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“Follow your bliss” was the watchword of the late Joseph Campbell, the cultural anthropologist who popularized the idea of the universal “hero’s journey” and the “spiritual quest.” Campbell was also an anti-Semite

The controversy surrounding the ritual role of women at the Kotel (the western wall of the Jerusalem Temple) peaked in the last several days with the arrest of women for adopting male roles (specifically, carrying the Torah scrolls during a prayer service last week). I do not propose to evaluate charges that the Israeli police overreacted, much less to address the difficult issue of women’s ritual leadership in Jewish worship. But the statement issued  January 27 by the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary made me want to go out and buy a black hat:

By permitting ultra-Orthodox extremists to control public life and block other caring and devoted Jews from fully realizing their spiritual quest, intentionally or not you send a message that Israel is not committed to democratic principles.

Quest, schmest. Who cares if anyone realizes their “spiritual quest”? That, if you will pardon the term is not goyische naches (a deprecatory Yiddish term referring to something that would give satisfaction to a Gentile) but pagan naches. It bespeaks Campbell’s New Age, narcissistic search for self-realization, not the fearful and ecstatic encounter with the creator of the universe.

The God who loved Abraham stands beyond all hymns and praises of which humanity is capable, states our most frequently-recited prayer, the Kaddish. How is it possible to approach this transcendent and omnipotent God? Judaism’s answer (and in a different way, Christianity’s) is that God himself has given us the means to approach him, through the Temple service of which ritual prayer is the successor, through Torah study, and through imitation of God in the form of works of lovingkindness. It is not a quest that we cook up for ourselves: it is a path not too difficult for our foot to tread.

Whether Judaism should change millennial tradition to accord women a ritual role long reserved for men is a agonizing question for the observant community. Last October our On the Square blog published opposing arguments by two prominent young Orthodox Rabbis Gil Student and Ben Greenberg, taking opposing sides of the issue. My innate sympathies run toward ordaining female Orthodox clergy—rabbis have a teaching rather than a sacerdotal function—but I appreciate the delicacy of the problem, and do not have the depth of understanding of Jewish law to defend a strong opinion.

But I find it disappointing that the Conservative movement chooses to argue its position in terms of New Age spiritualizing rather than Jewish theology, law and tradition. It wasn’t always this way. A dozen years ago, Rabbi David Lincoln, then the senior rabbi at the Conservative movement’s flagship congregation Park Avenue Synagogue, commented on the efforts of liberal Jews to remove the barrier (mechitza) separating male and female worshippers. The Ottomans and the British had refused to allow a mechitza precisely in order to undermine Jewish services, in which men and women traditionally pray separately. Jews had to fight for a mechitza against hostile foreign authorities; not until the Israeli Army took East Jerusalem back in 1967 was it possible for traditional worship to prevail. “The Orthodox have a passion for prayer,” Rabbi Lincoln explained, and it was fitting for the services at the Kotel to proceed under traditional rules.

Whether the Israeli religious establishment is justified in setting the strictest interpretation of rules for prayer at Judaism’s holiest site is a profound and bitter debate. I hope to publish a comment before long from a qualified writer. But Rabbi Lincoln (since retired), despite his own liberal opinions, nonetheless cautioned his congregation from the pulpit to respect the Orthodox position. The Conservative movement has come a long way, and in the wrong direction, when it pouts about how the Orthodox interfere with its “spiritual quest.”



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