I am truly saddened that this issue has blown up to such an extent. It appears that the fight between the Women of the Wall and their opponents has escalated.
It began as a few women who found the male modality of wearing a Talis and Teffilin the most meaningful form of prayer for themselves. They showed up at the Kotel one day on a Rosh Chodesh. Rosh Chodesh is the first day of every month on the lunar calendar. That day requires special prayers and a Torah reading. Their goal was to pray there once a month in their own way – peculiar and upsetting though it may be to traditionalists.
That spawned protests… which spawned arrests of some of these women who at the time technically violated the law (since overturned by the court)… which spawned increased numbers of women joining WoW on their monthly prayer service there. That spawned a call by rabbinic leaders for Charedi women – mostly from women’s seminaries – to show up by the hundreds if not thousands, flood the Kotel Plaza, and pray there quietly.
Their overflowing numbers beat WoW to the punch there and left them no space to pray. That event also brought out the worst in some of the male Charedi protestors who acted like a bunch of wild animals – yelling, screaming, and throwing things at these women. That spawned more determination than ever for WoW to achieve their goals of equal rights to the Kotel. From the Forward:
Jewish Voices Together, founded and headed by Iris Richman, a Conservative rabbi and attorney, has organized rallies in support of Women of the Wall at various locations around the U.S. The organization comprises female rabbis of all denominations.
The title of its latest campaign is “100 blasts of the shofar/100 rabbinic voices for justice! Speak out for religious tolerance in Israel and Women of the Wall” – and its goal is to get 100 rabbis in the U.S. to devote their sermons over the upcoming Jewish holidays to women’s prayer rights in Israel. According to Richman, the effort has already surpassed that milestone, with 127 rabbis, as of this writing, agreeing to participate. Among the participants are 64 Conservative rabbis, 38 Reform and two Orthodox.
As I have said many times, I am not a fan of WoW. Although I know that many of its members are sincere in their desire to pray in this unusual way; and simply want to be left alone to do so, I cannot say the same thing for WoW’s leadership. They have consistently been quoted as having the real goal of religious tolerance, pluralism, and mostly feminism. WoW is simply a clever means so get this done. They have found a way to technically not violate Halacha and thereby recruit the left wing segments of Orthodoxy to support them. And as this new development shows, they are gaining traction.
That feminism is at the core of this issue is not mere speculation. For these leaders this is a feminist issue. The New Republic has a lengthy article pointing to WoW as the “highest example of the renewed fighting feminist spirit in Israel”. They describe this as a new alliance between left wing Orthodox feminist groups like Kolech and the Reform movement’s IRAC (Israel Religious Action Center).
(I should add that such coalitions were bred by some of the more disgusting attacks by extremist Charedim against non Charedim. Attacks that seem to be coming with more frequency these days. Reading about the multiple attacks against Nili Philipp, a Dati Leumi religious woman living in Bet Shemesh, made my blood boil. And this happened a year after 8 year old Naama Margolese was attacked by the same kind of people! This is a far bigger problem in my view that has yet to be properly addressed – but it is beyond the scope of this post.)
The more public opposition WoW gets from the right, the more support it will gain from the left. Left Wing Orthodox organizations like Yeshivat Chovevei Torah whose founder and leaders have rejected the ruling by Rav Soloveitchik about joining heterodox movements on religious issues and now enthusiastically joins them – have added Orthodox legitimacy to WoW’s ranks. So a Rabbi on the far left of Orthodoxy will feel very comfortable joining WoW in their quest for equal rights at the Kotel.
While I understand their desire to open up Orthodoxy to all segments of Jewry by pushing envelopes heretofore not sanctioned by any Orthodox rabbinic leader, they are in effect aiding heterodox movements in their quest for legitimacy. Which is precisely why joining heterodox movements on religious matters was so strongly opposed by Modern Orthodoxy’s greatest and undisputed leader, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik.
Although I agree with much of Rabbi Avi Shafran’s article on the subject which appears in today’s Forward, I disagree with continuing to make an issue of it. As I do with all the protests including the showing of masses of traditional Jewish women showing up monthly at the Kotel specifically for the purpose of denying WoW access.
It is true that these traditional women are all there praying with sincerity and great devotion. But it is also true that many of the Women of the Wall are doing the same thing in their own nontraditional way. I mostly do not question their motives.
However, it is also true that the reason traditionalist women are there is to counter WoW. There is no way they would be there en masse like that on Rosh Chodesh if not called upon to do so in quiet protest by their rabbinic leaders. Which of course brings out the usual gang of Charedi idiots who like to cause trouble. And since the media will always focus on the trouble makers, that is what the world sees most.
Rabbi Shafran complains that the media ignored all those Charedi women who prayed peacefully at the Kotel. Which would show the world that this is what the vast majority (…by a ratio of 100:1) Jewish women really want… and that the real antagonists are the Women of the Wall, and not the Charedim.
It is true that little media attention is paid to huge number of women quietly praying in traditional ways at the Kotel. But it is not because the media is prejudiced against Charedim. At least not in this case (…if ever really – but that is another subject). It is because violence – no matter who is behind it – gets more attention than peaceful prayer.
So in the end all of these protests and counter protests fuel the controversy and gets more people involved. On both sides.
WoW is a celebrated cause all over Israel and now the United States. People have been sensitized to feminist concerns. And this is now a high profile example perceived as being anti feminist. Reform and Conservative rabbis (and a few Orthodox ones) are joining the fight to allow these women to pray as they choose. Even if it upsets the sensibilities of traditionalists who comprise the vast majority of people that pray regularly at the Kotel.
In my view all this public opposition is to blame for perpetuating the cause of WoW. It has exacerbated an issue that – had it been left alone – would have no doubt died a quiet death. If not now then later.
As I have said many times – I do not believe for a moment that it will become fashionable for women of any denomination to start wearing a Talis and Teffilin when they pray. Whether it is at the Kotel or anywhere else. Had the Orthodox world ignored them instead of organizing big prayer protests – peaceful though they may have intended them to be (and which for the most part they were) – WoW would have been ignored by the media and just about everyone else.
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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at email@example.com.The author's opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Jewish Press.
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