Two of the most heated topics that are avidly discussed by OT members in recent blogs are gender equality and anti-Semitism—both worthy of serious consideration—and not mutually exclusive.
As those who know me will attest, I am not a big fan of organized religion—or for that matter of religion itself. Not to offend anyone, but to my rational way of thinking—I cannot view religious belief as more than superstition. Now, I have had formal training in Jewish philosophy, so I know that those who ‘believe’ do need to take the ‘leap of faith’—after all, that’s what it’s all about—religion is the relinquishment of rationalism for belief.
Having said that, unfortunately I have also had too much experience with friends suffering from tragedy, illness and loss to understand that for some, religion and belief can be a tremendous consolation for those who are bereaved or suffering. So, who am I to criticize it if it helps them through difficult times? It would be like knocking the placebo effect. If the placebo is effective, then why not take advantage of it? But for me, of course, there is no placebo effect. One needs to believe in the placebo for it to work.
In any case, religion is a personal matter, and I fully recognize the rights of any group to their own beliefs (as long as they accord the very same respect to non-believers). Unfortunately, this tolerance for others is not always the case.
I’m sure most readers will have heard of the Western Wall or Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, as it is sometimes known. This is thought to be a remaining wall of the courtyard to the second Temple (built ~19 BC), and is considered the most holy site for Jews.
Since Israel has been unable/unwilling to separate religion and state, the Wall has become a contentious area. This is because it is administered by the Rabbinate in Israel—an institution that fails to recognize any forms of Judaism, aside from the ultra-orthodox stream. Effectively, this means that the majority of Jews outside of Israel—those who belong to the conservative and reform congregations—are basically excluded from the agenda.
In fact, Israel’s former 67 year-old president—a purely symbolic position (analogous to the monarchy in the UK) and who by the way is now in jail for rape—was famous for his refusal to address the head of the American Union for Reform Judaism and acknowledge him as Rabbi Eric Yoffie.
Due to the control of the Wall by the orthodox rabbinate, there has been continual discrimination against women. On the other hand, the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism have long ago moved to an egalitarian system, where women have become equal partners in religion, and a growing number of communities sport head rabbis who are female. This, of course, is no less than heresy to the ultra-orthodox, who would probably even prefer atheists like me—who at least don’t pose a threat to their authority over the Wall and religion within the State of Israel.
One group in Israel that has been committed to advancing the religious and overall rights of women is known as “The Women of the Wall.”
To begin, at the Wall itself, there is enforced gender separation, as for the orthodox, women pose a threat, due to their ‘provocative sexual nature’ and due to their ‘uncleanliness.’ Accordingly, a small fringe area of the Wall is currently designated for the other half of the population.
The Women of the Wall group has been instrumental in continuing to fight for both gender equality and to fight religious discrimination (albeit, not the classic form of anti-Semitism). Equipped with prayer shawls and religious apparel that are typically reserved for men in the orthodox community, they faithfully come to pray at the Wall every month, enduring dark discrimination from the orthodox, and even arrests by the Israeli police.
Perhaps after so many years of discrimination, there is a possibility of some change, based on a new proposal by former Soviet-refusenik Natan Sharansky, who now chairs the Jewish Agency. However, being a cell biologist, for me seeing is believing—and in this case, I’ll believe it when I see it.
In the meantime, I hope that all of our bloggers and readers will remain united as a group that is committed to bettering our world by supporting equality and fighting discrimination wherever we can.