Political Provocation Not Welcome

When a “movement” has more media appearances than members, do we notice something amiss? When a group claiming to favor prayer calls for dismantling a place of worship, do we smell smoke? And when leaders of an organization demand “Ahavat Yisrael” and then express outright revulsion for all who oppose their agenda, do we finally penetrate the veneer?

This is the tragic saga of the “Women of the Wall,” which portrays itself worldwide as advocating for “women’s rights,” but in Israel is known primarily for dishonoring a Holy Site with political circus – and sowing offense and discord.

They claim to speak for women, but disparage their spirituality. Chair Anat Hoffman referred to traditional prayers at the Wall as “men-only,” discarding those of millions of women annually. Founding member Phyllis Chesler asserted that recognition of their group will “acknowledge women as spiritual and religious beings, capable of non-coerced autonomous, independent, and halachic prayer.” She imagines that traditional women, “forced to obey ultra-misogynist views,” are lacking in all of the above.

But founding and current member Prof. Shulamit Magnus takes the crown. She claims that only women ignorant of Judaism oppose them, and having invented this fact, then declares that it “speaks volumes about the subjugated place of women in [traditional] society, and about the male structures that construct and control that society with an iron hand.” She describes traditional Judaism as “archaic, alien and repulsive.”

With the exception of their own monthly pilgrimages, the leadership doesn’t seem to find praying at the Wall all that momentous, either. As a leader of the Reform movement in Israel, Hoffman recently proposed dismantling the place of worship in favor of a “national monument” on a daily basis. Reform Rabbis in Israel declared in 1999 that “one should not consider the Western Wall as possessing any sanctity.” Why, then, the brouhaha?

Last week, Anat Hoffman confronted a Knesset Committee wearing a Tallit, and a Likud MK had a moment of comprehension. “This is not an Halachic argument,” he said. “It is about hegemony. They are trying to take over.” Hoffman made this explicit in an interview with the BBC: she wants to fragment Judaism in the Jewish state, and is using a place of worship for political theater.

In “secular” Tel Aviv there are over 550 traditional (what Americans might call “Orthodox”) synagogues with daily prayers, and one Reform Temple open only on Shabbat. The movement has scant footing in Israel, and Hoffman hopes to use this as a wedge issue to shore up support. Sadly, she seems to care little for the alienation she causes among Jews who needlessly fear their rights might be ignored in the Jewish state.

After all of the tumult and press coverage, and despite a board and staff of ten, only around 50 people go to the Wall itself on a monthly basis. Most women respect the sanctity and tradition practiced at the Wall for millennia, and are not interested in offending others in a place of worship.

Recently some of the heretofore silent majority launched a new group, striving to preserve the Kotel as the one place on earth where Jews of all persuasions pray peacefully, side by side. They are the Women For the Wall, and it is they who deserve our support and admiration.

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18 Responses

  1. Raymond says:

    This should be a non-issue. I have personally been to Israel seven times, each of those times visiting the Western Wall countless times. In every single one of those instances, I saw hundreds of very religious women fervently praying at the Wall. Men are on one side, women on the other, just as is mandated by Jewish law, and also frankly mandated by a common sense understanding of male nature. In other words, these anti-Torah feminists are pushing a cause that simply does not exist in the way they describe. Nobody is being oppressed at all. Ironically, if anybody is doing any oppressing, it is precisely that anti-Torah feminist group, who are so desperately trying to create chaos and discord among Jews. Such an angry, hostile group really needs to find better uses for their time.

  2. dr. bill says:

    defining a movement by its radical fringe is rarely useful as a way to promote understanding; it can only serve to deepen the strife. the contrast to the words of rav kook ztl in the very next entry by rabbi hauer were striking.

  3. Steve Brizel says:

    The analysis of the leaders and ideology of WOW was supernb. Yet, if the ideology has been an absolute failure everywhere on the ground but the HCJ and the media-why not treat them as a bunch of media provacateurs as opposed to engaging in counterproductive acts that reesult in a fringe group becoming media created martyrs? The quotes from Charedi spokesmen and teens in today’s NYT and the pictures were a Chillul HaShem and did a grave disservice to the Charedi world.

  4. Menachem Lipkin says:

    No, the real “tragedy” here is that a small group of women, whatever their motivations, who weren’t bothering anyone 1 hour, once a month, weren’t left alone. Instead, law enforcement, as its wont to do, preferred to mollify an even smaller group of violent religious fanatics at the expense of these women. Because of this misjudgment by law enforcement and the administrators of the Kotel, the group has been steadily growing to the point that it was 500 this past Friday. And while on Friday there were also thousands of counter-prayers (mostly bused in Beis Yaakov girls who had know real understanding of why they were there), thanks to a bunch of intolerant buffoonery, the WoW achieved a massive victory. Instead of the absurd site of seeing women being arrested for wearing Talitot, a huge police presence was now there protecting them from the multitudes.

  5. L. Oberstein says:

    Cross-Currents seems to have taken a break from new articles. Womenof the Wall is a mostly hype. How many Israelis care if women who want to put on tefillin can daven outsite in the same open space as other women. If they came into the men’s section, that would be a real provocation. I think that tghey will be given a larger place at Robinxon’s Arch and even then these particular women will still want to daven at the same place, the Ezras Noshim of the Kosel. That is because they are orthodox feminists and don’t want mixed davening. They also like the publicity. The solution is to find a way to ignore them and they won’t make such a difference. Of course, this won’t happen because their opponents enjoy the fight as much as Anat and her pals do. Both sides love a good rumble. That is Israeli fun, it seems. HOw stupid we are to play to their hands.

  6. Yaakov Menken says:

    I want to point something out. I submitted this article to the Baltimore Jewish Times on May 3, for publication on May 10. I know one of the organizers of Women For the Wall, and I know their goal was to, if they were lucky, equal the turnout for the Women of the Wall. So I wrote this article on that basis. What actually happened is beyond amazing.

    Dr. Bill, what I think you mean to say is that the people that I quoted are the “radical fringe” of the organization. I beg to differ: these are its founders, organizers, leading writers. There is another article from two of the founders that appeared last week, after this article was written and before its publication, that is even worse.

    Your comment could probably be directed correctly of the media, which focused upon the misbehavior of no more than 50 men out of nearly 1000 men and 12,000 women. The real story wasn’t the conflict, but 12,000 women in silent prayer, all of whom wanted things to stay as they are.

    Menachem, I don’t know what you think you intended to write about, but your comment has nothing at all to do with the scene created by the Women of the Wall. Anyone, especially women, singing at the top of their lungs in front of men praying, and waving their “siddurim” overhead, is deliberately calling for attention and provoking complaints, the opposite of “not bothering anyone.” The 12,000 frum girls praying weren’t bothering anyone. And for anyone sober, their turnout was perhaps 100, or 150 if you engage in wishful thinking.

  7. dr. bill says:

    Rabbi Menken, the 2 women were not what i meant. the 50 or so monthly WOW are not why the Sharansky plan was proposed. those radicals, are the visible extremists. millions of conservative/reform jews applaud the proposed solution. those millions of jews were energized to support the wow cause by chareidi protests.

  8. Menachem Lipkin says:

    R. Menken, if you want to be pedantic about the numbers that’s fine. I know several people who were there who say otherwise, but it’s actually not all that relevant to my point. (Of course even your low-ball number is 2 or 3 times the 50 you originally claimed.) Have you ever been to the Kotel an a Friday night? It’s alive and happening, and NOISY. Real noisy. There are also thousands of people there. There are people singing… men and women. There are people socializing. There are people praying. If one is the type of person who gets “bothered” easily, then being at the Kotel when there are thousands of people there, is probably not for him or her.

    Look, this is the bottom line. It’s certainly easy to understand why some people get “upset” seeing non-traditional ritual behavior. But this is a pluralistic, democratic society. IMHO, we need to davka protect religious expression that “bothers” us. It only becomes a legitimate issue when that behavior starts interfering with the rights of others to their religious expression. So, for example, women wearing Talit or Tefillin in no way crosses that threshold. Whereas singing, when there’s not a huge crowd, might. Women going over to the mens’ side definitely would. For this issue we need only look at actual behavior. What Anat Hoffman’s ultimate goal may or may not be (which you keep harping on) is 100% irrelevant.

    You, the W4W, etc. can argue all you want to. That’s fine and all part of the freedoms I’m talking about. But thankfully the law has recognized what’s correct here and will continue to protect the rights of this small group. According to a recent poll here, a plurality (48%) of Israelis agree with me. (Whereas 38% don’t). And of course to your chagrin, I’m hoping this is just a small part of important changes to make this a more open, tolerant and less religiously coercive society.

  9. Reb Yid says:

    It’s not just heterodox Jews. At my Orthodox shul, the people I spoke to were extremely upset with the behavior of the young charedim at the kotel, calling it a tremendous chillul hashem. They don’t see the WoW as the bad folks here, that’s for sure.

    The problem that this blog poster seems to have is that he seems to know what exactly motivates Anat Hoffman and that every single individual in WoW is made in her image.

    It seems rather presumptious to make any one person in this group out to be a strawwoman. In fact, many of these women, and their supporters, are Jews who take their Judaism quite seriously.

  10. B Blumenthal says:

    If pre-1967 pictures and commentary are to be believed, religious practice at the Wall, when allowed, differed tremendously from today. Firstly, there was no mechitza (separation) between men and woman. So stating that today’s practice is the tradition of millennia is just not so.
    R. Oberstein has it right(see above). Sadly, there is plenty of guilt to go around. The “in your face” attitude of the WOW is meant to provoke. Throwing eggs and rocks at them does nothing positive to create Jewish unity and in itself is a Chillul HaShem. HaRav Kook stated that the antidote to Sinat Chinam is Ahavat Chinam. As we approach Shavuout, I pray for achdut and accomodation, which requires compromise from both sides. As things presently stand, I have no doubt as to why THE TEMPLE has not yet been rebuilt and Moshiach has not yet come.

  11. Moshe Feigin says:

    I borrowed a lot from this article on Jews for Kant: http://patentlyjewish.com/women-of-the-wall-part-ii-jews-for-kant/

    [We don’t normally accept links in the comments, even to the commenter’s own site — but the above post is exceptional for several reasons. I recommend following the link! — YM]

  12. Bob Miller says:

    How spiritual can the continual pose of “look at me” be, especially in light of Judaism’s emphasis on modesty?

  13. Yaakov Menken says:

    Dr. Bill, If that is what you meant, I understand you less than before. The WOW are very much why the Sharansky plan was proposed. The Conservative movement is happily praying at the existing Robinson’s Arch, the solution which put an end to their own political theater on Shavuos mornings. Robinson’s Arch is quite large enough for the WOW as well, of course, but they decided to make more trouble. And what energized support was not the “charedi protests” but the fact that Anat Hoffman got arrested. [Actually, just a month ago Hoffman was claiming that the absence of large protests proved that there was openness to changes at the Wall.]

    Menachem, you really should read more carefully before claiming to know what I wrote. What I wrote, a week ago, remains true: 50 women showed up in the typical month. This month was not typical. And yet they were dwarfed, and if the Gedolei HaTorah decide, that will be the story next month as well.

    As far as their intentions, it’s great that you say they don’t matter, but reality doesn’t agree with you. If they are there to make a political statement (and anyone who thinks otherwise, after Friday, is at least equally uninterested in reality — see below), it’s unwelcome. You don’t go into a Holy Site and make a protest. You go to the Knesset. Yet they did, complete with singing and waving that even you admit crosses the line.

    Reb Yid, we all know that what those idiots did was worse than WOW, but that hardly makes the latter into nashim tzidkaniyot. They behaved horribly, conducting a political demonstration at a Holy Site.

    B Blumenthal, if you are saying that the WOW represents those who wish to return the Western Wall to an era of oppression, where Jews were not allowed to do things like erect a Mechitza, I won’t argue with you.

    Let’s take a second look at what happened. Traditional women packed in, and the WOW, which said it was looking forward to praying with all of them, insisted that they be divided out from the rest. Because the women’s section was so crowded, there was no opportunity for the WOW to split from all the other women within that area. At that point, they had two choices: to pray right behind the men’s section, over 100 feet away from the Kotel, with a crowd of jeering goons throwing things at them, or to go to Robinson’s Arch.

    Now, if you are engaged in a protest action, when people oppose you, you stay strong and stay where you are. If you are, however, seeking a spiritual connection and an opportunity to pray to G-d at the Kotel, you go to a quiet place where you can touch the stones. Those who now say that they were there to pray are either just trying to spin a false story, or need to have their heads examined.

  14. dr. bill says:

    rabbi menken, i listened to a thirty minute interview with rabbi yoffie on this topic. i guess he was not reflecting conservative/reform views as well as you are. don’t underestimate the positive impact he, rabbi ellenson, etc. have, as some chilonim turn to religion. listen to yair lapid’s talk at conservative rabbi’s conference; i appreciate the positive change.

  15. YM Goldstein says:

    I believe there was a mechitza in the early 1920s and it was removed as a result of Arab pressure and objection to Jewish worship.

  16. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Rabbi Yaakov Menken: You don’t go into a Holy Site and make a protest.

    Ori: Yirmiyahu(1) 7 and Amos 7:13. I am not saying WOW are prophets, but that making religious/political statements in places of worship is not a new practice.

    (1) Jeremiah in English

  17. pg says:

    “If pre-1967 pictures and commentary are to be believed, religious practice at the Wall, when allowed, differed tremendously from today. Firstly, there was no mechitza (separation) between men and woman. So stating that today’s practice is the tradition of millennia is just not so.”

    Rabbi Aharon Rakeffet spoke about the above and said that the reason there was no Mechitza at the wall before 1948 is not because religious practice was different then, rather it was because the British, who controlled Eretz Yisrael at that time, did not allow a Mechitzah at the Kotel because they wanted to appease the Arabs. They also did not allow the blowing of the shofar (but every year a shofar was smuggled in to the Kotel and blown)

  18. Hoffa Fingerbergstein says:

    The argument that there was no mechitzah, as exhibited by pictures from late 19th centure, early 20th century is hogwash. Simply put, Jews were not allowed to erect mechitzos and were not allowed to conduct minyanim. Look closely at the pictures of “mixed” davening – it was not tefilloh b’tzibbur or with a minyan of men.

    1916 – the British enacted a law prohibiting the erection of a mechitzah, which was attempted earlier.

    What I want to know from Dr. Bill and Menachem is this: when are you, as members of the MO/DL communities, going to stop capitulating (in addition to your opposition to capitulating to the chreidim), put your foot down and say: genugt! When you are going to stop putting your opposition only to the right of you and not to your left and say that what WoW is doing is unaccepable to most of your communities as well, that this is not a time for knee-jerk moderation, and that we reject these changes in our communities as well. Is being MO or DL now all about opposing the chareidim or diverging from whatever positions they take on this issue?

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