Here in Israel, some would have you believe that the most recent contrived contretemps – women wearing talitot and seeking public prayer at the Kotel – has riveted the country and pitted groups, people and politicians against each other in waves of outrage and recriminations. The truth is that it is barely a story, discussed very little by Israelis, and reflective of the peculiar forms of Jewish self-expression that are rooted in the exile experience.
As such, two sensations wash over when reading the sporadic references to these matters in the media. The first is tedium. Whatever their motivations, and I assume at least some are sincere, this battle is same-old same-old. The movers and shakers among the provocateurs are predominantly non-Orthodox, and some of those leading the charge and being arrested for the blatant breaches of the law are secular women who would otherwise not be found within 2000 ells of a house of prayer. As is customary these days with all groups that are uncomfortable with established religious or cultural norms, they wrap themselves in the banner of “equality,” as if that justifies anything and everything.
Memo to provocateurs: Judaism does not believe in absolute equality, nor does nature or life itself. The Torah is quite explicit that men and women share the same essential spiritual worth – both males and females were created in the image of God. But that is not the same as saying that modes of worship, and treatment under the law, therefore have to be identical. In God’s orchestra, men and women, kohanim, leviim and yisraelim, all have different roles and play different instruments. That is why that orchestra produces beautiful music and has spawned millennia of faithful Jews who have clung to the Torah despite great suffering imposed from outsiders and enormous challenges from secular culture and values.
The orchestra of the provocateurs plays only one instrument – a loud trumpet that blares and blares, and attracts attention but not respect.
There is a second sensation that arises as well to which many have become accustomed as these arguments pop up every now and then: sadness. It is sad when women feel that they are spiritually significant beings only when they mimic what men do. Whatever obscure sources one wants to cherry-pick after the fact, it is obvious – for example – that women have never worn talitot during prayer. That these women should feel that their prayer is elevated and worthy only when wearing male garb in public is just sad. (One wonders why these women just don’t wear tzitzit¬ – a talit katan – everyday under their garments like observant men do, or is it just the public show that matters?)
Certainly men can light Shabbat candles every Friday night and go to the mikveh once a month, but those men are mimicking women and fashioning their own religion that has little connection to God or Torah. It is the ultimate in self-worship. Egalitarianism has become the dominant value – above all others – such that the Torah is merely a tool in achieving it, and any jot or tittle of the Torah that engenders any sort of inequality must be abandoned, according to this way of thinking. For example, there are non-Orthodox Jews known to me who refuse to daven anywhere there is a mechitza (partition between men and women), deeming such to be “immoral.” They are sincere, albeit misguided. Where does it end? Should we anticipate a day when women will be clamoring to grow beards during sefira and lamenting the unfairness of it all – the “male patriarchy” – if they can’t?
In truth, the groups comprising the Wall Women have different agendas. Some want to push for women’s prayer and the duplication of the male experience, while others want full egalitarian prayer – mixed minyanim and the like. They are not identical but have joined forces to fight the greater battle – much like Conservative Judaism does not accept Reform Jewish conversions but fight together against Orthodox control of the conversion process. Both, again, have found the convenient bogeyman – the Haredim who are the enemies de jure in Israel and blamed for much of society’s ills and the strife at the Kotel. But anyone with remote familiarity with the events on the ground knows that the most caustic opponents of the provocateurs are not Haredi men, but women, and not all Haredi women, just religious women who are happy in their lives, love the Torah and find no fault in it, and do not want their prayers disturbed by these foreign elements who have incessant complaints against God’s Torah instead of their own unwillingness to comply with it.
The Haredim, though, are depicted as the enemy because they are convenient targets, and a woman-woman brawl would be even more tedious. And not all the women involved are non-Orthodox, but, as we have seen in other areas, rebellion against Torah can come from those who wear suits, hats, tichels, wigs and tallitot – and from both men and women.
Much has been made of the arrests of women wearing tallitot and otherwise disturbing the peace at the Kotel. It sounds bizarre that anyone should be arrested for “praying” in an uncustomary matter, until one realizes that just a few yards away from the Kotel, Jews are routinely barred from praying near the Temple Mount, and even arrested if they are caught moving their lips. There is a concept among decent people of respecting the norms and customs of a place. Certainly, these women would not demand freedom of worship in Al-Aksa, nor even try to enter wearing shoes. They would not seek to impose their forms of worship on a church, and if similarly-minded Christians did, the church would be justified in having them evicted and, if necessary, arrested for disturbing the peace. In their egalitarian ardor, they show contempt for Judaism that they would never show to other religions. (It reminds me of when the late Leah Rabin visited Pope John Paul II and covered her head with a scarf, something she would never consider when visiting the Chief Rabbi. Interesting.)
Indeed, perhaps these women would garner more support if they took their prayer to the Temple Mount. A steel cage match between Muslims and liberal Jewish women would be worth ten times the price of admission. As one of my dear colleagues pointed out, it would be delightful if these liberal women fought for their rights to pray unfettered at Me’arat Hamachpela in Hevron, or at Yosef’s Tomb in Shchem. If nothing else, it would put them on the side of the angels in support of Jewish rights throughout the land of Israel.
Of course, Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount is prohibited by Israeli law so as not to offend Muslim sensibilities. Why, then, are Jewish sensibilities any less precious than Muslim ones? And – to be blunt – Jewish sensibilities are offended by blatant violations of Torah and mockeries of Torah that take place anywhere and in any form. True, we control our rage better than Muslims do, but the issue is not prevention of violence but sensibilities. And law and order.
Right now, the law bans some of the antics of these women. They may not like it, as I don’t like other laws, but those who break the law deserve to be arrested. Civil disobedience comes at a price, although the left in Israel – trumpeters of the “rule of law” – have long reserved the right to break laws they don’t like for causes they consider to be just. They conveniently forget the illegal negotiations with the PLO before Oslo – when even meeting PLO officials broke the existing law. Anarchy results when people pick and choose which laws are moral and which laws they will follow.
The gloomier prospect is that this matter will not end. Natan Sharansky’s compromise has been hailed by many, and give him credit for trying. (He wants to enshrine in practice the High Court’s license to have such prayers take place on the Western Wall’s southern extension, near Robinson’s Arch, on the unspoken but compelling theory that “out of sight is out of mind.”) There is logic to it, although religious Jews recoil at the permanence of any arrangement that breaches Jewish law. As is well known (Masechet Sukka 51b), the Bet HaMikdash of which the Western Wall is but a remnant had a balcony for women erected whenever large crowds were expected. Perish the thought – but the Holy Temple for whose rebuilding we pray every day was not an egalitarian institution! And the same mesorah that teaches us that today’s Kotel is part of the retaining wall of the Mikdash and the place from which the Divine Presence has never left and which God vowed would never be destroyed (Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabba 2:9) is the same mesorah that regulates how Jews pray.
And the compromise is sought on the specious grounds that failure to do something will cause a diminution of American-Jewish support for Israel. But that train left the station years ago; the primary supporters of Israel today in America are evangelical Christians, not Jews. Jews have become too unreliable, and too assimilated, to constitute a durable core of support, although few will admit this publicly, and the denial of this reality serves a purpose in keeping otherwise straying Jews somewhat tethered to Jewish life. And if the compromise is coupled with increased Jewish rights throughout the land of Israel – on the Temple Mount and elsewhere – it will have served a noble purpose.
But the controversy will not end – whether or not the “great compromise” goes into effect – because, as we have seen with race in America, “equality” leaves its seekers unsatisfied and they begin to demand special treatment and privileges. Robinson’s Arch will be construed as Plessy v. Ferguson re-visited, a “separate but equal” facility that will stoke the flames for years to come. In accord with Middle East custom, the provocateurs will pocket these concessions and plan their next move. It will not end, because the yetzer hara for Torah is also powerful and usually self-justifying. The latest reports are that the women in question have already rejected the compromise. They want more, and subtlety is not their strong suit.
What is missing – as is frequently the case in these intra-Jewish disputes – is surrender to a Higher Authority. Thus, this is a good debate to have, even if it has little traction in Israel, because it is a compelling reminder of the fundamental principles in Jewish life and the very foundation of Torah: Whom do we serve, how and why? What does it mean to be Jewish? How can all the deviations sought in Jewish law and morality not be deemed as self-worship? One recalls that among the initial founders of Conservative Judaism were Orthodox Jews and Rabbis. It is hard to imagine such a thing today, but, for example, Rabbi Henry Pereira Mendes at the very end of the 19th century served as the president of the OU (Orthodox Union) and the Jewish Theological Seminary, of which he was one of the founders. It took two decades to sort out who was who and who stood for what. I sense that these groups and their agendas will not require that much time to determine whether or not they want to be part of the halachic world.
The answers to those questions usually are a powerful indicator of a person’s Jewish commitment, but more importantly, the extent to which that commitment will be transmitted to his/her children and grandchildren. A sin engenders a sin, and a mitzvah engenders a mitzvah. On which side of the wall, then, will these women, their supporters and their children, wind up? That is the critical question.
Meanwhile, a District Court Judge – identified as Orthodox – ruled yesterday that women can pray at the Kotel as they wish because there is no “local custom” that has to be obeyed. One would have thought that the Rabbi of the Kotel would have been in a better position to determine what the local custom is, but, at least, whatever the merits of his argument, this judge has now proven his liberal bona fides and put himself on the fast-track to a Supreme Court appointment.
Before anarchy descends on the Kotel, it would be a good time to remind ourselves that the Kotel is a symbol of Churban (the Destruction of the Temple) and not yet a symbol of redemption, may it come soon.