Over the past few months, I’ve befriended Shira Pruce, Director of Public Relations for Women of the Wall. In our few phone conversations so far, we’ve agreed on many issues which she deems important, and in my opinion my articles about her organization’s activities, published in a right-wing, religious, Jewish American online magazine, present those activities in a fair manner. I don’t twist what Shira tells me, and I don’t show her and her partners in struggle in a negative light, as do other religious, right wing publications, when they even bother to acknowledge them.
To anyone who hasn’t yet been exposed to stories about the Women of the Wall, I’ll summarize that it’s a group of several hundred women, about a quarter of whom are Modern Orthodox and the rest Conservative (Massorti Judaism), or Reform, whose stated goal is to pray on Rosh Chodesh (first day of the Jewish month) and on other special days, such as Purim, in the women’s section of the Western Wall, while wearing talitot and tefillin.
Rosh Chodesh is a special day for women in Jewish tradition, a gift from God for the fact that women did not debase themselves by participating in the making of the golden calf in the wilderness (to remind you, the sin of the golden calf was secondary only to the sin of the spies, and both, according to our tradition, altered, each one in its turn, the Israelite nation’s relationship with its God):
Aaron was contemplating the matter, saying: If I tell the Israelites, Give me silver and gold (to smelt and create the calf), they’d bring them over right away. What I’ll do instead is tell them, Give me your wives’ rings, and the rings of your sons and daughters, and the whole thing will be annulled. When the women heard, they refused to give their rings to their husbands, telling them: You want to create an abomination that has no power to save us. They refused to listen and so God rewarded them in this world and the next, as it says (Psalms 103:5): He satisfies your body with precious things; your youth is renewed like the eagle renews its plume. (Pirkey d’Rabbi Eliezer, C. 44).
It’s important to recall, therefore, that in the discussion of the Women of the Wall’s 25-year struggle over the right to pray every Rosh Chodesh at the second holiest Jewish site (the holiest is situated a few meters above, on Temple Mount), it’s the women who enjoy the right of ownership over the marking of Rosh Chodesh. Religious women avoid menial labor on Rosh Chodesh, and dress up. The researcher Dr. Devorah Ushpizai of Bar Ilan even points to a Biblical source for this custom, in the story about the woman from Shunem who had a son through the blessing of the prophet Elisha. Her husband asks: Why go to him today? It’s not the New Moon or the Sabbath. Which means that, had that day been the new moon, the husband would have understood why his wife is going to seek out the prophet.
HALACHICALLY, THE WOMEN OF THE WALL MAY BE RIGHT
There are many examples in our traditional sources about women of valor who received the sages’ permission to keep commandments that were intended for men only. Why did they need the permission? Because for the most part, women are absolved of the commandments that are time-related. With your permission we’ll avoid here the feminist discussion and simply state that women in pre-industrial society had much more pressing obligations than to pray three times a day, which is why the halacha absolved them of praying on time, as it did wearing a talit and tefillin.
Says Maimonides (Laws of the fringes, Chapter 3):
Women, slaves and minors are absolved of the obligation of talit based on the Torah. But from the sages we learn that a minor who knows how to wrap himself in a talit must do so for the sake of teaching him the commandments. And women and slaves (who, like women, are not the masters of their time) who wish to wear a talit may do so without saying a blessing, and likewise for all the positive commandments that women are not obligated to keep, they may keep them if they wish, but without saying a blessing, and we don’t stop them.
If they want they can, if they don’t that’s fine, too.