By Phyllis Chesler
Why are religious Jews either so passionately in favor of or so opposed to the word “pluralism?” Indeed, why do Jews allow their sometimes justified fears and strong emotions to cloud all reason?
On August 25th-August 26th, for 24 hours, the Women of the Wall, (WOW, my little group, the group that has been struggling for women’s equal rights at the Kotel for the last quarter-century), conducted prayer services and learning sessions in the ezrat nashim. They faced the night’s cold darkness and the day’s blazing sun. Their spirits shone and they “stood before God” on the very day that Jews begin to read parasha Nitzavim, which is about “standing before God.”
Ma pitom? What is all the fuss about? And what does Minister Bennett’s strange scaffolding at Robinson’s Arch have to do with WOW’s legal rights which were again recently enshrined by Judge Sobel? WOW has already won the right to pray as an all-female group composed of Jews from all denominations; they are legally permitted to wear prayer shawls and have the right to chant from a Torah at the Kotel in the women’s section. This was WOW’s original definition of “pluralism.”
And no one ever quite understood this. Journalists would ask me over the years: “Oh, so you want to pray on the men’s side of the mehitza?” Or: “You want to have men in the women’s section?” Or, “I know, you all want to change the liturgy!”
No, this was never what we intended nor was it the basis for our lawsuit.
Ma pitom? As anyone learned knows, these rights are also halachically permitted. While women are not obligated to regular prayer, neither are they forbidden from it. Yes, it is true: Some members and leaders of WOW are also Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal Jews—but they are also Orthodox Jews. The entire struggle was based on the Orthodox women’s davenning groups as pioneered by my chevrutah and friend, Rivka Haut.
And by the way: Is it a crime to be a Reform or Conservative Jew? I think not but many Jews feel that it is, that Judaism will be extinguished if left to non-Orthodox Jews. But this, too, is another issue, not one that shoudl contaminate the right of Jewish women to pray at the Kotel.
These women are the spiritual and religious descendants of B’not Zlophechad—but with one exception: they are asking for the right to pray in their own names, not merely as the daughters of a Jewish father but as the daughters of a Jewish mother—the traditional definition of Jewish identity.
They are “pluralists,” but in a very unique way. WOW’s pluralism is confined to women-only. This means that women from all streams of Judaism are welcome to pray with WOW out loud at the Western Wall. This is not hard to understand but it is continually misunderstood. People, especially those who fear or even despise WOW, believe that “pluralism” always refers to a mixed gender egalitarian prayer quorum.
It does not help WOW’s specific and narrow cause—one we have already won–when the media quotes WOW’s leaders and supporters talking about “pluralism” for WOW and for all denominations. Such rights may be long overdue but that is a separate struggle.
Minister Bennett knows that WOW does not need his scaffolding. I would like him, as well as the much esteemed Director of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky, to welcome WOW to the Kotel, not banish us from it.