Eliyahu Federman

Unifying Jews at the Western Wall

It is painful to see ideological differences in Jewish modesty laws lead to violence and bigotry against women prayer groups at the Kotel.

Intolerance is counterproductive to preserving ones views, whether those views oppose or favor women prayer groups, and of course contradicts the Jewish traditions rich history of diversity.

The Jerusalem Post reports last week:

The protesters shouted at the Women of the Wall activists as they were conducting their first monthly service without restrictions after a court ruling two weeks ago reinterpreted existing laws and allowed them to be able to perform their own customs, such as wearing prayer shawls and tefillin, without fear of being arrested.

Even though some respected Haredi (Orthodox Jewish) legalists like Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rav Yosef Soloveitchik did not completely prohibit female prayer groups, many Haredi view the practice of women wearing male prayer garb, reading from scrolls, and singing aloud, as contravening traditional Jewish law.

If the Kotel were a privately owned Synagogue, the owners would have a right to set parameters of gender division in prayer, but the Kotel is a public forum open to all. The Women of the Wall are not imposing on anyone’s right to worship. They are expressing their religion in a public forum. They are choosing to pray in the same manner as Haredi men while still respecting the partitions that physically divide men and women.

The motivation for Haredi resistance to outside influences is an effort to preserve their way of life from perceived secular encroachment. They view outside influences and exposure as a threat to their traditional existence. The Haredi should be asking what the best method to sustain their way of life? Is it violence? Is it intolerance? Is it isolationism? Is there perhaps a better workable model? Perhaps one that allows for co-existence with those expressing religion differently?

This week we celebrate the Holiday of Shavout, which commemorates the narrative of the Israelites receiving the Torah. The Torah was transmitted in an ownerless desert. A barren wilderness. This is to teach that no one has a monopoly on Jewish tradition. The Torah belongs to all. No single view can claim ownership and exclusivity.

The entire Jewish tradition, including interpretations of various Jewish laws, is based on rigorous, yet civil debates. In fact, the Talmud even preserves the losing arguments because the debate itself leads to a greater understanding of the issues.

The first century rabbis who typify the Talmud’s rich culture of debate are Hillel and Shammai, two opposing schools of Jewish thought. These schools of thought debate everything from ethics to interpretations of ritual practice. The dispute that typifies the example of resorting to violent demagoguery is the biblical story of Korach who contested Moses’s leadership but did so not for the sake of seeking the truth and engaging in meaningful dialogue but for the sake of attaining power and control over the people of Israel. For this reason the Talmud explains that the debates of Hillel and Shammai’s schools of thought will endure but the debates of Korach and his faction will not endure.

The Haredi communities turning to violence against women have forgotten the essential cornerstone that has kept Judaism relevant, vibrant and intellectually honest through the ages. It wasn’t quelling other opinions through violence, intimidation and censorship, but providing a platform that allowed for different expressions and opinions – even opinions that are disagreeable.

Writing for, Alan Dershowitz elucidates this point in the context of a story about a debate on whether to recite a prayer sitting or standing:

There is a story about a shul, a synagogue, that …. employed a new rabbi. The first time the new rabbi led the prayers, when the congregation reached Shema Yisroel, half of them stood up and half of them sat down. So the half that stood up screamed at the half that sat down, and the half that sat down screamed at the half that stood up. “Stand up!” “Sit down!” The rabbi suggested that they go to the old Rebbe and ask what the tradition of the congregation was.

So after Shabbat they went to the old Rebbe, and the “sit-down” group asked, “Is it not the tradition to sit down for Shema Yisroel?”

The Rebbe responded, “No, my children, that is not the tradition.”

So the “stand-up” group said, “Aha, the tradition must be to stand up!”

The Rebbe said, “No, that is not the tradition.”

“Well,” said the rabbi, “it is ridiculous for half of them to sit down and half of them to stand up.”

The Rebbe answered, “Yes, my son, that is the tradition.”

I once told that story and my mother said, “But at least they all say the Shema!

Whether one is a traditional Haredi that believes in gender divisions in prayer or a member of the Women of the Wall that believes in the right to pray like men, at least they all pray – and say the Shema. We should be embracing all forms of worship. Jewish oppressors throughout history sought to censor the right to pray. When it comes to public expressions of faith, we need to celebrate that right in all its forms.

Ultimately, education, debate and acceptance is the solution to preserving Judaism, not ghettoization and violence. Besides the fact that insular Haredi communities will no longer be able to shelter their adherents in a religious cocoon free from feminist influence, opposing other viewpoints and lifestyles with violence belies the Jewish intellectual tradition of healthy debate and is counterproductive to ensuring the continuity of both modern and traditional approaches to prayer.

About the Author
Eliyahu Federman's work has appeared in the NY Times, The Forward, Huffington Post, Jerusalem Post and elsewhere on issues related to sexual abuse awareness, gender equality, civil rights and police-community relations; He graduated law school from City University of New York where he served as executive editor of the law review; He received his theological training at Mayanot and the Rabbinical College of America