Are extremists on both sides (left and right) of the Woman of the Wall ordeal going too far to push their agendas? It seems like most Israelis would prefer peace and unity when it comes to personal praying at the Kotel.
I do not believe that the Women of the Wall are going too far in pushing for equality. The Western Wall should be a space for Jews of all affiliations, and those with no affiliation, to connect with the Source of All. While I respect the rights of those who wish to pray with a mehitza, I believe that those interested in praying in an egalitarian manner should also be respected. The Women of the Wall represent a legitimate voice of Jewish women who are seeking God. We should support that.
It is incredibly disappointing to me that the haredi community (a generalization – to be sure) has been so destructive around this issue. Given the history of persecution of Jews, I am saddened to see Jews who are seeking spiritual connection persecuted by their brothers and sisters. Jewish tradition teaches us that we are responsible for one another. We are all in this together. Our tradition also teaches us to be kind, respectful, and caring of others – even when we disagree. I am not sure how throwing food or chairs or punches fits in to that command for kindness.
I think that you are correct. Most Israelis would prefer peace at the Western Wall. But Jewish tradition also reminds us that wherever people are not treated with equality – wherever enslavement of any kind remains – that we have an obligation to act. Judaism does not allow for silence in the face of oppression. I stand with the Women of the Wall in their quest. I have prayed with them, and God willing will have the opportunity to do so again. My only hope is that the next time I join them for prayer – that we are blessed to do so with the acceptance of a Jewish community that respects all people who are on their Jewish journey, wherever it takes them.
To fully understand the nature of your question, it may be worthwhile to consider it within a different context that would thereby open up to you the full dimension of the issue. As I am presently reading a book on the American Civil War, let us use slavery as this example. There were people on both sides of the issue of slavery who were willing to go to war over this issue. You could ask the same question in that regard: were the extremists on both sides, in that case, going too far to push their agendas? You could also state, in this regard, that there were people– perhaps, even, a majority of the nation at the time -- who preferred peace and unity. How would that realization then affect how you would look at the two sides of the conflict in that case?
As modern individuals who find slavery to be abhorrent, it is difficult for us to comprehend how individuals -- who in other respects would be fully ethical and moral -- could possibly take a stand to go to war to defend the institution of slavery. We can understand, though, how individuals would be willing to undertake such a battle to end it. Even though such a war would shatter the peace and unity of the country, we can understand how individuals could be so bothered by slavery that they would be willing to enter into such a war in order to destroy this oppression. It is this realization of a passion of an issue that we have to also consider in addressing this issue of the Women of the Wall in Israel. The issue is not slavery and, thank God, the concern is not war. What we still have to recognize, though, is that for individuals on both sides of the issue there is much passion in their viewpoints. The question, thus, is how are we to look at these variant passions especially since a third passion for peace and unity may be thereby also challenged. From the example of slavery, though, we do learn that peace and unity may not always be the overriding value in the eyes of all.
To further and properly address this issue in Israel, however, it is also necessary to correctly define what the issue is and, thereby, the source of the differing passions. In this regard, to describe this battle as being over personal praying at the Kotel would be, in my opinion, incorrect. The Kotel is more than a place of personal prayer; it is a significant national landmark. As such, what happens at the Kotel reflects the communal nature of the Jewish People. This is doubly so because the Kotel is also a place of communal prayer. It is a place, a significant place, where we can come together as a Jewish community in prayer. Viewed in this manner, we can begin to understand the basis of the passion of both sides in this conflict. The issue is how we see the very nature of a Jewish community, specifically, in this case, in how we are to come together as a community in prayer. Defining the nature of the Jewish community, indeed, is a matter that could generate much passion.
This is the real nature of the conflict – and viewed in this manner, one can see why both sides have great passion in their position. As an Orthodox Rabbi, it should be clear that I would favour a more traditional view of the nature of Jewish communal prayer and, thus, in regard to this actual issue itself, would lean towards the more traditional stand. That, however, is not really the question here. The question here actually is: given that there are variant views within the Jewish world, how are we to respond? The further complication is that, in accepting any deviation from one’s vision of what should be Jewishness, one is also thereby inherently challenging one’s very vision of what Jewishness is. If I say Jewishness is A and you say Jewishness is B, a resultant compromise of let us say A+B would actually not be Jewishness to either of us. This problem is especially so from the Orthodox perspective. Viewed in this manner, one could see how the passions of the issue could run high.
So let us re-visit your question from this perspective. Whether either side is going too far in pushing its agenda really depends on how you view the significance of the particular agenda. If you think the whole matter is a non-issue in the first place, then your view will be that what these individuals are fighting over is not so significant in the first place, so, of course, the hostility and animosity is clearly not worth it. The average secular Israeli may, actually, feel that way. If, however, you recognize that their battle is, in fact, over a significant issue, then you may perceive the sides, especially the one you favour, to simply be doing what it has to do for the sake of the greater value of Jewishness.
This, however, is where the second part of your inquiry may play an interesting role. Peace and unity as part of Jewishness are also defining Jewish values – and they, as such, have their own roles to play in the very definition of Jewishness. There are cases whereby an argument can be made to even do what may not be technically correct because to do otherwise may cause friction and the pursuit of peace and unity is also a value to be thrown into the mix. This is not to say that everything may become permitted in the name of peace and unity – in fact, this concern for peace and unity has many limitations as a force that would allow any such deviation. Yet concern for peace and unity are not just other external factors that should be considered in cases of disagreement. In this case, as we discuss the Jewish community, peace and unity are actually factors to be applied in shaping the inherent answer to this question.
This does not mean that peace and unity thereby triumphs. It does not mean that it overrides the other issues of Jewishness that more specifically dominate this issue. What it does mean, though, in the determination of communal Jewishness, we do have to consider peace and unity as factors. To use the algebraic analogy above, peace and unity could be a factor in making the answer of A+B more Jewish. It could be the call for A not to confront B or for B to accommodate A. That we consider peace and unity as a value of Jewishness in this battle over the nature of Jewishness could, indeed, result in such a declaration that fanatics on both sides may be going too far. They are fighting for Jewishness – yet Jewishness also includes a disdain for such fighting. This does not, however, mean do not fight – but recognize the inherent problem in having to fight with fellow Jews even in the advent of one’s perception of Jewishness.
“When the daughters of Tselofekhad heard that the land of Israel was to be apportioned to the tribes in accordance with the men and not by women, they gathered together to take counsel. One said to the other: The Omnipresent’s compassion is not like that of flesh and blood. Flesh-and-blood creatures have greater compassion for males than for females. But the One who spoke and the world came into being is not like that. Rather, His mercy extends to all, to the males and to the females, as it is said [Ps. 145:9]: ‘The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is upon all His works’” (Sifrei [ed. Buber], 133).
The phrasing of the question is a bit unfortunate in assuming that there are “extremists” on both the “left and the “right.” The facts reveal otherwise.
Women of the Wall have gathered peacefully at the Western Wall (also known as the Kotel) since 1988, once a month, to pray in tallit and tefillin and read Torah. This is the extent of their extremism.
It is only one side that has demonstrated extremism – some ultra-orthodox Jews have expressed their objection to women wearing tallit and tefillin ( a practice traditionally permitted by Jewish law, by the way. The only debate was over whether or not the women should say a blessing when doing so) and reading torah (a practice explicitly permitted in Jewish law by the Talmud, which only exempts women on the basis that if women read torah in front of a mixed group, someone might make the assumption that there were no men capable of doing so. Since that is no longer the case, there is no reason to exempt women. There was never any prohibition against women reading Torah even for men, let alone in women-only groups.) by assaulting them, throwing trash and sewage at them, and yelling epithets at them.
The women of the wall have only one agenda: to pray at the wall according to their own custom. One would think that at a national monument, there would be no question of this. In fact, if one looks at pictures of the Kotel prior to 1967, there wasn’t even any separation of men and women– I was amused more than once, strolling through meah shearim, to see puzzles being sold at ultra-orthodox stores in which an old picture of the Kotel was displayed as the image – and if you look carefully at it, you can see women and men, praying together, at the wall. But I digress. One would think that at a national landmark such as the Western Wall there would be no question of people of all kinds having equal access, but unfortunately, after 1967, the wall was treated as if it were an Orthodox synagogue and allowed to be administrated by those who used it for *their* own agendas.
Would Israelis prefer peace and unity at the wall? Undoubtedly. But the question is how is that to be achieved?
In fact, many Israelis – nearly half of all Israelis, support women of the wall (as opposed to a significantly smaller number that do not). Unity cannot be achieved by oppressing, attacking or rejecting those who disagree with one. Peace cannot be achieved by ignoring the needs of some of the people. As a Jewish values question, the answer is clear: there is no halachic objection to women praying together with tallit and tefilling and to reading Torah at the wall.
There is however, enormous objection to attacking and vilifying other Jews.
You ask a good question, and while I always strive for the best path towards peace and unity, in this case, there is a clear line of right and wrong.
Regarding the incidents with the “Women of the Wall” organization, you ask if both sides are going too far. I would argue that only one side has gone too far – and that is the ultra-Orthodox community that is responding with physical and verbal abuse to the women who wish to pray at the wall according to their own custom.
I understand that “Women of the Wall” – a group of women who want the freedom to wear religious garments and read from the Torah at the Kotel – upset the ultra-orthodox when they do not comport with traditional expectations. The ultra-Orthodox find it disrespectful to tradition for women to act in this manner. But tradition has been handed down to all Jews, not just a few, and we all have to make peace with our misogynistic tradition that has historically subjugated women.
Let us understand that the majority of the Jewish world is not ultra-Orthodox – and so the majority of the Jewish world is comfortable – in varying degrees - with women rabbis, women reading Torah, wearing kippot and tallitot, and mixed seating at worship services. The majority of the Jewish world has rightly moved beyond the forms of Jewish expression that exclude or subjugate women. We live in a post-Enlightenment world - and the challenge of the modern Jew is to develop a Jewish identity that is both guided by our tradition, yet welcomes modernity. And we reserve the right to challenge or discard those parts of our tradition that do not comport with modern Jewish values. Mordechai Kaplan said it best, "The past has a vote, not a veto."
In this sense, we have already voted, and most Jews are comfortable with women wearing tallitot and kippot and reading from the Torah. If this is so, then why are they not able to do so at the holiest site of Jewish life - the Kotel. The answer: because a minority of ultra-Orthodox Jews do not like it.
To me, that is not an acceptable answer. While the ultra-Orthodox minority in Israel do control many of the political apparatuses that make religious decisions - a fact of Israeli history - their control is not welcome by most Jews. Certainly, the Reform and Progressive Movements in Israel and abroad are continually dismayed and appalled by the ultra-Orthodox control over Israeli religious life. And so peaceful protest is necessary in order to usher in a change of policies at the Kotel. The Kotel should be a holy site of Jewish expression and diversity, not a holy site controlled by a minority view.
I am not an Israeli, and I am not a woman, but I am a Jew who holds that the Kotel is a sacred space that belongs to all Jews. And I am a Jew who welcomes full and equal participation of women in our lives. That being the case, I can understand why the ultra-Orthodox are offended by the “Women of the Wall,” but I can never sympathize with their actions against them.
You asked if both sides were going too far. Until women are free to pray at the Kotel while reading from the Torah and wearing ritual items that are important to them, then there is no room for discussion. I want peace like everyone else, but in this matter, where the ultra-Orthodox legislate a gender-biased, non-inclusive Judaism, coupled with their physical and verbal abuse of the “Women of the Wall” - all of this denies them credibility as potential compromisers. I wish them well, but in this case, the “Women of the Wall” are correct. They have not gone too far - they are only standing up for what is right, rational, spiritual, holy, and inclusive.