What Yuval Noah Harari Thinks About Women’s Fight for Equal Rights at the Western Wall

The acclaimed philosopher believes zealous discrimination against one group – like Women of the Wall – is a way for religion to hide the radical changes it has embraced

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Yuval Noah Harari.
Yuval Noah Harari. Credit: Kristof Van Accom / Belga / AFP

Yuval Noah Harari has become internationally famous for looking at the big picture.

The philosopher and historian’s bestseller phenomenon “Sapiens” and the books that have quickly followed, ambitiously explore the trajectory of humankind, past, present, and future from a wide-lensed comparative perspective.

The term “big picture” takes on a new dimension with a visit to his offices. Perched on the 22nd floor of the Dizengoff Center tower, floor-to-ceiling windows give a visitor an expansive view of the entire city with the Mediterranean in the background. There are expansive shelves with books in many languages, a media studio and offices for the dozen employees, a team led by Harari’s husband Itzik Yahav, who manages the cottage industry called Yuval Noah Harari. The team is currently occupied with the promotion of Hariri’s  newly-published graphic novel, an adaptation of “Sapiens,” promoted on every possible platform – from podcasts to CNN to James Corden’s “Late Late Show.” 

Normally, such a marketing campaign, together with his lucrative speaking engagements and command performances for world leaders would keep Harari on a hectic travelling schedule. But with COVID-19, it is all taking place on computer screens, keeping one of the most famous Israelis in the world confined to his home country. While Israel-bound, Harari agreed to take an hour to focus on more parochial concerns than he normally tackles – participating in an online webinar for the Israel Religious Action Center, together with IRAC  executive director Anat Hoffman, best known as a co-founder of Women of the Wall

The connection between the two was forged after Hoffman made an appearance in Harari’s books, where he discussed her arrest at the Western Wall and her famous struggle for the right to wear a prayer shawl and read from the Torah at the holy site, inciting angry and often violent responses from the ultra-Orthodox religious establishment as well as her 2012 arrest for “disturbing the public order” by leading other women in prayer. 

Women of the Wall blowing shofars at a Rosh Hashanah service at the Western Wall in 2016. Credit: Daniel Shitrit

In his appearance at the IRAC webinar on religious extremism, moderated by this reporter – and the source of the quotes in this piece – Harari offered novel observations on the reasons for such vociferous opposition to Women of the Wall and other manifestations of non-Orthodox observance. (It should be noted here that Harari agreed to join the event in order to participate in an open, in-depth discussion on religious extremism and related topics. His participation does not signify an endorsement of IRAC, nor does he act as a representative of the center.)    

“I think one of of the reasons that Orthodox Judaism is so concerned about the Wall is that it’s a place where they hide a very big secret,” he asserted. “They are hiding the fact that once, they themselves were very radical revolutionaries, far, far more radical than Anat Hoffman in what they demanded and what they did. They created an entirely new religion. The Judaism of these rabbis stands in contrast to biblical Judaism .

“In biblical times, Judaism was quite similar to the other Middle Eastern religions of that age. It was centered on a caste of hereditary priests who sacrificed mostly animals to one god or several gods at the Temple in order to get help from that god in fighting wars, in protecting crops from disease, in getting rain, in curing illnesses. This was the deal. This was religion. There was no Torah at the time, there was certainly no Mishnah or Talmud. There were no rabbis. Most of the prayers, most of the customs that are today considered the essence of Judaism didn’t exist at all.”

Therefore, Harari asserts Orthodoxy as it exists today “is a completely different religion” than Judaism once was. There are no priests, there are no sacrifices.

“It’s all about studying the scriptures and praying ... if a great kohen [member of the priestly class] from the biblical temple came to Bnei Brak or Mea She’arim, they would have absolutely no idea who these people are,what they are doing and what connection they have with me?” he says referring to two ultra­­­­-Orthodox hubs in Israel.

Harari explained that he joined the webinar in order to participate in an open discussion on religious extremism and related topics, and that it does not signify an endorsement of IRAC, nor does he act as a representative of the Center.

An Orthodox man, wearing a protective mask, waves a chicken over his head as part of the atonement ritual prior to Yom Kippur. A kohen from biblical times would not recognize today's Judaism. Credit: Oded Balilty/AP

The trick of Orthodoxy

Today’s rabbis “pay their respects to the religion they replaced. But they hide the fact that it’s a very different show.” 

By contrast, Harari points out, the so-called “radical” move of including women in Jewish ritual is a minor tweak. “What Anat is asking is just to take the Orthodox religion and broaden it a little. Approach some of its unfair discriminations and biases. She doesn’t want a completely different religion.” 

But no ultra-Orthodox rabbis, Harari says, will ever admit that they themselves represent a far larger shift than any woman at the wall.

It is the way, he says, that all “fundamentalist revolutions” operate. That is why the supposedly traditional forms of Christianity, Islam and Hinduism today – just like Judaism – look utterly different than they did 2,000 years ago. 

A face-off at the Western Wall between a female worshipper and a guard. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

“In religion – any revolution must be cloaked in a return to original rules. Because religions have this claim for eternal truth, they cannot ever admit that they are doing something new. Their trick is almost always the same: ‘We’re not doing anything new. We are actually doing something very very old. So old that people forgot it. We are just going back to the origins of the religion.’ But almost always, these supposedly ‘old things’ are new inventions.”  

Though fundamentalist religious leaders resist admitting they have changed with the times – and style themselves as opponents of change, Harari says, if it wasn’t for change and evolution, such religions would be long gone. “This is how religions survive. What doesn’t adapt can’t survive. When the economy changes, when the technology changes, a religion has to adapt or it will disappear.”

And when Harari uses the word “technology” he defines it at the most basic of levels. Take the struggle over reading the Torah at the Western Wall for example.

“At the center of this struggle of the Women of the Wall, there is the ancient technology of writing and of scrolls and parchment.” The centrality of the Torah in Judaism rode in on “a revolutionary new technology – the Silicon Valley of ancient times – writing! And what’s more, writing on easily portable things like parchment and paper. That technology became the basis for a new kind of religion” utterly different than what Judaism had been before. 

In regard to women’s status in Judaism overall, notes Harari, some soul-searching is in order. 

“Why did we mistreat women for hundreds and thousands of years? Recent awakening in this respect didn’t come from studying the Talmud and Torah more closely. Let’s be honest about it – it came from outside. The changes in the status of women in the Jewish world seen in Reform and Conservative movements, not only the  Orthodox, came from the secular feminist movements and from the universities from the outside world. Once we had these ideas, one could go back to Jewish traditions to Jewish scriptures and find a lot of things that support these views. But historically they didn’t start there. I would like to see some kind of inquiry committee on this. What happened. What’s wrong? Why didn’t it come from us?”

Harari: "We were arguing religion for thousands of years until we came to the State of Israel ... and the arguments ended."Credit: Olivier Middendorp

Hoffman says her experience with struggles for women’s equality at IRAC shows that the battle for women’s rights in ultra-Orthodox society continues apace, intensified, she says, by the difference in education levels between men and women.  

Today, in ultra-Orthodox society, she points out, it is women, not men, who receive a well-rounded schooling beyond religious learning. “The result: they are educated. They are the breadwinners. And they are growing in their stature in the family. That changes the ultra-Orthodox family. The children in the average ultra-Orthodox family when they want to know what a mortgage is or how to write a check or how the post office works – they go to mom. Mom knows English, mom knows math. And so the status of the man in the family is changing and this worries the rabbis no end. The result is that Israel has been propelled into an obsession with modesty. ‘You think you are so smart? You don’t talk on the radio. You think you are so clever? You sit in the back of the bus.’ These examples of segregation, silencing and discriminating against women, are over the last 20 years becoming very very prevalent in Israel.” 

In talking about the reasons for the violence that is often manifested in the nature of ultra-Orthodox opposition to the Women of the Wall, Harari draws a line in history back to the rituals of human sacrifice. 

“Human sacrifice has been at the center of almost every religion. It’s a common mistake that Judaism and monotheism abolished human sacrifice. They actually made it more common than almost any other religion.”

Harari’s theory of extremism is that religions mask their change and revolution by focusing on a single practice, inflating its importance.  

Women of the Wall mark Hanukkah at the Western Wall. Credit: Miri Tzahi

'Persecution of LGBT people'

"You hide all the other changes, focusing on one particular issue – magnifying it. The best way to magnify an issue is to kill people for it, or to cause people a lot of suffering because of it.... The Spanish, when they came to the Aztec empire, were horrified that the Aztec priests were sacrificing humans to their gods in the most important ceremonies of the Aztec religion. But at the same time, exactly the same Spaniards were sacrificing more people, in the central plazas of their cities and towns – they were burning heretics, they were burning conversos, in a religious festival, to show how loyal they are to their religion. They are exactly like the Aztec priests – they are just doing it on a larger scale. You can interpret many other things – like the persecution of LGBT people or like the violence against the Women of the Wall through this central lens of human sacrifice.”

“There is no more effective way to show your zeal for a religion and therefore hide all of the changes that you allow than to use violence and to take a group of people –  usually a minority – and use extreme violence against them. These become your credentials: ‘Look, we are so zealous, we are so loyal (to our faith) that we are even willing to sacrifice people for it.’ And these are your credentials that then hides all of the much more important changes that you yourself are making to the religion.” 

Has the recent transformation of Judaism from centuries as a Diaspora religion to a dominant state religion exacerbated tendencies toward extremism? Harari fears that it has. 

A violent religion

“If you look back at Judaism in biblical times, or at the time of the Second Temple … it was a very violent religion – both against outsiders and within. Judaism is maybe the first and only religion where genocide is still on the books as a religious commitment. When it comes to the people of Canaan, there is a religious commitment to exterminate them. It was also a very violent religion against Jews if you look at the internecine warfare and terrorism towards the end of the Second Temple period.”

Later, “as long as Judaism was in the Diaspora without political power, then Judaism was one of the more mild and humble and tolerant religions  because it had no choice,” Harari said. “They became less violent.”  

Jerusalem's Western Wall with partitions to separate worshippers due to the pandemic. Credit: Oded Balilty/AP

Now, “once you again have a state and political power, the option of becoming violent and intolerant is again possible. We are in a better situation than the most extreme scenes we have seen in ancient Judaism. But the trends towards violence and towards intolerance are very worrying. There is the famous saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s true of individual people and it is also true of religions.”

Hoffman, for her part, believes emphatically that Judaism’s encounter with political power has left it poorer. 

“I think we come from a tradition of a live core of arguing. If you look at the Bible there are such wonderful arguments there. Particularly with God. You look at the first Jew, Abraham, he argues with God like a used car salesman. Everyone argues with everyone …. We were arguing religion for thousands of years until we came to the state of Israel and religious affairs was given over to one minority zealous group in Judaism. And the arguments ended.”

We are no longer competing in the free market of religion in Israel. There is just one national religion – Orthodoxy. There is one product on the shelf of religion – Orthodox Judaism. And many Israelis reject it,” says Hoffman. “And to excel and stand out, Orthodox rabbis have to show that they are more of a zealot than another rabbi. One person says ‘my rabbi is so religious he doesn’t meet with women.’ The next says ‘my rabbi is so religious he doesn’t speak to any woman who isn’t his sister or his daughter or his wife.’ They are becoming more and more extreme because they are not in the free market … The ultra-Orthodox monopoly has actually deadened something wonderful and alive and creative in Judaism.” 

Harari points out that Israel is hardly the only example of the problems of merging political power with religious power.

“It’s not just in Israel. Look at Russia and what is happening there as Eastern Orthodox Christianity is becoming the handmaid of the Putin regime. Look at Catholicism in Hungary and Poland, at Shi’a Islam in Iran, at Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia. It’s all the same story. I don’t think religion is really protected from [corruption] unless it is separated from political power … There are a lot of good arguments to separate religion from the state for the sake of the state, and for the sake of the citizens. But there are also very good arguments to separate religion and the state for the sake of religion. When you give religious leaders too much political power, it doesn’t end well for the religion.”

Unfortunately, he says, “It’s unlikely we’ll see a separation of state and religion in Israel anytime soon. So at least we can have a more pluralistic religion. OK - we have a Jewish state and we are going to have a very strong connection to Judaism, but Judaism is more than just ultra-Orthodox Judaism. If we can have a more pluralistic Judaism, this could go a long way to solving many – if not all – of the problems that are related to this mix of state and religion.”

Harari says he doesn’t lose sleep over the dilemma that has sparked so much hand wringing in the public square: the degrees to which Israel is a Jewish or a democratic state.

Religion can adapt

“I don’t think there is any essential conflict there because I don’t think that religion comes down from heaven in some predetermined and unchangeable form. It adapts and changes. Throughout history, Judaism has adapted to many different political situations and structures through its history. You see it in the Bible, you see it later in the Diaspora, and you see it today. So I don’t think there is any essential contradiction between Judaism and democracy – or Islam and democracy, or Buddhism and democracy. It all depends on what we make of these religions. If you make Judaism democratic it will be democratic. I don’t think there is some unchanging religion and there is nothing we can do about it. Religion is much more malleable and adaptable than people tend to think.”