THE BLOG

Unity Is Not Uniformity: An Open Letter to Natan Sharansky

12/28/2012 11:08 am 11:08:12 | Updated Feb 27, 2013

Dear Mr. Sharansky,

I am writing to ask you to use your new authority to provide real freedom of religion at the Kotel, Jerusalem's Western Wall.

Like many others, I have long been in awe of your heroic fight on behalf of Soviet Jews. Your courage in the face of the full force of Soviet power was a beacon of light that inspired countless others and made possible the repatriation of many Jews to the Land of Israel. We are all in your debt.

Recently, the Prime Minister of Israel turned to you to provide another act of courage and service. Few can ignore the atrocious reality that the most public religious site of Judaism, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, has been a site of constricted bigotry, under the domination of an Orthodox rabbinate intent on maintaining its monopoly and avoiding a real exchange of ideas with other Jewish streams. Those government-sponsored theocrats have succeeded in generating legislation enforcing a monopoly of their version of Judaism as the sole permissible practice at this ancient national landmark. As a result of such repressive legislation, we have witnessed women arrested, harassed, even incarcerated for the "crime" of attempting to hold a Torah service at the Kotel, the Western Wall. They are bullied, shouted down, pushed and attacked for the beautiful egalitarian expression of Judaism as they practice it. Many of them have been charged with a crime simply for wearing a Tallit, a prayer shawl.

This shameful reality makes Israel's official rabbinate look little different than the government funded religious bureaucrats elsewhere who would use their faith to silence and intimidate those who live differently than their parochial views would authorize. Why is it that so many zealots are so threatened by women who refuse to be silent, marginalized or intimidated?

I write to you today as one who loves Israel with her rich diversity of people's faiths and communities. I write to you as one who spends extensive time in Israel every year and whose students live a full year of their program learning in Israel. I write to you as a rabbi affiliated with the Conservative/Masorti stream of Jewish life, insisting that there must be room for the Judaism that I and hundreds of thousands around the globe affirm.

I write because the Torah of Israel demands it, as does the democratic nature of the State of Israel.

One of the greatest contributions of the Hebrew Bible to the cultural heritage of humanity is the most often repeated commandment in the entire Bible: "You shall have one law." That mandated standard of equity in the Torah pertained to Israelites and to non-Israelites dwelling under the Torah's jurisdiction. One equal standard was to pertain to both citizens and resident aliens. That same aspiration of legal equality pertained across the board of Israelite class or status: There was to be one law for all. Indeed the rabbis of the Talmud went so far as to claim that this biblical mandate for one legal standard crossed gender barriers as well: "Scripture equated women and men for all the laws of the Torah" (Bava Kama 15a).

This core biblical aspiration motivated the Enlightenment thinkers to advocate social structures in which all citizens could be free and equal: liberty, brotherhood and equality, in the words of the French slogan. Or, as Thomas Jefferson put it: All men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. The ancient mandate of Torah pulsated through their work with an insistence that the purpose of government is to protect human liberty and diversity. Indeed, that very sentiment reverberates in the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open to the immigration of Jews from all countries of their dispersion; will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew Prophets; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture; will safeguard the sanctity and inviolability of the shrines and Holy Places of all religions...

That this standard was never fully attained in the biblical period runs like a torrent through the condemnation of Israel's prophets. But the ideal remained the goal. That this egalitarian standard was never fully attained by contemporary democracies (Israel among them) has driven the movements for social justice across the last several centuries -- inspiring the anti-slavery movement, the women's movement, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the gay/lesbian movement and most recently efforts to expand inclusion to those with special needs. Yet here, too, the imperfections and shortcomings of reality could not erase the power and validity of the goal. The goal remains equality, inclusion, diversity.

Included in this litany of struggles to extend equal protection was the long battle for religious freedom: that a citizen could practice or reject the faith of his or her choice without prejudice, exclusion or penalty. The fight for religious equality has been hard fought across the ages and around the world -- for the right of Jews to be citizens, for the ability of Catholics to serve in higher office, for Mormons, or Muslims, or Hindus, or atheists to be able to function as citizens and share in the exercise of power without regard to their metaphysical convictions.

The right to the free exercise of religion is a hallmark of any real democracy, no less than the right to vote freely, to protest publicly, to a court of law and a jury of one's peers. Israel, as one of the few democracies in a region of continuing despotism and religious violence, has both a mandate and an opportunity to demonstrate the vitality of democracy with its embrace of raucous religious freedom. In a Jewish state, it is particularly obscene to favor one sect at the expense of all other expressions of contemporary Jewish vitality.

"You are the man!" a biblical Natan told King David when he violated prophetic ethics. And you, Natan Sharansky, are the man with sufficient stature and courage to restore to Israel the full measure of religious freedom for each stream of Judaism, throughout the Jewish State.

The Kotel is as good a place as any to launch that re-commitment to the Torah's vision of "one law," of unity without uniformity, and to Israel's imperfect but vigorous expression of democracy in action.

Mr. Sharansky, liberate that Wall!