Ruth Marcus: Religion's tradition/modernity clash

BY RUTH MARCUS Published: February 15, 2013
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Why is the idea of a female priest so threatening? Why is the notion of a woman wearing a prayer shawl so provocative? As with women as Catholic priests, there is no positive biblical injunction against this practice, although, again as with women priests, it's contrary to tradition.

And why in the more extreme corners of Islam is the thought of a girl receiving an education, or a woman appearing alone or uncovered in public, so inflammatory?

That question is, I admit, a sudden shift, a marked rhetorical escalation. The pope is not the Taliban. Neither are the ultraorthodox rabbis. There is no comparison between their positions, however irrational and chauvinistic, and those of Islamic extremists.

But I would also suggest that the underlying impulses are not all that different: fear of encroaching modernity undermining doctrinal control.

That this reasoning is not necessarily conscious on the part of those seeking to maintain authority does not make it any less powerful. “I think it's truly a deep-seated belief on the part of the male hierarchy that they have this profound theological obligation to keep it as it is,” Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University told me.

The tallit-wearing women did not seek to pray on the side of the wall that has been designated for men. And yet their actions — doing something common in my conservative synagogue — were deemed so threatening to public order that the police felt compelled to act.

To believe in religious liberty is to insist that the Catholic Church has the right to decide not to allow women priests, however backward this might be. To believe in religious pluralism is to insist that no single authority can dictate proper behavior. The Israeli government faces competing claims to a holy site. The solution cannot be for the Jewish state to arrest Jewish women for practicing their religion.

WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP