Sunday, January 24, 2010

Women and the Wall

By Susan Esther Barnes

There has been a lot of rhetoric flying around since Nofrat Frenkel was arrested at the Western Wall, or Kotel, in Jerusalem. Many reports suggest she was arrested for wearing a tallit, or prayer shawl, at the Wall, even though halachah, Jewish law, does not forbid a woman from wearing one. An article by Rabbi Avi Shafran, originally written for Am Echad Resources and published in the January 21 edition of J Weekly, says her offence was actually to “publicly read from the Torah opposite the stones of the Kotel.” He goes on to cite a passage in the Mishnah Torah which prohibits women from reading publicly from the Torah.

In splitting hairs about what, exactly, was Ms. Frenkel’s offense, Rabbi Shafran seems to ignore the point that all she wanted to do was to be allowed to pray at the wall in the same manner that men are allowed to pray there.

Marvin Schick, in the January 1 edition of The Jewish Week, says the women who want to be able to pray at the Kotel are sincere, but “This sincerity is embedded in egotism, in the attitude that what I/we want trumps long-standing religious practices, the sensibilities of others notwithstanding.”

Schick goes on to say, “I wonder whether it is all that difficult to understand that what has been labeled for far too long as out of touch or fundamentalist has proven to be essential to our survival as a people.” Further, he says, “Now that we have returned to Jerusalem and can pray at the Kotel, let us be respectful of the religious faith and teachings that indeed were the catalysts for our return to Jerusalem.”

I find it hard to imagine that others fail to see the lack of logic in the twisted reasoning of these men. They speak as if Judaism has always been static, that the laws were written down at the very beginning, and have never been re-examined or changed since. This is simply not true.

The most obvious example springs from the site of the debate itself, the Kotel, thought to be a remnant of the Temple where the Jewish people used to conduct our ritual sacrifices. When the Temple was destroyed for the second time, there was no place in which to conduct these sacrifices. Therefore, all of the laws regarding ritual sacrifice had to be set aside. The result was a tremendous change in how Jews practice our religion. Any who insisted Judaism could not exist if these changes were made were swept aside, and Judaism survived because of our ability to adapt and change to what was, at the time, the modern world.

It was only because Judaism recognized the realities of the world around it, and adapted, that it was it able to survive in the diaspora and thus have any chance of maintaining a people who would one day be able to return to Jerusalem. Thus, in contradiction to what Mr. Schick says, a refusal to re-examine the laws and to make changes where necessary was not a catalyst for our return, but could very well have been a course that would have prevented our continuation as a people.

Similarly, his statement that “We have returned to Jerusalem and can pray at the Kotel” is nonsensical when seen in the light that, although we have returned to Jerusalem, roughly only half of us can pray at the Kotel, because women may not do so.

Mr. Schick thinks it is wrong for the women to upset the sensibilities of the ultra-Orthodox, who are a minority, but he does not seem to consider the egotism of the ultra-Orthodox who upset the sensibilities of the Conservative, Reform, and other denominations of Jews who constitute the majority in Israel and elsewhere in the world.

It is time for the Orthodox to take a sincere look at the strength of the Jewish people and to recognize that our survival has depended in large part on our ability to adapt to the changing world around us. It is time for us to recognize that laws and rituals have changed over time to meet our changing understanding of the world and the realities in which we find ourselves. We have in the past, and must continue, to make changes where they make sense while retaining the core of our Jewish beliefs and practices. This is how we will survive as a people.

It is time to recognize we are all b’tzelim Elohim, made in the image of God. Let all Jews who want to come and pray at the Kotel do so, in full voice. Does this mean the Orthodox should lose their ability to pray as they see fit? No. Rabbi Eric Yoffie proposes a solution in which the Kotel is divided into thirds. One third would be set aside for Orthodox men to pray, one third would be set aside for Orthodox women to pray, and the remaining third would be open to secular Jews and those of other denominations. Thus, every Jew would be able to pray at our holiest site in the way we see fit.

It is time to stop worshipping what we imagine to be immutable laws, written by mere mortals long after we received the Torah at Sinai. It is time to return to our root values, in which we respect all human beings and recognize the fallibility of our sages. It is time to recognize the need to correct our course and to realize we have been following the wrong path. It is time to allow all of our people to return to Jerusalem to pray.

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