November 17, 2010

Praying By My Own Rules

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On my first Shabbat in Jerusalem, I went to the Western Wall in search of a religious experience. What I found, however, was a political one.

The night before I arrived, the Israeli navy raided the Mavi Marmara — one of the six-boat flotilla bound for Gaza — leaving nine activists dead.  I was spending my days on a Jerusalem Post computer, monitoring the comments’ readers post on the newspaper’s website. What better way to welcome me to the Middle East than a constant stream of angry e-mails detailing the problems and biases that plague this conflict-stricken region?

Then came the Sabbath, which I hoped would be a purely religious experience. Little did I realize that in Jerusalem, and the Middle East as a whole, nothing is free of political strife. A half-hour walk from Nachlaot to the Old City was the final leg of my 12-hour pilgrimage to the Western Wall, the holiest place in Judaism.

“You must go back and put on a kippah?” an Israeli policeman yelled at me as I stood in prayer alongside the Wall.

As someone who prides himself on being considerate of others’ religion, I was taken aback. I entered the kotel as an observant Jew. While the kippah is a prayer hat traditaional worn by Jews, many reform Jews, like me, do not abide by this custom. Of course, when I accompanied my Orthodox friend, Ami, to Friday night services at his local shul, I did not object to putting on a kippah. However, when I visit my own religious site, I expect to be able to pray by my own rules.

“No,” I told the guard. “I don’t need a kippah to pray.”

My argument fell on deaf ears. The policeman escorted me away from the wall to a bin of spare kippot [pl. kippah]. By this time, however, I had lost my train of thought. My run-in with an over-zealous policeman was enough to lose my religious appetite.

My trip to the Wall lasted less than five minutes, but it was enough time to arouse strong passions of my Jewish heritage, passions that opposed the modern implementation of ancient Jewish traditions in the State of Israel.

Israel prohibits Jews who don’t take the fundamentalist interpretation of the Talmud from praying how they want. The supreme religious governing body of Israel, the Chief Rabbinate, which is made up of an Ashkenazi rabbi and a Sephardi rabbi, governs all things Jewish: marriage, divorce, burials, kosher certification, olim, and, until recently, religious conversion.

For over 2,000 years, Jews have yearned to return to this place of worship, and until very recently, they were unable to do so. It was only 43 years ago, after the Israeli army defeated the Jordanians in the War of 1967, that the Jews reclaimed this holy place in the Promised Land. But even now, with the fears of foreign conquest abated, some Jews continue to struggle to call the holiest site in Judaism their own.

[Religious conversion has especially been a hot-button issue recently, as the Knesset negotiates the basis of Jewish conversions in Israel. Although American Jews gained Conservative and Reform representation in the decision-making process that Prime Minister Netanyahu delayed until January, this feat is only a small victory in a much larger war.]

While Israel does allow each religious community the right to control its own affairs, Judaism remains under the preview of its strictest members. Although all Jews built the Western Wall of the Holy Temple, it seems that in present-day Jerusalem, only the Haredim [Ultra-Orthodox Jews] can truly claim it their own.

My run-in with the Jerusalem Police at the Western Wall was nothing compared to that of Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of the Women of the Wall prayer group. Hoffman was arrested this July for holding a Torah scroll at the Western Wall, which violated a High Court ruling, prohibiting women from reading the Torah at the Wall.

In this formation, the Jewish State is destroying Judaism. Judaism in Israel is dominated by the Orthodox — turning Israeli Jews off of religion all together and polarizing international Reform and Conservative Jewish movements, with which most American Jews are affiliated.

When the Founding Fathers drafted the American Constitution, they decided to establish a secular commonwealth in an effort to preserve the sanctity of religion. As Prof. Kramnick and Prof. Moore state in The Godless Constitution, “The creation of a godless constitution … intended to let religion do what it did best, to preserve the civil morality necessary to democracy, without laying upon it the burdens of being tied to the fortunes of this or that political faction.”

The established synagogue of Orthodox Judaism is currently suffocating the freedom of religion of other sects of Judaism at the Western Wall, in the state of Israel, and throughout the world.

If Israel wants to protect the Jewish state, it must separate the Jewish from the State.

Original Author: Sam Cross