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 (prayer shawl), 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 it.

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 absurd.

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 [ritual fringes]: priests, Levites and Israelites, converts, women and slaves” (Menahot 43a).

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 synagogue.

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 possible latitude.

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 The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).

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