A woman prays at the Western Wall 370.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
My wife and I chose to bring our daughter to the Kotel, the Western Wall, on the
night she turned 12. We figured what better way to begin her life as a bat
mitzva than praying at the site where our ancient Temple stood. I prepared
myself for inspiration as I watched her approach the wall with her mother – but
instead experienced great indignation.
The men’s side of the partition
consisted of a single line of men along the entire length of the wall. The
women’s side, which is far less than half the size of the men’s side, was
stuffed with women six rows deep. My wife could only bring my daughter up to the
wall after waiting a long time and, even then, had to push her way
I watched this happen and could not believe the disgrace to my
daughter, to my wife, and to all women. Then, as I continued to observe my
daughter praying, I could not avoid noticing how women had to wait and push to
get close to the wall while on the men’s side, they could easily and immediately
walk up to the wall. The time has come for this situation to change! A brief
overview of what the classic Torah sources say about women demands that the
situation at the Kotel must change.
Right at the beginning of Creation,
the Torah describes that God created one being: “male and female He created
them.” If there was only one being, why is it described as “male and female” and
referred to as “them?” The Talmud explains that God fashioned an original being
which embodied both male and female characteristics and then separated that one
being into two. Why did God do it that way? Why didn’t he make them into
separate male and female beings from the start? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, one
of the most prominent Orthodox rabbis of the 19th century, explained as follows:
“So that what was previously one creature was not two, and thereby the complete
equality of women forever attested.”
Complete equality! Not a secondary
being who should be treated differently from the men in terms of access to the
wall and feeling that closeness to God.
Our tradition actually goes even
beyond demanding equality and puts women on a pedestal. The Talmud teaches that
the Jews were redeemed from slavery in Egypt due to the merit of Jewish women,
and that the women did not worship the golden calf or believe the negative
report of the spies about Israel. Our salvation in the Hanukka and Purim stories
came because our women rose to the occasion. According to our tradition, women
have “binah yeteira” – an ability to understand and comprehend which has
repeatedly helped save the Jewish people throughout history.
Maimonides taught in medieval times, when most men in the world treated women as
nothing more than property, that “a husband must honor his wife more than his
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How, exactly, does making a woman go through such effort and
experience such discomfort while praying at the Kotel fit the command to honor
our wives more than ourselves? The conditions for women at the Kotel are
disturbing for an additional reason. The Talmud (Tractate Brachot 31a) teaches
that we learn the most basic laws of prayer from... a woman! It is absurd that
the men praying with such comfort at the wall, are praying based on the example
of a woman, while the women themselves must struggle to achieve meaningful
prayer on their side of the partition.
A reasonable solution to this
issue starts with changing the location of the partition to the middle of the
Kotel plaza. That is equality! That is respect! The partition should be portable
so that it can be shifted based on the needs of either side.
This idea is
simple, practical and fair.
I must take this issue of women at the wall
one step further. I completely agree with the policy of observing halacha,
traditional Jewish law, at the Kotel. This is the place where the Temple stood
and total reverence to the traditional understanding of God’s will should be
observed in such a holy place. That is why there must be a partition between the
women and men.
However, the guidelines and policies should not go beyond
basic laws and cross into the realm of stringencies and customs. Women should
have the freedom to do that which enables them to connect best to God if it
conforms to halacha.
Therefore, since according to Jewish law there is
nothing wrong with a woman wearing a tallit, why are women not permitted to wear
a tallit at the Kotel? It is correct that traditionally women have not worn
them, but a woman violates no Jewish law when she does. Creating legislation
forbidding women to wear a tallit simply because it rubs certain individuals the
wrong way is not valid. Everyone should focus on their own prayers and not be
concerned with how others connect to God. And, if men are the ones complaining,
I must ask: Why are they looking at the women’s side of the partition anyway?
The time has come for us to recognize that the State of Israel is a blessing
from God which can be a unifying force for the Jewish people instead of a
polarizing force. It should be a vehicle for embracing more people to connect to
their Judaism instead of pushing them away from it. What I witnessed at the
Kotel that night, and hearing about women being arrested for wearing a tallit
while praying there, creates polarization and distancing without any Torah or
rabbinic law having been transgressed.
I hope all women view this as a
call to action. If Jewish women have been praised throughout history for saving
the day, perhaps it is time for women to end this madness as well.
should rise up and demand that while accepting halacha at the Kotel is
important, the degradation of women will no longer be tolerated. Let us begin
correcting this lack of respect by erecting a moveable partition which starts
every day with half the wall for men and half the wall for women.
find ourselves in the days during which we commemorate the miraculous return of
the Kotel to our hands. There is, no doubt, a strong religious connotation to
these celebrations and these remind us that the Kotel is a holy place where
everyone can agree that halacha should be observed.
But that can be
accomplished without the current policies toward women. Our holy women demand
better treatment than this. I want my next daughter to have no problem
approaching that special wall on her bat mitzva night.The writer is an
ordained rabbi, educator, author and community activist in Beit Shemesh. He is
the director of the English-speakers’ division of the Am Shalem movement.
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