Walking home from synagogue on Sukkot, I met up with my neighbor, Michael. He’s a young guy, newly married who was born in Jerusalem and grew up in our neighborhood. Like many Israelis whose families immigrated from Arab countries, Michael is a traditional Jew living in the modern world. He works as a contractor, keeps kosher and Shabbat, and usually wears a t-shirt and jeans (with no kippah).
As we walked home together, he asked me what synagogue I go to, as it was obvious I was coming home from shul in a direction different than the main Ashkenazic synagogue in our community. I told him that I go to Moreshet Avraham, the Conservative synagogue in East Talpiot. Surprised, Michael said “Conservative? Don’t you sit mixed there? Men and women together?!” his voice rising in both pitch and volume.
“Yes”, I told him.
“But that’s forbidden,” he retorted, a bit shocked that a friend who he thought was normal he was now reclassifying as a freak.
“Actually,” I told him, “the earliest synagogues were mixed as was the Temple.”
He laughed at how ridiculous this sounded to him.
“But there was an ‘ezrat nashim’ [a women’s section],” he rebutted.
I started to explain the historical research and archaeological findings, as well as the Talmudic citations, none of which he wanted to hear.
“Show me the sources,” he challenged. And we let it go.
As it happens the Conservative Movement in Israel has published a series of pamphlets on the role of women in Judaism. One of them is on the separation of men and women (Mehitza). I brought home a copy intending to give it to Michael.
Knocking on his door, I offered him the sources he requested, letting him know I wasn’t trying to convince him to change his ways, but if he wanted to know how Jewish law has developed in the past and that it is possible to accept men and women sitting together he could read the brochure.
Michael jumped back in his doorway and put up his hands.
“I’m forbidden to read it,” he said.
“Forbidden?” I asked, “Why?”
“It was written by Conservative rabbis, right?”
“I can only learn Torah from Orthodox rabbis. I can not read it”
I explained that the pamphlet only cites the Talmud and other rabbinic authorities fully accepted by his rabbis.
He would not budge.
“You mean you can’t even read something to see if you disagree with it?” I asked trying to grasp the concept that Michael had been discouraged to explore, to question or to think critically as I had been.
“That’s right,” he affirmed.
His learning was confined by predetermined censorship. His learning was limited. His intellect was being confined.
I was starting to grasp it now.
“Does that mean that when you are a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, if you want to take a class in Bible, you can not?” I asked.
Michael answered, “If I want to take a class in Bible, I go to the Yeshiva. If I want to take a class in psychology, I go the university”
I was amazed that someone younger than me, brought up a few blocks from where I lived in mainstream schools, outside of the ultra-Orthodox world could be so closed-minded as to not even be willing to open a book and explore an opinion that differs from his own.
However, most Israeli families are not from democratic countries with values like tolerance and pluralism, especially when it comes to religion. Most Israeli immigrants arrived either from Arab countries or from countries of the former Soviet Union which were ruled by dictatorships. The idea that more than one opinion can be accepted is foreign to them. It is not in their cultural lexicon. Typically, these countries were hierarchical and patriarchal. If one did not accept the rule of he that was in power, one had to break the rule, going underground in the black market or outside of the system. The system was monolithic. Diversity was limited to what was preapproved. There was no intellectual freedom.
As an American, this is foreign to me. I may not agree with everyone, but that diversity of opinion is legitimate. I find that as an American, the value of accepted differences is one of the principles I bring to Israel.This has applications in many spheres of society from religious pluralism to free competition in the marketplace, most of which are new ideas to most Israelis.
I think that we as Americans need to find ways to influence and educate others without imposing our values on foreign societies.We do have important values to offer.
As Jews, we have the opportunity to do this by voting in an international forum which will determine political, religious and educational priorities affecting the Jewish people. Next year delegates from the world over meet at the 35th World Zionist Congress. Any American Jew who will have turned 18 by the end of June 2006 and who affirms the basic principles of Zionism can vote to elect the representatives of U.S. Jewry whose delegation is second in size only to Israel. Not only will these delegates allocate resources which can promote pluralism in Israel; they also allocate funds to support Israel programs for North Americans such as summer trips and study programs.
This is your chance to influence the character of the Jewish State. It is also your chance to voice your opinion as to where your money should go. Your vote will benefit your children and create policies according to your beliefs and interests. We, as American Jews of all types, have a valuable contribution to make to world Jewry.
Whether you vote for Mercaz, the Conservative Movement’s Zionist arm, or another party sending delegates from North America, please help those of us in Israel to live in a society which benefits from civil liberties, tolerance, pluralism and democracy. These are values which Americans have fought for and they are values which we in Israel thirst for.