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The Women of the Wall


Despite the elections, the little turf wars of Israeli society continue to add to the tensions of daily life. Here’s a story about another political campaign over the right of some women to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in a manner of their choosing.

Of course, this is not an issue over the right to pray. Jewish men and women have been praying at the Western Wall for thousands of years. Israel won control of the Old City back in 1967. Then for the first time it came under Israeli control. The realities of Israeli religious life have inevitably affected decisions about how the area around the Wall is managed. Since the Orthodox rabbinate, for better or for worse (in my opinion the latter), dictates state religious policy, anything that offends their religious sensibilities can be blocked. That is the reality. Women who go to pray at the Wall are segregated. I the past it might have been voluntary. Now it is obligatory. There are arguments both in favor and against, but that is the current state of affairs arrived at through legitimate political bargaining, however much one may object to the process.

Reform Judaism, which emerged in Germany in the nineteenth century, does not accept Orthodoxy and is offended by much of it. But since the majority of Israelis are descended from communities with no Reform tradition, that majority is seemingly happy for Orthodoxy to be the default position. In the Diaspora, of course, it is different. Nevertheless, losing ground in the USA, Reform and Conservative movements are rallying behind women campaigning to pray at the Wall in their manner and ritual. In fact, they have been given space near Robinson’s Arch to do so. But that is not enough. They want to queer the establishment pitch.

Anat Hoffman, of the Israel Religious Action Center of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, has repeatedly tried to pray in an overt display in the main section of the Wall, that offends, however irrationally (and I stress I personally have absolutely no objection whatsoever ). She has been regularly arrested and thwarted. A groundswell of support in Conservative and Reform communities is turning her stand into a cause celebre. I believe she is misguided however noble her intentions.

My argument against much of reformist Judaism is not its desire to create an alternative to conservative tradition. I welcome that. Variety is the spice of life. But I completely disagree with their efforts to interfere with or undermine one style in order to build something else. This is why I do not support the movement of Women of the Wall. They may pray, of course, in any manner they wish. But why at the expense of other forms?

I am an egalitarian. I believe that in matters of personal status and the law, men and women should be treated equally. And where Judaism does not do so, it needs either to accept the Law of the Land or to examine its own systemic limitations. However, in matters of religious ritual, it is up to religions and denominations to apply their own traditions, and anyone who objects is welcome to go elsewhere. At the same time, I am delighted that there are variations and differences in customs, styles, and degrees. Let each one have the freedom to grow or shrink, to attract or repel, so long as there is indeed choice. But choice does not mean making everything the same. If anyone, Jew or non-Jew, male or female, wishes to pray in his or her own way, there are plenty of places to go to in Jerusalem. At this moment the Wall is not one of them.

If one were to object to the bureaucratic stranglehold of the rabbinate in Israel, I for one would agree wholeheartedly. I despise religious parties and government-supported religious coercion. It is to this point that I believe women like Anat Hoffman should be directing their revolutionary zeal, not in trying to undermine a long tradition of Orthodox prayer at a specific site, whether one approves of it or not.

The rabbinate in Israel has been home to corruption, nepotism, incompetence, sexual abuse, financial dishonesty, insensitivity, monopoly, and turning thousands of Israelis against religion instead of welcoming them to it. Orthodox organizations of rabbis, such as the Tzohar movement, have been trying to present an alternative. If one wants to see change, then support them. The political system in Israel is such that until such time as there is the political will to change (amongst the secular, no less) nothing will. Token protests will continue to be futile.

The protests in Tel Aviv last summer against the massive inequalities and abuses of Israeli life highlighted the real issues. If Anat is concerned about the spiritual wellbeing of Israel, that is the sort of campaign to which her supporters should be directing their reforming zeal. In the meantime, she can have her services in a location close to the Wall but slightly to the left. Let those who support her join her there and when they outnumber the Orthodox they will carry the day.

I am glad there are women’s services and attempts to develop a female spirituality as an alternative to a traditional male form of service. The old way works well for me in some of its variations, not all by any means. But I recognize it does not for others. I would like to see more choice, more variety of religious experience rather than less. To try to force male systems of worship to change is not the way. To create new ones is. And if they succeed in getting more Jews to pray, I will be overjoyed.

7 thoughts on “The Women of the Wall

  1. Half, just give me half. You can have half too. How's that?

    The wall is not fairly divided, as we have discussed on other occasions, and as I have pointed out, if one nasty little corner is deemed fair, then let the men have it. If that's not fair (not 'equal but different') then split it down the middle, and stop making up excuses.

    If this has an added territorial resonance, it's because I do think it's all connected.

  2. And do what with it? It'd end up exactly as it is now so it does need 'policing' and more fairly. Even if you want to say it's just a municipal open space, that's not a reason to ignore unfair segregation. You'd not go to a park and put up with the same thing.

  3. Interesting that the first source for segregating the sexes comes in the Talmud Succah when masses of Israelites surged into the Temple on Festivals and the women complained that the crush of bodies was offensive to them. So the priests built a raised platform to give them some private space without males squashing them ( euphemism). I am not ure being surrounded by a lot of unwashed ill mannered males is an ideal situation!

  4. Then the half-and-half solution is a good one. Because the men who choose to daven together with women are generally not unwashed or ill-mannered.

  5. Jeremy, the vote is in for half each, we'll take the unwashed.

    You know that every theatre and cinema sells tickets for the central seats at a premium so you can't have failed to notice that the bit of the wall reserved for women is not the choice one, not the one the men would choose, and strangely, not one it's easy to find in a picture advertising the delights of Israel so the marketing people must suspect something, even if everyone else claims not to have noticed.

    Whatever you think about the wall, the division does not cover us in glory. I'd not like to try representing this in some meeting of faiths as one of the highlights of egalitarianism in Judaism. They don't do this in Mecca but if they did, if the Muslims said everyone should once in their lives go on the hajj but when the women arrived they were shunted off to one little corner, the world in general would think that was normal, that was typical of sexism and misogyny in Islam. What does our division say about us?

  6. Yes I do agree with you it is seen as a reflection on Orthodoxy's sexism. At root however I do believe it represents a very different mind set, that the home is more important than the public sphere. Why should public worship be regarded as more important than the private? Rambam doesn't think it should. Quite the contrary.

    Even so to argue against myself, in the Temple the only time men and women were separated in the public courtyards was on Simchat Beit HaShoeva when there was a general atmosphere of levity. Although some argue that the Ezrat Nashim proves there was separation in general.

    This is a typical example of the clash of cultures and I find myself once again in the schizophrenic state of agreeing with both.

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