May 25: A woman’s place in Judaism

Law bars women from wearing tefillin, prayer shawl at Orthodox plaza, but does permit this at Robinson’s Arch.

Letters 521 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Letters 521
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Sir, – Regarding “Police detain three women by Western Wall for wearing prayer shawls, women’s groups says” (May 23), there are two sections of the Western Wall – one follows Orthodox custom, and the other is known as Robinson’s Arch, which allows for the full range of Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist services.
The law does not permit women to wear tefillin or a prayer shawl at the Orthodox plaza, but does permit this at Robinson’s Arch.
Anat Hoffman complains there are no chairs or prayer books at Robinson’s Arch. Would it be that difficult for the combined forces of Conservative and Reform Judaism to provide chairs, appropriate prayer books and several Torah scrolls? They have their area of the Western Wall to do their own thing.
Sir, – Let me first state that I am an observant woman who does not read from the Torah or wear a prayer shawl. Nevertheless, I find it degrading for women to be harassed, investigated and questioned because they have “offended the law” of the Kotel (Western Wall).
Women are not obligated to wear a prayer shawl, but it is not a sin if they wear it. Women are permitted to read from the Torah and conduct services in an all-women’s minyan.
To stop them from doing this is a disgrace.
The separation between men and women at the Kotel is high enough for men not to see the women – unless they decide to stand on a chair to do so. They also wouldn’t hear the praying or hear the Torah reading unless they were actually listening for the women’s voices.
All those who believe a woman shouldn’t be heard or seen should remember that God called the women first to listen to the words of His Torah.
The Torah also belongs to us.
Sir, – Women have filled and do fill very successfully many public positions in Israel. And yet when it comes to the Western Wall, not only are they pressed into a small area, but they are allegedly committing an offense if they wear prayer shawls.
I will not list the other discriminatory actions against women at the Kotel and, indeed, elsewhere (such as recently in Mea She’arim, where they were required to walk on the other side of the street to be separated from men). What are the men afraid of? And if men only mix with men, this surely must occasionally lead to homosexual practices.
The world has changed in the last few thousand years, yet the haredim, and the police at their request, still endeavor to treat women as inferior creatures. Surely the time has come for women to be treated as menschen.
Sir, – Rachel Levmore’s op-ed “Feminine Orthodox rabbinics” (Comment & Features, May 21) is another reminder of the thirst among Orthodox Jewish women to engage in advanced Torah study and participate in the halachic process, of their aptitude for these undertakings, and of the benefits to the community.
The author’s observation that “the feminine side of Talmud study” introduces “practical utilitarianism” to the purely theoretical approach preferred by male Talmud scholars may not be empirically accurate, and there is no inherent reason to believe that the theory/practice-divide follows gender lines. Nevertheless, the importance of “applied Torah” for those scholars so inclined should not be underestimated.
It is surprising, therefore, to see Levmore commenting that Nishmat’s Yoatzot Halacha program limits its impact to having “contributed learned women to Jewish society,” and touting the fact that some “have gone on to increase their breadth of knowledge, acquiring PhD degrees….” By her own logic, scholarship for its own sake or in the interest of teaching – important as these functions are – addresses only the theoretical plane.
Yoatzot Halacha, as practitioners of halachic interpretation and application to real needs within the community, operate on the plane of “practical utilitarianism” as well as theory.
In so doing they advance opportunities for Orthodox women as religious leaders not only within the realm of Torah scholarship, but also within the community’s daily life.
As Nishmat celebrates its 22nd anniversary, it recognizes the vision of its founder and dean, Rabbanit Chana Henkin, in enabling Orthodox women to fulfill their religious striving and potential as both scholars and communal leaders.