Compromise and prayer

For the 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.

May 12, 2013 22:02
3 minute read.
Women of the Wall 521

Women of the Wall 521. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

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.

For the 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.

Many 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 more conservative-minded.

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 gender discrimination.

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 tefillin.

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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