When in Rome

(photo credit: Serge Attal/FLASH90)

Planning my wedding was no great chore—at least for me. Mostly, the wedding preparations fell on my mother’s head. Or rather, the job was dumped in her lap by circumstances.

I was in Israel, but the wedding was to be held in the States in my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I took care of procuring my wedding duds in Israel: had a gown designed, bought a wig, and so forth. But the bulk of the myriad details of my wedding fell to my mother to arrange.

When I finally arrived in Pittsburgh, some two weeks before the big day, my mother had a long (nay endless) checklist for me to peruse. Among the various items on that list was a question from my mother’s close friend Betty that awaited an answer from me. Betty knew that I was having an Orthodox wedding and she had never attended one before. She wanted to know if she should cover her hair and if there was anything else she needed to know about appropriate dress for my special day.

(photo credit: Varda Epstein)

I was touched by this expression of caring and respect. Betty was taking great care not to offend me or my guests. Her inquiry showed respect for a way of life different from her own.

I hastened to reassure Betty that it was not necessary for her to cover her hair or dress in a different manner than was usual for her. I told her that she was modest by nature and that however she dressed would be fine with me, my intended, and our guests. I also expressed to her how moved I was by her caring and respectful attitude.

Fast forward 33 years and 2 days later. I am thinking about Betty and her respectful attitude as I contemplate all the to-do over the Women of the Wall controversy. At first glance, the contretemps appears to be about freedom of religion. But is that really the issue here?

Maybe so. The question is: whose freedom of religion is in question here? Is it the freedom of the Women of the Wall to worship in any manner they so please, or is it the freedom of the Haredim to continue to worship as they always have at the Wall, for decades, that is the bone of contention? Because the two are mutually exclusive and this is something that is overlooked by a majority of people: the fact that by granting one group its freedom to worship, you take away that same freedom for the other group.

(photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

I am sure the Women of the Wall can point me to myriad points of Jewish law that back their right to wear prayer shawls in rainbow colors (or black and white), read from the Torah, and sing loudly in the presence of men. However, the Haredim can also point me to areas of the law that suggest exactly the opposite. Perhaps both groups are right. After all, as the good book says, there are seventy faces/tongues to the Torah (shivim panim l’Torah).

So both groups can argue Halachic underpinnings for the choices they make in how they worship and perhaps neither will be wrong. But perhaps then, the question is not who is wrong, but who is wronged? Are the Women of the Wall wronged for being asked to worship at Robinson’s Arch, which is no less holy a piece of geography than the Wall, which is, after all, only a small section of one of the Temple’s retaining walls? Or are the Haredim at the Wall wronged by having to pray next to women who sing loudly, read from a holy scroll, and dress in a manner that offends their norms?

Perhaps even this is not the issue. Perhaps the issue is one of hegemony. Is it right that the Haredim have a monopoly on who may or may not pray at the Wall? Is it fair that they, and not the Women of the Wall, have the prima facie right to decide not only on the manner of prayer but how it is that worshippers at this spot will comport and dress themselves?

Does time enter into this equation—the status quo? Modern expressions of Jewish worship are just that: modern. They came into being during the 20th century. For thousands of years before this time, it was accepted that Jewish men and women observed gender separation during prayer (despite the posed photos of the 19th century non-Jewish photographer, Félix Bonfils, who hired Arabs to dress as Jews and posed them praying side by side at the Western Wall—something that many erroneously point to as evidence that gender separation during prayer is a modern phenomenon).

(photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

It was accepted that women would not sing in front of men (despite those who stubbornly insist that Miriam sang with the women in front of the men after the splitting of the Red Sea). It was accepted that women did not wear prayer shawls or phylacteries, with the possible exception of exceptional women, such as the daughters of Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki.

Does the status quo of thousands of years make it necessary for modern female worshippers to uphold the status quo regarding worship, dress, and comportment during prayers at the Wall?

I say yes.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do, to choose a poorly chosen reference, considering the primary role the Romans played in the destruction of the Temple.

(photo credit: Oren Nahshon/Flash90)

Just like my mother’s friend Betty, these women are the outsiders coming for a visit. They are coming to worship at a place that is de facto, thoroughly immersed in thousands of years of orthodox worship. Because there WAS nothing other than orthodoxy, prior to the previous century.

If they dress and comport themselves in a way that offends the preexisting culture, it is the Haredim who are wronged, and not the Women of the Wall. The latter may not feel they have fully expressed their Jewishness if they are forced to worship as Haredim. They may feel unfulfilled as Jews. But there is a preexisting culture AND they have a choice. If they don’t wish to pray within the existing norms, they can pray at Robinson’s Arch, away from anyone who might take offense at their culture and their worship.

You can certainly say that the Wall belongs to all Jews and you would be right. But there is an existing culture and it is respectful to respect that culture and refrain from dress and behavior that might offend those who have long belonged to that culture. Just as Betty wished to be respectful of me at my wedding, so many years ago.

(photo credit: Oren Nahshon/Flash90)

Think of it this way: perhaps your neighbor got it into his head that he only feels fully himself when he is exposed from the waist down. You don’t want your daughter to see him like this. It is against your culture. But the neighbor insists that by forcing him to wear pants in public, you are infringing on his rights. You are keeping him from expressing himself. You make HIM uncomfortable.

No comparison, you claim? But the comparison is valid. Because it’s not about Halacha. It’s never been about Halacha, because both sides can find validity in Halacha. It’s never been about freedom of worship, because if it had been, the Women of the Wall could certainly pray at Robinson’s Arch, even if they have to put money and time into it to make it a nice place to pray. It’s not about hegemony, because if a different group was in charge of the Wall, some would still find they could not pray according to their druthers, in their chosen, most necessary environment.

Clearly then, this is a matter of culture alone: a culture clash. And if one group indulges full expression of worship, the other will feel infringed upon.

Perhaps then, it is only fair that the Women of the Wall compromise, since they are the new group to arrive. Perhaps they will stop trying to change the status quo and gracefully go with the flow or pray at Robinson’s Arch. For the sake of unity. For the sake of being caring and respectful, as Betty was, when she approached me with her question so many years ago.

Varda Epstein is the mother of 12 children, a pro-Israel activist, and works as a communications writer at Kars4Kids. The views she expresses are her own and not necessarily those of the organization.

About the Author
Varda Epstein is a blogger and Communications Writer for Kars4Kids.org www.kars4kids.org