Women of the Wall – Revisited A Modern Struggle Over An Ancient Site

The hoopla of “Women of the Wall” is getting yet more media attention lately. I was invited to participate in a televised debate for BBC International the other day to discuss the question of whether religion needs to move on with the times. The debate was going to focus particularly on the “Women of the Wall” as they have become known. This is an organisation representing women who turn up at the Western Wall – one of the holiest sites in Israel, to pray in religious shawls and lead an all-female service. Western Wall regulations forbid women wearing such shawls, leading such services and doing whatever else that might be more common practice in non-Orthodox settings.

Not for the first time, several women were arrested the other day for turning up at the Wall in direct contravention of these regulations. One of the women, Anat Hoffman, is no stranger to the authorities. As chairwoman of the Women of the Wall she’s turned up several times in the past with her prayer-shawl and book in tow, and been arrested on more than one occasion. She was due to join the debate on the BBC, but I unfortunately couldn’t make the short timing.

Though I’ve written on this recently (click here) I feel compelled to elaborate further on the issue. I understand that women, no less than men, require spiritual expression and outlet. Judaism has clearly defined parameters by which both men and women can experience proper spiritual fulfilment. Those who have explored this properly know it to be true. While traditional synagogue services were always run by men, I am sure some women feel stifled by this religious setup and would like to enjoy something different. While I am not an advocate for women’s prayer groups and could argue that many miss the whole point of prayer, nonetheless I do appreciate some are coming . But even as I understand it and accept the viability of catering to such a need, I reject outright the idea of forcing that change onto others. By all means build something new but not at the expense of something that has already been in place time immemorial.
Imagine if you will a group of women demanding of an Orthodox synagogue that they introduce an egalitarian service? in the world of logic would that make sense? Much as I may disagree with it, I don’t have a problem if women want to run egalitarian services, wear skullcaps and prayer shawls, and do whatever else it is that catches their fancy, as can presently be experienced in most heterodox synagogues today. I do have a problem however for anyone trying to force their proposed changes such that it impacts on me.

Which brings me back to the Western Wall: What is it that spurs people into wanting to pray there? Precisely because it is the most sacred site accessible in the Jewish world today. It stood on the courtyard of the Holy Temple, which was the spiritual epicentre of the Jewish world. When the Temple was destroyed in 70CE, the Jews were exiled and most were expelled Israel. Still, the Western Wall remained the ultimate symbol of hope, and whenever Jews were allowed, they would endeavour to pray there. It was the case, even within the Temple itself, that men and women were separated during prayer with the service itself being conducted in the traditional manner akin to Orthodox synagogues today. This carried on beyond the Temple’s destruction, and as early as 1928 there was already a partition placed at the Wall in order to enable both men and women to pray there simultaneously. Even as this was dismantled by the British because Jews were forbidden constructing anything at the site, when Jews finally took ownership of the Wall in 1967, the separation and all rules and regulations preserving the ancient traditions that were maintained at the site were re- enacted.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) condemned the arrests and called it a “desecration of G-ds name.” While I do question the need for heavy-handedness, I also question why that should be deemed a “desecration of G-d’s name” anymore than those who look to deliberately contravene the law of the land in the first instance and instigate what they surely know experience is going to be the end result. Clearly there’s more at stake here than just a ‘spiritual yearning.’

The arrests have also been criticized by groups promoting religious pluralism in Israel. This is simply flawed and reverts back to the question posed by the BBC, “should religion adapt with the times?” As I’ve written before, a democratic and pluralistic point of view, each group of Jews can determine its own constitution or charter relating to beliefs, tenets, practises, conditions for membership and leadership, interrelationships with others etc. These are individual and internal decisions. No group, however, has the right to impose its ideas and standards upon any other group or upon the whole people of Israel.

Any actions that affect the totality of Judaism must be based on a common denominator acceptable to all. The lowest common denominator for all Jews, without exception, is the historical and traditional standard of Halacha.

Jews, who do not believe in Halacha, can live with it, without compromising their personal freedom and integrity. Jews who do believe in Halacha cannot live without it. Everyone can partake in a kosher meal, but not everyone can partake in a non-kosher meal. Paradoxically, the narrow view of Halacha is precisely the only view that can be defended on grounds of democracy and pluralism. It alone allows for the need of all Jews to be able to interrelate with one another.

The only way we can preserve communal unity is by respecting one another, by applying the fundamental principles of democracy and pluralism, as outlined. Respecting one another doesn’t mean to respect and legitimise ideas or philosophies which are unacceptable to our own. It means to respect and recognise the humanity and identity of our fellow-beings. We must never confuse ideas with persons. A person sine qua non remains my fellow-being, a creature of G-d like myself, even if his/her philosophy is not acceptable or repugnant.

We must not lose sight of legitimate premises, hallowed by original traditions, which cannot be compromised. Premises and ideas formulated by man are adaptable. Religious foundations, traditionally accepted as Divinely revealed are not adaptable.

Those who have deviated such religious foundations, for whatever reasons, will have to accommodate those who have remained faithful to them, when it comes to cases of communal conflict. Neither intellectual nor moral integrity would be compromised by such accommodation. If the Wall is sought after as the one place Jews around the world come to pray, then this same principle must apply. Only in this way can communal harmony and Jewish unity be properly preserved.