May 20, 2013

Women, the Wall, and Jewish Unity

Rabbi Haber

Ten days ago, on Rosh Chodesh Sivan (Friday, May 10), there was an angry, hostile and even somewhat violent confrontation at the Kotel (Western Wall). Unfortunately, such incidents have taken place from time to time in the past, usually prompted by Moslems rioting on the Temple Mount above the Kotel. But this was different. This time, tragically, the hostility and violence was between Jews and their fellow Jews.

The impetus for the disturbances was a Rosh Chodesh prayer service conducted by a group called the Women of the Wall. The service itself, while non-traditional (the women wear tallitot and tefillin and sometimes read from a Torah scroll), was hardly unusual; the group has been doing pretty much the same thing at the Kotel every single Rosh Chodesh for approximately 25 years. However, even a few days in advance, everyone knew that this month was going to be different.

Routinely, when the Women of the Wall would come to pray on Rosh Chodesh with their tallitot and Torah, they would be met and confronted in the Kotel plaza by a small group of haredi Jews who are offended by what they view as an extreme violation of Jewish law and an affront to their sensibilities. In response to this and with the backing of legislation and court decisions, the police had been restricting the activities of the Women of the Wall, allowing them to pray as a group but only if they were wearing "female-style" (colorful) tallitot. Women found  wearing traditional "male-style" black-and-white tallitot would be detained by police. However, in a dramatic ruling several weeks ago, the Jerusalem District Court overturned previous decisions and declared that the women were to be allowed to pray as the wanted, without any police interference.

The Women of the Wall announced that they would return on Rosh Chodesh Sivan to pray according to their beliefs, and the police confirmed that they would respect the court decision and allow the service to proceed unencumbered. In response, a new organization called "Women FOR the Wall" was formed to create a counter-presence of traditional women at the Kotel. Backed by a number of rabbis, the new group issued a call for busloads of women and girls to arrive at the Kotel early in the morning that day, in order to pray in a traditional manner.

Many thousands showed up, so that the women's section of the Kotel was completely filled when the Women of the Wall arrived and they needed to conduct their service in the plaza behind the prayer area. Although most of the traditional and haredi Jews at the Kotel refrained from direct confrontation, a small number verbally and physically assaulted the women, and the police struggled to maintain order. People who were present described the scene as exceedingly chaotic and disturbing.

This incident seems to be part of a larger battle that may be emerging between the religious and secular camps in Israel. Just last week we heard of a court decision preventing mikveh attendants from enforcing the halachic ban on single women immersing, read about a large haredi demonstration that turned violent, and were informed that Justice Minister Tzipi Livni is planning to introduce legislation banning many haredi practices of gender-seperation. And then yesterday's paper announced that Finance Minister Yair Lapid is hoping to legalize non-halachic and gay marriage in Israel.

Assumedly, the reason this is all coming to a head now is because of the recent change of power in the government – for the first time in many years we have no haredi parties in the coalition. The secularists thus sense an opportunity to make changes, and the haredim are feeling attacked and defensive: a recipe for an explosive environment. We saw the potentially devastating results of this tension on Rosh Chodesh, and I fear that if we don't take steps to control the situation, it can become much worse.

What can we do about this disturbing reality?

There are a number of different aspects to this complex question.   [One issue raised by the Women of the Wall that I will not discuss now is a halachic question: how much room does Jewish law allow for diversity and egalitarianism? I will not discuss that point in this post, but have done so in the past. If you are interested, you can follow these links to listen to a talk I gave last year evaluating (and disagreeing with) the strict rules of tzniyut (modesty) that are currently standard in haredi communities in Israel, read an article I wrote a number of years ago regarding "Orthodox egalitarian minyanim", and/or listen to my discussion of "Women and Halacha: Tradition and Innovation".]   For now, I would like to discuss the practical side of the current situation, and to briefly address three points:

1. What happened that day at the Kotel (Jews fighting with Jews at the foot of the Temple Mount) was a huge Chillul Hashem – a desecration of God's Name. And the timing was particularly bad, coming as it did just a few days before Shavuot, the anniversary of the great Assembly at Mount Sinai, where we stood "as one man with one heart" (Mechilta, Rashi, Shmot 19:2). This past Rosh Chodesh, we seemed particularly far from that exalted reality.

Of course, each side in this confrontation blames the other for causing the terrible desecration. I blame them both, equally.

Those haredim who insulted and assaulted the Women of the Wall committed an unjustifiable sin. There is absolutely no excuse for that type of conduct, regardless of how the women were conducting themselves. And although the overwhelming majority of haredim present that day did not participate, the lack of condemnation from haredi leaders is quite disturbing. Even Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the rabbi of the Kotel, was able to articulate sharp criticism of the women who came, but somehow couldn't find any words of rebuke for the reprehensible behavior of those who attacked them. This is unacceptable.

At the same time, the Women of the Wall also deserve strong condemnation for deliberately fanning the flames of controversy in this holy site, and for cynically appropriating rituals of prayer for the sake of feminist protest. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with their demand to be able to pray at the Kotel in the manner they choose, it is reprehensible to come month after month, accompanied by reporters and politicians in a deliberately provocative manner. (Some may believe that all they are trying to do is to pray according to their beliefs, but a brief look at their website makes their activist agenda clear. The main headline on the homepage clearly defines the goal of "fighting for women's rights". They also have the offensive audacity to refer to themselves as "liberators" of the Kotel, comparing themselves to the heroic paratroopers who fought there in the Six Day War.)  Political protest is of course legitimate - but not at the Kotel.

Regardless of my own opinions on the issue, I can respect people who sincerely believe non-traditional prayer should be allowed at the Kotel, and I can also respect people who are genuinely offended and hurt by such activities. But I cannot respect anyone – on either side – who defiles a holy site for the sake of self-aggrandizement or political protest. It is simply unacceptable, and the entire Jewish people should join in demanding an immediate end to this provocative behavior, from both camps.

2. This, of course, leads directly to the heart of the issue itself – what, in fact, should be allowed at the Kotel? If we want a country that is both Jewish and democratic[1], we need to ask: what is the proper balance on issues of Jewish law and religious diversity?

This is a very thorny issue, but I believe the key word is "balance". On the one hand, there are certain matters (like marriage, divorce, conversion and burial) that must be governed by a halachic authority, according to the standards defined by halacha. Failure to do so could split the nation irreconcilably. Furthermore, certain mitzvot (like Shabbat and Kashrut) are very potent Jewish symbols that should be observed in the public sphere – even at the cost of some limitations on personal freedom. These concepts were once part of the consensus in this country, and even many Jews who do not live a halachic lifestyle still recognize and respect them. We should work to restore the consensus and promote it as a national value.

In order to make this happen, though, it is of paramount importance that the religious groups recognize that we are not the majority in the country, and that others see things differently than we do. Asking the secular community to respect halachic regulations of certain matters as well as certain symbols in the public sphere means asking them to compromise on values that are important to them. This is a legitimate request – but only if we can do the same. Unity cannot be bought through coercion.

Sensible and sincere religious leaders have worked for compromise with secular Jews, and there are sincere and reasonable people on that side who are interested in such dialog as well. For example, around six years ago Rabbi Yaakov Medan (now Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion) met with Professor Ruth Gavison of Hebrew University and composed a proposal for a "covenant" between the religious and secular communities based on these principles.  One need not accept their particular proposals, but something of that nature is essential.

In a few weeks, the country will have a once-in-a-decade opportunity to take positive steps in this direction. A few weeks from now, two new Chief Rabbis will be elected. Anyone who cares about both the religious character of the country and the unity of the Jewish people should support a change in attitude at the Chief Rabbinate. It is essential that the Rabbinate make major changes in policy to reach out to the secular majority, while continuing to steadfastly uphold halacha. This can happen, if Rabbi David Stav is elected to the position of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi. The keys to that possibility currently seem to lie with Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett, so members of the public (particularly those of us who voted for his party) should let him know we support Rabbi Stav's candidacy.

3. Finally, as a follow-up to the above points, I would like to just say that it is important that everyone be reasonable. Returning to the particular issue of prayer at the Kotel, there is a very reasonable compromise that has been suggested by Natan Sharansky: to create a third section at the Kotel for egalitarian and non-traditional prayer, in the area of Robinson's Arch. The truth is that the proposal is not completely new – in fact egalitarian services have already been taking place in that spot for several years – but Sharansky's proposal addresses some of the limitations in the current arrangement. For example, since the area is currently an archeological park, egalitarian worshippers need to coordinate their visits in advance and pay an entrance fee. Sharansky's plan would change that and provide 24/7 free access to the area, just as exists in the current men's and women's sections.

This is an excellent proposal which has been accepted by many secular groups and also (amazingly) by Rabbi Rabinovitch and the haredi establishment. However, Sharansky's plan is meeting with strong opposition from an unexpected source: the scientific community. This is because his current proposal involves building a huge elevated deck over the entire area, which would obscure and possibly damage exceedingly important archeological remains. Therefore leading archeologists such as Eilat Mazar and even the director of the Israel Antiquities Authority have vigorously opposed the plans.

They scientists are absolutely right. The Robinson's Arch area is one of the most important archeological sites in the world, and it would be a terrible mistake to damage it. These concerns, however, can reasonably be met by making some fairly modest modifications to Sharansky's proposal: making the proposed deck significantly smaller and/or allowing free open access to the lower street area where the excavations are.  An additional benefit of these modifications would be that this somewhat more modest proposal could be implemented much more quickly than Sharansky's current plan.

The main opponents to those modifications, though, are the Women of the Wall and their supporters. Insisting on complete and total equality, they demand that the new egalitarian area be equal in size to the current men's and women's sections, even though the actual needs of the public do not by any means require that (on Rosh Chodesh Sivan, for example, the Women of the Wall and their supporters numbered approximately 300. Estimates say there were about 10,000 traditional worshippers in the women's section at the same time). They also insist on an elevated platform at the same physical height as the other two sections, which would require building the huge platform over the archeological remains. Neither of these demands is reasonable, and therefore they should be opposed and rejected.

Compromise on essential ideological principles is a very difficult thing for anyone to do, particularly when dealing with matters of religious faith. Understanding this requires a major paradigm shift, where both sides realize that if either one "wins", we all lose. This paradigm shift must happen, however, because the alternative is unthinkable. Those who wonder what this means need only look at what happened on Rosh Chodesh to see an ominous harbinger of where the tensions could lead.

[1]Although this may be a very uncomfortable thought for some, it could be that this combination is ultimately impossible.  It may very well be the case that the country cannot be both completely Jewish and completely democratic, because these two concepts may in fact be somewhat mutually exclusive.  If so, then at times one of the two values will need to yield to the other.   We will then need to decide what we want - a Jewish state with many democratic aspects, or a democracy with some Jewish symbols.  But that is for a different blog post!

Sign up for my newsletter

Sign up for my newsletter for periodic articles along with updates on new talks, classes and videos, and upcoming speaking engagements and public tours

Powered by