prefer to engage them in dialogue and search for common ground. He acknowledges that people with whom he disagrees have convictions - and I don't mean criminal convictions.
These are my two symbols for this week - the shawl and the hood. By having the temerity to wear a prayer shawl, this brave woman found herself taken away for questioning. I understand that she was interrogated by a polite and somewhat bemused Druse police officer who grilled her about the wearing of fringes. This is what happens when Israel becomes intoxicated by a cocktail of intransigence, indifference and ignorance. By wearing the hood and receiving an honor from an institution which is not his own, Rabbi Melchior offers hope for an Israel of sanity and sanctity.
The results of the past election may have put Michael Melchior on the fringes of Israeli politics, but I'd rather wear those fringes than those of a burgeoning lunatic fringe.