Pharoah Lives—In The Hearts of Orthodox Jews

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Greetings from Budapest, Hungary, where I’m lecturing for a few days. By coincidence it’s also Passover, which gave special meaning to my visit to the old Jewish Quarter here.

I toured the famous Dohany Synagogue, the second largest in the world (after New York’s), along with several smaller ones. Done in various 19th century styles, one feature common to all is the physical separation of the genders—typically men downstairs, women upstairs.

This separation continues today in modern Orthodox Judaism in America, Israel, and around the world. Some Orthodox Jewish men won’t shake hands with a woman from outside their family. Many won’t dance with any woman, not even their own wife.

In Israel, in fact, the Orthodox Jews who control key government ministries control the 2,500-year-old Wailing Wall, preventing men and women from visiting or praying together at Judaism’s holiest shrine.

Which brings us to Passover, the festive holiday that celebrates the Israelite exodus from Egyptian slavery thousands of years ago. Tradition teaches that when Pharoah became frightened about the quickly-multiplying Israelite immigrants, he enslaved them, and, to limit their fertility, moved them to segregated dormitories—forcibly separating husband and wife.

How ironic, then, that Orthodox Judiasm repeats this destructive dynamic with its enforced separation of men and women. Indeed, fundamentalist Islam does the same, while Catholicism and evangelical Christianity do it symbolically.

How can religious people believe that marriage is holy, and then deliberately limit its intimacy and shared experiences? How can any Jew believe in a God that prevents marriage partners from praying together, from sharing a spiritual moment, from feeling connected to the tradition that helps keep them together?

A God who creates men and women who desire each other’s companionship, and then forbids them from sharing it fully, is not worthy of worship. Only a human mind could imagine such cruelty.

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