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The Women of the Wall -- נשות הכותל
A few Thoughts
By Shlomo Phillips © April 22, 2015 (most recent update: April 24,2015)

Our Facebook group Boycott Jew Hatred encourages free speech within the confines of our focus (i.e. resisting antisemitism and discussing issues and strategies related to it). In addition to opposing classic antisemitism and the growing threat of Jihadi Islam, we also openly acknowledge "the enemy within." There are obvious examples of these sorts of enemies such as the so-called True Torah Jews, Neturei-Karta, and other anti-Zionists. In defence of Zionism we ban such people from our groups. There are equally disturbing but less known examples and self-hating Jews, such as the Harvard Hillel and UCLA Jewish Studies Program that sometimes support anti-Israel activists and the Hamas/PA based BDS movement. We discuss these events as they occur. Then there are cases that are not as clear. Accusations are made, evidence is cited and sometimes debunked. This piece is about one such group. Recently an attack piece was posted about the controversial group Women of the Wall. This piece questioned the group's embrace of Zionism and of Israel's very existence.

The Women of the Wall

As Ben Sales reported on April 21, 2015 for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA):

The brouhaha that erupted yesterday at Women of the Wall’s monthly [Kotel] service brought back memories of the violence the group suffered in 2013. Month after month, crowds of Heredi Orthodox Jews packed the plaza to block out the women’s section, with a small minority hurling stones, eggs, coffee, [etc] at the women’s prayer group. A second women’s group formed to galvanize opposition to Women of the Wall [emphasis mine].

How could such conflicts happen at Judaism's holiest site between people who supposedly simply wish to properly observe the Jewish religion?

It not as difficult to understand as it might appear, but some history is required:

"The Second Temple was destroyed, our rabbis teach, because “baseless hatred” prevailed at the time. But the Jews did not learn their lesson. Rabbinic Judaism denounced the Karaites as heretics and the Mitnagdim and the Hasidim were at each others’ throats, as were traditionalists and Maskilim.
And of course, some Orthodox Jews still revile the Reform, while the Reform have few good words to say about the Haredim" -- Source.
We Jews are as divided today as we have ever been! Yet many believe that we somehow merit the coming of HaMashiach and the restored Beit HaMikdash (i.e. the House of the Holy: the Third Temple).

Those Who Fail to Remember the Past are Condemned to Repeat It.

When the Sacred Jerusalem Temple was destroyed in 70 CE part of the Jewish soul also perished and awaits resurrection. This ongoing controversy has this yearning at its core.

For nearly 2000 years religious and non-religious Jews alike have yearned for the restoration of Israel and for the rebuilding of our Sacred Temple. In 1948 the nation was partially restored, but the Holy City remained in Muslim hands. After an unsuccessful Muslim attempt to destroy the reborn nation in 1967 the Holy City and other areas were restored to us. Sadly most of our Land remains occupied by Muslim forces as the graphic to the right shows, but Jerusalem is again in Israeli hands.

Well, most of the Holy City anyway...

Even though Israeli forces successfully retook the Holy City in 1967, including the Sacred Mount where our once and future Temple stood, the Mount was, for purposes of political appeasement, left in the hands of the Muslim Jordanian authority. The government of Israel managed to grasp defeat from the very jaws of victory. This decision by the Israeli government continues to produce unwholesome fruit today.

The Sacred Mount remains under Muslim control. Jews are still not able to worship there and the Temple remains a dream, while Muslims continue to worship their god on our holiest site. Occasionally they even stone those who come to the Kotel (the Wall) to worship from its heights.

Its important to understand the above when discussing this issue.

Traditional Jews want to observe traditional Judaism at our traditional holy sites. This does not seem like so much to ask for! The Kotel is the 2nd holiest of these sites. The most holy place is the site of our former Temple. The Muslim Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock now stand there.

While we can not yet ascend the Sacred Mount to worship as we would like, we do remember what we have lost. We yearn for Temple's restoration and for the coming of the King of Israel. Religious Jews pray for this daily as part of the Amida (see points 14 and 15 on the linked page).

In the Torah HaShem defines the Temple area and its divisions. Among these divisions is clear gender separation. These divisions are in the Torah and they will certainly be enforced by the Rabbis once the Temple is rebuilt. Some women (and some Gentiles) will not be happy about these Torah mandated restrictions. Other areas will be reserved for the priests and the Most Holy Place will be reserved for the High Priest alone as in biblical times.

Torah Observant men and women will have no problem with being restricted to and from these areas because Torah mandates the rules and it will be God's House. To them it is part of the design established by HaShem and so it is obviously correct. Many of those who reject or challenge the Torah will not be happy however. Some of the later group believe there should be no restrictions on Jews. Based on their rejection of Jewish Chosenness these people say that non-Jews should be allowed full access as well, despite what the Torah says. This pertains to the future Temple so this controversy is yet to come. These Temple divisions are reflected in the Rabbinic separation decrees at the Kotel.

For most traditional and Orthodox women and men these separations are seen as a blessing of HaShem, even more-so for the women than for men, freeing women to focus on HaShem alone without distraction from their husband's or suitor's presence.

Apparently the Women of the Wall share at least this point with the Orthodox women, otherwise they would be the People of the Wall instead of the Women of the Wall. Instead, they exclude men from everything they do is, which is in their own terms, sexist. The Orthodox don't exclude women, they embrace the Torah's gender rules. Each person stands before HaShem with no one intervening. Gender separation in worship makes that possible for traditional Jews and the gender separation supports this. Most traditional Jews prefer these distinctions in worship both at the Kotel (the grand shul) and in their local congregations. Most Orthodox women clearly prefer this traditional situation.

Non-traditional women and men on the other hand, often view the mandated gender separation as sexism, as a denial of equal rights and access. From a traditional perspective nothing could be farther from the truth. Being assimilated into Western consciousness however the non-traditionalists lack the traditional Jewish paradigm in these areas. Rather than embrace Jewish tradition they reject it and seek to enforce that of the other nations. This is the problem. Its easy to identify. But to solve it? That's a different matter!

It must be acknowledged that the two sections at the Kotel, as in most of the Orthodox shuls, are not equal. There are reasons for this that have nothing to do with sexism, but this requires a knowledge of traditional ways that most non-Orthodox do not have. When one tries to explains these reason the reply is normally that it is merely justification for inequality.

Such people demand to be free of all traditional mandates. For them, this is part of the ongoing diaspora struggle for gender equality. This makes complete sense from their perspective. Its a clash between New Age culture and established tradition based on contemporary egalitarianism. Many of these "modern Jews" reject the Chosenness of the Jewish people outright. For them all of our traditions are up for grabs. They would like to see all religious distinctions erased and for all of humanity to be one amorphous hive. They consider the surrender of distinctiveness to be necessary for equality. This collectivist ideal is totally opposed to Torah and would quickly lead to our destruction as a unique people. Assimilation has always been the biggest threat to our continued existence. That threat is huge today!

On the other hand, traditional and Orthodox Jews often believe that by observing what they see as the divinely mandated gender separation at the Kotel (and in Orthodox shuls) we demonstrate our willingness to observe HaShem's instructions. Embracing these instructions demonstrates our resolve to be obedient to the rules of Torah. Such an attitude they say is conducive to our goal of witnessing the rebuilding of the Temple (may it be restored in our day!) and the coming of HaMashiach ben David, our Melech or King. Therefore to oppose these traditions logically evokes the opposite effect for those who accept this Traditional concept. Traditional and Orthodox Jews are not prepared to abandoned Torah (Baruch HaShem!) and the Redemption for political correctness.

The Women of the Wall (the Reform Movement and similar non-Orthodox activists) are challenging these ancient Jewish traditions and aspirations. Thereby, it appears to the Traditionalists, that they are openly defying HaShem in His own Holy Place, just as though they were erecting idols there! These actions are seen as being even more egregious than the Trefa Banquet that finalized the wall of separation between Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities in 1883. By publicly violating Rabbinic halacha at our holiest site the Women of the Wall and their allies are seen to be furthering the delay of the coming of HaMashiach ben David, the restoration of the Beit HaMikdash, and our ultimate Redemption.

On the other hand... we are not living in biblical times. Rabbinic halacha is sometimes updated according to the needs of the day, so why not these rules? Indeed halacha is often established by what the Jewish people "do" rather than what the rabbis rule, hence much of local minhag (custom). Arguably, if enough Jews sided with the Women of the Wall and similar reformers then what they see as their full inclusion could become halacha, but at what cost. Israel's Orthodoxy are often critical of American Orthodoxy already for being less strict. Their reformation doubtless seems plausible to the Women of the Wall, but is a nightmare for the traditional Jews who fear assimilation and the corresponding end of Jewish history. Today only a small segment of Jews are Torah observant to any real degree. The emerging "post rabbinic" Judaism looks more like Unitarian Universalism than the Derech HaShem of our ancestors.

Gender roles everywhere, including in Israel, are completely different now than they were prior to the last hundred years or so. Women wield great power and influence throughout the Jewish and non-Jewish world (other than in Islam) today. Among the non-Orthodox Jews there are even many female rabbis -- much to the disapproval of the Orthodox. Women serve heroically in the Israeli military. They serve as judges, teachers, doctors... in every area of life women enjoy an equality unheard of in previous generations. How can we expect such 'liberated' women, living in free societies and enjoying equality with men in every other area of their lives, to submit to the gender limitations demanded by Traditional Judaism? It only makes sense that they want to "liberate" Judaism from what they perceive as outdated beliefs and practices that limit them.

It is a sticky wicket to be sure! None of the easy answers suffice:

And THIS, in my opinion, is where the further discussions breaks down. Where does one go from here? These women are just as committed to their views of Judaism as the Heredi are. Judaism does not have a Pope who speaks ex cathedra, and even if we did, he would almost certainly be ignored in this debate as many ignore the Vatican when it comes to "women's issues." The chief rabbis are not being listened to and this posses a grave threat to the future of Judaism. This is part of the problem. By definition "Rabbinic" Judaism derives it teachings from the Rabbis, but the reformers are disregarding them rather than working with them to facilitate possible change. But then, the Rabbis are not listening to reformers either so...

Whenever the Women of the Wall perform their acts of civil disobedience they are countered by Orthodox women. These women want to observe the traditional ways. They feel empowered by traditional Judaism and the Women of the Wall are seeking to steal this from them! The majority of Orthodox women do not want to see women parading around the Kotel with Torah scrolls, wearing traditional men's clothing (i.e. tallit etc) in violation of Torah. These women prefer to peer through the screen that divides the two sections and watch the men observing the ancient traditions as Jewish women have for thousands of years. Women of the Wall are seeking to deny them their preferred traditional religious expression.

This is not a conflict between men and women!

This conflict at the Kotel and throughout Judaism is not between women (the oppressed) and men (the oppressors) as the narrative is inevitably presented in the media and non-Orthodox Jewish websites. Rather, its between traditional Judaism (read Orthodox and Heredi) and modern Judaism (read Liberal or non-Orthodox). Even more, it is between Rabbinic Judaism and what some are calling Post-Rabbinic Judaism: an egalitarianism that rejects the very form of Judaism practiced for the last 2500 years. This is what Women of the Wall and much of non-Orthodox Judaism is doing even though some Orthodox women do support the Women of the Wall.

To the right is a photo my wife took of me at the Kotel. To my right is a women who sneaked into the male section having her picture taken by a man wearing a white kippa. To my left is an Heredi man clearly unhappy about her presence and presumably considering what if anything he should do about it.

Here's a fundamental problem as I see it.

There are no Orthodox female rabbis. It is forbidden by Orthodox halacha even though many Orthodox women would make spectacular rabbis in my opinion. Because of this Rabbinic ban woman who want to become rabbis must go through one of the non-Orthodox movements. Their training is not Orthodox and so their teachings are not Orthodox and so their communities drift farther and farther away from Torah and become increasingly assimilated.

A rabbi (male or female) may be ordained through a non-Orthodox movement but that does not mean she/he can not observe and teach traditional halacha properly.

What an empowering thing it would be to see strong female rabbis advancing traditional Judaism in non-Orthodox communities! How would the Orthodox respond if non-Orthodox synagogues were becoming effectively Orthodox shuls because of strong female rabbis? Of course they would deny them at first, these things don't change over night. Some would seek areas of non-Observance to point to critically (sadly some do this to other Orthodox rabbis who do not hold approval from the RCA or similar groups today)... but what if these female rabbis were solid in their observance and in their teachings? Surely this would make female ordination much more and begin to heal the breaks between Orthodox and non-Orthodox.

Alas how many female rabbis do this? How many non-Orthodox rabbis of either gender do this? The congregations that most of these rabbis serve are more like Unitarian-Universalist fellowships than Jewish congregations. I am even aware of non-Orthodox synagogues that support BDS, that even praise other gods in the name of interfaith relations right in their synagogues! The rabbis are not Torah observant and so the congregation is even less so. These non-observant synagogues frequently reject essential Orthodox beliefs, such as the uniqueness of the Jewish Covenant, the holiness and centrality of Torah, the importance of remaining distinct from other religions even as we respectfully dialogue with them. Many do not even believe in HaShem! There are so many critical points that are not present in these synagogues and their rabbis (female or male). Of course the Orthodox are resisting this anti-Torah trend and erecting ever more walls against them! But if these women rabbis would embrace halacha and advance their congregation's observance, the Orthodox would eventually take notice and the stigma against female rabbis would gradually subside.

As it is today, the vast majority of converts to Judaism are rejected as Jews by the Orthodox. The vast majority! Its not the converts they are rejecting however, it the non-Orthodox rabbis granting them entry. In so many ways these divisions are hurting Judaism and the Jewish people! Something needs to be done.

How could the Orthodox Kotel authorities not react as they do when Women of the Wall publicly defy the Chief Rabbinate and violate halacha at the Sacred Kotel?

What we have then are conflicting ideas of proper Judaism, not Zionist loyalties. From what I have seen and been reassured by WOW members, most Women of the Wall are committed Zionists in the broad sense, as illustrated by Benjamin Netanyahu and Isaac Herzog. Both are committed Zionists but sharply disagree on many issues. If we lose the Kotel what they be the Women of? These women are defending the Wall and Israel according to their non-traditional beliefs. We may disagree with them on various points, but they too are Zionists.

What this viral article by the Jewish Press alleges about certain leaders of the group may be true, I can't say (WOW denies the allegations). But one must understand that Women of the Wall is a very eclectic group. Even if the accusations are true, the views of one or two members doesn't say very much about the group as a whole. There are no ideologies nor official anti-Zionist positions held by the Women of the Wall as there are with the so-called True Torah Jews, Neturei-Karta, etc. I have not managed to find any link between the Women of the Wall group and anti-Zionists. I don't believe such links exist. We have legitimate differences, let's not make up false charges to exacerbate the situation. As one of its lead members explained to me via PM:

... The story is full of inaccuracies, as you can tell by their very description of the WoW mission - WoW does not seek to conduct egalitarian prayer at the Kotel but a women's minyan where they can pray as equals.
The bottom line, however, is as was stated in the article: both our board and supporters come from many political, religious and social groups. Just as we have orthodox board members alongside conservative and reform, ashkenazi women and sefaradi, we find political views irrelevant (and indeed, they differ greatly amongst the group) as long as our supporters are committed to our cause. Women of the Wall has one purpose only as an organization, and this purpose is a-political and cross denominational...
And another note: all of WoW's board member see themselves as Zionist. All have served in the army....
Obviously political views do matter if they are all Zionists, but I see no reason to question the loyalty of these women to Israel nor to Zionism.

The real debate is about the kind of Israel and Judaism we want for the future until HaMashiach comes. Many of the Heredi demand levels of observance that simply are not desired by most people in today's world. Sometimes some Haredim act inappropriately towards non-Observant women; we've all seen such stories in the media. At the same time, the non-Orthodox are clearly weakening Torah observance and our ancient Traditions. The Heredi are clearly creating an air of fear that to many feels more like Islamic Sharia that Jewish moderation. Both sides have legitimate concerns.

I think we need a balance and the acceptance of the inevitable facts: Some Jews are going to be more observant, some less.

Israel is currently a secular nation not a theocracy. It must allow for diversity among its citizens. It is the best at maintaining this of any country in the Middle east.

I believe in equal rights for both genders, but I do not agree with these sorts of political actions at the Kotel. It seems very disrespectful to me. Using Torah Scrolls as political footballs to provoke discord and gain media attention is not acceptable! These actions desecrate the holiness of the site, the sacred scrolls, and offend the sensibilities of observant Jews everywhere. Women of the Wall feed the lies or our enemies and blur the distinctions between Jewish Halacha and Muslim Sharia (of course, these women would be long since dead in any Muslim country!). Their actions are also furthering the gulf between Observant and non-Observant Jews and this is something we do not need more of.

My solution, not that anyone asked.

Expand the existing women's section to the size of the men's section by removing the stairway to the Mount so that the woman's section can be expanded on the Dung Gate side without infringing on the men's section. Both the men's and women's sections should be ruled by Orthodox halacha by the Chief Rabbinate. All demonstrations in those areas should be outlawed and strictly enforced.

Rebuild the stairway to the Mount on the right side of the enlarged women's section. Create an additional plaza down the Wall towards the Dung Gate on the other side of the stairway for mixed worship where people can worship HaShem as they see fit. Let this be the non-Orthodox synagogue at the Kotel and forbid the Heredi from interfering with this section. It would be governed by the Masorti Foundation. Everyone can then worship at the Kotel as they choose. There is plenty of unused space along the Wall to do this. When HaMashiach comes he can settle these issues.

According to the rabbis the Second Temple was destroyed due to our infighting. We have now returned to the Land and Holy City (B"H). We hope for HaMashiach and the rebuilding of the Temple in our generation, and yet we are more divided today than ever before. We need to stop fighting over expressions of Jewish practice and respect our fellows! Some will be more observant, some less, but we are all the people of HaShem. We need unity now!

To join the conversation go to my Facebook post on this.

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