Friday, February 26, 2010

Queen Esther's Fate

When I was a boy—and before I fully seized the concept that movies were make-believe—I remember always wanting my parents to tell me what happened next. What became of the characters on the screen after the movie ended. Whether they married and had children later on. If they lived to be old people. Questions like that came to me naturally and then, later on, when I began to read books on my own I transferred those questions to novels as well. Occasionally (as anyone who eventually also got to Tom Sawyer Abroad or Tom Sawyer, Detective knows), you do get to find out. (And you get to find out what happened to Huck too, by the way.) But mostly you have to make your peace with not knowing, with accepting—however begrudgingly—that the question itself has no meaning because the characters you are asking about themselves don’t really exist outside the framework of the literary work in which they appear. I suppose adults find that a natural thought, but it didn’t come to me naturally…and I still find myself wondering occasionally what happens next after I read something I’ve found totally engaging. (I’m in the middle right now of Muriel Barbary’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by the way, which is precisely in that category. I’ll write and tell you about it when I’m done.)

Obviously, I’m been thinking a lot lately about the Megillah, the Book of Esther we will read aloud twice this weekend in the course of Purim. Presented as a historical account of events that actually took place, its author has written up that account not really as piece of historical reportage but more as though it were a novella. And, indeed, that author did an excellent job, one so skillful that it is only the rare reader who pauses to wonder how exactly he or she knew the precise words that passed between Achashveirosh and Esther in a throne room that the Megillah itself says none but a royal invitee was ever permitted to enter, or between Zeresh and Haman in the privacy of their own home. And reading the book as a novella leads me almost always to muse about the same questions that occupied me so regularly in my younger years.

The Megillah ends laconically, to say the least. After a giant ninth chapter of thirty-two information-filled verses, the final chapter in Esther consists of all of three short sentences. Mind you, they too offer all sorts of details readers will find very interesting. King Achashveirosh invents a way to raise even more money by imposing new sorts of taxes on even the furthest flung reaches of his empire, thus making himself even more wealthy than he was at the beginning of the story. Mordechai ends up not only second in command to the king himself, but also formally, possibly even permanently, installed as the head of the Jewish community. (Moreover, the enormous power vested in him, the Megillah scruples to assure us, never went to his head, never made him imperious or overbearing, never made him into a little dictator so exaggeratedly concerned with the honor due his office as to turn himself into an ironic, if wholly unaware, parody of the very Haman whose downfall triggered the events that led to his own great success.) For their part, the Megillah reports that the Jews of the realm were left safe under the protection of a wise and benevolent patron, their position in Persian society happily and unassailably secure. We are clearly supposed to imagine that all is well in Persia as our story draws to its happy ending and the audience, relieved, is released to make its way to the bar or the masquerade ball or whatever celebration is planned following the reading of the Megillah in their community.

Left unmentioned in this epilogue to the larger story, however, is Queen Esther herself, the player whose quick thinking and whose bravery were the true catalysts that led both to the people’s survival and Mordechai’s amazing success. Given that the maidens left unchosen to become queen were forever sequestered in a special harem placed under the watchful aegis of the eunuch Shaashgaz, we can suppose that no one simply walked away from the king’s bed in old Shushan and went back home. (And even if some few somehow did manage to escape the seraglio, surely a queen would least of all have had that option available to her!) And so we are left not knowing what happens next (because, of course, nothing does), but nevertheless imagining poor Esther forever in place in the palace, a prisoner in a gilded cage stuck spending the rest of her life sleeping with her drunken fool of a husband and either thinking the deliverance of his people to have been worth the price she was left forever afterwards paying or not thinking that. Did the Achashveiroshes eventually have children? Was the next king of Persia the son of a Jewish mother, thus also a Jew? Did Esther, having successfully come out of the closet, pursue her Jewishness openly once the events retold in the Megillah were well in the past? The next time the king asked her to ask for anything at all even unto half the kingdom did she ask that a mikveh be installed in the palace?

None of these questions has an answer. The story ends where it ends. Esther, unknown to historians outside the literary confines of the sole book that features her, exists as far as moderns can know of her only within the tale as told. But the question that readers are left with is one still well worth asking and it is precisely this question that I would like to leave hanging for my readers to ponder as we (or at least we in New York) prepare for a white Purim. Is the moral of the story that there is no bottom line, that anything at all is worth doing, any law worth breaking, any taboo worth ignoring, if it leads to the downfall of the enemies of the Jewish people? How that squares exactly with the obligation of fealty to the law every Jew bears as his or her part of the eternal covenant between God and Israel is a question that each of us must answer for him or herself. And surely part of the point of reading the Megillah year in and year out is to ask that very question of ourselves. But that the destiny of Israel is ultimately the responsibility of every single Jewish soul cannot seriously be debated…and the inculcation of that point is also part of why we come back over and over to this story. Indeed, this latter point is—for me personally and possibly even for the author of the Megillah—the Purim story’ ultimate lesson and its most profound point. It is the reason Jewish people continue to read this story over and over. And it is the reason that our sages declared that although the advent of the messiah will obviate the need to observe most Jewish festivals, Purim itself, although currently only a minor holiday in an overpacked festival calendar, will alone never be considered obsolete or passé, nor will its back story ever be forgotten or its lesson regarding the role every Jew must play in fulfilling the destiny of the Jewish people ever be deemed to be of mere historical interest.

These are the thoughts that are occupying me as I sit here at my writing desk dolefully watching it snow and hoping that it will stop in time for us to come together in large, satisfying numbers on Saturday night to hear the Megillah. Obviously, none of us is ever going to know what really did happen to Queen Esther after the story we read in the Megillah ends. But perhaps the simple answer is that, stuck for life sequestered in a gilded palace bearing the full weight of Jewish destiny on her slender shoulders, she grew up to be us.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Missionary Judaism?

The Jehovah’s Witnesses hadn’t come to our front door in quite some time, but they showed up the other week coincidentally just as I was sitting at my writing desk reading yet another pamphlet I received in the mail encouraging me to think that the “real” solution to our dwindling Jewish numbers is to abandon our traditional distaste for missionary work and to get to work converting large numbers of outsiders to our faith and our way of life. (I refer to our dwindling numbers in passing as though that were a given. But who knows where the truth really lies? Every successive study I read offers different statistics that point the reader to almost diametrically opposing conclusions. For example, the World Jewish Population Survey of 2002 concluded that the world Jewish population grew by about 44,000 in the same year that the Jewish Agency concluded that our numbers were down by about 50,000. You see what I mean. But even if we aren’t truly dwindling, we are still a tiny people in a huge world—something like fourteen and a half million Jews out of roughly six and a half billion people living on the planet. So adding that reality to our endemic, slightly neurotic certainty that we could disappear at any moment—a mishigas not entirely peculiar to the Jewish people but surely one we have perfected almost to the level of an art form—only creates more of a context for pondering our population statistics dolefully and wondering if we may not seriously have missed the boat by making a virtue out of our disinclination to drum up new business by actively seeking out fresh converts to our faith.)

There are, I suppose, lots of reasons for our general lack of interest in missionary work among the nations. One surely has to do with the word “missionary” itself, a word that leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of so many of us after all these centuries of concerted activity by so many different Christian missionary groups to talk Jews into abandoning their Jewishness. (The twist on that well-worn theme put forward by groups like the Jews for Jesus to the effect that Jews would actually be affirming their Judaism by abandoning their faith and adopting someone else’s would be just silly if there weren’t people out there gullible and trusting enough actually to swallow that kind of pap without choking on it.) And another surely has to do with the general assumption, repeated so often as almost to sound axiomatic, that Judaism is not a missionary faith, that knocking on doors and handing out pamphlets is what Mormons do, and so many others too, but not what we ourselves would ever do to plump up our numbers. Indeed, the oft-cited custom that calls upon a rabbi who actually is approached by a potential convert not to welcome that individual warmly at first but rather to be discouraging even to the point of turning him or her away not once or twice but on three separate occasions—that seems to most Jewish people what our response should be to the suggestion that we not only stop discouraging potential converts, but that we actually go out to find people who might be interested in considering conversion if we present our faith in a positive and welcoming enough light.

So it was with great interest that I bought and read a book by one Michael F. Bird entitled Crossing Over Sea and Land: Jewish Missionary Activity in the Second Temple Period, published last month by Hendrickson Publishers in Peabody, Massachusetts. The author, an Australian scholar who teaches at the Highland Theological College in Dingwall, Scotland, takes his title from a passage from the New Testament that will be unfamiliar to most of my readers but that is absolutely worth our careful consideration. There, in the twenty-third chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, the text recounts a long list of bitter, angry remarks Jesus made about the Pharisees toward the end of his life. (Among other things, the text features Jesus calling the Pharisees hypocrites, snakes, blind guides, sons of murderers, and criminals.) And it is in the context of that kind of vicious language that he also says this: “Alas for you, lawyers and Pharisees, hypocrites! You travel over sea and land to win one convert; and when you have won him you make him twice as fit for hell as you yourselves are.” Obviously, this is meant as an insult. But is it an insult because the Pharisees—the spiritual leaders of Jewish Palestine under the Romans—actually did go out as missionaries into the world to find converts to Judaism or is it just an example of vituperative rhetoric absent any specific basis in reality? That is the question that Michael Bird set himself to researching.

The results are fascinating. Bird first reviews the evidence, meticulously going through relevant comments made by Greek and Roman authors, plus evidence from rabbinic and early Christian literature. He dwells at length on Josephus’ account of how the entire kingdom of Adiabene (in what is today northern Iraq near the city of Arbil) converted to Judaism in the first century. And he considers all sorts of other evidence, including many different texts that purport to tell the stories of Romans, including some situated at the highest levels of Roman society, who became attracted to Judaism in different ways and for different reasons. But for all the many references to Gentile conversion to Judaism in ancient times, Bird cannot find any unequivocal evidence of actual missionary work undertaken by Jews for the express purpose of finding would-be converts and then talking them, so to speak, into taking the plunge. Even apparently clear texts, he shows, can be interpreted other than how they read at first blush. The Roman historian Dio Cassius, for example, explains the expulsion of the Jews from Rome in the year 19 CE under the reign of the emperor Tiberius with this brief remark: “As the Jews flocked to Rome in great numbers and were converting many of the natives to their ways, Tiberius banished most of them.” That sounds clear enough, but only at first. Does that text really imply missionary work or could it be read merely to be saying that the Jewish population allowed interested Gentiles to convert to Judaism if they arrived under their own steam? The same incident is referenced the works of other noted Roman authors such as Suetonius and Tacitus, but neither has anything at all to say about conversion to Judaism as one of the causes of the expulsion. Nor does Josephus suggest that the expulsion was triggered by the emperor becoming increasingly unnerved by the numbers of his citizens converting to Judaism. And so what sounded possibly to be about missionary work turns out to be a lone reference to conversion on a large scale, but not necessarily about missionary work at all.

In the end, all the sources Bird proposes for study point to the same conclusion. Conversion was a fact of life in ancient times. Lots of inscriptions that have survived from Jewish antiquity attest to that fact, as do many different texts with all sorts of different provenances. In the end, Bird endorses the comment of my own teacher and doctoral advisor, Shaye J.D. Cohen (then of JTS and now of Harvard University) who described the passage quoted above from Matthew as being the “only ancient source that explicitly ascribes a missionary policy to a Jewish group.” And that, barring the discovery of new evidence to the contrary, appears to be the final word on the matter.

What drew ancient Gentiles to embrace Judaism in serious numbers? Bird organizes the data and offers seven specific answers. First, Romans were predisposed to find ancient Eastern religions fascinating and there are many other examples of religions and cults of various sorts from the eastern part of the empire gaining a foothold in Rome among the citizenry. Second, Romans were always inclined to respect ancient religions and the more reasonably a religion could claim the mantle of antiquity the more likely it was to appeal to the masses. Third, the Romans were totally at home with ritual and so found Judaism to be an entirely natural way to express religious sentiment. Fourth, it was widely believed that embracing Judaism was an effective first step in petitioning God for healing and relief from suffering. Fifth, the exaltation of the monotheistic ideal would certainly have appealed to a certain segment of Roman society trained by their native philosophers to find the belief in many gods to be primitive and the belief in one God to represent a higher level of religious thinking. Sixth—and most surprising to me personally—Bird adduces lots of evidence that there were financial and social advantages to embracing Judaism. (He mentions, for example, that Jews were exempted by Julius Caesar himself from military service.) Seventh, Bird writes about the way the way Judaism blends ethical behavior with ritual activity would have appealed to Romans used to thinking about morality and cult as two entirely separate entities. And finally, eighth, he suggests that the fraternal bonds between wide-spread Jewish communities would have seemed especially attractive to Romans used to living in a disconnected world of unrelated and mutually suspicious peoples. For all these reasons then ancient Gentiles were drawn to Judaism and, although some chose to remain mere sympathizers, others actually chose to become Jews by undertaking formal conversion.

I think there’s plenty here for moderns to consider. That we seem as a people to have no interest in beating the bushes to find perspective converts is not a modern peculiarity, it turns out, but an ancient attitude that has survived all these years and is with us still. That we find no profound contradiction between thinking of ourselves a blood group linked by a common genetic heritage and accepting converts as full members of the House of Israel also turns out not to be a mere instance of our modern inclination to accommodate incongruent ideas for the sake of some greater good, but part and parcel of our attitudinal history going back all the way to late antiquity. If we are going to increase our numbers through conversion, then, the route will not involve trips to the front doors of strangers armed with tracts and (I shudder to write this) fridge magnets, but to a renewed resolve to make our synagogues welcoming to strangers and to open our courses of study to interested outsiders without setting up all kinds of off-putting preconditions guaranteed to discourage all but the most passionate would-be students.

We are not doing a very good job of any of this. In my almost eight years at Shelter Rock, I have supervised the conversion of exactly two people, both of whom approached me on their own. I don’t see myself heading into the street to introduce myself to strangers and see if I can find someone whom I can talk into studying our faith, but I also doubt we’re doing our best—and I speak of the larger Jewish community here, not just of my own congregation—I doubt we’re doing what we could to make people who are naturally drawn to Judaism feel unselfconscious about making inquiries into the conversion process or to make such people fully and unambiguously welcome when they eventually do find the courage to cross the threshold and visit us for the first time. Our numbers, even if not actually shrinking the way we all assume they must be, are small. We can only benefit from the presence of righteous converts in our midst. Perhaps if we work together and think this through seriously we’ll find a middle path forwards, one that will not veer off into the kind of missionary work most of us find unappealing at the same time it keeps us clear of the unfriendliness that so often characterizes the face we show to people who are only not interested in conversion yet.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Killing Bad People

In ancient times, our sages developed specific methods for interpreting the text of the Torah. Some of these sound quite cogent even today—their technique of supposing that details regarding the same topic that are mentioned in two different chapters can be used to shed light on each other, for example—but others seem significantly more far-fetched. And of this latter category surely the most simple example would be the humble hekesh, the interpretive technique that supposes that topics unrelated other than by appearing in adjacent sections of Scripture can be brought to bear in eliciting each other’s deepest meaning. It seems, to say the least, an improbable avenue of productive interpretation! And yet for all it sounds unlikely as a sound way to allow God to speak to us from between the lines of the biblical text, I find that there is a modern version of hekesh that repeatedly has allowed me to feel, also just a bit improbably, that the subtle juxtaposition of events in my life is not without meaning…and that the mere happenstance of two unrelated activities devolving upon me simultaneously can occasionally seem fraught with meaning.

I’ve written about this here before, most recently when I described the odd experience I had of seeing Quentin Tarantino’s movie, Inglourious Basterds, while I was in the middle of Hans Falluda’s great novel, No Man Dies Alone. But it had happened to me before. And it just happened again to me earlier this week again as I saw a program on television the same evening I was gathering material for the topic I want to broach with you today. Is that how God speaks to us today, by prompting us to turn the radio or the TV on at a certain moment when the hour is precisely right for us not just to hear, but really to hear, what the announcer is saying at that specific moment, or by guiding us to open a book or to go out to the movies on some specific evening when we are truly ready to hear what’s about to be said to us? Who knows? I’m still a bit dubious about the reasonableness of hekesh in interpreting ancient texts. But in real life…who knows if God doesn’t speak to us through the juxtaposition of events? How cool would that be? And it does feel as though it keeps happening to me!

And now I come to the topic I actually do wish to write about today: the reasonableness of killing bad people. When the topic of capital punishment comes up, I generally feel a certain deep ambivalence clouding my vision. On the one hand, the same biblical text that presents the prohibition of murder as one of the cardinal laws on which a just society must rest also appears to have no qualms about endorsing the idea of some crimes being so horrific that society’s only appropriate response is the execution of their perpetrators. That much seems clear…but then there is also the other side of the coin to consider. And there’s a lot written on that other side to take into account. For one thing, the list of capital crimes includes sins for which no reasonable person would today want to punish the wrongdoer with death. (The biblical text that ordains the execution of the fellow caught gathering sticks on Shabbat comes to mind.) For another, the halachah as it evolved eventually placed so many restrictions on the practice of executing criminals that it would not be exaggerated to say that the practice was outlawed by the law itself if not de jure, then certainly de facto. (To give only one example, to qualify a defendant for execution not only do witnesses have to come forward to testify that the accused committed the crime in question, but also that he or she was specifically warned that the act about to be undertaken carries the death penalty and then that the accused formally indicated awareness of that fact by actually saying so aloud. And how many times can we suppose that actually happened?) And finally there is the work of the Innocence Project to consider, a project undertaken in 1992 by lawyers at the Benjamin Cardozo Law School that to date has proven categorically that 250 individuals found guilty in court, including seventeen who were sentenced to death, were in fact innocent. So there’s also the question to consider of whether the fallibility of the system itself should render unreasonable the death penalty regardless of whether it would be reasonable if the system were infallible. (You can read more about the Innocence Project at and I encourage you to do so. It’s powerful reading, inspiring and upsetting at the same time but more than worth every citizen’s time to consider.)

I’ve been reading lately about the case of our co-religionist Martin Grossman, who is scheduled to be executed in Florida next Tuesday evening. The details of Grossman’s case are not in doubt. When he was nineteen years old in 1984, he and a friend got high and went off into the backwoods of Pinellas County to shoot a stolen handgun. When they were discovered by Florida wildlife officer Margaret Parks, herself only twenty-six years old at the time, Grossman begged her not to report the incident. (Grossman had previously been arrested and convicted of burglary and was on probation at the time. Both being in Pinellas County and possessing a weapon, even not a stolen one, would have been considered serious violations and he would undoubtedly have been sent back to jail.) A struggle ensued when Officer Parks tried to radio for help and it was in the course of that struggle that Grossman was able to seize her gun and shoot her in the back of the head, killing her instantly. None of this appears to be in doubt. But even so there are questions to consider. Should people be put to death for murders that were clearly not premeditated? Does it matter than he was a mere teenager when he committed the crime? Should the fact that the murderer was high on self-administered illegal drugs be considered a mitigating factor or does that detail make him even more responsible for his crime by having personally rendered himself so clearly out of control? Does it matter that the rabbi who regularly visits him in prison, a certain Rabbi Menachem Katz of the Aleph Institute (a Chabad-based outreach effort to Jewish men and women in prison) reports that he is fully remorseful and that he even received permission from the warden of his prison to put on tefillin during the rabbi’s last visit? All of these issues trouble me when I try to think clearly about sending this particular murderer to his death. And yet, I also ask myself, what of Margaret Parks’ family? Surely they would be reasonable in feeling that commuting Grossman’s sentence would somehow imply that his life is more valuable than hers, that it would be unfair and unjust for him to qualify for a new lease on life while she must remain dead merely because he, unlike her, isn’t dead yet.

And now we get to my hekesh. I was thinking about this—and reading the exceptionally interesting comments Grossman’s story has elicited from a certain segment of the Jewish world at the Yeshivah World News site at —when I found myself watching a very interesting program on the Public Broadcasting Service website about the Allied bombing raids on Nazi Germany. (You can see the program on-line at It’s a very good documentary, one in the extremely well done American Experience series that I am pleased to recommend to you. But it does not make for easy or simple viewing because it focuses on the moral issue of bombing as much as on the military ones, thus inviting viewers to decide how they feel about the larger effort not solely in terms of its tactical effectiveness.

Readers of mine cannot doubt that in my opinion nothing that led to the Allied victory deserves to be labeled, especially after-the-fact, as immoral. The documentary does not allow you to dismiss the issue by mouthing slogans or relying on priorly formulated theories, however. Instead, you are obliged to back up your certainty about the morality of the bombing raids over Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden and many other target cities by looking at footage displaying the mountains of corpses those raids left behind. Was it morally justified to kill civilians, including children, merely because they belonged to a rogue nation that had collectively undertaken to commit the greatest crimes against humanity imaginable? Even Abraham, after all, stopped when he got to the possibility of there being ten righteous people in Sodom! What if there had been eight or seven? Is the lesson there that as the level of depravity a nation embraces becomes the greater, the right of the individual citizen not to pay for the crimes of the larger polity diminishes? Does the eradication of evil justify the taking of human life? Clearly, our tradition endorses that idea unequivocally! And if the unavoidable nature of collateral damage—as anyone, even we who suffered so indescribably at the hands of the Nazis, should surely be able to label the deaths of babies—is not enough to make it unreasonable to do whatever it takes to defeat evil no matter what, then how can we question the decisions made by the Allied leaders to do just that regardless of what they surely must have understood that such an all-out effort was inevitably going to entail?

And then, having watching the documentary in its entirety, I returned to my writing desk to ponder the fate of Martin Grossman. The State of Florida is poised to take his life in just a few days. Are they being just or vicious, reasonable or vindictive, fair or inhumane? I would possibly have considered the issue in different terms had I not paused in my work to watch that documentary, but in its wake it now seems to me that the criterion for executing a criminal in our country, or in any country, should be whether that act of taking that specific human life can reasonably be said to help effect the eradication of evil from our midst. To answer that question, obviously, requires being able to define “evil” and not just to refer to it vaguely. Are all murders by definition evil acts? Does it matter if the murderer is a drugged-out teenager only vaguely aware of his actions? Or if the murderer’s subsequent remorse is so total that his subsequent execution will not eradicate evil because the evil that prompted his crime itself no longer exists after having been already eradicated not by a lethal injection but by the murderer’s absolute repentance for his deed? Leaving aside the question of who would ever be qualified to make such a decision regarding the purity of another’s teshuvah, would the absence of evil in the heart of the murderer render his execution immoral? These are the questions I find myself asking as I contemplate the imminent death of Martin Grossman.

It seems to me that as we continue to debate the death penalty issue in our country, the specific contribution of our Jewish community can and should be to force the issue to be discussed not solely in terms of how effectively the death penalty can or does serve as a deterrent to future crime, but whether the act of taking a human life in any given case can be reasonably and fairly described as a step toward the eradication of evil in the world. By focusing the issue in that specific direction, we will be helping our society to move forward in the establishment of a criminal justice system that has the betterment of the world and not merely the punishment of criminals at its moral core. Nor does saying that mean that criminals should not be punished, merely that the act of taking a human life is a matter of such ultimate moral gravity that it should only be undertaken when it serves society positively and not merely by punishing a bad person or by preventing him or her from doing more bad things (which result could be just as effectively achieved with permanent incarceration). And that’s where I am in my thinking on the matter after being obliged by an unexpected hekesh to consider the matter as it plays out on the level of the individual in light of the larger questions that swirl around the same issue when discussed in terms of warfare between nations.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

In Search of Heroes

Last week, I wrote to you about the death of Miep Gies, one of the parties responsible for hiding Anne Frank and her family from the Nazis for as long as they did and the woman who actually found Anne’s diary and preserved it until she could return it to Anne’s father. Partially, I wrote because I wanted to take formal note of her passing at age 100. But I also wrote because I find myself both fascinated and challenged by her constant refusal to let others label her as a hero, and specifically because her stance was prompted not by of her innate humility (or not solely by it) but because of her contention that it does the world no good to use the language of heroism to refer to people who simple do the right thing when the opportunity presents itself to safe a life or to watch over a child in danger or to sustain people trying to evade persecution. I wrote last week that although I find it impossible not to think of Miep Gies heroically I also do agree with her argument that there is something peculiar and counterproductive in labeling regular people as heroes merely because they choose the moral path and do the right thing. Maybe I’ll just have to think both things and at least for the moment leave it at that.

More peculiar than labeling as heroes people who merely choose to act morally is society’s regular use of that same term to describe people who become the catalytic agents for the moral advancement of society merely by being in the right place at the right time. Rosa Parks would be in that category. She was, of course, the black woman who in 1955 simply refused to give up her seat to a white passenger when a bus driver arbitrary moved the sign marking the seats on his bus in which black people could sit to make room for some white passengers who might otherwise have had to stand. She certainly acted bravely, reasonably, and responsibly. But her fame derives from the fact that her action—and her subsequent arrest—ended up sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott which in turn became one of the seminal events in the Civil Rights Movement, consequences she could not have foreseen and certainly hadn’t planned when she stepped onto that bus in Montgomery. And now we have the same song sung in a Jewish key in the story of Nofrat Frenkel, the woman who was arrested at the Kotel last November for the simple act of attempting to say her prayers there while wearing a tallit.

Nofrat Frenkel, twenty-eight years of age, is a fifth-year medical student and a native-born Israeli. She is also an active member of the Conservative kehilla in Kfar Saba, her hometown, and an officer in the Israel Defense Force. Like Rosa Parks climbing onto that bus in 1955, she had no expectation that her visit to the Kotel—the Western Wall—was going to make her name known internationally or that her arrest would galvanize the feelings of so many with respect both to the position of women in Jewish life and the position of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel. The fact that she was arrested on my own mother’s thirtieth yahrtzeit made a strong impression on me personally as well. My mother would have been outraged by the disgraceful way she was treated. I feel the same way. And I expect my readers will as well.

Like all incidents such as this—including Rosa Parks’—the short story of a woman’s arrest for refusing to obey a capricious, mean-spirited law specifically designed to legitimize prejudice has a longer story that goes along with it. In Rosa Parks’ case, the back story would have to do at least partially with the death of Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old black teen who had been brutally murdered just a few months earlier by racist thugs in Mississippi and whose death had been the topic of a civil rights meeting Rosa had attended just days before declining to give up her seat after a long, tiring workday. In Nofrat’s case, the back story has to do with the organization called The Women of the Wall which was founded in 1989 to guarantee that the Western Wall was not placed under the control of extremist haredi rabbis to whom any kind of non-traditional practices on the part of women—including things as innocuous as donning a tallit or reading aloud from a Sefer Torah—are anathema.

Most reasonable people would find it amazing that rabbis would devote this much energy to preventing people from deepening their piety through the performance of mitzvot, but to think that such people would have not to be familiar with the religious scene in Israel as it has developed over the last two decades. The short version begins in 1991, when the Women of the Wall first approached the Supreme Court of Israel to gain formal approval of their plan to worship in the Kotel Plaza. Eventually, they were turned down, but this led to the establishment of a commission to study the matter and the subsequent introduction of a bill into the Knesset by the ultra-Orthodox parties that would have changed the status of the Kotel from a national historical site to an Orthodox synagogue. Ultimately, the commission’s findings were rejected by the Women of the Wall and the bill to alter the Kotel’s status was defeated. Then, in 2002, the Supreme Court of Israel finally did authorize the Women of the Wall to hold prayer services in the women’s section of the Kotel Plaza. A few days later, however, the extremist religious parties in the Knesset introduced a bill that would not only have forbidden such practices de jure, but actually made participation in them into a criminal offense that carried a maximum punishment of seven years in prison and a hefty fine. The bill did not pass, but it did prompt the Supreme Court again to reconsider the matter and a year later, in 2003, a new ruling was passed that prohibited the Women of the Wall from holding prayer services at the Kotel, but required that the government provide them with an alternate area at Robinson’s Arch, an area almost adjacent to the Western Wall Plaza but not formally part of it. Eventually, a kind of begrudging compromise was reached with the Women of the Wall holding services mostly at Robinson's Arch and occasionally in the Kotel Plaza and their opponents mostly ignoring them.

And that brings us to the events of last November. I’d like to let Nofrat speak for herself, which I will do by citing an excerpt of an essay she published in the Forward just a few days after her arrest. “The morning of Rosh Chodesh Kislev, November 18, was a cold Jerusalem morning,” she wrote in the Forward on November 24 of last year. “We stood, forty-two Women of the Wall, and prayed in the women’s section. Our tallitot were hidden under our coats; the Sefer Torah was in its regular bag. There was no booing, no pushing, no shouting. We were surprised that our service passed off without any disturbance, and we thought that, perhaps, they had already become accustomed to our presence and that we could even read from the Torah opposite the stones of the Kotel. Then, just moments after we had removed the Sefer Torah from its bag, two men entered the women’s section and began abusing us. All we wanted was to conclude our prayers in peace, so we decided to forgo the Torah reading there and go, as on every other Rosh Chodesh, to read the Torah at the alternative site. As we were exiting with me carrying the Torah, a policeman met us and began forcefully pushing me toward the nearby police station. Our pleas and explanations that we were on our way to the alternative site were of no use. I was transferred for questioning to the station at David’s Citadel. All I had on me was my tallit, my siddur and a Sefer Torah. In my interrogation, I was asked why I was praying with a tallit when I knew that this was against the Law of the Holy Places. I am an Israel Defense Forces officer, a law-abiding citizen, a volunteer for the Civil Guard—I have never incurred even a parking fine—and the idea of having broken the law was most trying. Nevertheless, I cannot allow my basic right to freedom of religious worship to be trampled because of a court ruling given years ago….I was banned from visiting the Kotel for two weeks and a criminal file has been opened against me. I hope that the file will be closed, especially so that my medical studies will not be jeopardized. Perhaps, with God’s help, this regretful event will awaken wide public objection, enough for the high court to re-evaluate its decision and annul it.”

Nofrat’s case remains open, but even supposing that the police do not choose to pursue the matter, the question of whether her arrest will galvanize Israelis and Jews outside of Israel to respond as forcefully as Americans of all races responded to the arrest of Rosa Parks remains to be answered. Is she a hero? Miep Gies wouldn’t think so! And I suppose that I too hesitate to accord that kind of status to someone who merely exercised her basic civil right to worship according to the dictates of her own conscience without backing down in the face of legislation enacted solely to deprive her of that very right. And yet, just as I do when I consider Miep Gies’ story or Rosa Parks’, I find myself unsure how I really feel. To risk everything—her place in medical school (from which she could be expelled if she ends up with a criminal record) and in the army (which does not allow convicted criminals to serve) and her right to daven at the Kotel (which certainly should be considered the inalienable right of every Jew with no exceptions whatsoever of any sort)—for the sake of living in harmony with the dictates of her conscience sounds pretty heroic to me. And so here too I think I will have to live with a bit of paradox and simultaneously believe both that Nofrat Frankel did what any moral person should do by defying unreasonable laws and insisting on justice for herself and for others, and also that she acted heroically last November when she risked arrest merely by standing up for herself and doing the right thing.