Something happened at the Western Wall a few months ago that I can’t quite get out of my head. We were touring the old city with a private guide I’ll refer to as Slightly Zealous Guy (SZG). Slightly Zealous Guy is sort of a New Orthodox young man in his early thirties who was raised in a secular household and whose recent discovery of religion makes him alternately fascinating and boringly excited about his own self-discovery. The day was long and sweaty and we were trudging around in the full heat of the day. And we came to a part of the city where there’s a perfect view of the Western Wall from above and a perfect view of the curtain that divides the men’s side from the women’s side. We stood at that vantage point for a while and SZG talked about the wall and the history and talked about going down later in the day and how we could put our prayers on little pieces of paper in the crevasses of the wall like so many before us.
But before we walked away, before we moved on to our next stop, I asked Child Two to take a moment and tell me what he noticed about what he saw. Besides the obvious – besides the security and the variety of Jews worshipping in a variety of ways – what else did he see? Without hesitation Child Two pointed out that the curtain that separates the men from the women does not separate the sexes into equal parts. Or, in his words, “um, the men’s side is bigger?” “Yes,” I said, “that’s exactly right. And why do you think that is?” At that point, SZG piped in, “Ah,” he began, “this is because more men come to the wall than women. So the men need more room. The curtain divides the sections in direct proportion to the number of visitors.”
I looked down at the wall as he spoke and here’s what I saw: a very large section rather sparsely populated with a variety of men ranging from Black Hats to tourists of indistinguishable religion; and a very small section jam packed with women standing four and five deep at their paltry section of wall. I was just hot enough, and just tired enough, and just annoyed enough by our sweet but overly zealous guide’s reasoning, that I briefly lost the polite air that permeates the space between guide and tourist and blurted out, “That’s ridiculous! Look down there – the women’s side is packed. I want to make sure the children are aware that , in addition to the wonderful things about Judaism and its rich history, there are some things that are not so great.” “In my opinion,” SZ Guy shot back, “the division is correct. And I am entitled to my opinion.” “Yes, you are,” I said as I strode away. “And I am entitled to disagree.”
Why has this moment stuck with me? Why did it upset me so? Of course SZG and I are not going to agree on certain aspects of Judaism. What upset me is not that we did not agree. What upset me is not that he did not see what I saw. What upset me is that I am not educated enough, not well-read enough, to be articulate about an inequity that must be addressed. What upset me is my own frustration with my paltry intellect, ill-prepared to take on this young man in a reasoned and powerful way.
So it is with great anticipation and even greater respect that I look forward to reading Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDun’s book, Half the Sky (due out tomorrow in bookstores). In an interview about the book, Kristof says that the transcendent moral issue of this century is legal discrimination against women and girls. WuDunn goes on to say that if we do not take responsibility for empowering and educating women, we cannot tackle global poverty and extremism. Their goal is awareness – awareness of the issue so that it becomes part of the global agenda, the worldwide conversation. It is not complicated like nuclear proliferation. It is not impenetrable like other world issues. Their thesis, supported by research is pretty simple. Empower women through education or microloans and change the world. Kristof and WuDunn are, in a better-researched and more articulate way, pointing out the curtain that divides the world into unequal parts. But rather than simply being frustrated by the curtain, they are providing a context and a solution – a way to activate and participate in the solution. They are suggesting that we all have a responsibility to open our eyes, not just to the indignities of global poverty, but to the potential solutions - solutions that we can all have a hand in if we are aware and proactive.