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The Kotel Controversy

Picture this scene: You are an American tourist at the Kotel when, all of a sudden, a group of innocent-looking Jewish women are dragged away by large, heavily armed, Israeli policemen. What could these women have done wrong? What is their offense? Are they terrorists in disguise?

Now picture this scene: You are a Chareidi student learning in yeshiva. You come to daven Shacharit at the Kotel when, all of the sudden, a group of American women, donned in Tallitot and Tefillin, come marching down to the Kotel and begin leining (reading the Torah). How can these women have such basic disrespect for the holiest place on earth?

As you probably have already figured out, the above two scenes are one and the same. The women being dragged out by the heavily armed policemen are the same women who came to daven at the Kotel wearing Tefillin. Their offense? Wearing Tallit, Tefillin, and leading a prayer service at the Kotel. You can probably also tell that this is a very sticky situation.

This past October Anat Hoffman, a noted Reform rabbi and feminist activist, was arrested for wearing a Tallit at the Kotel. More recently, more women have been arrested for wearing a Talit and reading from a Torah at the Kotel. These women belong to a feminist activist group named The Women of the Wall. The Women of the Wall believe that the Kotel, Judaism’s holiest site, should be open to all expressions of Judaism. They claim that the Kotel has become an “Ultra-Orthodox synagogue,” not representative of the broader Jewish community. Therefore, every Rosh Chodesh they march down to the Kotel, replete (or armed, depending on your perspective) with Tallit, Tefillin, and Torah scrolls; and every Rosh Chodesh they are either stopped or arrested by the Kotel Police.

In 2000 the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that it is legal for women to wear a Tallit and read from the Torah at the Kotel. In 2003 that ruling was reversed, due to some violent situations that broke out between them and the predominantly Ultra-Orthodox contingency of regular Kotel parishioners. As it stands, it is illegal for women to wear a Talit, Tefillin, or hold a Torah at the Kotel. They are permitted to do so only in a special section near the Robinson’s Arch. This issue has come to the foreground in the Jewish community recently, with the stories of these arrests being reported in virtually every Jewish newspaper and even making the homepage of The New York Times’ website.

The Halachik issue here is actually not that complex. According to Ashkenazik practice, women may perform any Mitzvah they would like to perform, even if they are technically exempt from it because it is a time-bound Mitzvah (whether it be wearing Tefillin or eating Matza on Pesach). The Rama mentions, however, that it is not proper for women to wear Tefilin. Furthermore, Minhag Yisrael is that women do not wear Tefillin. Minhagim are important—Minhag Yisrael Torah (custom is tantamount to Law)—but they are not offenses worthy of imprisonment. Do the Kotel Authorities imprison men who do not wear Kippot (also a Minhag)? This issue is clearly sociological, not Halachik.

It is clear that the Kotel cannot become a religious free-for-all. It is the holiest place in the world for our people, and a Makom Tefillah—a synagogue. I believe that the Kotel should conform with mainstream Judaism. There are very few women (most of them are American) who have interest in wearing a Talit at the Kotel. We do not need to accommodate to every radical. However, the Ultra-Orthodox authority does have too much control over the Kotel.

This past summer I was at the Kotel with a group of mostly non-religious, at-risk Israeli youth. Numerous fights nearly broke-out between the girls I was with and the religious authorities over the length of the girls’ shorts. I was incensed—these girls traveled for 3 hours to pray at the Kotel; if you want to be extra-machmir, so look away or go somewhere else. Another time I witnessed a female tourist get screamed at for taking a picture of the men’s section. This is clearly unacceptable and stemming from chauvinist views. We don’t need to accommodate to radical chumrot, religious intolerance, and sexism either.

Sometimes even I, an Orthodox man, feel uncomfortable there; as if people are judging me for wearing khaki pants. I am personally offended by the Chabad guy who asks me if I put on Tefillin this morning—he’s not asking anyone wearing a white shirt.

The Women of the Wall are not advocating tearing down the Mechitza; they are not interfering with Orthodox services. Granted, as an Orthodox Jew I do not support women wearing a Tallit and reading the Torah, but I am not against it—it quite simply does not affect me. If that’s what people want to do—gezuntaheit (let it be)! Most Jews are not Orthodox. Most Jews support egalitarianism in prayer. We should not make a majority of the Jewish population of the world feel uncomfortable at the Kotel.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has commissioned Natan Sharansky, the head of the ever-ambiguous Jewish Agency, to investigate the issue. Quite frankly, the Israeli government does not really care. Most of the women interested in wearing Tallit at the Kotel are American. Israeli women are not known for championing religious feminist issues—Netanyahu just wants this to go away.  However, this will not go away, as it is representative of a larger issue—the vitriolic civil war brewing between the Chareidim in Israel and mainstream Israeli society.

The situation has to change; the leaders of the Chareidi community need to take a long look in the mirror and come up with a reasonable solution to these societal issues that do not involve spitting, stoning, and arresting.

In his now-famous speech at the Chareidi Campus of Kiryat Ono College, Yair Lapid told the Chareidim that they are an inseparable part of Israeli society. Lapid also charged them with a responsibility, proclaiming that he envisions a future where “your children can play with my children without you being afraid I will corrupt your children and me being afraid you will preach to my children.”

Lapid’s vision may sound overly idealistic, and in case you were beginning to feel like the situation is hopeless, this echoed in my mind the words of another idealist—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—“I have a dream…when all of God’s children, black men, white men…will be able to join hands.”

Ironically, it is baseless hatred of other Jews that the Gemara faults as being the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple, which stood only yards away from the Kotel. Hopefully a solution will come about that recognizes the diversity of Jews who pray at the Kotel without making more traditional Jews feel uncomfortable. Hopefully each side will be willing to accept such a compromise.