It is difficult to know whether the recent incident at the Western Wall, when a
woman was detained by the police for wearing a “male” tallit
should be classified as farce or tragedy. When the rabbi in charge of the Wall
later complained that the police were wrong because they had detained only that
one woman when they should have arrested all 47 women who were wearing tallitot
– “male” or “female” – it became clear that there was nothing funny about
Do the police really have nothing better to do? Have they caught all
the criminals so that they have time for such nonsense? It is bad enough that
women are prevented from having their own Torah reading at the Wall, something
that Orthodox authorities themselves are permitting in many synagogues these
days. To prevent them from wearing a tallit – in whatever style – is
When the rabbi is quoted as saying that “it is forbidden for
women to put on tallitot,” it becomes obvious that the Wall has become not just
an Orthodox synagogue but an ultra-Orthodox synagogue.
Exactly what is
the source for this ruling? “Not customary,” “not usually done,” “not the common
practice,” maybe, but “forbidden”? The Talmud states very clearly, “The Sages
taught: All are obligated to observe the mitzva of tzitzit
priests, Levites and Israelites, converts, women and slaves” (Menahot
One lone sage, Rabbi Simeon, declared women exempt – not forbidden
but exempt – because he considered tzitzit to be a mitzva that is connected to a
specific time – daylight hours – and women are exempt from all time-bound
mitzvot. But women may perform time bound mitzvot if they wish and often do. If
women want to fulfill the commandment of wearing fringes, who is to stop them?
The Israeli police? The Talmud even records that Rabbi Judah made certain that
the aprons worn by all the women in his household had tzitzit attached to them.
As far as we know, no one stopped them from entering their local
I suppose that a private synagogue has the legal right to
determine what may or may not be worn within its precincts, but the Western Wall
is not a private synagogue. It belongs to the entire nation. It has been
designated as a sacred religious site and given over to the rabbinate. That in
itself is unfortunate, but even within that limitation there must be the widest
Instead, we see that it is not Jewish Law – Halacha –
that is being enforced, but a narrow, parochial version of local customs that
goes far beyond that. There are separate entrances for men and women and
stringent dress codes. If the aim is to make people feel uncomfortable there,
this is being accomplished.
It would not be so bad if other parts of the
Wall were readily accessible, but that is not the case. There is an agreement,
worked out between the government and the Masorti Movement, concerning the use
of the Robinson’s Arch area, but that only answers the need for morning minyanim
in certain restricted hours when arrangements have been made in advance. An
individual or family cannot come there at will without being asked to pay an
admission fee. The least that the government can do is to make the Wall
user-friendly rather than strictly controlled.
The tallit worn today is
quite different from the fringes that the Torah discusses. As the late biblical
scholar Jacob Milgrom demonstrated, these were elaborately decorated hems on
garments meant to indicate the high status of those who wore them. They were a
sign that all Israelites were indeed a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Wearing them was a constant reminder of the obligation of observing God’s
commands. That is the meaning of today's tallit as well. If a woman desires to
wear such a garment and indicate her loyalty to God and God’s commands, should
she not be entitled to do so? And where else if not at Israel’s most sacred
shrine? The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly,
is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is
Revolution (Jewish Lights).
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