Wouldn’t the Jewish people and Israel be better served to solve the Women of the Wall dilemma quietly through political and legal channels? Israel is a democratic country where citizens can make change with their vote for political parties that represent their beliefs.
Wouldn’t the Jewish people and Israel be better served to solve the Woman of the Wall dilemma quietly through political and legal channels? Israel is a democratic country where citizens can make change with their vote for political parties that represent their beliefs.
Israel is a, actually the only, Jewish and democratic state. Israel's been trying to hammer out exactly what that means, and there's been a massive tug-o-war over the issue. What hasn't been a question, at least for most Israelis, is what each of these terms means independently. Democracy is European-style parliamentary government, and Judaism is the Judaism of our forefathers, Orthodox Judaism.
That being said, the same conception of Judaism is not shared by two groups that make the political and legal channels incredibly difficult: the Women of the Wall and the Supreme Court. The Women of the Wall are a group of non-Orthodox, possibly even anti-Orthodox, women who want to change the dynamic of prayer at Judaism's holiest site from traditional worship to something modeled after Reform and Conservative Judaism, which are perceived as unwelcome American imports. The Israeli Supreme Court is extremely left-wing and openly hostile to traditional Judaism.
If that sounds loaded and biased, then you will understand why the issue can't be settled in court. From the standpoint of Orthodoxy the cards are heavily stacked against the traditionalist camp, despite having much more popular support even among Israelis. The Women of the Wall have the sympathetic courts in Israel as well as heavy foreign support from American Jews and liberal non-Jews from around the globe. Orthodox Jews have no one but other Jews to get their back, though most Israelis are behind the Orthodox camp from the standpoint. From the standpoint of the Women of the Wall, the Orthodox do control one thing in Israel which gets in the way of what they would like to: the state Rabbanate. All religious functions having to do with the state including marriages, divorces, and holy sites. Basically, there is no unbiased objective entity for either side to appeal to.
Specifically from the side of Orthodoxy, there is an additional reason leaving this to politics and law isn't going to work. According to the Orthodox camp, religion is more than a recreational activity. It is the fulfillment of the will of G-d. The Temple Mount, with the Western (retaining) Wall occupying a special status, is the holiest site in Judaism and the Jews are trusted with maintaining its sanctity. To compromise on this issue, or even to begin a process that might have it compromised, would present two problems for the Orthodox. The Orthodox would have failed at their mission to preserve the sanctity of our holy sites. In addition, compromising on such a fundamental issue compromises the position from which the Orthodox can argue. After all, if one belief can be shelved just to keep the peace, why can't other beliefs be compromised either when they cause conflict with other groups. It destroys the concept of the immutability of the law. This leads to the delegitimization of the entire Orthodox position.
Honestly, as Orthodox people we are puzzled by the position of the Women of the Wall. If you don't believe in G-d, or at least in the G-d of the Bible that mandates animal sacrifice and sanctified this location specifically for that purpose, why would you attach any significance to this location? Why would you insist on worshipping in a place that represents values contrary to your own? We have serious difficulty understanding why the Women of the Wall are doing anything more than just being inflammatory and trying to bring the wrath of the world down upon the Orthodox. I personally understand that many of these women just want to worship the way they feel, and that there's cultural attachment to it. Still, I hope you can understand why Orthodox Jews might find the whole enterprise upsetting and quite frankly insulting. We feel like people are trying to hijack our religion and are using external pressures to so.
The Kotel (Western Wall) is a keen reminder that in ancient times our people suffered the destruction of two holy Temples in Jerusalem and that Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel must not be taken for granted. Rather, the exercise of sovereignty must be grounded in a sense of mutual responsibility and accompanied by deep humility.
Over the years, the Kotel has become a symbol, representing the holiness that the Jewish people attach to Jerusalem and to all that Jerusalem represents in our value system. It has become a powerful symbol of Jewish connection to the Land of Israel and to God; a powerful symbol of Jewish spirituality, of Jewish continuity, and of Israel’s essential vitality and resilience. As such, the Kotel “belongs” to the entire Jewish people, and is not the exclusive purview of one stream of Judaism.
Interestingly, the Talmud (Gitin 55b) relates a story about two Jewish men, Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, who hated one another. As the story is told, Bar Kamtza was accidentally invited to a party organized by Kamtza. The mistake became evident after Bar Kamtza had already arrived, when the host, noticing his presence, demanded that he leave. Bar Kamtza, apparently wishing to avoid public embarrassment, offered to pay for his meal so that he could stay. The host refused. Bar Kamtza then offered to pay for half the cost of the entire party but was still rebuffed. Finally, he offered to pay for the cost of the entire party but this offer, too, was rejected. In the end, Bar Kamtza was physically removed from the party. The Talmudic story continues and ties this incident to the eventual destruction of Jerusalem, and of the Temple in Jerusalem.
In many of our Jewish sources, sadly, it is concluded that the second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed because of “sinat chinam” - senseless hatred among the Jewish people.
Ironically, today, the Kotel has turned into a site where “sinat chinam” is evidenced on a regular basis, as one group of people wants to eject another group from the very site that should be a strong reminder to us all that we should find ways to share time and space in Jerusalem equitably and respectfully lest we destroy ourselves through senseless hatred.
It is important to remember that the Kotel was not always treated as it is today, as an Orthodox synagogue. My own mother remembered visiting the Kotel when it was a place where women and men came to pray, standing side by side, as they would in any public area.
Years later, when I myself lived in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem and prayed regularly in the women’s section at the Western Wall, I recall that the mechitzah, the separation between the women’s section and the men’s section, was constructed in a way as to allow me to sit next it it and to easily see and to hear and to feel connected to the religious service that was being conducted simultaneously by the men on the other side of the mechitzah.
Over the years, the women’s section of the Kotel has been made smaller and smaller. The mechitzah has been made increasingly higher and so dense that it is no longer possible to see through to the men’s section - thus making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a woman to feel herself included in the full service (including Torah reading) that is now only allowed to take place on the men’s side of the Kotel.
You ask whether the administration of the Kotel in this regard should best be left to Israel’s internal political and legal channels. This is a very good question to which I would respond as follows:
The Women of the Wall, who define themselves as a group of Orthodox women, although other women are certainly a part of the group, have been coming to the Wall for over two decades to pray as is their custom, in an all-women’s prayer group, and have worked through the political and legal channels in Israel to maintain their right to pray with a Torah scroll, donning tallit (prayer shawls) and tefillin (phylacteries), and singing aloud.
Personally, I have long ago found that egalitarian prayer is the spiritual path that I choose for myself. Nevertheless, I believe the Women of the Wall have every right to pray as they choose at the Kotel. I also believe that imputing negative motives to their prayer is not helpful and can easily lead to the increase of “sinat chinam” among our people. Let’s remember that only God knows with certainty what is in the hearts of others. In the words of the prophet Jeremiah (17:9-10), “Most devious is the heart...who can fathom it? I, the Lord, probe the heart, search the mind….” Let’s also remember that the Torah is a Torah of peace, as we read in Proverbs (3:17): “Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths, peaceful.”
While I believe that there should be provision made for those who feel they require a mechitzah for prayer - Women of the Wall and others - to have that opportunity to pray at the Kotel, I also believe that there should be time and space allotted at the Kotel for other forms of Jewish prayer. There is, in fact, plenty of room at the Western Wall to allow for various forms of Jewish expression and prayer to take place respectfully, side by side.
Most recently, Israeli court rulings have upheld the right of Women of the Wall to pray as they are accustomed to praying, in the women’s section of the Kotel. And, I believe that this ruling upholds a basic human right of a person to pray in the manner that they find meaningful, at the Kotel.
But, should diaspora Jews voice an opinion in this manner?
This question raises the issue of the appropriate amount of discussion of Israel by those Jews who are not Israeli citizens.
The Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel includes the following paragraph:
“WE APPEAL to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel in the tasks of immigration and upbuilding and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream - the redemption of Israel.”
Israel is defines herself as both Jewish and democratic and presents herself to the world and to the Jewish community in the diaspora as the homeland of the Jews. As such, Israel turns to Jews in the diaspora for support and for love. And, we are indeed, partners with Israel, in the sense that we have a stake in her welfare and we share in helping Israel become all that she can be for the sake of Israel, for the sake of the Jewish people, and for the sake of the family of nations that make up our world.
As long as our discussion of Israel is one that is grounded in love and support for Israel and for her basic right to exist as one of the family of nations in the world; as long as we identify with the vision of Israel as a work in progress and see ourselves as partners with her, we can and should voice an opinion about matters that touch on our own connection with Israel.
It is precisely because Israel presents herself as being central to our identities, and precisely because Israel is a democratic and Jewish State, that we have a voice, a say, in what happens in Israel. Only citizens of Israel have a vote. But, we have a voice, especially, when it pertains to matters that go the heart of our self definition as Jews.
Thankfully, because Israel is a democracy, and a Jewish one at that, voices of support and love can be heard and respected when they critique, as well as when they applaud successes and contributions of Israel to the Jewish people everywhere and to the entire world. This is part of the strength, the inspiration, and the leadership of Israel in a world that so greatly struggles, still in our time, to find “darkhei noam” - ways of pleasantness and avenues of true peace and justice in which to walk.
May Israel continue to flourish and to inspire! May senseless hatred decrease,
and may the blessings of greater love and understanding permeate our lives and the lives of all those around us speedily and in our time!
I can too easily imagine someone from the Haredi world asking the obverse of your question, why we don't all join in one accord to agree that their particular understanding of Jewish law and practice should prevail, and then all would be peaceful. Alas, we live in a pluralistic Jewish world. There is no single understanding of how Torah should be applied to daily life, what we often call halakha or Jewish law. The heartfelt religious practice of the Women of the Wall or of other non-orthodox groups who attempt to pray in mixed minyans at our most holy site is mis-understood, to be generous, by many orthodox believers. The task is to find a way to acknowledge the multiple understandings we have of our most basic spiritual document – no small feat when everyone holds it most dear.
Full disclosure: I believe that the Western Wall of the Temple is a religious site that belongs to the entirety of the Jewish people. It makes no difference whether they subscribe to traditional halakha or if they shape their observance according to the teachings of Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist or Renewal doctrine or if they follow their own inner yearnings. The Western Wall plaza should be an open area where all Jews may gather as they see fit – period.
As I consider the particulars of your question several thoughts come to mind.
First, the question of governance in the State of Israel. Yes, it would be lovely if this, and many other issues, could be decided “quietly through political and legal channels.” The Israeli system, however, is complex and argumentative. It is not clear to me, looking from this side of the Atlantic, that anything gets resolved in such a manner. But I am unqualified to comment on the workings of the Knesset.
Second, the access to the Western Wall. At one time it was a more open gathering place. Following the Six Day War Rabbi Yehuda Meir Getz was named the overseer of proceedings at the wall. After Rabbi Getz's death in 1995, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz was given the position. Wikipedia notes simply that he “has maintained rigid gender separations at the Wall, siding with the Haredi Jewish minority against the more numerous non-Orthodox Jews.” The open plaza at the Western Wall, however, can accommodate 400,000 people daily. One would think that is sufficient space to allow all Jews to gather. The efforts to assure equal access so all Jews may practice their understanding of Judaism at this most holy site have been going on for a long time. It appears that the struggle will need to go on a bit longer.
Third, it is not clear that gender separation during prayer has always been the norm for Jewish practice. Here are a couple of points to consider. When the Temple stood in Jerusalem one of the inner courts was known as the Court of the Women. It was open to all Jews, male and female. While there was a Court of the Israelites which was open only to men, it is significant that there was mixed space within the Temple precincts. Mishnah Sukkot 5:2 notes that for the Water Drawing Festival at the end of Sukkot a special women's gallery was constructed. The implication is that during the rest of the year men and women mixed freely within that area. Similarly, Tosefta Megilla 3:11 notes concerning the public reading of Torah that “All [people] count among the number seven, even a minor, and even a woman. But the sages said: A woman should not read the Torah because of the dignity of the congregation.” Again, the implication is that at some point in our formative history women participated fully in the rituals surrounding the Torah. While this is no longer Orthodox practice, it is the common tradition of other Jews today. Again, one can only hope that this site, a holy heritage of all Jews, be managed in such a way as to give us all equal access.
I have gone beyond your question and inserted my own beliefs concerning the disturbing events that have characterized the situation at the Western Wall. Years ago I was part of a mixed minyan at the Wall and suffered the taunts and curses of the Haredi Jews who protested our presence and did their very best to make our prayer impossible,though that sacrilegious behavior was mild compared to more recent events. I pray the situation can be resolved in favor the entirety of the Jewish people in the near future.
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