Guitars at the Kotel on Shabbat?

Shabbat worship involving instruments has been a major point of differentiation between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews since 1810, when Israel Jacobson installed an organ in the temple.

Women of the Wall at the Kotel (photo credit: screenshot)
Women of the Wall at the Kotel
(photo credit: screenshot)
Today, on Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, the Women of the Wall (WoW) will once again attempt to worship at the Kotel in a non-Orthodox fashion by reading from the Torah and singing out loud, practices that have upset many more-traditional worshipers. Their monthly prayer event has been a constant source of controversy in Israel for more than two decades.
Supporters of the WoW frequently argue that female Kotel worshipers should be allowed to pray as they do at home, including reading Torah and singing loudly – with any restrictions being a violation of their freedom of worship. For example, in a 2013 Torah lecture, Boston-based WoW participant Paula Jacobs said the monthly prayer demonstrations are “about our right to pray as Jews as we wish,” adding that the Kotel should be “a place where Jews of all kinds, including those of us living in the Diaspora, can feel welcome and comfortably pray in peace, without fear, according to our own customs.”
A Texas Conservative rabbi, Steven Morgen, called it “unconscionable” that Israel would “disenfranchise the overwhelming majority of Jews in the world from worshiping according to their custom at the holiest Jewish site in the world.”
Curiously, though, my extensive Googling suggests that non-Orthodox Jews have never complained about another major way they are unable to worship at the Kotel as they do at home: with musical instruments on Shabbat.
See the latest opinion pieces on our page
Shabbat worship involving instruments has been a major point of differentiation between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews since 1810, when Reform pioneer Israel Jacobson installed an organ in the temple he founded in Seesen, Germany. Today, non-Orthodox synagogues typically use more informal instruments – and guitars, in fact, are an important part of Shabbat worship at both Jacobs’s and Morgen’s congregations.
So why don’t Reform and Conservative Jews bring their guitars to the Kotel on Friday nights, ready to be arrested for the right to “pray in peace, without fear, according to (their) own customs?” Well, unlike musical accompaniment, public prayer by women involves complex matters of personal identity. Some non-Orthodox women feel that unequal treatment at the Western Wall questions their very legitimacy as full-fledged Jews and threatens their sense of connection to their coreligionists and the State of Israel itself. Those genuine sentiments are too often mistaken for an ambush on a Jewish holy site by “foreign” beliefs.
Conversely, though, I think supporters of equal prayer lack empathy for Orthodox worshipers. I’ve asked some WoW sympathizers why they don’t push for guitar rights, too, and they’ve said things like “musical instruments may actually be disruptive to others praying at the Wall” and “instruments would be a significant enough disturbance to be banned.”
In other words, Reform and Conservative Jews don’t wish to impose their home values on other Jews at the Kotel, so they pray a cappella out of respect for the practices of their fellow worshipers. This line of thinking suggests that women singing and reading Torah doesn’t truly disturb or disrupt Orthodox worshipers – or at least not nearly as much as a guitar on Shabbat would.
But the reality is just the opposite.
Jewish law prohibits playing, not hearing, music on Shabbat. Hearing a guitar may be inconsistent with the “spirit” of the day, but under Jewish law an Orthodox Jew can bite his tongue and continue praying despite hearing nearby prayers accompanied by a guitar. (After all, Orthodox Jews at the Kotel already tolerate much they find disagreeable – such as seeing Christian pilgrims and immodestly dressed tourists.) But under the prohibition of kol isha, Orthodox Jewish men are simply forbidden to hear women sing. Those who resist the goals of the WoW are (usually) not trying to “put women in their place” or “silence” them from talking to God. Rather, they are trying to continue worshiping, in the apt words of Rabbi Morgen, “according to their custom at the holiest Jewish site in the world.”
Of course, most people raised in egalitarian environments find kol isha troubling if not offensive (Orthodox Jews can feel alienated from it, too). But it isn’t pretend, and it isn’t optional – so demanding that Orthodox men violate kol isha is, in a very real way, squelching them, too.
Thus, the monthly Kotel conflict appears to be an irreconcilable winlose clash between two groups struggling to exercise their right to worship in their own way.
But is it? Let’s take a closer look at the guitar question.
Musical instruments are an important part of most Reform and Conservative Shabbat worship. But they are not required by either movement’s ideology. So when praying in an environment where guitars would seriously disturb both established practice and the sensibilities of the vast majority of worshipers, non-Orthodox Jews have chosen to pray with their voices alone.
Well, neither movement requires females to lead every service, either.
Reform prayers in which men are the only Torah readers, for example, may be unusual – but they do not contravene Reform beliefs.
A Reform minyan could declare at any time, “Yes, our beliefs allow women to read from the Torah, but for this particular prayer service – because we’re giving a bar mitzvah boy that honor, or because we’re eager to hear our male cantor’s voice, or because we’re sharing a holy place with fellow Jews whose prayers would be disturbed thereby – we’re choosing men as Torah readers.”
If, as they assert, WoW are not simply aiming to provoke a response, then why can’t they conduct Rosh Chodesh services according to longstanding Kotel practice regarding gender, just as they do with longstanding Kotel practice regarding music on Shabbat? The Kotel situation turns the religious freedom argument on its head.
It is impossible for both Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews to get what they want at the Wall. But there is a way both Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews can get what they need at the Wall: the current gender (and guitar) customs. “More tolerant” policies would mean non-Orthodox Jews could finally pray how they want to (but don’t need to) – but only by preventing Orthodox Jews from being able to pray as they need to. Shouldn’t true religious freedom enable the maximum number of people to pray according to their beliefs? I recently asked a friend of mine who is a prominent WoW member what kind of Shabbat guitar policy the Kotel should have. She said she didn’t know. That’s a good answer, but not a surprising one, given that the conversation on non-Orthodox worship at the Kotel has really been about feminism and identity rather than the right to worship according to one’s custom.
The guitar thought experiment shows that Reform and Conservative Jews actually do have a lot of respect for traditional prayer at the Western Wall. But their ideas about women’s roles in Judaism are deeply felt and personal – and understandably so.
They come from environments in which gender equality is axiomatic, and anything different is deeply suspicious. It is difficult for them to imagine a fellow Jew who is loving, kind and respectful but nonetheless insists a woman be barred from praying out loud if she might be heard.
So a lot of the problem in the WoW controversy relates to each side not understanding the other’s life experiences.
Maybe, just maybe, by thinking about the parallel – but much less highly charged – question of guitars at the Wall, such people can start to change their tunes.

The author is the editor of the Jerusalem Post Crossword Puzzle, which appears every Friday in the “In Jerusalem” and “Metro” Sections. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or e-mail him at