Pray one way, vote another

September 22, 2000|By Ellen Goodman

WASHINGTON -- The synagogue on the corner of 28th and N streets seems a bit out of place. Georgetown is, after all, the high-rent epicenter of the capital city, and Kesher Israel is as unpretentious as an old European shul.

A member of the synagogue, Jerry Roschwald, ushers me into a room of worn chairs, unadorned beige walls and dark woodwork. "Would you like to see where Lieberman sits?" he asks, and points with pride to the third seat from the left in the second row. It's where the candidate for vice president worships when he's in town.

I ask where Mr. Lieberman's wife, Hadassah, sits, and Mr. Roschwald points to the cluster of seats partitioned off to one side. These and the rows on the balcony are reserved for women.

"Second-class seating?" I suggest. My guide raises his eyebrows. He has heard that before from his two grown daughters. Some women, he assures me, believe that the balcony has the best view in the house, but then he acknowledges with a friendly shrug, "If any objective person came for the first time to the synagogue, they would look around and see something funny."

This visitor is here for the first time because Joe Lieberman has been welcomed on the American scene as a religious man making a connection with faith communities of every stripe. In a few days the Lieberman family is expected to spend the High Holy Days in Kesher Israel. Never mind the generic applause for religion. What will we make of the details?

In Judaism, it is said, there is a rabbi for every point of view. At Kesher Israel that view is Modern Orthodox and that rabbi is Barry Freundel. Modern Orthodox is not an oxymoron but rather a running dialogue, sometimes even an argument, between the modern and the orthodox, between change and tradition.

The tension is felt keenly by some Jewish women who feel pulled between the desire to belong to a strong religious community and the desire to be accepted on equal terms. It's a tug between patriarchy and feminism.

What may look "funny" -- old-fashioned? sexist? -- to outsiders is not just segregated seating. It's the ban against women as rabbis. It's the rule that women don't count in the quorum needed to pray. It's the fact that only men can grant a divorce. And the morning prayer that men begin by saying "Thank God I'm not a woman."

The "modern" in "orthodoxy" came in part, ironically, when some rabbis espoused equal religious education for women. But as Samuel Freedman, who has written about the intra-religious struggles in "Jew vs. Jew," says, the result of this education "is a revolution of rising expectations for women in Modern Orthodox." Having studied the Torah, why not read from it in the synagogue? Why not become a rabbi?

This problem of rising expectations is by no means limited to Orthodox Judaism. It's shared by Catholic women who want to remain part of the church and want to see women in the priesthood. It's shared by some fundamentalist Christian women, by some Muslim and Mormon women who sometimes must choose between their spiritual community and their self-image as equal.

Mr. Freundel, the learned and likable rabbi at Kesher Israel, reconciles or perhaps rationalizes some of the conflicts. Segregation is not to keep women in the back of the bus, but to eliminate distractions for both genders, he says.

At the same time, he opposes the Orthodox stricture that grants men a divorce veto and explains, "This is a synagogue that says modernity is important, the secular view of women is important and does challenge us and make us think. But you blend it and meld it. You come up with the best of American culture that's acceptable within Jewish law."

What of the issues that won't blend or meld? There are contradictions that many Americans live with, contradictions between religious and secular values. Do they have anything to do with public, even political life?

Mr. Freundel says that Joe Lieberman "presents himself as a vice presidential candidate who happens to be observant and expresses that observance in Judaism. Finding common ground with other observant people gives him a shared set of values. What goes on in Jewish ritual service on this issue (of women) has nothing to do with public policy as vice president."

In fact, much has been written in this campaign about bringing God to the ballot box, about wearing too much faith on too many sleeves.

But the separation of church and state holds fast for the Catholic who attends mass on Sunday and votes for family planning on Monday. And it holds for the Orthodox Jew who sits in segregated seating in Georgetown on Sabbath and votes for women's rights on Capitol Hill on Monday.

In America, the separation of church and state, religious and secular life, is not just in the Constitution. It exists, not always easily, in hearts and minds.

Ellen Goodman's is a columnist for the Boston Globe and her email address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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