Jewish Identity and the Western Wall

You couldn’t, he thought, find three Jews in the world who would agree on what it meant to be Jewish, yet there were apparently fifty million of these people who knew exactly what it meant to be German, though many of those on deck have never set foot in Germany.

Alan Furst, Dark Star, (1991), p. 380.

Who is a Jew? What is a Jew? Who decides who is a Jew? These questions lie beneath the surface of a Washington Post story that reports on the controversy of women worshiping at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The article entitled “Women challenge Orthodox practice at Israel’s Western Wall” links the political dynamics of the pressure being brought by American Jews upon the Israeli government to accommodate non-Orthodox Jewish worship at what the Post calls “Judaism’s holiest shrine” with an Israeli local news item. Yet the story could have fleshed out the religion ghosts — telling a non-Jewish, non-Israeli audience why this is the something more than a turf battle over worship space.

Because this article is written from an American secular Jewish perspective  — the Post states its support of the protesters in its lede — only half the story is told. The presuppositions of the author — call them biases or perspectives or relative truths — prevents a reader from understanding the political and religious calculus here. It begins:

JERUSALEM — A long-running battle over worship at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest shrine, was rejoined Thursday as Israeli police arrested five Jewish women who wore prayer shawls at a morning service, contrary to Orthodox practice enforced at the site. The arrests came two days after disclosure of a potentially groundbreaking plan that could allow for non-Orthodox services to be held in the area on an equal footing with those conducted according to Orthodox tradition.

Note the verb being used in second clause of the lede sentence: “enforced”. The Post is characterizing the dispute as one of power — he who has power can enforce his will. What trajectory would the story have taken it different verb were used stating that Orthodox practice is not merely enforced but required by law? The story then moves to quotes from the women activists and an “ultra-Orthodox heckler”, before moving to the political, summarizing the history of the dispute, taking it up to recent discussions in the cabinet:

[Prime Minister] Netanyahu asked Natan Sharansky, chairman of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, to come up with a plan for worship at the Western Wall that would accommodate the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism that are dominant overseas. The move signaled an increasing awareness in the Israeli government that the confrontations over ritual at the Western Wall are driving a wedge between Israel and Jewish communities abroad.<

Sharansky’s solution presented to American Jewish leaders was to build a platform “south of the main prayer plaza; men and women could pray together there, and women could lead services.”

The article closes with a quote from the Western Wall Orthodox rabbi who said he was in favor of the separate facilities and an Israeli reform rabbi who is given free reign to sound off on his views on the Orthodox hegemony of Judaism in Israel.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform movement in Israel, said that Women of the Wall had succeeded in making religious pluralism at the shrine a major issue of Jewish concern. “The Wall has become an ultra-Orthodox synagogue,” Kariv said, adding that Thursday’s arrests sent a signal that undermined Sharansky’s proposal. “You can’t make a serious attempt to reach a compromise while maintaining a situation where the rights of one side are seriously breached,” he said.

Still, Kariv predicted that if the proposal is implemented, the area set aside for non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall “will become the main platform for the vast majority of Israelis and Jews.”

I am not a Jew and have no dog in the fight between the traditional and progressive strands of Judaism. I am concerned with good journalism, though, and find this story unbalanced and incomplete.

Unbalanced because there is no explanation as to why the Orthodox object to bare-headed women leading prayers (as the accompanying photo from the Post shows) next to a gathering of Haredi men praying. While supporters of change have their say in this story supporters of tradition do not. I should say that I know the Talmud rejects the practice — but I do not know if other non-Jews know this. Without an explanation of the religious issues a casual reader might well assume that this is an issue of power.

It was an issue of power in 1928. On the Day of Atonement that year, 28 September 1928, a riot erupted when British police torn down wooden barriers separating male and female worshipers at the Wall. Protests from Jewish communities around the world greeted this action which in turn were followed by protests from Arabs in Palestine against Jews worshiping at the Wall. The British ban on sex segregation barriers became a ban on Jews at the Wall from 1948 1967 when it was under the control of Jordan.

When Israel took control of the Temple Mount area the Wall came under the authority of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. In the 1980s American and English emigrants to Israel began the Women at the Wall movement which sparked a riot by Haredi men at the wall in 1989. In 2003 Israel’s Supreme Court disallowed women from reading publicly from the Torah or wearing traditional prayer shawls at the plaza built by the Ministry in front of the Wall. However, it held the government must build a second area for women and mixed sex groups — as well as non-Orthodox Jews — on the site of Robinson’s Arch.  Sharansky’s solution is to expand this site — which is not under the control of the Ministry.

Without explaining the religious elements — the objections of the Orthodox or the determination of Jewish women to worship at the wall rather than near — the story is incomplete. Without touching upon the history behind this section, it’s context, a casual reader might well suppose this is just about power.

What does the wall symbolize for the religious Jew or the secular Israeli? Is this a continuing chapter in the saga of who is a Jew, what does it mean to be a Jew, and who gets to say who is a Jew? Written for an American or Diaspora audience — the story is incomplete.

About geoconger
  • cvg

    When first reading the story, I thought other complimentary political moves affecting Haredi were left out. For instance, the government’s pull back from gender separated Orthodox military units provides signifiant context, but was left out. What other parallel shifts are occurring with ultra-Orthodox interactions in Israeli society?

    Geoconger’s analysis provides lots of information I think could also have made the article richer. Personally, I found the article well written but old-hat. On the contrary, I devoured geoconger’s history of what happened when similar liberalizing changes were previously tried

  • sari

    Couldn’t agree more, George. More than anything, the WaPo should have included a little history on the Kotel (Western Wall) and how the Mechitzah (separator) came to be and why. Hair coverings are secondary to much bigger issues in the minds of observant (not just haredi) Jews.

    This statement, by R. Kariv, “The Wall has become an ultra-Orthodox synagogue”, misrepresents how people pray at the Wall. Dress varies for both men and women. A large percentage of people pray on their own rather than as part of a congregation. Men may (or may not) pray as part of a minyan (quorum of Bar Mitzvah age or older men); many minyanim daven(pray) separately but at the same time. Lots and lots of overlap. No synchronization. No one polices the liturgy used for a minyan unless (I would guess) the service involves reading from the Torah scrolls (Shabbat, Monday, Thursday and holy days).

    The Mechitzah was alluded to by Zechariah and, if Talmudic rabbis are to be believed, took the form of a women’s balcony during Second Temple times (Water-drawing ceremony at Hoshannah Rabbah). At issue is ritual purity and tsniut (modesty) in the Temple complex, not gender equality. Anyone who’s read Pentateuch should be familiar with actions that render one “unclean” (a terrible translation of the word, which should be translated as ritually impure–that is, unfit to enter the Temple complex). It has nothing to do with physical cleanliness and everything to do with spiritual cleanliness. The mechitzah helps people keep their mind on their davening and undistracted by impure thoughts.

    Dress, too, has a Biblical basis. The story of the sotah (woman accused of adultery) mentions that her “head be “unloosed” (Numbers 5:18)”, which the Rabbis understood to mean uncovering her hair. They formalized local practice in the Middle East during Biblical times into religious law. Further (and I can say this from experience at the Wall), many bare-headed women pray at the Wall with no repercussions whatsoever, and many wear trousers rather than skirts or dresses. Modesty in this case means shoulders, chest, and thighs reasonably covered. I was taught that as we dress up out of respect to meet a king or president, so, too, we should dress when we stand before the King of Kings. Dress signifies respect -and- does not distract members of the opposite sex from their prayers.

    Another problem stems from the problem of women wearing men’s clothing (Deut 22:5), less of a problem for pants and more of a problem for the Tallis (prayer shawl–notice how a short definition can be inserted) and, in some minds, laying Tefillin (leather straps and boxes containing parchment with Jewish scripture). While there is some evidence that Rashi, the great commentator, taught his daughters (he had no sons) to wear Talleisim and lay Tefillin, the halakhic issue here actually pertains to which mitzvot (commandments) women are obligated to perform and why. In general, women are released from time-bound mitzvot (fixed prayer) due to their (until recently) greater responsibility towards their families (men cannot nurse babies). Wearing items typically reserved for men, who use them exclusively to perform time-related mitzvot, would transgress that rule. Had the reporter been knowledgeable, he might have asked these brave women whether they daven and lay tefillin daily or just sometimes. Do they wear the optional Tallit gadol (prayer shawl) or the mandated (for men, alone, in Orthodoxy) tallit katan? Does anyone keep kashrut or Shabbat? Iow, how much do they really practice and how much is to make a point? The Wall itself is always accessible to them.

    Since the minyan derives from the story of Joshua and the spies, where G-d referred to the ten male spies as “an evil congregation” (Num 14:27), a minyan does not include women, which makes any all female service a non-service. And there are also issues of Kol Isha, which states that a woman’s voice (singing) can be arousing (to a man), and issues of ritual purity when touching a Torah. Do they touch the Torah when menstruating or immerse in the mikveh (ritual bath) to achieve a state of ritual purity beforehand?

    These are the types of concerns relevant to the issue of women at the Wall and which should have been addressed, in condensed form, in the article. The one topic that was left unaddressed, that of who is a Jew, isn’t really relevant, since people of all faiths are allowed access to the Wall.

  • Ira Rifkin

    George: The issue isn’t about who is a Jew but what is Judaism. According to halacha, or Judaism’s traditional code of behavior and practice now associated almost exclusively with Orthodox Judaism, even a Messianic Jew or a JewBhu (or is it BhuJew?) or Jewish atheist is still a Jew, albeit an apostate.
    This fight over the Kotel is a skirmish in the larger conflict over who in Israel defines normative Judaism, which is the historical religion of the Jewish people – just as Bon was the traditional religion of Tibet prior to Buddhism, except that Judaism maintains its hold on the tribe whereas Bon has all but disappeared – and whether non-Orthodox Judaism (Conservative, Reform, Jewish Renewal, Reconstructionist, spiritual but non-religious, etc.), gains equal rights – and access to government monies and the ability to establish its own lifecycle rites that are fully state recognized.
    The hallachic details noted by Sari is the tactical battlefield on which this conflict between most traditional-leaning Orthodox movements and the modernity-leaning non-Orthodox factions fight. Its very roughly akin to the Protestant Reformaton within Christendom.
    But regardless of where you stand on the importance of these details, Jews and Judaism are just not the same thing.
    Granted, popular journalism and conversational exchanges use the terms interchangeably. That makes it harder to understand the true differences. But it does not negate them.

    • sari

      Agreed, Ira. One must separate the religion from inclusion by birthright.

      My point was that the press and the Women at the Wall frame this as a a gender equality issue, when it’s really not about that at all. My grandfather, zt”l, was a Conservative Rabbi, who like most Conservative Rabbis of his generation, had Orthodox s’michah (ordination). Were he alive today, he might even support the WotW’s endeavor, but he would do so from the position of halakhah, not because of secular pressures.

      The article was extremely weak on rationale, the women’s religious background (the WotW includes or has included frum/observant women as members), and their general level of observance. It also misrepresented *why* some people object to the women’s presence. Hint: it’s not uncovered heads and it’s not just men.

  • Jerry

    As the third Jew to weigh in, naturally I have a different perspective:

    To start with, there’s this quote and note that it’s about Conservative Judaism not Reform Judaism which is to me very significant:

    “David J. Fine, “Women and the Minyan” OH 5:1.2002 Conservative rabbis who permit women to count in the minyan and serve as shlikhot tzibbur argue such by various and opposing argumentations, either by reading the classical halakhic sources as obligating women to prayer equally with men and thereby permitting them to have equal liturgical status, or by understanding the classical halakhic sources as not mandating the liturgical inequality of women, or by accepting the legislative authority of the 1973 takannah, or by recognizing that women in the Conservative movement have, as a general class, accepted upon themselves the equal obligation to prayer with men.

    Conclusion: Women may count in the minyan and serve as shalihot tzibbur.”

    http://judaism.about.com/library/3_askrabbi_c/bl_women_minyan.htm

    And you should read this about Conservative women as Rabbis http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/femalerabbi.html

    So Ira Rifkin’s analysis is one I basically share with one point I sadly have to make:

    When you write that I should say that I know the Talmud rejects the practice — but I do not know if other non-Jews know this. you make the same mistake GR is always complaining about – being ignorant about religion. Jewish scholars have argued for ages over what the Talmud does or does not say and for a non-Jew to assert that HE knows what the Talmud says is ignorance at best and unbecoming to someone who writes about how the media does not get religion while not getting religion himself.

    • Ira Rifkin

      Jerry, your last paragraph does not make clear that you are, I believe, referring to a statement made by George, not me.

      • Ira Rifkin

        Plus, it’s a bit harsh.

  • Julia

    As a non-Jew with Jewish relatives, I wish more news reports would include better explanations of what’s really going on sometimes with internal Israeli disputes. Particularly, there is a real problem that Israel heavily depends on support from the diaspora which largely is not Orthodox and not appreciative of ritual purity issues, etc.
    But that’s the case with lots of religiously tinged news where the deeper explanations of what is going on are ignored, regardless of the particular religion involved. It appears that typically secularist news folks think all of that is just silly. They may think religious issues are silly, but these issues are the root of many international and internal conflicts that affect countries beyond their borders. Ignorance has resulted in nobody caring about the near-disappearance of Christians from their homeland in Iraq .

  • Pingback: Jewish Identity and the Western Wall: Get Religion, April 14, 2013 | Conger

  • Izzy

    There is an additional problem in the article about nomenclature. The article uses the term “Orthodox” and the quote uses the term “Ultra-Orthodox”. Neither is defined. This does not help the reader to understand what is going on.


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