Growing up in the small Modern Orthodox contingent in the larger Cleveland Orthodox community, most of whom were Yeshivish (the American version of Chareidi), my family was one of the few in my neighborhood in which the girls wore short sleeves and pants. I’ll be honest- I sometimes wondered why we wore short sleeves and pants when most of my neighbors didn’t, but my parents explained to me that our Rabbis interpreted the halachot of tzniut to mean that women could wear pants and short sleeves, and we follow those Rabbis and therefore wear them, even if most of the community didn’t.
When I was 10 years old, my family took a trip to Israel, where we stayed with my secular grandmother most of the time, and in the heat of the summer we dressed for the weather, short sleeve tee-shirts being our mainstay, and because I was under Bat Mitzva, I wore shorts a good chunk of the time as well.
One day, my mother told us that we were going to go visit our cousins in Bnei Brak. I got dressed and was “ready to go”, but my mother asked me to please get changed.
“Why, Imma?” I wanted to know. “I’m totally tzanua.”
“Ronit, we’re going to Bnei Brak. When you go to a Chareidi community, you respect the people there, and you dress according to their standards, even if halacha doesn’t require it. Respecting people is important, and its important that when you go to their home and their community, you don’t do things that offend them.”
This was a lesson that has been ingrained in my heart ever since there.
It doesn’t matter if halacha or the law permits something. You should respect people and not do things that you know will upset or offend them, especially when going to “their turf”.
A story comes to mind.
A few years ago, my mom bought me a pair of shoes from a store, knowing full well that there was a chance that they wouldn’t fit me and they’d need to be exchanged. She was told that though they usually take returns within 48 hours, because those 48 hours were over Friday and Shabbat, they would give me until Sunday to return the shoes if necessary.
Well, inevitably the shoes didn’t fit, and when I went to the store on Sunday, they told me that it was past 48 hours and they wouldn’t accept my return.
A whole argument ensued, with me getting very upset because I only had my mother buy the shoes on the condition that they’d be returnable after 72 hours.
But the unfriendly manager just pointed at a sign at the register that said in Hebrew something about a new law and returns within 48 hours, and therefore I wasn’t allowed to return the shoes. My reading in Hebrew isn’t so hot, so I wasn’t able to understand it fully, but got the gist- the law is that returns are within 48 hours only.
When calling my husband to vent about how frustrated I was with the situation, I told him about the sign with the law.
“Wait a minute!” He said. “What the saleslady told you is wrong! There’s no such law about only being allowed to return things within 48 hours! The law is that a company absolutely must take returns within 48 hours, not that they’re forbidden from returns after 48 hours. This is a law to protect customers, not the store owners. They absolutely are allowed to take your return now, even after 72 hours.”
Armed with this new found piece of knowledge, I turned to the manager and said “Listen, what you told me about the law is wrong. You’re allowed to take my return. Yes, by law you’re not required to, but just because you’re not required to do something doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t. There’s the exact law that you’re required to follow, and then there’s human decency. You don’t have to take my return now, but especially since you promised me that I could return them within 72 hours, the proper, decent thing for you to do is to take the return,.”
(Eventually, I did manage to get my refund for my shoes, but that isn’t the point of the story.)
The point of the story is exactly what I told the sales person.
Halacha requires certain things of us. Laws of the land require certain things of us.
But that’s not the end of the story.
In Judaism, there is a concept called going “lifnim meshuras hadin”, doing more than the bare minimum that the law requires of you. It’s what is expected of decent human beings, to not look for the bare minimum that we can get away with, but to go above and beyond.
There’s also a concept called “Naval Birshus Hatorah”- being disgusting within the parameters of halacha. Examples brought down of this are gluttons- people who stuff themselves to the gills with kosher food, or those who make their life’s mission the pursuit of (kosher) physical pleasures- it’s terrible behavior that God frowns upon, even though there is nothing halachically forbidden about what they’re doing.
Judaism doesn’t look highly upon people who see what they can get away with that isn’t an explicit sin. Judaism expects us to be good people, considerate people, thoughtful people, and go above and beyond the bare minimum, and be righteous and holy people, to be Chessed oriented people, seeking to emulate God in all His ways.
Recently, there was a court case where a Jerusalem magistrate judge, Moshe Sobell, ruled that what the Women of the Wall are doing, going to the Kotel wearing tallis and tefillin is not against the law, and therefore they shouldn’t be arrested.
Ever since then, I’ve heard nothing but gloating from their camp.
“Haha, look at this! You can’t stop us now- the law is on our side! Watcha gonna do now?” They seem to be shoving this ruling in our face at every moment possible. (And because I was accused of using quotation marks incorrectly before, let me verify- the above wasn’t a quote- it was that attitude I’ve picked up from articles on this court ruling- paraphrased.)
To that I have to say- yes, the law at the moment is on your side, even if it wasn’t before. Yes, now the judge ruled that you can’t get arrested for what you’re doing. It’s legal.
And as some Orthodox supporters of Women of the Wall like to say “There is nothing halachically wrong with wearing tallis and tefillin! Rashi’s daughters wore tefillin!”
So, you have the law on your side. And halacha permits it. According to some.
But this argument isn’t about the law or about halacha at all.
Its about human decency. Its about respect. Simple as that.
And while the law and halacha don’t forbid what you’re doing, if you cared about human decency or respect, you wouldn’t do it.
Women of the Wall have zero respect for the sensitivities of others.
They demand that people respect what they do. Demand people put up with what they’re doing.
They have zero concern about respecting the people who come to pray at the Kotel at all hours of the day, who come to pour out their hearts to God, to plead with Him to intervene with Divine mercy. They have zero concern about the people who want to be able to pray in peace and not be part of the media spectacle and political protest that the Women of the Wall are insisting on making in this holy, holy place.
They have zero respect for the holiness of the place and thousands of years of traditional Judaism, as evidenced by Anat Hoffman’s recent proposal to turn the Kotel into a National Monument, and take down the mechitza for 6 hours smack in the middle of the day, and according to some reports “open it to everyone but Orthodox men.”
If the Women of the Wall were interested in praying to God, and connecting to God— I’m having a hard time believing that is the case- I can’t seem to find any quotes in which Anat Hoffman mentions God, and their mission statement sadly doesn’t mention God even once—
If the Women of the Wall were interested in praying to God, and connecting to God, and were decent human beings who cared about the feelings of other people, and respected other people’s rights to pray, instead of just demanding that people accept their rights-
They would find a way to pray as they wished, without making a scene.
Three options are:
Prayer at Robinson’s Arch, an area designated for non traditional prayer services, the place where the Masorti movement in Israel has their minyanim, and according to some people who pray there, is far superior to the regular Kotel plaza.
Prayer at the Kotel HaKatan- another stretch of the Kotel, even closer to the Kodesh Kedoshim, the Holy of Holies of the Beis Hamikdash.
Accepting Sharansky’s Compromise Plan- in which the Robinson’s Arch area would be enlarged and raised so there would be another section of the Kotel plaza equal in size and set aside for egalitarian and other non traditional prayers.
Women of the Wall are interested in none of the three.
The only thing they’re interested in is praying specifically where they know they will cause provocation, where they know they will upset many people. They don’t care about the feelings of all these worshipers.
And without the media spectacle that they will get by putting on their “prayer show” at the Kotel, they won’t “see and be seen” as Anat Hoffman has stated is her goal.
Women of the Wall should take their political protests to the Knesset and the Supreme Court and shouldn’t subject people who simply want to pray to this whole media circus and drama.
Women of the Wall may not be breaking any laws or any halachos per se, but they certainly haven’t been acting with any human decency, and have shown absolutely no respect for the feelings of Traditional Jews, to God, to the traditions that kept us unified as a nation for the past few thousand years, or even to themselves.
Self respecting people, who respected their own connection with God, would be after a peaceful solution that doesn’t disturb anyone, so that everyone, including the Women of the Wall, could pray in peace. But the Women of the Wall don’t even respect their own prayers, let alone anyone else’s, and the only thing they’re interested in is whether or not they’ll be appearing in the media this week.
Ronit Peskin respects the various ways in which people want to pray to God, so long as they can do it in a way that is respectful of other people’s religious values, doesn’t offend the vast majority of the people who are in the vicinity, and is respectful of the location in which they’re praying.
She is the director of Women For The Wall, an organization that dedicated to maintaining tradition and kedusha at the Western Wall.