The naked truth

I’ll start by stating the obvious: I am a man. Thus, I claim membership neither in Women of the Wall (WOW) nor in Women for the Wall (W4W). However, as a human being and an Orthodox rabbi, I do have a dog in this fight over women praying together at the Kotel, the Western Wall. In particular, I’d like to take a moment to address the slipsters.

The neologism “slipster” has many definitions on Urban Dictionary, but I use it to refer specifically to those who utilize the slippery-slope argument: in a debate over A, they will drag in the inevitable result of B, which everyone presumably would reject.

Over the past 48 hours, since Women of the Wall held their Rosh Hodesh services for the new moon of Av on Monday–not at the Kotel, but in the Kotel plaza, as their way was obstructed by 7000 seminary girls–I have heard many slippery-slope arguments via social and traditional media. One young scholar offered this: “…if someone walked in holding a pig which is the worst thing, the most traif thing, it is the exact same thing of a lady walking in wearing tefillin.” (You can read a dissection of his rant here.) Today, on Facebook, one commenter challenged Phyllis Chesler’s excellent article on this site with: “and when should the boundaries be set? When gays want to pray at the wall on the women’s section?”

But sometimes, you don’t want idolatry or homophobia confusing your palate–you want the heady taste of full-on misogyny. So let’s turn to the Big One among slipster arguments, the one most oft-heard, in Hebrew and English. Even as I was composing this post, I learned of a new entry, and the title says it all: “Soon they’ll ask to pray naked,” by Dov Halbertal, “a Jewish law lecturer and former head of the chief rabbi’s bureau.” 

Well, he may lecture on Halakha, but Rabbi Halbertal does not seem to be overly familiar with many of the hottest topics in contemporary halakhic analysis. Let’s take the core of his argument.

I don’t see any possible justification for rejection the demand of the women’s organization to pray at the Western Wall uncovered. On the contrary, self-expression in this case is even more impressive, as this is the way the world was created. Don’t see this as a parody or – God forbid – as malicious joy, but as a possible and actual forecast.

OK, let’s take this seriously, as R. Halbertal asks us to. He may not see any possible justification, but I do: Halakha, that subject in which he is an expert. Every one of the issues raised by WOW–women praying together, women reading from a Torah scroll, women wearing the tallit or putting on tefillin–is one of halakhic debate, among Orthodox Jews.

Take the tallit example for one. As well-documented by Dov Bear and other bloggers (see his analysis here), and as I have written on this site before, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, OH 4:49), a halakhic authority whom no one would accuse of being feminist or liberal, ruled 40 years ago that a woman may wear a tallit and make the blessing over it, just as she may do so for the blowing of the shofar, as long as she has the intent to draw closer to God by this.

Or take tefillin. I’d recommend Dr. Aliza Berger’s chapter in Jewish Legal Writings by Women (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 1998), “Wrapped Attention: May Women Wear Tefillin?” Dr. Berger is religious and covers her hair, but she is on the board of directors of WOW, so I guess R. Halbertal figures she’ll be stripping down at the Kotel in the near future. I know that my rebbe, Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, found the article very interesting (Jewish Action, Spring 2010). Or how about Or Sameach, Laws of Torah Study 1:2: “Women are permitted, and they have the right to put on tefillin, and it is an adornment for them.”

Halakha is complex. It encompasses many views, some stringent, some lenient. I might mention the ruling of the Rema in Shulchan Arukh (OH 88:1) that menstruating women should not pray at all. Are we going to set up detectors at the entrance to check–wait, pardon me, I was talking like a slipster there. I apologize: actions should speak for themselves.

Women of the Wall has a varied membership: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, etc. However, they have chosen to worship in a way which conforms to Jewish law. They have never indicated a desire to pray in a mixed setting, to violate halakhic standards or to desecrate the holy. So why must others do so in the name of stopping their prayers?

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.