What Modern Orthodox Jews Think of Women of the Wall

How many things are wrong with this picture? That depends on who you ask. [Photo by Miriam Alster]

It’s clear from recent changes that the mission of the Women of the Wall is gaining traction. The Jerusalem District Court ruled recently that the Law of Holy Places does not require “local customs” to be Orthodox practices, that police had no reason to detain the Women of the Wall earlier this month and that restraining orders cannot be granted to keep the Women away in the future. However, state prosecutors, under pressure from Haredi rabbis, are expected to appeal this ruling. We know about the Haredi view—they don’t want things at the Wall to change. And we know about the views Reform Jews and other liberal Jews—change must happen. But Haredim do not constitute all of Orthodoxy, and our opinion should not be defined by the extreme right. So where is Modern Orthodoxy in all this? What are the opinions in the middle?

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, a rabbi of considerable standing in the Modern Orthodox world, has written an article on that very topic. His article in the Jewish Week called for more Modern Orthodox Jews to speak out on the topic and, specifically, to “dissociate from the Haredi Western Wall Foundation.” I wrote my own article in the Huffington Post stating that the Wall cannot belong to the Haredim because it does not belong to anyone. But neither of these are the definitive Modern Orthodox view; there is no one viewpoint of the sort. Many pointed out that an article about the Modern Orthodox viewpoint should be comprehensive in its presentation of the various opinions within the Modern Orthodox community.

So here I will attempt to do just that. Just as all of Orthodoxy shouldn’t be defined by the Haredi viewpoint, all of Modern Orthodoxy should not be defined by the few articles on the subject from our viewpoint so far. To be clear, all viewpoints expressed in this article come from Modern Orthodox Jews in their young to mid-20s. Most also wanted their opinion to be the focus rather than their identity, and so asked to be mentioned by first name only.

Why It Matters

Why is it so important to me that the Modern Orthodox viewpoints be aired? I’ll explain with an example. Someone recently forwarded this article in Arutz Sheva to me. The author’s name is a pseudonym, so there’s no way to know where he views himself within the Orthodox spectrum. What is obvious is that he has a huge disdain for the Women of the Wall, and, in fact, Reform Jews at large. He questions not only Anat Hoffman’s motives in her monthly prayer group, but her validity as a Jewish person. He declares that Christians are probably more Jewish than Reform Jews are. His entire article is dripping with condescension for any Jews who don’t practice Orthodoxy. He clearly views Orthodox Jews not only as better than other denominations, but the only denomination practicing Judaism the correct way.

I sometimes wonder why Orthodox Jews seem so hated by other denominations and, to a worse extent, the Jewish media. However, when I read articles like the one in Arutz Sheva, I understand why we can be so reviled. It is articles like these that make me want to shout, “We don’t all think that way! I don’t think I’m better than you are!” It seems so obvious that it should go without saying: Not all Orthodox Jews believe the same things. But articles like the one in Arutz Sheva force lead me to conclude that articles like this one, pointing out how widely Orthodox Jews vary, are necessary.

The Modern Orthodox Range

I was part of an email chain between a number of students and alumnae of Stern College—the women’s college of the Modern Orthodox Yeshiva University—who were discussing the Women of the Wall. Even in that small discussion, opinions varied widely, and a number of the women hadn’t quite made up their mind about the situation. There are so many issues involved in this one debate, and so many factors at play: halacha (Jewish law), women’s rights, media attention, chillul Hashem (degrading God’s name by poorly representing the Jewish people in public), klal Yisrael (valuing and loving the whole of the Jewish people and Jewish unity), the holiness of the site, history of the site… and so on.

This reflects a wider reality in the Modern Orthodox community when it comes to this issue: A lot of us just don’t know what to think. We’re torn. While we may believe that Western Wall prayer should follow halachic standards as we see them, we also generally want to be inclusive. We may not agree with how the Women have been protesting—many in the Modern Orthodox community believe their loud protests are incongruous with the holiness of the site—but we also might not agree with the way the police have been handling the protesters. We might think the Robinson’s Arch compromise seems fair, but we might also understand why egalitarian prayer groups would feel like second-class citizens if they’re forced to pray in a separate section.

Yes, there are Modern Orthodox Jews who agree with the Haredi response. Some think prayer at this holy site should remain strictly halachic—or at least as halacha has been interpreted by Orthodox Jews. (Even this is an example of how Orthodox views vary: Not all Orthodox Jews would say that women are forbidden from wearing prayer shawls, which they are currently forbidden from doing at the Wall.)

Despite the presence of some agreement with the Haredim in the Modern Orthodox community, most people I know would be much more willing to be open-minded about compromising with the Women of the Wall instead of trying to shut them down. They would agree with Rabbi Greenberg, who states: “Modern Orthodox should make clear that they affirm that the Kotel is the sacred space of the entire Jewish people and not a Haredi synagogue where only Haredi social norms should be followed.”

A common thought among Modern Orthodox Jews is that, whatever your opinion, the Wall should not be the battlefield for deciding what happens next. Whether the Reform Movement deserves a say in the future of prayer at the Wall or not—and Modern Orthodox Jews are divided on this—the debate should take place in courtrooms, not at a holy site where men and women are in the middle of intense spiritual experiences.

Various Opinions

Chanokh Berenson, a friend of mine and a student at Y.U., doesn’t understand why we have to have this argument at all.

“I am saddened whenever I hear about a woman getting yelled at for singing or wearing a tallis [prayer shawl] anywhere,” he said. “I don’t think aggression is an appropriate response, and all it does is fractionize our people and make religious communities look backwards and intolerant. If you don’t want to listen to a woman singing then don’t listen to her singing. Pay more attention to your own prayers. Put in some earbuds. Take responsibility for your own actions.”

A friend of mine, Elana, who attended Stern College as well, was the one who pushed me to write this article in the first place. Yet she feels so differently about the topic than I do that she had to collect her thoughts in writing and email about it.

“I think Sharansky’s plan to extend the Kotel [Western Wall] plaza allows for equal access for all denominations that feel connected to the Kotel and want to daven [pray] there,” Elana said. “It’s probably the best case scenario, and it allows all of us to do our own thing without getting in each other’s way.”

She also questioned a movement so focused on praying at the Wall when it struggles to get its congregants to synagogue most of the year.

Elana also mentioned that she thinks the ultimate goal of the Women of the Wall threatens the State of Israel as a Jewish State.

“Based on Anat Hoffman’s recent interviews, she’s made it clear that she doesn’t want Judaism dictating any public policy in Israel,” Elana said. “Which brings up the real question in this debate: What does it mean for Israel to be a Jewish state?”

While many Modern Orthodox Jews think the Rabbinate should not hold as much control in Israel as they currently do, the Wall being just one example, the thought of an Israel without religion is unwelcome as well.

Another Stern student, Rachel, mentioned in the email chain that “to remove religion from the Western Wall equation is basically a hop, skip, and a jump away from saying that the Arabs have just as much of a standing religious claim to Har Habait [the Temple Mount]. I say this because if Israel were to remove the religious identity/character of the wall as the group suggests, then we would literally lose our most substantial claim to Jerusalem. I don’t think we realize how astronomically awful the ramifications of making that shift would be.”

I spoke with Hanna, an American who now lives in Israel and considers herself dati l’umi (religious Zionist, the Israeli religious identity most similar to the American Modern Orthodox identity). She feels strongly about the topic. Her attempt to strike a balance between halacha and acceptance probably resonates with many Modern Orthodox Jews.

“I do agree with the ultra-Orthodox that Orthodoxy is the only true way, but I don’t believe in forcing it on others,” Hanna wrote to me in an email.

She believes that women have a different obligation for prayer than men, as set down in the Torah, and wishes that others saw her perspective. Yet, she adds, “I was raised to accept others as they are and I always try to see all sides of an issue. I understand that these women have a very different perspective than I do, that where I feel liberated, they feel confined. I understand that they connect through these outer trappings of tallit [another spelling of prayer shawl], tefillin [phylacteries], torah reading…. Ultimately, I believe that if they didn’t have another space, they should be allowed to pray as they wish in the main women’s section. We should look at the good in people, and appreciate that they come to pray and not criticize them for the method in which they do so. And for their part, they should do so modestly and quietly, for the sake of prayer, not for the sake of a statement.”

The Wall as Reminder

The Modern Orthodox opinion is clearly far from one cohesive position. Even those collected here reflect only a tiny fraction of the Modern Orthodox community. However, the importance of representing the Modern Orthodox viewpoint and distinguishing it from the ultra-Orthodox is imperative in maintaining a stance that is not so unwelcoming that we drive away our fellow Jews and stop from engaging in a simple act of prayer.

Chanokh put it this way: “I’ve never liked the Orthodox/non-Orthodox distinction anywhere. It makes it sound like we have different religions when we don’t. We just refuse to grant legitimacy to each other and it’s hurting us as a people. I think a lot of these conflicts come from just how utterly ignorant we are of each other. Our cure will be in spending time understanding each other.”

This is the sad reality, made even more poignant by something Hanna’s mother reminded her of: The Wall is only considered so holy because it is the last remaining piece of a wall that surrounded the Temple, which has long since been destroyed. All we have left is a wall that was not even religiously significant when the Temple stood, but was built for architectural reasons by King Herod, a Roman puppet who killed his own family and many rabbis. Orthodox rabbis teach that the Temple was destroyed because the Jewish nation was unable to stop fighting with one another. The Wall should be a stark reminder of what we’ve lost.

What a place to turn into a battlefield.

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