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.
Where did Maimonides find his liberal stance regarding women and talitot (and, necessarily, tefillin as well)? In tractate Eruvin, 96 a:
Michal the daughter of King Saul wore tefillin and the Sages did not attempt to prevent her, and the wife of Jonah attended the festival pilgrimage and the Sages did not prevent her. Now, since the Sages did not prevent her, it is clearly evident that they hold the view that it is a positive precept, the performance of which is not limited to a particular time. But is it not possible that they hold the same view as R. Jose who ruled: It is optional for women to lay their hands upon an offering? For were you not to say so, how is it that Jonah’s wife attended the festival pilgrimage and the Sages did not prevent her, seeing that there is no one who contends that the observance of a festival is not a positive precept the performance of which is limited to a particular time? You must consequently admit that he holds it to be optional; could it not then the case here also be said to be optional?
So we already have the nice custom of women’s “ownership” of the days of Rosh Chodesh, and the views of the Talmud and Maimonides that they have permission to wrap themselves in talitot and put on tefillin – what’s the problem, then? Why is it that each time the Women of the Wall try to keep the explicit halacha according to the Jewish sages, the police come and arrest them and stick them in the Russian Compound in Jerusalem for the duration of the day?
Those who object to the prayers of the Women of the Wall rely on a ruling by Rabbi Yaakov Halevi ben Moshe Molin, the Maharil (1360-1427), who is considered the earliest authority on the customs of Ashkenazi Jews. He ruled that women who wear a Talit Katan which must have corner fringes do so out of haughtiness, which is a negative quality. Based on that, the Rama, who is the primary Ashkenazi commentator of the Sephardi Rabbi Yosef Karo’s fundamental halachic text, the Shulchan Aruch, rules that it’s better for women not to wear a talit – and of course not tefillin, which must be kept clean and 15th century women where not the most hygienic persons.
So, for the concern regarding haughtiness, Ashkenazi women were forbidden to wear talit. The problem is that there are several opinions regarding cases in which men are permitted to keep commandments that may be rooted in haughtiness just the same:
A bridegroom is exempt from the recital of the Shema from the [wedding] night until the end of the Shabbat, if he has not consummated the marriage. It happened with Rabban Gamaliel that when he married he recited the Shema on the first night. So his disciples said to him: Our Master, you have taught us that a bridegroom is exempt from the recital of the Shema. He replied: I will not listen to you to remove from myself the Kingship of Heaven even for one hour.
Sounds to me like a classic case of haughtiness: Rabban Gamliel decides he’s above the law, and even though he is about to undergo his first sexual experience with his new wife, he insists on saying the Shema, because his head is clear of improper thoughts even on such a tense night. And yet, our rabbi receives the approval of the sages of the Mishna, possibly because they realize that he knows himself well enough, and if Rabban Gamliel says his mind is clean, it must be clean.
Likewise in the area of wearing the talit katan with the fringes hanging outside the pants. According to all the greatest cabalists, this is a sign of haughtiness, and they much prefer that people keep their tziztis from flying all about (even the late Lubaitcher Rebbe objected to wearing the tzitzis on the outside.) But try and explain it to the hundreds of thousands of religious men who let their tzitzis fly as if they were the gold fringes on either side of Napoleon’s shoulders. And they’re forgiven. So why can’t we forgive the Women of the Wall?
Because they threaten the very spiritual identity of the State of Israel.
HALACHA IS ALSO A POLITICAL DEVICE
It is important to note regarding the quarter century struggle of the Women of the wall, that its historic roots are in a very American religious reality. The origin of the heat with which the Women of the Wall are attacking their target, and the heat with which they are fought back, is not in the Shulchan Aruch, but in the war to the death that was waged in the 1950s in the United States, between the Orthodox and the Conservative movements. Most of the Conservative rabbis in those days began their careers in the Orthodox world and were simply tempted by the higher salaries and better benefits provided by the new Conservative congregations that were popping around the U.S. after WW2. The members of those congregations didn’t want to sever themselves completely from the yoke of Jewish halacha, as the Reform had done. They were merely seeking a “halacha lite,” that would permit them to sit next to the wife during the service, and many more “heiterim.”
To this day, the Conservative movement holds on to its own version of halacha which, in most cases, is written with no less talent and knowledge than its Orthodox equivalents, to the point where its creativity and daring generate a jealous reaction in Modern Orthodox Jews like myself (despite what I might think of the actual level of adherence of the average Conservative layman to the mitzvot as they define them). This is why the Orthodox community has waged a battle to the death against the Conservatives, because they—and not the Reform—pose a danger to Rabbinic Judaism.
The historic Reform movement had no notion of talitot and teffilin for any of the congregants. The service at the Temple looked more like a church ceremony than anything Jewish at all (to this day, the Reform rabbi officiating the service faces the congregation, just as in a church). Only the Conservatives maintained any kind of real ties to Jewish tradition, and therefore it was there that the feminine yearnings for praying with talit and teffilin sprouted.
In the view of all the senior leaders of Orthodox Judaism, the Conservative movement posed an existential threat against Torah Judaism. The Reform were completely outside the fence, and therefore not a threat at all.
But the leaders of Orthodox Judaism in the U.S. were determined to stop the Conservatives, in whom they recognized the threat of a social landslide—a landslide much more severe than the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskala) movement of the mid 1800s, or the Political Zionism of the turn of the 20th century. This is because both those earlier movements came out while the mighty tree trunk of Polish Jewry was still at the peak of its prowess, whereas in the 1950s it was not at all a sure thing that the Orthodox world could survive the death blow it received in the Holocaust, having lost its spiritual center of the previous 500 years in Poland. It was a time for fortification, and the Orthodox leadership in the U.S. fortified and then some.
The greatest mind of that generation, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, was the most profound banner bearer of that war. Rabbi Feinstein is universally praised for his courageous and innovative rulings over the years during which he served as the halachic authority for North American Jews. We mustn’t forget that his halachic rulings were given in the midst of the grandest technological developments prior to the Internet era. On transplants, for instance, including heart transplants, Rabbi Feinstein was a fierce trailblazer, recognizing brain death as the moment following which a heart may be harvested and installed in another person – an act which until then was considered by halacha to constitute murder.
The same courageous and innovative Rabbi Feinstein more than once ruled based on what he identified as the critical political needs of the Orthodox community in the U.S. He did not hesitate to forbid certain things only for the sake of separating the Orthodox from the Conservative (For instance, Rabbi Feinstein permitted the use of an electronic hearing aid on Shabbat, by an individual, while almost with the same breath he prohibited the use of a microphone in synagogue on Shabbat, even though both devices are technologically identical. His purpose in forbidding the mic was so that an Orthodox synagogue won’t resemble a Conservative synagogue.).
And it was Rabbi Moshe Feinstein who ruled that women wishing to pray while wrapped in a talit did not do it for the sake of Heaven, but, to the contrary, because of their resentment towards Heaven.
Not nice? Not fair? Welcome to the harsh world of halachic rulings, a world with few sentiments and a great deal of long-term thinking regarding the fate of an entire nation, particularly the Orthodox community, wherever it may be.
THE MOST DANGEROUS WOMEN IN ISRAEL
We’re dealing with the politics of divinity, and in the case of the Kotel this is a bona fide territorial battle. Both sides—the women claiming their portion as well as the Kotel rabbi and the Haredi worshippers, are out every Rosh Chodesh to fight over a prized possession. The prize is not the ladies’ section in front of the Kotel. Rather, it is the very spiritual identity of the State of Israel.
Eretz Israel [Hebrew: The Land of Israel] was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and national identity were formed. Here they achieved independence and created a culture of national and universal significance. Here they wrote and gave the Bible to the world. (First paragraph of Israel’s Declaration of Independence).
This is the very justification of our life here. Without it, we are merely a bunch of European colonialists, just as our pals the Palestinians are suggesting. And whoever gets to define the spiritual identity of the state will rule here.
Over the past decades there have been local skirmishes between foreign invaders from the Reform and Conservative movements and the various religious authorities, over the governing of the state of Israel. Due to the huge numeric difference that currently exists between the invaders and the Orthodox communities in Israel, there may be a tendency to downplay the danger the former impose on the rule of Rabbinic Judaism here.
I believe wholeheartedly that, despite the myriad cultural and social difficulties it presents before Israeli society, Rabbinic Judaism remains our authentic connection to the lofty intentions of the authors of our Declaration of Independence.
The challenge of the Reform and Conservatives against the Rabbinic identity of religion in Israel is also, necessarily, an attack on the Jewishness of the state. It can’t be helped. The moment we have religious pluralism in the state of Israel, we’ll lose our exclusive rights to rule this place. The rabbis understand it, as do, for certain, the Reform-Conservative. But the public doesn’t really get what all the fuss about, because, the way the media present it, it looks like a David and Goliath conflict, with the Orthodox in the role of Goliath.
I see the Women of the Wall as a fascinating media phenomenon, which reminds me a little of the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when King Arthur’s knights attack a cave guarded by a cute, little bunny, but in the end the bunny bites their throats with its fangs.
The media show us pleasant women, who look just like me and you, and some among them even cover their hair with modest scarves, and all they want is just to pray once a month by the Kotel, like every Jew. Why should we care that they want to pray? So they feel like covering themselves with a talit and playing at being men—why should I bother?
On the other side, the media show a small, highly unattractive looking band of mostly Haredi men and women, who are (separately) cursing and yelling in their black uniform, as well as the Kotel Rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowich, who is screaming his head off about how these women are a threat to Judaism.
Today, on the first of Iyar, and last month, on the first of Nissan, 5773, the Women of the Wall were joined by female MKs from Labor and Meretz, a fact that raised the political bar by a couple yards. Those MKs certainly did not get there out of a yearning to commune with their father (or mother) in heaven. Those MKs were the realization of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s nightmare scenario of “alternative” Judaism taking over every good portion in the nation of Israel.
Rabbi Rabinowich did not spare the women and the MKs, warning: “The prayers of those female MKs could bring on a civil war.” But even the Haredi public isn’t convinced. Despite prominent posters that are pasted on the walls all over Jerusalem’s Haredi neighborhoods, few show up to protest.
I believe that the insistence and stubbornness of the Women of the Kotel, who have been keeping their date at there for 25 years, presents a considerable question mark before Rabbi Feinstein’s assertion that their actions are born by a resentment against God and nothing else. After 25 years of arrests and humiliation at the hands of Israel’s legal system, I accept that their intention are at least as pure as those of the Tzitzis flying Orthodox youths.
But I have not even the slightest doubt that the day these sincere and lovely women receive legal recognition, it would constitute yet another significant retreat for Rabbinic Judaism in Israel, and with it a retreat in the essence of the connection between the State of Israel and its spiritual identity that was forged here so many thousands of years ago.
This is why I object will all my heart to the proposal offered recently by JAFI Director, Natan Sharansky, to give WOW their own section in front of the excavated portion of the Kotel. Because this is tantamount to erecting a Reform synagogue at the Kotel. It would be so much worse than having a bunch of women putting on talit and teffilin once a month before the Kotel – it would be a permanent anti-halachic edifice a stone’s throw away from the Holy Temple.
Term “Tzelem Ba’Heichal” (idol in the Temple) mean anything to you, Mr. Sharansky?
I only wonder, on a practical level, what would have happened if, starting 25 years ago, instead of cursing them out and arresting them and schlepping them to court and humiliating them, we would have just tolerated those women coming once a month to sing before the Kotel an hour or two, and go home.
Would they have been able to cause the media landslide they’ve generated now?
About the Author: Yori Yanover has been a working journalist since age 17, before he enlisted and worked for Ba'Machane Nachal. Since then he has worked for Israel Shelanu, the US supplement of Yedioth, JCN18.com, USAJewish.com, Lubavitch News Service, Arutz 7 (as DJ on the high seas), and the Grand Street News. He has published Dancing and Crying, a colorful and intimate portrait of the last two years in the life of the late Lubavitch Rebbe, (in Hebrew), and two fun books in English: The Cabalist's Daughter: A Novel of Practical Messianic Redemption, and How Would God REALLY Vote.
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