Political Posturing at the Western Wall

by Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Rabbi Pesach Lerner/JNS.org

Charlie Kalech is upset. Kalech is the Internet entrepreneur who broke Israeli law last year on behalf of the Women of the Wall (WoW), taking a Torah scroll from the men’s section of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Those scrolls may not be removed by law, respecting traditional Jewish practice. Kalech broke through the divider between men and women to give WoW a Torah scroll, and he was detained for his trouble. Now he feels betrayed — because WoW announced plans to hold a “birkat kohanot” this Passover, an imitation “priestly blessing” by and for women.

Large crowds come to the Western Wall twice each year for birkat kohanim, the Jewish priestly blessing. The blessing itself is hardly extraordinary — kohanim in Ashkenazi Orthodox synagogues perform it on each holiday in the Diaspora; Sephardim do it daily, as do all traditional synagogues in Israel. The special event at the Western Wall, however, held during the intermediate days of Passover and Sukkot, began less than 50 years ago.

It was initiated by the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Gefner of blessed memory, based on an 800-year-old teaching that when 300 kohanim deliver their blessing together, it is a sign that the Holy Temple will soon be rebuilt. This is why nearly 100,000 Jews now come to receive the priestly blessing from hundreds of kohanim. There is no mandate in Jewish law for this service or for conducting it at the Western Wall, and no reason besides simple convenience to do it specifically during the holidays. Yet this is what WoW aims to mimic.

Kalech is agitated because Israel’s Conservative Jewish movement does not approve of women performing this ceremony, and therefore WoW’s “birkat kohanot” will not be “inclusive.” In actuality, this particular idea is equally offensive to every denomination.

There is, of course, no way to reconcile“birkat kohanot” with traditional Judaism, which defines kohanim as male descendants of Aharon, the original high priest. But the Reform movement also rejects birkat kohanim when conducted by anyone. They point out that priestly status itself is not egalitarian: it separates the kohanim from other Jews.

So WoW plans to show preference to daughters of kohanim over other women in a way unsupported by any version of Judaism, doing a “Jewish” ritual supported by no version of Jewish ritual, in imitation of a ceremony that aims to restore Judaism’s doubly undemocratic Holy Temple. And it claims to be doing all this in the name of egalitarianism.

If that reads like self-parody, so does Kalech’s complaint. He decries WoW for “blatant disregard for respect of different streams of Judaism,” and declares that the group has been “usurped by those who disregard halachic (Jewish legal) observance for their own political agenda.” Apparently he did not recognize this last year, although their “birkat kohanot” is no more or less religious, and conversely no more or less political, than their use of a Torah scroll. Kalech is absolutely right, save for his use of the word “usurped.”

The correct term is “founded.” From its inception, the Women of the Wall have demonstrated “blatant disregard for respect of different streams of Judaism.” Their behavior towards those praying at the Western Wall belies their claim to merely wish to pray in their own fashion and their own style.

One of their most active members uncomfortably admitted that her WoW colleagues consciously deviate from any normal style of prayer. On the contrary, she wrote, “they may not pray every morning at all. Some women pray/sing at the top of their lung [sic] in an operatic voice. I don’t think they would do that at home or in their local beit knesset (synagogue).” Another WoW member stated openly that she doesn’t even know how to pray, and that she came to “choose a potential victim to argue with” from among the traditional women there for prayers.

All of this is relatively obvious to anyone who has witnessed their behavior. Besides the aforementioned singing “at the top of their lungs,” they have 10 women blow shofar in unison before Rosh Hashanah, wave their prayer books overhead, and in general do as much as possible to attract attention. Although the new “Ezrat Yisrael” egalitarian prayer area at the Western Wall is sufficient for a group many times WoW’s size, it sits empty — WoW comes only to where traditional women are praying, and many of its members declare that they will accept no alternative.

This conduct reflects the expressed belief of WoW leaders that change must be forced upon other women. Bonna Haberman claims that WoW “catalyzes engagement in healthy democracy” by ensuring that “ultra-Orthodox” women are “aroused by the subversive possibility of women’s autonomous public prayer.” Anat Hoffman says that WoW’s presence in the women’s section is about “bringing about change in the Orthodox world,” while Susan Aranoff and the late Rivka Haut wrote that WoW will “shock” traditional women and “change their world view.” WoW’s agenda is politics, not prayer.

Perhaps it was possible until now to ignore these statements, and credibly believe that WoW simply wished to conduct their own services. But only an alternate agenda demands that they continually push the envelope — by, for example, inventing an entirely new “Jewish” practice. It is simple political theater, busing in women to ape Orthodox men, with a performance as foreign to atraditional movements as to the most ardent traditionalist.

Perhaps WoW has finally taken things one step too far. Perhaps the media will finally ask why a group claiming to simply wish to pray “in its own fashion” keeps making its “fashion” more and more extreme. Perhaps people will wonder about a purported spiritual need for “birkat kohanot” found nowhere else in the Jewish world.

Even previous supporters of WoW must be discomfited, as Charlie Kalech is, now that WoW’s true agenda is manifest and undeniable: forcing feminism upon women who simply wish to pray peacefully, in their traditional fashion, at what they regard to be the holiest place for their prayers. The Western Wall is a religious site, and not the venue for WoW’s feminist politics.

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7 Responses

  1. therapydoc says:

    This feels more than political, to me, although it is a group seeking attention, and from what I’m hearing, the objective is to influence others. Other women theoretically would feel the power, the closeness to HaKodesh BaruchHu, somehow empathize with W0W, want to join in. But when I say it feels like more than politics, it is because it feels like real narcissism here, and even abuse,  when a group disturbs an assembly of prayer. It is an unspoken, universal law, that prayer is like meditation. It should put us into a different place, a calmer place, which is hard to do when there are strange voices shouting at us. I’ll try to research W0W, being out of the loop on their goals and objectives. But one thing for sure, many women bless their children on Friday night, I know I certainly did, and I felt that my blessing had power, at least hoped so, and I didn’t feel the need for much more. And I’m a Bas Kohen.


  2. Steve Brizel says:

    One recognizes the “usual suspects” among the members of the feminist choir who are engaged in their behavior solely as a means of effectuating their own agenda, and who have been so since the rise of feminism in the early 1970s. Some comments are needed with respect to the “usual suspects” who are still obsessed with power and who have little, if no respect for the vast majority of women who reject their POV:

    1)Feminism is an ideology rooted in the destruction of the conventional family. It is against the conventional family, and promotes all of the values and lifestyles that have become “accepted” in the secular world.

    2)There neither is a chiyuv nor a kiyum of Talmud Torah when a woman learns Gemara, and that Rachel was viewed as a far more positive role model than Bruryiah. That is because of a simple reason-Moshe Rabbeinu spent 40 days and 40 nights in Ameilus BaTorah with HaShem Yisborach so that the TSBP would be transmitted to future generations, Miriam Neviah did not-why-another simple reason-women rejected the call of the Maaseh HaEgel and Mered HaMeraglim-Men joined both rebellions-Mitzvos Aseh SheHazeman Grama were given to men specifically to remind them on a daily basis and at specific times during the year so as to remind them of their duties as Jewish men that they had rejected. Furthermore, the institutions that promote womens’ learning cannot separate women’s learning from change in women’s roles and are breeding grounds for feminists in the worst sense of the word and many of whom do not dress in manners consistent with Tznius.

    3) We see a total lack of respect for the rights of those who differ and a demand that the “space” of feminists be accomodated. Once again, we see the perceived demands of feminists taking precedence over the rights of those who are adhering to the traditonal roles of women at prayer solely for the shock value of the act.

    • dr. bill says:

      You write: 2)There neither is a chiyuv nor a kiyum of Talmud Torah when a woman learns Gemara, and that Rachel was viewed as a far more positive role model than Bruryiah.

      No chiyuv is the normative psak; no kiyum IS NOT.  Had you said “not as great a kiyum,” i would understand, but NO Kiyum – wow.  and your supporting drush even if valid is not how halakha is derived.  WRT Bruryah (and Rachel), I would have to resort to academic methods, which I hardly think you would take seriously.


      • Steve Brizel says:

        No chiyuv means exactly no chiyuv-no ifs, ands and buts. Let me be even clearer-no woman who learns TSBP has anywhere near a kiyum as a man because a woman is aino mtzuveh in the mitzvah of Talmud Torah . What you call a supporting Drush is hardly so,  but rather simple Pshat. Miriam HaNeviah did not spend 40 days and nights in Ameilus BaTorah with HaShem.

      • dr. bill says:

        Without admitting your obvious error when you claim that A is zero, now you assert that B is MUCH bigger than A.  The talmud records a debate if A is bigger than B or B is bigger thanA, concluding that B is bigger than A.  You however assert that B is MUCH bigger than A.  I still wonder on what such certainty is based?  Does your insight exceed that of the chachmai hatalmud? 

  3. Charlie Kalech says:

    With all due respect, Rabbi Menken and Rabbi Lerner, some statements in this article are factually incorrect:

    I never took a Torah out of the men’s section, nor did I “break through” the mechiza. I was only detained after I went to the police to press charges against an employee of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation who physically assaulted me indeed breaking both State law and Halacha. My detainment was a nuisance meant to intimidate me after I pressed charges against the authorities responsible for the Kotel. There is no law against what I did so the only charge they could come up with was disturbing the public order which was bogus and never pursued since there was no objection to what happened until twenty minutes after my role when the so-called ushers of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation did indeed violently break through the mechitza injuring me and another man. Not to worry though, the police defended the legal right of women to read from the Torah as established by the Israel Supreme Court and stopped the violence initiated by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation against their fellow Jews.

    One need only to watch the video which is online in numerous places to see that I never left the men’s section and that your portrayal of what I did is factually inaccurate.

    All that being said, it saddens me that you fail to recognise that there have been Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis who have supported WOW’s practices of a women’s tefilla in the Ezrat Nashim of the Kotel in which the women conduct tfillot for themselves, read Torah and those who so chose wear Tallit and Tfillin. In contrast I know of no Orthodox rabbi who supports birkat cohanot, the Masorti Movement has paskined against it and the Reform Movement has called it irrelevant with no place in a modern prayer services.

    How you can draw a parallel between these in light of this contrast is surprising and only displays ignorance and the disconnect between you and the majority of world Jewry. It is this divide in Klal Yisrael and the fallacies you promote which make me sad and mourn the damage such divisiveness causes.

    There has never been monolithic Halacha. The Talmuud is full of differing opinions. Hillel and Shamai rarely agreed. Why can you not accept halachic opinions which differ from your own? In my opinion, this is nothing short of hubris putting yourselves above the Tnaim and their example and advice for how to live with your fellow Jews.

    I look forward to the day when we learn to live together in mutual respect. Until then, perhaps you can start gathering the feathers you have spread according to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s (the Berdichever Rabbi’s) parable and turn your energy towards fixing the shlemut of Ein Sof instead of perpetuating and deepening His brokenness.

    Charlie Kalech
    March 30, 2016

    • Yaakov Menken says:

      It would appear that Charlie Kalech’s first dispute is not with us, but rather with the news media, including the extremely WoW-friendly HaAretz which referred to him at the time as “detained… for passing a Torah scroll from the men’s section of the Western Wall to members of a feminist prayer group,” and the JPost, which said he was arrested for “incitement after passing a Torah to a member of WoW.” We did not say that he personally took the Torah out of the men’s section, but rather that he took one of the Torah scrolls from the men’s section and gave it to WoW. It is possible that accomplices opened the barrier for him, but those are not identified.

      It is interesting that Kalech refers to Hillel and Shammai to somehow buttress his assertion that there was never such a thing as “monolithic” halachah; in reality, their disagreements prove the opposite. The Talmud records that the Halachah follows Hillel in all cases (with several exceptions, as recorded in Mishnah Shabbos 1:4), so much so that Shammai is “ayno Mishnah,” not the correct teaching and not to be followed. His statement that Hillel and Shammai “rarely agreed” is, of course, fiction; the Mishnah only records their disagreements, not the 99.999% of Jewish thought upon which they agreed absolutely. When one has no real knowledge of Talmud, it is unfortunately quite easy to derive from the Tanaim an “example and advice” diametrically opposed to their actual position: that there is, of course, a single correct Halachic decision in all matters, clouded by our imperfect and declining understanding and memory, factors which eventually forced Torah Sheba’al Peh to be committed to writing.

      Kalech exhibits the misapprehension regarding Halacha of one in the Conservative movement. As I discussed recently, that movement unearths “Halachic opinions” that enable it to follow Reform’s lead; the Reform, the movement that funds WoW and its leader, Anat Hoffman (she who once campaigned to keep the Orthodox out of Jerusalem), does not believe in any form of Halachah.

      So that is sufficient basis upon which to point out that there are no “halachic opinions which differ” under discussion here. That is simply a red herring, as the conflict created by WoW is unrelated to halachic opinions of whatever variety. It is about the introduction of a political campaign for feminism into a place of prayer. The idea of “birkat kohanot” is completely consistent with the statements of WoW leaders which Kalech sidesteps rather than addressing.

      His comment is thus merely another attempt to hide WoW’s true agenda, and more is the pity.

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