Tradition versus modernity: Women of the Wall

Huffpost interview under review: How could it be that a group of women praying peacefully at a prayer wall, are seen as dangerous and provocative?

Women of the Wall say the ‘Shema’ near the Western Wall 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Women of the Wall say the ‘Shema’ near the Western Wall 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
On HuffPost Live, hostess Alicia Menendez asks: how could it be that a group of women praying peacefully at a prayer wall, are seen as dangerous and provocative? And what does it tell us about the ongoing tension between tradition and modernity?She was posing her questions to leaders and supporters of Women of the Wall.
The prayer wall in question is a supporting wall of the Temple Mount. The place known to be the location of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem in ancient times, and the very location where devout Jews believe the Holy Temple will be in the upcoming Era of Moshiach (Messiah). This wall is known as the Western Wall, the Wailing Wall and the Kotel. It is accorded sanctity due to its location and from the absorption of prayers that have been recited over thousands of years, at this location. Even before the First and Second Temples stood on this mount, the mount itself was a place of prayer, dating back to Biblical times. The well-known story of Jacob, one of the forefathers of the Jewish people, and his dream about the angels on the ladder, takes place where the Temple would be built by his descendants, approximately eight hundred years later.
Jewish prayer dates back to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham. Over the centuries, Jewish prayer has evolved. Some of the prevailing customs are based in Jewish law and other customs are based in the rich heritage that Judaism is known for. Heritage that has been developed by sages and mystics. The traditional style of prayer, that has been accepted in Jewish communities around the globe, has been for men and women to have different roles in public prayer. And men from different families, descended from the tribes of Israel, have different roles. The guidelines and boundaries for the role of men in public prayer and other situations, are clearly defined and are not equal.
Alongside the traditional stream of Judaism have been movements that adapt Judaism to local customs. At any given time in history, it is the traditional, devout Jews who are in the minority. And yet it is this underpopulated, stubborn Jewish lifestyle, that has outlived the offshoots. The enigma of the survival of the un-fittest.
The Kotel is a symbol. A physical manifestation of a spiritual connection, a spiritual foundation, a feeling that not everything in this fast moving world is transitory. Jews of all walks of life visit The Kotel. Not because it represents modern, progressive thinking, but because it represents deep roots, and a tree that withstands turbulence. Non-Jews come to The Kotel. They come to experience what it is like to be in a place of sanctity and stability. Before being elected as president, Barack Obama came to The Kotel. The status quo welcomes everyone. All of G-d’s children are made to feel comfortable by the administrators who make decisions of policy at the Kotel. 
So how can it be that a group of women praying peacefully at the Kotel can be seen as provocative and dangerous? In an online video to raise funds for Women of the Wall, Anat Hoffman says, “This is a historic battle.” In the HuffPost Live interview, Dr. Bonna Devora Haberman, stresses that: “The role of religion… is the issue that Women of the Wall bring to the fore.” She speaks of addressing oppressive religious attitudes and practices becoming dominant, and of discrimination against women.
When a group of individuals comes to the Kotel with a passionate mission to change the status quo, along with 200 people, that is a provocation. When they disobey the police because they have come with the intention of being arrested, that is provocation. In the HuffPost Live interview, Rabbi Susan Silverman openly admits that she and her daughter came to the Kotel with the express intention of getting arrested. They disobeyed the police. Then they added dramatics. But Silverman was worried, “I didn’t ask Anat or Bonna if they would want us to do something like that… I hope I didn’t mess it up for everybody.” Silverman’s concern is an indication that not only she and her daughter came with the intention of being arrested, but it was indeed the group’s leaders who were conducting the proceedings.
How are these women dangerous? They are not dangerous. So why do they get arrested? Because the police are doing their job to keep the peace. The Women of the Wall are being disrespectful of the status quo and they could provoke violence. They are bringing their global mission, of fighting traditional religious practices, to a place that is frequented by the international community as a place of religious sanctity. This very point - that was made by Alicia when she read a quote from the Tablet publication during the interview - is why it is questionable for the Women of the Wall to use the Kotel as a focal point for their agenda. Alicia quoted, “Is there no precinct, even in the Holy Temple, exempt from the inroads from a hostile modernity?”
And what does it tell us about the ongoing tension between tradition and modernity?
The struggle between tradition and modernity is not new in the Land of Israel. Traditional Jews have been living on the land continuously for four thousand years. Anyone not connected to the land for Biblical reasons, would not have endured the hardships. The secularists came and made a secular country, as HuffPost Senior Religious Editor, Paul Raushenbush pointed out about his ancestor Louis Brandeis, who was instrumental in the founding of Israel: “In his mind, it was never thought of as a theocracy.” Zionist aspirations were instrumental in The Kotel falling out of Jewish reach in 1948, and the Zionists liberated it in 1967. But it was the traditional Jews who coveted the Kotel, before 1948 and after 1967. And under their auspices, it became a magnet for spiritual seekers. A regular spot on the traditional Jew’s calendar, a place where everyday Israelis celebrate family milestones, and a place for pilgrims to meditate and rejuvenate. With the exception of a group of women - whose faces indicate triumphant glee when speaking about getting arrested - the ongoing tension between tradition and modernity does not come to the Kotel.
But if they do not make a scene at the Kotel, how else will the Women of the Wall be able to teach liberation to the oppressed women of Jerusalem? The answer is a mystery - the mystery of the traditional role of the Jewish woman. That women who Daven without a tallit (prayer shawl), and do not step up to read from the Torah, can still feel a closeness to G-d. That women who observe the Jewish laws of family purity experience an enriched family life. In the words of Rabbi Shmeley Boteach, in an interview with Matthue Roth published on, “the forbidden is mixed into the legal, and it makes for a much more erotic marriage.”
That there are women who are not obsessed with having to act like men – wearing a tallit and reading from the Torah – because they know their own worth. They appreciate what it means to be a Jewish woman according to Jewish laws and traditions. They know that freely fulfilling the passionate inclinations of the heart can lead to obsessions, addictions and heartbreak. The disciplined ballerina, gymnast and sports hero, can break through their physical limitations and gain freedom with their bodies, through the strictest of daily routines of workouts, sufficient rest, proper diet and vigorous coaching. So too can the traditional Jewish woman, through the mysterious powers of observing Shabbat, Kashrut, Torah study and family values, exercise her soul to build spiritual dexterity of dedication, fulfillment and liberation. And a fierce resistance to modernity.
 Aliza BasMenachem, AKA Aliza Karp, is a student of Chabad-Lubavitch. Her published articles about Jewish issues range from women's topics, Boy Scouts of America, to Shlaimos HaAretz: the Chabad-Lubavitch campaign for a complete and peaceful Eretz Yisroel. Aliza is author of the historical novel Banished about Gush Katif, which was awarded the Breaking the Silence Award in 2011 from RCRF. The Hebrew translation is called Megurashim.