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May 27, 2013

Are Women Of The Wall Right? Are Haredim Wrong?

Police struggle to hold back a mob of haredi men who are trying to physically attack Women of the Wall members at the Kotel 5-10-2013"[T]he view that states that women should sit at the back of the bus or that women should be kept hidden from view is a result of a zeitgeist from the Dark Ages and is influenced by modern-day Islamic norms and is not native to Judaism. Yet, the idea that women should feel a desire to compete on a level playing field with men is similarly the result of the zeitgeist of feminism."

Police struggle to hold back a mob of haredi men who are trying to physically attack Women of the Wall members at the Kotel 5-10-2013
Police hold back rioting haredim who are trying to physically assault Women of the Wall members at the Kotel

Kotel war: Neither side can win, yet
Until shouting and knee jerk reactions stop and real discussion begins, Women of Wall saga will just make Judaism and Jews much worse off
Rabbi Levi Brackman
   
The saga about the Women of the Wall, where a group of women are fighting for the right to pray at the Western Wall (the Kotel) in the same way men do – including reading from the Torah – is a recent and painful example in which modern societal expectations and conservative norms have clashed.
 
From a political perspective, I defend the rights of people to be able to express themselves religiously without having government interfering with the way they worship. Yet even as I support a woman’s right to express themselves religiously, there is a larger issue at play.

It is clear to me that Judaism sees the genders, male and female, differently. This is seen from the very first story in the Torah about Adam and Eve, where the Torah tells us that God created Eve as a “helpmate opposite” Adam (Genesis, 2:18). In addition, when God tells Moses to explain His desire to give the Torah to the Children of Israel, He says “So you should say to the House of Jacob and Tell the Children of Israel,” (Exodus 19:3). The commentators explain that the “House of Jacob” refers to the women, and the “Children of Israel” refers to the men (Rashi).
 
God wanted the message told to the women in a way that differed to the manner in which it was told to the men. The reason is clear, men and women are inherently different and should be respected as such. In fact, there was a famous book which expressed this view by analogizing that men are from Mars and women are from Venus.
 
Yet, the view that men and women are to be completely segregated from each other in everyday societal interactions is also foreign to native Judaism. In fact for centuries, even in the Temple, women would enter the sanctuary to pray (See Samuel 1, 1:9) – until people ceased to behave in a manner that was appropriate for the Temple, and eventually a woman's gallery was created (Sukkah, 51b). In addition, King Saul, for example, as a young man, had no problem interacting with young women (Samuel1, 9:11-12).
 
In addition, one of the most joyous days in the Jewish calendar in ancient times was the 15th of Av when young men and women would come out in the vineyards of Jerusalem to meet potential suitors (Taanit 26b). Throughout the Bible we find heroines such as Hannah, Deborah and Ruth who were prominent female figures interacting freely with men and were respected by the entire community – men and women alike.

Clearly, the view that states that women should sit at the back of the bus or that women should be kept hidden from view is a result of a zeitgeist from the Dark Ages and is influenced by modern-day Islamic norms and is not native to Judaism. Yet, the idea that women should feel a desire to compete on a level playing field with men is similarly the result of the zeitgeist of feminism.
 
This does not mean that I am in any way opposed to feminism or any of its goals. I support all the gains women have made and would like to see them have full equality to men should they seek it.
 
Yet it seems to me that when we are talking about Judaism and worship of God in the Jewish way, the focus must be what the Torah says on this issue. This does not mean we should try and find how we can bend the Torah to fit our world view, but rather to seek what the Torah says about it authentically.
 
It seems to me that this is what is missing in the entire saga of the Women of the Wall, and other issues by extension. The moment one side stands up and sincerely shows that their perspective is based on what the Torah says and not the mores of an era – whether that epoch be the 1700’s or the 1960’s – the shouting and knee jerk reactions will stop and the real discussion will begin.
 
Until that happens this is a debate that no side will win, and in the end will just make Judaism and Jews much worse off.

Rabbi Levi Brackman is co-founder and executive director of Youth Directions , a non-profit organization that helps youth find and succeed at their unique positive purpose in life.

Comments

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There is no more going to be agreement between Haredim and non-Haredim on what the Torah directs than there is going to be between Tea Party Republicans and liberal Democrats on the interpretation of the US Constitution. It all comes down to a matter of interpretation and, in the case of the Torah, to belief. Access to the Kotel should be regulated by a multilateral commission and parceled out with some degree of physical distance between worshippers of different streams without the presumption that any one of them (ie: Haredim) owns the shrine in fief-complete, to borrow a term.

as the great sage and idol of mine john lennon said - and 1000 pct correct - woman is the nigger of the world

This is how the status quo persists. Some "reasonable" figure strokes the feelings of one side but gives no ground. Hopefully , no one will be fooled by that and change will come.

SML
You are entirely correct, and a multilateral commission is required. One thing is for sure, in this scenario: All other streams of Judaism will listen to the commission, the Haredim, on the other hand are extreme and will likely riot, have physical confrontations, throw dirty diapers, etc. etc.

I suggest a system of penalties as well: if your group infringes on the rights of another group, then your group will be banned for a period of time. No group will be allowed to use your section while you are banned, however the ban will be enforced.

Several times the author says that he's in favor of feminist goals.

BUT:

. . . only if they can be accomodated
. . . within halacha (as he understands it).

So feminism (which means 'equal rights for women') is good for non-Jews, and good in non-Jewish settings --

. . . but don't let it touch us, please!

What a pile of hypocrisy!

. charles

I really don't understand this. If this wall belongs to Isreal, why isn't Isreal making the rules? I cannot believe that someday when I can visit this wall a bunch of men who do not believe what I believe will be sceded the power to tell me where I can go and where I cannot. Isn't Israel a democracy? Doesn't the majority decide these things?

PoW, because the Israeli government put its spine into a blind trust and caves in more often than Obama the moment the Haredim open their mouths.

"The moment one side stands up and sincerely shows that their perspective is based on what the Torah says and not the mores of an era"

Tell you what, Rabbi - the moment you can show me where in the Torah it says you have to have two sets of dishes and you can't eat a cheeseburger, I'll be willing to listen to your reasons as to why Women of the Wall are wrong.

"The moment one side stands up and sincerely shows that their perspective is based on what the Torah says and not the mores of an era...the real discussion will begin."

I generally like R. Brackman's perspective, but in this case I think it's a bit naive. What he's saying is essentially: "Let's just see what the Torah says." If we can be "authentic" to Torah, we'll come with the right solution. But here's the thing...

1) People are always "nogea b'davar" - it's unrealistic to expect people to look at the issue impartially and not choose which halachic sources to draw from and which to ignore.

2) This is an issue that may not have clear halachic precedent - i.e. it's not so simple to just "do what the Torah says".

3) All that is beside the point - we have people in this equation who don't believe that halacha should be the final arbiter on this issue. So how can we say that the Torah is supposed to resolve it when the basic philosophy of one side is at odds with classical/halachic Torah?

This is more than just a turf battle over the Kotel - it's a battle of freedom of religion and democracy vs. rule by halacha. The proper compromise solution as I see it would be to allow women to daven the way they want in the women's section (since it's absurd to make it "illegal" for women to daven with tallis and tefillin), but keep mixed services restricted to a different area, ala Sharansky's proposal (since it's absurd to think we could make the main Kotel area egalitarian without provoking a major civil uprising).

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