There has been a lot of talk about a decision made by the Israeli government approving a section of the Kotel for ‘mixed gender’ prayer. The comments range from outright condemnation by Agudath Israel to almost giddy approval by heterodox movements.
The Agudah calls it ‘profaning’ the holy site. Those in favor of it called it ‘historic’ and a huge victory for egalitarianism.
I have long opposed the push by groups like Women of the Wall for egalitarian services at the Kotel (for reasons that will soon become apparent). But I do not see the actual act of men and women praying together at the Kotel as a violation of Halacha.
The only place where separation of the sexes is required is in a Shul. One may otherwise pray with a Minyan with women present. One will for example see ad hoc Minyanim for Mincha and Maariv taking place at wedding halls where women are present in the same room. Even right wing Roshei Yeshiva will participate in them without any reservation.
So why is there a Mechtiza at the Kotel? Good question. When one looks at archival photos of pre State Palestine that feature the Kotel, one might come across images of devout men and women praying there together. The Mechitza came much later. My guess is that the reason for that is that when the Kotel Plaza becomes crowded during peak periods (like Birchas Kohanim) people are practically glomming all over each other. When men and women are together in situations like that it becomes difficult if not impossible to pray. I think a Mechitza was probably installed to prevent that kind of scenario.
Some might argue that in effect the Kotel is a Shul. After all Minyanim are constantly forming there. Hence in effect it becomes a Shul and requires a Mechitza. Perhaps. It is possible I suppose that the Kotel Plaza area has evolved into a Shul.
But this is not true for the Kotel area being assigned for egalitarian purposes. That area was never a Shul. And I don’t think a group of heterodox Jewish men and women praying together there will make it one.
So why am I opposed to it? Because of the motives behind it. It gives a victory to egalitarian ideal that inserts itself into a religious area where it does not belong. Insisting that egalitarianism trumps religion means (among other things) Shuls without Mechitzos; counting women as part of a Minyan; or female cantors leading a prayer service… are all things that are forbidden by Halacha. A true egalitarian ideal rejects those Halachos since they contradict egalitarian ideals.
Egalitarianism is sourced in the kind of feminism that does not allow for any exceptions. Including religious ones. Any treatment of women that is different from the treatment men is seen as misogynistic. Even if it for religious reasons. There is no such thing as separate roles for men and women. Whatever a man can do, a woman should be able to do. This is the kind of feminism that has been agitating for this an egalitarian Minyan at the Kotel .
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites, said he heard the decision approving the agreement “with a heavy heart and a sigh of relief,”
I too have a sigh of relief. I hope this will end the constant fighting over this issue. No longer will there be a disruptive distraction by a group of women at the beginning of every month on the Jewish calendar - each wearing talis and tefillin praying and reading from the Torah as though they were a legitimate Minyan. Now they will have their own place to do so out of sight. The women that have been praying at the traditional site - each on their own side of the Mechtiza - will be able to continue that practice in peace.
Moshe Gafni, a haredi Orthodox lawmaker who chairs the Israeli Knesset’s powerful Finance Committee, said he would not recognize the decision and called Reform Jews “a group of clowns who stab the holy Torah.”
It is therefore insulting in the extreme to call sincere Jews who were raised in the Reform Movement clowns. They are not clowns. Being wrong about Judaism as we Orthodox Jews believe them to be - does not make them clowns. It just makes them misguided. So too is someone one calling them that.