LETTER HOME: I SHALL STAND WITH THE EXCLUDED
Dear Family and Friends,
They say that life is all about balance.
This trip, in particular, is a constant struggle for equilibrium. Am I updating the blog enough? Should I devote more time to my volunteer or work-exchange projects? Could I be getting more physical exercise? Am I Skyping my mother with sufficient regularity? Is my budget balanced? I could go on and on with the scales I balance. Such is the dance of any ambitious human.
One of the challenges that I navigate in more ‘religious’ settings, such as the intensity of Marrakech or the history of Jerusalem, is trying to find a balance between being a “good traveler” and permitting myself to have organic personal beliefs/honest reactions to what I witness. I have a notion somehow installed that the good traveler is able to remain diplomatic and nonjudgmental, they greet difference with intrigue and patience and celebration. That is an ideal that I strive to attain, but I am certainly not always that person. I have judgments and opinions and gut reactions.
Today was like that. I tried to be open. But it was tough.
I stood before the Western Wall in Jerusalem and observed the culture of a religion that is rich in ritual. The Western Wall has been a place for Jewish prayer and pilgrimage for centuries. And today I watched men dressed in traditional garb, pulsating as they recited scripture, young boys sitting diligently in desks, absorbing the traditions of Judaism and tourists watching with intrigue at what was unfolding before their eyes. I was clearly one of the latter.
I observed the holy men for about fifteen minutes, and when I was ready to exit the plaza, I picked up a small information pamphlet about this meaningful location. It addressed some questions that were looming in my somewhat un-educated head. What is the significance of The Western Wall? What does the Temple mean to Jews and to non-Jews? Why is the Temple Mount sacred?
But the question, and subsequent response, that struck me the most on this little pamphlet was this:
Question: “What is special about being at the Western Wall?”
Answer: “All stand equal in front of the Wall.”
This where I drifted out of “good traveler” mode and into “human being with his own personal politics” mode. I found this proclamation of equality to be awfully odd considering the segregation that I observed – at the Western Wall, there is a boundary that divides male and female access. The immediate question elicited was, “If we’re so equal, why are we separated?” Furthermore, I’d say that two-thirds of access to the Western Wall was devoted to men. And I don’t want to sound like a math whiz or anything, but as far as I remember from my 12th grade calculus class, equality would be expressed (in physical sense) as a ratio of 1:1. But I probably forgot to divide by pi or carry the denominator or something. Or maybe, in this instance, men are considered just a little more equal. Sorry gals.
As a response to this, my feminist side was doing a bit of dry heaving.
To most of us, this is not overly shocking. For myself, it was not a sudden personal revelation that gender inequity existed in religious practice or expression or in the world in general. And in this instance, my distain for dogmatic practice and gender-based inequity trumped my desire to be a nonjudgmental “good traveler.” I have a whole backpack full of heated, judgmental opinions of what I witnessed at the Western Wall.
And as I walked away, I began to think more about what it means to be “divine” or “holy”.
If one wishes to be “holy” or valid in the eyes of the divine, I believe that there are better things to do than wrap a leather strap around one’s wrist or fast for a month or wear an orange robe while begging on the streets or consume wine in honor of some sort bizarre blood-sipping ritual of eternal life. Sometimes I witness religious practice and I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.
Any “God” or “divine figure” that has ever resonated in my soul would NEVER expect me to recite scripture or wear a certain hat or be separate from my sisters or prostrate myself in search of forgiveness for an inherently sinful soul. Instead this figure would encourage other types of action: creating a job for the under-employed, teaching a person how to grow vegetables, listening to the stories of an elderly person, eliciting smiles from a sorrowful person. As far as I’m concerned, kindness and compassion are the closest human practices/expressions of divinity. If I want to be divine, I should get off my knees and go plant some vegetables.
And some folks might retort, saying that these aforementioned religious activities are rich with history and meaning, and actually succeed in uniting people. And I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. But, I reply, if we want to move towards a state of honoring human rights and encouraging universal human access to equity-based conditions, then we will have to sever some of our old practices, or at least reform them to a point where they might not be recognizable.
Sorry all of you dogmatic religious folks, that’s just how I see it.
And I should state, for the record, that I’m not opposed to religion (or religious practice); I think Judaism and Christianity and Islam provide a moral compass for millions of people across the planet. I just hesitate to celebrate organized belief systems until there are major transformations that put to rest the centuries of perpetuated inequalities.
I look forward to the day when I can give the “thumbs up” to religion. This day will occur when the Vatican celebrates the ordination of the first female Pope, when Islamic leaders unanimously agree that LGBT peoples are an expression of Allah’s love for diversity, when Rabbis declare every single human being as a “chosen one”. On this day I will celebrate the divinity of religious practice.
Until then, I shall stand with the excluded.
And that actually helps me feel more balanced.
Hi Ladies! Please keep to the right. You won’t be having as much access to the divine as the men.
Yeah. Sorry about that.
The brown fence separates the women and men.