Women and the Wall

What the classic Torah sources say about women demands that the situation at the Kotel must change.

A woman prays at the Western Wall 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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 through.
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.
Finally, 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 own self.”
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.
Women 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.
We now 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. www.rabbilipman.com