Friday, May 10, Rosh Hodesh Sivan, will go down in history as a major victory
for those who value freedom of religious expression in Israel.
first time since they began their campaign for gender equality 24 years ago,
police were called in not to arrest the Women of the Wall, but to protect these
women’s right to serve God the way they choose – complete with tallitot and
tefillin and a public reading of the Torah.
The landmark April 24 ruling
by Jerusalem District Court Judge Moshe Sobel, who happens to be a graduate of
the haredi Hebron Yeshiva, paved the way for the dramatic change. Sobel,
rejecting the “blame the victim” argument that the Supreme Court accepted in
2003, ruled that women’s right to pray in tallitot and tefillin could not be
curtailed simply because of concern that doing so would lead to a violent
reaction on the part of traditionalists.
Instead, the traditionalists
should control themselves.
The attorney-general refrained from
challenging Sobel’s ruling.
But Friday’s victory was only partial. The
tremendous outrage expressed by the more conservative-minded among the faithful
– both men and women – proved that a more Solomonic solution needed to be
implemented that somehow accommodated not only the desire of women to have a
more active role in religious services but also the religious sensitivities of
the traditionalists. Religious tensions are, after all, exceedingly high at the
Western Wall, a remnant of the destroyed Temple, built on the holiest site on
earth for Jews.
Women of the Wall’s detractors claim they are searching
out provocation and politicizing prayer at the Western Wall. Indeed, many Women
of the Wall see their activism at the Kotel as part of a larger struggle to end
gender discrimination in other areas of Israeli society, from maledominated
religious divorce courts that do too little to confront intransigent husbands
and help women complete the divorce process and remarry, to gender segregation
on buses, in the IDF and in other public places. The public display of women
leading prayer services, wearing tallitot, reading from the Torah and performing
other roles normally restricted to men is designed to make an impact, to change
perceptions, to foster a more genderegalitarian Israeli society.
conservative-minded Orthodox Jews feel threatened by Women of the Wall’s open
and public challenge to traditional gender roles. These Orthodox Jews work hard
to protect themselves and their children from influences that threaten to
deconstruct their traditional worldview.
And where possible, this desire
to preserve tradition should be respected, especially at the Western Wall, a
site so resonant with religious meaning and frequented disproportionately by the
But by no means does preservation of tradition
justify the sort of behavior exhibited by some religious zealots who converged
on the Western Wall Plaza on Friday morning at the behest of their rabbinical
leadership in a failed attempt to block the Women of the Wall from exercising
their right to religious expression.
The sexual obscenities, the rocks,
the garbage and the chairs hurled in the direction of the female supplicants and
their supporters only underlined the tremendous misogyny the exists in certain
segments of Israeli society – particularly the more conservative-minded – and
the need for more initiatives like the Women of the Wall that seek to combat
If we were to weigh the rights of the more zealous
to protect themselves from outside influences and the rights of women to
religious expression, the latter would unquestionably win out. A democracy
cannot tolerate the stifling of religious freedom, particularly when this
freedom is expressed so innocuously with the wearing of tallitot and
This need not be, however, a zero-sum game. There is a
Solomonic solution proposed by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky that
allows all sides to come out of this intractable situation with the upper hand.
Under Sharansky’s plan, an existing egalitarian section of the wall known as
Robinson’s Arch would be expanded and a unified entrance would be built leading
to the wall’s traditional and egalitarian sections.
But in the meantime,
until Sharansky’s plan can be implemented, the Women of the Wall should be
allowed to pray at the Western Wall, even if they wear tallitot and tefillin.
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