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.

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