Do we still have a vision of what we mean by a Jewish people acting together for a common moral purpose?
The protagonists in this week’s Torah reading express their differing visions of the Jewish people's moral character. Balaam's prophetic vision exalts their moral values, a reality that is so undeniably manifest that even a talking donkey has a vision of their blessedness. The zealot Pinchas, too, has a vision: to rid Israel of foreign influences and the worship of other gods, which leads him to take it on himself to literally skewer - with a spear - two transgressors for their profane actions. We find out in next week’s parasha that God “rewards” Pinchas’ unilateral action with “briti shalom” – God’s covenant of peace and also “brit k’hunat olam” – a covenant of priesthood that will be inherited by the descendants of Pinchas forever.
Thus set in front of us in one reading are two visions and two approaches to defining the Jewish people – by positive blessing, or by negative zealotry, or policing. How can we use these conflicting ideas of vision to understand a far more contemporary dispute at the heart of Jewish life – that of prayer at the Western Wall?
It is undeniable that much of the rhetoric opposing the Women of the Wall is pitched according to the rhetoric of Pinchas' zealotry. The Women of the Wall apparently worship the ‘idolatry of feminism', one of their adversaries loudly proclaims.
But our tradition teaches that zealotry must be limited and should not be emulated. Some years ago, U.K. Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks framed Pinchas as a deeply flawed religious hero whom God had to teach an important lesson about judgment. Given the violence directed at the Women of the Wall Sacks' words are compelling:
“[Pinchas’] treatment in both the written and oral Torah is deeply ambivalent. God gives Pinchas “my covenant of peace,” meaning that he will never again have to act the part of a zealot … Pinchas …[is], in other words… gently rebuked by God.
More profoundly, the zealot is in effect taking the place of God … In general we are commanded to “walk in God’s ways” and imitate His attributes. That is not, however, the case when it comes to executing punishment or vengeance. God who knows all may execute sentence without a trial, but we, being human, may not.”
No heavenly voice, or bat kol, empowers us to execute God’s judgments against each other. As Rabbi Sacks observes, after the zealotry, God gave Pinchas a different set of operating instructions for the future – to perform a covenant of peace and serve in the priesthood. That is the alternate vision that we can choose – respectful paths of negotiation with those we disagree, without rushing to a one-sided judgment.
The Sharansky Plan was a vision endorsed by Israel’s government, that rejected the arrests of women for the “crime” of worship at the Western Wall. This view has absorbed the Balaam viewpoint: that we are one people, and thus there must be space for all of us to pray at the Wall, in order for it to be a place of blessings, not curses. We are one Jewish people and to diminish any of us – is to diminish all of us.
To fulfill this vision, Natan Sharansky visited the leaders of Jewish groups in the U.S., culminating in a consensus opinion that the crisis needed to be resolved urgently along the lines of his plan. The ambitious plan would build a platform over the archeological site at Robinson’s Arch to create a prayer site, adjacent to the Western Wall, connected by a common entrance.
The plan was later rejected by ultra-Orthodox leaders, archaeologists, and most recently, the Palestinian Authority, whose consent was considered necessary as the plan would require modifications to the Mughrabi Bridge.
But there is another solution, whose primary advantage is its utter simplicity. It can be accomplished with a low-cost solution for the sixty-meter wide space, no archeological impact, no need to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority.
The new plan – let's call it Klal Yisrael at the Western Wall– would require moving one of the current partitions eight meters to the left and install one more partition (or mechitza). That’s it. Three equal areas at the Western Wall, each 20 meters wide.
According to this plan, the current allocation of 48 meters of space for men and 12 meters for women – 80%-20% - would change to 50%-50% - 20 meters each. An increase of 8 meters of width in the women’s section allows enough space for both those women who wish to daven quietly, as well as those like WOW, to continue to daven pluralistically – Orthodox, Conservative and Reform women together, aloud, with tallit, tefillin and sefer Torah.
The size of the men-only section would be reduced by 28 meters. This will be more than offset by the creation of a third, 20 meter area for egalitarian Jews, who constitute 90% of the Jewish people throughout the world. They will pray in the mixed-gender area, rather than the men’s or women’s segregated areas, leaving ample space for the men who prefer to worship in a men-only space.
This wouldn't even be an innovation. Throughout the Jewish world, a trichitza – a mechitza with three sections, men-only, women-only and mixed-gender, is commonly recognized as a solution that honors the Jewish voices of all Jews. And it would allow us, at our holiest site, to give each other the space to see our blessings as one people and to embrace the covenant of peace rather than that of coercion or violence.
Rabbi Iris Richman is an organizer of Jewish Voices Together, which advocates religious tolerance and pluralism in the U.S. and Israel, and which sponsored a pray-in in New York in support of Women of the Wall earlier this year.
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