Ruth Marcus: Religion's tradition/modernity clash

BY RUTH MARCUS Published: February 15, 2013
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Several years ago, at my daughter's Bat Mitzvah, three generations of women in our family wore tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl traditionally worn by men. So did the rabbi, also a woman.

In Israel, this behavior can get you arrested.

This week, 10 women were detained by Israeli police for wearing tallit at Jerusalem's Western Wall.

An Israeli regulation prohibits “any religious ceremony” at the wall “not in accordance with the custom of the holy site and which offends the sensitivities of the worshippers.” Women wearing prayer shawls have been deemed unduly provocative because of the biblical injunction against women wearing men's clothing, and vice versa.

This episode may sound like some obscure tribal fight, and it is. But the dispute also echoes larger religious battles — not only within Judaism but also within Islam and the Catholic Church.

The common chord of orthodox religions' struggle against the tides of modernity involves women, specifically whether to loosen doctrinal restrictions on women. So it was a fitting coincidence that the latest skirmish involving the group known as Women of the Wall occurred the same day Pope Benedict XVI announced his abdication.

One of the central questions facing the Catholic Church — one of the stances on which Benedict was most unrelenting and on which his successor is likely to be similarly rigid — is the ordination of women.

The rational move, for a church facing a dire worldwide shortage of priests, would be to expand the pool of potential candidates. This concession to modernity would not be resisted by the faithful; polls in the United States and abroad show strong majorities in support of women serving as priests.

Instead, the church has been moving in the opposite direction, hardening the teaching against ordaining women priests and declaring this doctrine “set forth infallibly,” incapable of being changed. In 2010, the church decreed that the “attempted ordination of women” was among the list of most grievous crimes under church law, on a par with priests sexually abusing minors.

The church gets to set the church's rules; when you're pope, “because I said so” is a rather convincing — indeed, infallible — argument. The more interesting question is what fuels this rigidity.

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