Women of the Wall (WoW) was founded 25 years ago as a women’s minyan at the Western Wall to meet on the first of every Jewish month. A few years ago, some of WoW’s leaders started getting arrested for wearing non-“feminine” (read: colorful) talitot and tefillin in violation of a 2003 Israeli Supreme Court ruling. In April 2013, this ruling was deemed to be misinterpreted in the case of WoW and the women were allowed to practice as they wished.
Acting in the firm belief that women having the right to pray as they choose at a holy site has no place in the Jewish tradition, both the Western Wall Heritage Foundation’s Haredi (or ultra-Orthodox) leadership and Haredi Jews on the ground began interfering with their prayer, including busing in loads of seminary girls to clog the women’s side of the Wall, blowing whistles and making noise while they sing, and throwing water and coffee on praying women and their male supporters. Now instead of arresting the praying women, the police were protecting them. Prime Minister Netanyahu put Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky on the situation to come up with a compromise that would work for everyone. He suggested splitting the Kotel plaza into parts with divided and undivided prayer. At first WoW rejected this plan, but on Monday, they made a move towards accepting a similar plan calling for the main plaza to stay largely as-is with an expanded and improved egalitarian plaza at nearby Robinson’s Arch.
Let’s review the facts: Jewish women want to pray in a Jewish way at the holiest site in Judaism. They did this for over 20 years and no one cared. Then suddenly, after the court ruling of April 23, it became, for some people, the death of Judaism, an unholy blasphemy that must be fought to the death. If Haredim were American Republicans (and many of them are), Women of the Wall would be ObamaCare. Yet ObamaCare was passed by Congress and ruled Constitutional by the Supreme Court; similarly, if WoW’s stance could be shown to be against normative Jewish Law, perhaps the Haredim are right that it should not be allowed at a Jewish site. Is it? In short, no.
There is no normative law in Judaism that a woman cannot wear a tallit (Maimonides even says a woman should be praised for wanting to do so), tefillin, or kippa; or read from the Torah if she so chooses. Is it unusual? For some, yes. Is it illegal? No.
But this isn’t the point. Even if they are violating Jewish Law, so what? People—including some who are Jewish according to Jewish Law—bring crucifixes, worship Jesus, Vishnu, and other gods we don’t believe in at the Wall every day, yet our self-proclaimed Holy Defenders of the Holy do nothing to stop it. More importantly, Israel is a democracy where freedom of religion is a right, and the only crime is suppressing it.
Perhaps they’re doing it to instigate? I lived in Jerusalem the past two years, and consider many WoW regulars as close personal friends. I can tell you most of these friends pray every day. Many of the tefillin laying ladies do it every weekday. They are sincere, learned, passionate Jews. One of my closest friends told me a few months ago she didn’t go to WoW that month since she hadn’t prayed on her own for a while so would feel she was going for the wrong reasons. If she is killing Judaism, it will truly have more life in death than it ever had in “life.”
But this is also not the point. Believe it or not, lots of men come to the Wall to pray in a tallit and tefillin who don’t pray regularly, if ever—there’s even a rabbi there to help them do this. Does this make them all hypocrites? Where’s the outrage? And even if some of the women are there to instigate, well, so are all the Haredim there to protest them, and there are twice as many of them!
So if it’s not about Jewish Law and if it’s not about incitement, what is it about? It’s about power. It’s not a coincidence the Haredi world noticed WoW after 23 years around the same time a new government coalition was formed that severely threatened to revoke their military exemption for the first time. Religious parties now have less influence in the State’s government, and they’re dead-set against losing hegemony over the State’s Judaism, too. The education and empowerment of women has proven a lethal threat to traditional patriarchies of all kinds, and patriarchies rarely give up their power without a fight.
Though far from perfect, Women of the Wall is an organization guilty of committing no crime, civil or religious. They are tired of dealing with the constant intimidation and bullying of Israel’s established religious patriarchy and are now willing to compromise their stance for the sake of peace. That they are the ones who have to compromise speaks to the unfortunate reality of current Israeli politics, a situation they had been at the forefront of trying to change. Let’s hope American Democrats don’t follow their example.
Derek M. Kwait graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and is editor in chief of New Voices.