Anat Hoffman with Zandberg and Shaffir 370.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
It is deeply painful to see ideological differences in Jewish modesty laws lead
to violence and bigotry against women prayer groups at the Kotel. Intolerance is
counterproductive to preserving one’s views, and of course contradicts the
Jewish traditions rich history of diversity.
Even though some respected
haredi (ultra- Orthodox) legalists like Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Yosef
Soloveitchik did not completely prohibit female prayer groups, many haredim view
the practice of women wearing male prayer garb, reading from Torah scrolls and
singing aloud as contravening traditional Jewish law.
If the Kotel were a
privately owned synagogue, the owners would have the right to set parameters of
gender division in prayer, but the Kotel is a public forum open to
The Women of The Wall are not imposing on anyone’s right to worship.
They are expressing their religion in a public forum.
They are choosing
to pray in the same manner as haredi men while still respecting the partitions
that physically divide men and women.
The motivation for haredi
resistance to outside influences is an effort to preserve their way of life from
perceived secular encroachment.
They view outside influences and exposure
as a threat to their traditional existence.
The haredim should be asking
what the best method to sustain their way of life? Is it violence? Is it
intolerance? Is it isolationism? Is there perhaps a better workable model?
Perhaps one that allows for co-existence with those expressing their religion
differently? Recently we celebrated Shavuot, which commemorates the Israelites
receiving the Torah. The Torah was transmitted in an ownerless desert. A barren
wilderness. This is to teach that no one has a monopoly on Jewish tradition. The
Torah belongs to all. No single view can claim ownership and
The entire Jewish tradition, including interpretations of
various Jewish laws, is based on rigorous, yet civil debates. In fact, the
Talmud even preserves the losing arguments because the debate itself leads to a
greater understanding of the issues.
The first century rabbis who typify
the Talmud’s rich culture of debate are Hillel and Shammai, two opposing schools
of Jewish thought. These schools debate everything from ethics to
interpretations of ritual practice. The dispute that typifies the example of
resorting to violent demagoguery is the biblical story of Korach, who contested
Moses’s leadership not for the sake of seeking the truth and engaging in
meaningful dialogue but for the sake of attaining power and control over the
people of Israel. For this reason the Talmud explains that the debates of Hillel
and Shammai’s schools will endure, but the debates of Korach and his faction
The haredi communities turning to violence against women have
forgotten the essential cornerstone that has kept Judaism relevant, vibrant and
intellectually honest through the ages. It wasn’t quelling other opinions
through violence, intimidation and censorship, but providing a platform that
allowed for different expressions and opinions – even opinions that are
Writing for Chabad.org, Alan Dershowitz elucidates this
point in the context of a story about a debate on whether to recite a prayer
sitting or standing: “There is a story about a shul, a synagogue, that...
employed a new rabbi, as the old rebbe stayed in the middle of town. The first
time the new rabbi led the prayers, when the congregation reached Shema Yisrael,
half of them stood up and half of them sat down. So the half that stood up
screamed at the half that sat down, and the half that sat down screamed at the
half that stood up. ‘Stand up!’ ‘Sit down!’ “The rabbi suggested that they go to
the old rebbe and ask what the tradition of the congregation was. So after
Shabbat they went to the old rebbe, and the ‘sit-down’ group asked, ‘Is it not
the tradition to sit down for Shema Yisrael?’ “The rebbe responded, ‘No, my
children, that is not the tradition.’ “So the ‘stand-up’ group said, ‘Aha, the
tradition must be to stand up!’ “The Rebbe said, ‘No, that is not the
tradition.’ “‘Well,’ said the rabbi, ‘it is ridiculous for half of them to sit
down and half of them to stand up.’ “The rebbe answered, ‘Yes, my son, that is
the tradition.’ “I once told that story and my mother said, ‘But at least they
all say the Shema!’” Whether one is a traditional haredi that believes in gender
divisions in prayer or a member of the Women of the Wall that believes women’s
the right to pray like men, at least they all pray – and say the Shema. We
should be embracing all forms of worship.
Jewish oppressors throughout
history sought to censor the right to pray. When it comes to public expressions
of faith, we need to celebrate that right in all its forms.
education, debate and acceptance are the solution to preserving Judaism, not
ghettoization and violence. Besides the fact that insular haredi communities
will no longer be able to shelter their adherents in a religious cocoon free
from feminist influence, opposing other viewpoints and lifestyles with violence
belies the Jewish intellectual tradition of healthy debate and is
counterproductive to ensuring the continuity of both modern and traditional
approaches to prayer.
The author has written extensively on subjects
ranging for sexual abuse awareness, gender equality and improving
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