While I support tolerance, acceptance and unity for the Jewish people, I can’t help noticing that when I have visited the Kotel many times during morning hours, there does not appear to be even a minute base of women that want to pray in an egalitarian style minyan. At the same time there are thousands davening at the Kotel every morning peacefully, representing many threads of Judaism. Why all the commotion to create an area for egalitarian minyanim (prayer groups) on a regular basis at the Kotel, when there doesn’t appear to be the numbers to justify using very limited prime real estate for this purpose? My question is more about the need to accommodate a very small specific group for a once a month event. Wouldn’t it be great to see thousands of Jews show up at the Kotel every morning demanding an egalitarian style minyan? That would show a different level of seriousness to the Women of the Wall (WOW) cause. But, as of now, that doesn’t appear to be the case. Wishing for peace and unity for the Jewish people, I want to know what this is really about.
You note that the times you have visited the wall there are not groups of women looking to pray in an egalitarian manner. Perhaps that is because the authorities have stopped women from doing so. For many years, the Kotel was deemed to be a space only for orthodox practice, not acknowledging the validity or sanctity of other approaches to Jewish life and prayer. That stifling of other modes of practices left little room for egalitarian prayer.
The Women of the Wall developed to educate and empower Jews committed to egalitarianism, as well as to change the status-quo at the Kotel. I like that they meet monthly on rosh hodesh. Rosh hodesh has been a holiday widely observed by Jewish women in history, and the fact that the service occurs monthly leaves space for other Jews to pray in other ways that make them comfortable. It seems to me that this is in fact a sign of respect for the other strains of Jewish practice; something that is distinctly not shown to the WoW when they arrive for davening.
I have prayed alongside the WoW. It was one of the most inspiring moments of my Jewish life. It was also one of the saddest moments, as Jews in black hats threw fruit, stones, and even a chair at the worshipers. It breaks my heart to see this kind of fighting, but I believe that we can also find a solution where Jews of many different strands can pray alongside one another; leaving space for those who want to pray in an egalitarian setting.
This group is not a “small group” as you indicate. The majority of the Jewish world believes in the contemporary value of equality. I could easily pray at the Kotel on the men’s side, but after having prayed with the WoW, I find that incredibly painful and difficult. It is also not an “event” as you describe but rather a plea for acceptance and equality. I am grateful that the Israeli court system is finally starting to agree with the WoW.
I too want peace and unity, but not at the expense of the core values I believe in. Sometimes, when there is injustice we have to pursue a new path, and new paths can be difficult. I hope the day will soon come when I can return to the Kotel with my two daughters (now 4 and 2), and hold their hand as we walk to the wall together. I want to see their faces when they kiss the stones that once held the Temple. And I want to be with them when they realize the sacred nature of that space and all that has been given up to regain ownership of that small place. And I want them to know that they are equal to any person who prays there and have just as much right to do so in their own way as the Jews who pray there daily. That is what the Women of the Wall is about. And it is why I am grateful for their work, and hopeful for their progress.
This question touches upon so many different topics, that I'm not sure where to begin.
Here are but a few aspects to consider.
1. The nature of the Kotel or Western Wall.
3. Holiness, Kedushah
4. The Ends Justifying the Means.
1. The Wall has many aspects.
A. A Holy Shrine
B. A piece of history, like a museum
C. A place of worship
2. Egalitarianism -
A. Women have rights, too.
B. Separate but Equal
A. What is appropriate behavior at the Holy Temple
B. Similarly at a Synagogue
4. Assuming the Ends are Jusitified, what means are justified?
Illustration: Rosa Parks
A. Would Rosa Parks have been justified in shooting the Bus Driver?
B. Hijacking the Bus?
C. Preventing the Bus from Moving?
1. Which forms of worship are appropriate at the Kotel and which are not?
2. Which forms of protest are legitimate at the Kotel and which are not?
3. What kind of protesting behavior
is acceptable during Services?
4. When is it OK to call attention to one's own cause while distracting others who are focused upon serving G-d?
4. We light Hanukkah Candles in the Synagogue to proclaim the Miracle of Hanukkah. What other proclamations would fall under this rubric?
5. One of Micah's exhortations is "Hatzn'eia Lechet im Hashem..." To Walk Humbly with G-d. Is calling attention to one's personal cause in a Place of Worship within the spirit of this Prophesy? Or is it a violation of Humitilty and Modesty to voice outrage during worship?
Some Random Comments
When I was a young man, a very powerful personality decided to impose his will and ego on the congregation. The Acting Rabbi got up and made a speech:
"When you walk into shul, you check your ego at the door." Meaning a synagogue is not the proper venue to air one's political grievances. There may be some exceptions, but not egotistical ones.
In the Ancient Holy Temple, even shoes and money purses were off limits. The reverence for the Holy Sites was quite demanding. It would be a shame to turn this plaza into a political battleground.
Newton's 3rd law of motion often comes to mind:
For every Action
There is an Equal and Opposite Reaction
Or for every provocation
There is backlash.
This dance of the Yin Yang often perpetuates hostility, without much peaceful resolution in sight.
Certainly WOW has some right to worship as they see fit. How they manifest their desires is one side of the issue; the other side is how they get mistreated. This seems to be a lose-lose confrontation without any winners.
If this dispute were conducted quietly without the glare of the media fanning the flames, possibly some amicable win-win resolution might result. Neither side would need to dig in its heels, and a form of compromise or accomodation might be forthcoming.
As it stands now, the Kotel Conflict seem to be mere pawns in the larger socio-political conflict which is perhaps best conducted outside the precincts of the "City of Peace".
Egalitarian prayer is an affront to many Orthodox Jews. That said, tolerance and accommodation are certainly possible. The less confrontation, the better; thereby increasing the likelihood of any peaceful compromise.
Indeed, it would be a wonderful thing for thousands of Jews to show up at the kotel every morning for egalitarian davenning. I would however, gently point out, that Women of the Wall does not acutally advocate for such a thing. Women of the Wall is actually a single-sex group - women only- who wish to daven as a group, read Torah and so on. WoW does have male supporters - whose davenning happens separately from that of WoW, and whose role is largely to stand by and protect the women while they are davenning, from things like soiled diapers, eggs, and chairs -and even direct physical assault- that are regularly directed at the women gathered there to pray. Keep in mind, that except for one month, when they were specifically ordered to do so, the soldiers there do not protect the women.
Perhaps this slightly fuller picture may offer a glimpse of why it might be difficult to bring WoW to the wall to pray daily. It takes a certain amount of courage to face down those who gather to taunt and harm them while they are praising God. It would be difficult to gather those people every day to do so, against the violence waiting for them. For most women who pray daily, it's simply far less difficult to go to one of the places where it is safe to do so.
So why not do so on Rosh Chodesh then? Is the Western Wall an ultra-Orthodox synagogue (I say ultra-Orthodox, because even according to both traditional sources and to the interpretation given to them by many of the Orthodox, there is no prohibition on women praying in groups, wearing tallitot or tefillin, or reading Torah; it is a political and social prohibition by the ultra-Orthodox, not a religious one), or is it a national landmark, a place for all Jews? What is this really about? Sadly, what it is really about is whether one group can caim to be the only true form of Judaism and enforce that in a public arena.
What is this really about, you ask? Is it about tzedek, justice, pure and simple? Perhaps. It certainly has something to do with betzelem elohim, the teaching that every human being, regardless of gender (“male and female God created them,” Gen. 1:27), reflects the image of God, and so merits as much as anyone the right to pray, according to Jewish tradition, at Jewish tradition’s holiest site. Which in turn suggests that this is also about how we define “Jewish tradition,” and about who gets to determine that definition. There is even a way in which this conflict we see playing out at the Kotel is part of a larger existential drama, the question of whether and how a vital and viable Jewish people—let alone a democratic Jewish state—will persist throughout the 21st century and beyond.
Some argue that the Women of the Wall, with their bold demand for the right of women to pray communally at the Kotel, are destroying klal Yisrael, a sense of connection and kinship shared by all Jews around the world. But I would argue that the ultra-Orthodox authorities do far greater damage by preemptively alienating Jews who want no part of the deeply sexist, narrowly prescribed scene at the Kotel. What would become of the Jewish community or the Jewish state if only those who conformed to an ultra-Orthodox practice remained? What becomes of any organism or community that refuses change?
My colleagues have painted a disturbing picture of what happens to women who attempt to pray communally at the Kotel—which is, as Rabbi Suskin has pointed out, quite different from attempting a mixed-gender, egalitarian minyan. At the age of thirteen, on my first visit to Israel and the Kotel, I witnessed the fate of groups who wish to pray in an egalitarian minyan, even at the back of the women’s side, where men are not strictly prohibited. Perhaps the presence in our congregational tour group of men—including our rabbi—and children protected us from the shower of projectiles the Women of the Wall endure monthly. Still, some thirty years later I carry memories of angry Jewish voices shouting in Hebrew, and black-clad arms waving threateningly. If anything, barriers against such gatherings have only grown since. Fear not: nothing resembling accommodation takes place for either egalitarian or women’s minyanim at the main Kotel plaza.
Not everyone possesses the heart of an activist. Not everyone has the courage and strength and brute patience to regularly endure these kinds of confrontations. It will take a change in circumstances or more time to grow a movement, or both, before we see vast numbers clamoring to alter the status quo at the Kotel.
What you don’t see at the Kotel are all the people who don’t visit, or who come and acquiesce because it’s easier than trying to effect change. You don’t see, unless you’re looking for it, the deterioration of conditions for all women at the Kotel over the past decade (speaking of very limited prime real estate). The Women of the Wall register a protest on behalf of all of these.
You imply that the disturbance created monthly by the Women of the Wall is perhaps unjustified based on their numbers. As I hope I’ve made clear, I disagree, but supposing it were true, what then? Should these women, too often arrested for their civil disobedience, be imprisoned or banned permanently from the Kotel? Would that, in your view, contribute to peace and unity for the Jewish people?
This is really about religious equality and dignity for Jewish women; really about justice, democracy, and human rights for all citizens in Israel, Jews and gentiles, women and men. Any who value these principles owe Women of the Wall a debt of gratitude.
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