God, the State, Women, & Other Genies

Recent actions by the state-established Orthodox rabbinate in Israel and by the Roman Catholic Church in the US remind us: When those who claim their path alone bespeaks God's Will control the State to enforce their will as God's, it is God Who suffers. – Both the idea of God in many human minds who know Her as far more unbounded, far more Infinite -- and human beings in their bodies and their selves and souls: God's Image.

I. God, the Jewish State, & Women

In Jerusalem, police arrested a woman praying at the Western Wall for wearing a tallit (prayer shawl). See the fuller story here.

So what is now the free and joyful practice of Jewish women in thousands of American synagogues is forbidden in the site most sacred to all Jews, not by an anti-Jewish government but by the State that was supposed to liberate the Jewish people.

One of the instructive patterns of the “Arabian Nights “ (actually “A Thousand Nights and a Night”) stories was that a genie was easy to keep in a bottle. But once the genie got out, it took enormous force to get the genie back in the bottle.

Fifty years ago, nobody needed to arrest women for praying with a tallit at the Western Wall: they just didn't. Now -- it takes force.

Women are "out of the bottle." For the Arab world, Jews are "out of the bottle." For the Jewish world, Palestinians are "out of the bottle."

There are two choices: Either make a new and broader community with the liberated genies -- or use force, violence, if necessary killing, to force them back in the bottle.

More lethal than the Western Wall event is this one:

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that the Israel Defense Forces' chief rabbi told students in a pre-army yeshiva program last week that soldiers who "show mercy" toward the enemy in wartime will be "damned." (For the full story see here.)

Among American as well as among Israeli Jews there remain some who would like to build community with the Palestinian genie –-- but at least in Israel, the balance of power has shifted to those who say: "Back in the box, or else."

II. God, the American State, and Women

And then there is lethal violence that comes in the guise of compassion. That was the impact of yet another effort by the Roman Catholic Church in the United States to jam women – those genies who have escaped from the bottle of patriarchal history -- back into the bottle.

In this case, in the name of compassion for "unborn children," the Church played a major role in imposing a stringent provision in the House of Representatives' health-care bill that would make it impossible for almost all women to get insurance that would include covering the cost of abortions – even if they were paying the premiums out of their own pockets.

Let me be clear: I am not coming at this from the stance of a "cool guy" who for "politically correct" reasons is dutifully supporting women. (At least not only that, though I would a lot rather be politically correct than ethically tyrannical.) Nor from the stance of a Rabbi interpreting Jewish law on abortions and on protection and support for the poor. (At least not only that, though I am proud of a tradition that in these areas has compassion for women, for the poor, and for poor women.)

My views are rooted in a bitter taste of life-experience that crosses two generations. My own life has been affected by the inability of one of my grandmothers – Eve Waskow, may her memory be for a blessing -- – to get a safe and legal abortion.

After giving birth to five rollicking boys, including my father, in 1914 she got pregnant again and could not face the worsened poverty and threat to her health of bearing and rearing a sixth child. So she sought an illegal abortion – and died, as many women of that era did.

Her death while my father was a child sent him into an orphanage and cast a shadow over his whole life – and therefore mine.

I understand, though I deeply disagree with, the Roman Catholic theology about abortion. So I understand that full "common ground" on this matter is impossible to reach. Yes, we can agree on steps to make abortion rare by ending poverty and assisting adoptions.

With some anti-choice people – though probably not the Roman Catholic Church – we can agree on making contraceptives and comprehensive, accurate sex education freely available.

I am willing to make my own contribution to "common ground" by not trying to enact Jewish law into American law, since it would require (not just permit) killing a fetus that threatened its mother's life. So I am prepared to forego imposing the wisdom of my tradition on Catholics who don't agree.

But when push comes to shove, I will do what I can to make sure that future Eve Waskows live to kiss their grandchildren and tell them the stories of their lives, including the difficult choice they made to have an abortion.

So if that requires a knock-down fight over public policy to keep a patriarchal theology from using state power to stuff the liberated genies – women – back into their bottles, so be it.

If it makes sense for the Episcopal Church to make a strong public invitation to Catholics to join, with special protection for their own special rituals –- as the Pope has just done in the opposite direction – so be it.

It was bad enough to have Eve Waskow stuffed into her grave. I am not prepared to have her great-grand-daughters stuffed not just back into the genies' bottle but into their graves as well.

What then might be "common ground" between such different theologies, both insisting that they stand upon the ground of life? Only an agreement that –-- as two deeply disagreeing schools of Jewish thought anciently agreed -- "Both these and these are the words of the Living God." We live alongside each other, each watching to learn where each of our life-path leads.

And if God and history now require Arabs and Arab-Americans who are willing to welcome in peace the Jews who have broken out of the bottle -- even if that means opposing some of "their own" leaders -- so be it.

And if God and history now require Jews who are willing to welcome in peace the women and the Palestinians who have broken out of the bottle -- even if that means opposing some of "their own" leaders – so be it.

Domination -- or community? That is the profound question hidden within each of these seemingly separate issues.

Shalom, salaam, shantih --- peace, Arthur


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