Sunday 12 May 2013

War Against Women of the Wall

The group known as "Women of the Wall" have elevated themselves onto the front pages of the Israeli press in recent times.  They have clashed with police in Jerusalem over their desire to have the right to pray at the Kotel, the Western Wall, in their own way and style.  For them, their way and style means wearing a talit (prayer shawls) and tefilin (phylacteries), and undertaking other prayer-related activities which are usually the preserve of males in Orthodox Judaism.  Their mission says, "........ our central mission is to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall".  Why does this lead them to become criminals in the eyes of the Israeli justice system?

Some of these actions on the part of the Women of the Wall have attracted attention from Jerusalem police officers, and even led to some of the women being arrested.  The legal system has relied on the law in Israel that requires respect for "local custom" at the site, which in this case refers to the Kotel.  The police have been called to arrest Women of the Wall on the basis that their actions do not respect local custom.  Clearly, the "local custom" is determined by what the Orthodox establishment demand.  Such arrests have been made on more than one occasion.

While we understand that, in most Orthodox Jewish custom, women do not wear prayer shawls and do not read from the Torah in public, the question is whether there is any actual prohibition on women doing these things?  It seems as though the customs of women not undertaking these activities stems from the fact that, in Orthodox Jewish law, women are not obliged to fulfil them in the way that men are.  In the case of the talit and tefilin, these are precepts (mitzvot) that are time-bound.  This means that there are certain times that the mitzva should be undertaken, and other times when it should not.  As a general rule, such time-bound mitzvot are not required to be undertaken by women in terms of Talmudic law.  It is not exactly clear why this is this case, but there are views that it is because women have a higher spiritual wisdom (bina) than men, and this exempts them from time-bound mitzvot.  Others contend that it is a more pragmatic issue of women having so many other household chores to take care of, that they can be exempted from time-bound mitzvot.  Our Talmudic sages are divided as to whether women are prohibited from performing mitzvot from which they are exempt.  The Rambam, one of the most famous of the Talmudic sages seems to accept that there is no prohibition on women performing mitzvot that they are not obliged to perform, and chooses instead to discuss whether women should pronounce the blessing which states that they are obliged to perform the mitzva before actually performing it.  He is supported in this discourse by Rabbi Yosef Karo and others.  This seems to give sufficient doubt to indicate that women are not entirely without justification when choosing to perform such mitzvot, and there is a strong case which supports women being free to carry them out.

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky was drafted in by the government to try to help the situation. The actions to prevent the Women of the Wall from expressing themselves during prayer have served to alienate many US Jews from Israel.  The US community, which is notoriously heterogeneous in its interpretation of Judaism and which values pluralism in Jewish thought and practice, has reacted extremely negatively to the standoff at the Kotel.  It was hoped that Sharansky will be able to use his balanced approach to suggest a compromise solution, and that he can use his links with the US Jewish community to heal the rift which has developed.  Sharansky recommended allowing the Women of the Wall to use a separate section of the wall, known as Robinson's Arch, to allow the Women of the Wall to express themselves and carry out their practices without others being offended.  While this was originally accepted as a possible compromise by the Women of the Wall, their position has hardened recently and they are now rejecting this solution.

The hardening of their position coincided with the ruling by an Israeli court a few weeks ago, which decided that these actions by the Women of the Wall do not actually constitute disrespect for local custom at the site.  This reinforces the lack of agreement by the Talmudic sages.  This court ruling means that their actions no longer constitute an offence for which women can be arrested.  The Women of the Wall were emboldened in their view that their actions are entirely acceptable, and decided that there is much less justification in accepting a compromise solution that means they are forced to pray hidden from general sight.

The influence of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel has been substantial over the past few years, particularly during the years that successive governments owed their continued existence to the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset.  The ultra-Orthodox influence has pervaded many aspects of Israeli society.  Numerous concessions have been granted to the ultra-Orthodox community to keep them supporting the government, the most famous of which is the exemption of young ultra-Orthodox boys and girls from serving in the IDF.  This has granted disproportionate power to ultra-Orthodox groups.  With the construction of Prime Minister Netanyahu's most recent government that excludes the ultra-Orthodox parties for the first time in many years, ultra-Orthodox power has been substantially reduced.  Many in Israel are happy about this, as the influence of the ultra-Orthodox has permeated the lives of so many individual Israelisl.  Perhaps the drama at the wall is an attempt for the ultra-Orthodox establishment to exert their power where they can.

Even though the ultra-Orthodox establishment has been given control over the Western Wall, and Chief Rabbi of the Wall Shmuel Rabinovitz has rabbinic jurisdiction over this site, it should be understood that the Western Wall is a public asset for Jews in Israel and around the world.  As such, decisions such as those affecting the Women of the Wall should not be taken lightly.  It is not as in an individual synagogue where congregants are free to move elsewhere in the event that they do not wish to accept the rules pertaining to the synagogue.  The Western Wall has no alternative in Judaism.  To the extent that there is even the slightest doubt about the interpretation of a particular element of Jewish law, as is the case here, the rabbi has a responsibility to consider the national and international ramifications of his decision.

I salute the Women of the Wall for standing by their convictions, and for being prepared to take on the ultra-Orthodox establishment.  This is not an easy decision, and life has been made extremely for them as a result.  Ultimately, I believe that they will prevail, and that they will be granted the right to pray as they wish.  In reality, anybody who does not like this is not obliged to be present at the Kotel when the women are there.  Until now, the Women of the Wall have conducted their prayers monthly on rosh chodesh at a time known in advance.  This allows plenty of alternative opportunities for those who wish to attend the wall, without being forced to endure anything that they do not wish to see.  This simply demands a little tolerance and understanding by all parties, something that is unfortunately in short supply in Israel, especially in the ultra-Orthodox establishment.

The time has come for the government to exercise its control over the Kotel, and ensure that all who wish to pray there are able to do so.  It is ironic that the IDF, without the support of the ultra-Orthodox youth, was responsible for liberating this holy site during the Six Day War, only for the site to then be turned over to the control of the ultra-Orthodox.  This is a national holy site, and all Jews should have the right to worship there.  Bravo Women of the Wall.

1 comment:

susan baskewitz said...

i agree with your outlook
the torah belongs to both men and women, the kotel should allow all kinds of jews access, the orthodox cannot have a monopoly on this. the various streams of judaism together create a plural religion that unfortunately you will not find in any other religion.