Rina Ne'eman
Translator. Traveler. Challah baker. Salad maker.

Women and the Wall: Let’s talk about unity

Like many Israelis and Jews all over the world, I woke up on Friday agape and aghast at the images of what took place that morning at the Western Wall.

Jews hurling chairs and garbage at other Jews, rioting and violence, rabbinically-condoned and convened mobs – all for the purpose of preventing other worshipers from praying in the manner in which they are accustomed.

70 years after the Warsaw ghetto uprising and 68 years following the liberation of Auschwitz, is this kind of in-fighting the Jewish state that we have yearned for? Is this abject lack of tolerance for the Other a reality that we are prepared to accept?

I was distressed to read a piece in the Times of Israel on Friday calling for the “achdus” of Am Yisrael – what I, like most Israelis, would call “achdut” or the unity of the Jewish people. This post is intended as a response to that article, written by one of the founders of the “Women for the Wall.” So, I am addressing this post to her.

Clearly, the only unity that you are appealing for is on the part of the ultra-Orthodox and national-religious public.  As for the rest of us, you explicitly stated that we are “not ready” for unity. I would respectfully argue that it is you and your supporters who are not ready.

For unity mandates acceptance. It requires inclusiveness and is predicated upon mutual respect. Unity demands the ability and the willingness to espouse pluralism and another point of view.

So, yes – let’s talk about “achdus”, as you call it. Unity means welcoming Charedi Jews, gay and lesbian Jews, Reform Jews, secular Jews, Reconstructionist Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews and Jews-by-choice all for who they are – and making room for everyone at the Wall and in all realms of Jewish life, under an expansive and inclusive umbrella of peoplehood and practices.

Please understand: I have no interest  in changing who you are or in belittling your customs. I fully recognize that you have a deep and profound connection to Judaism and a genuine and significant way of life, even as you disparage my rituals and beliefs as being foreign to the real way of the Jewish people. I deeply respect your form of Judaism and mode of prayer, yet you have no respect whatsoever for mine.  That was abundantly evident on Friday.

I believe in the sanctity of the Kotel, but even more than that, I believe in the compelling and intrinsic value of every part of the Jewish nation.

I believe that women should be seen and that our voices should be heard.

I believe that the God of Israel is just as present at a magnificent and musical Kabbalat Shabbat  service at Tel Aviv Port on a summer Friday night or at the Gay Minyan as it is in a shteibel in Mea Shearim or a synagogue in Betar Illit.

You believe that Reform and Conservative Judaism are an apostatic manifestation of observance, that needs to give way to a religiously repentant way of life.

I don’t believe that you – or we – have a monopoly on the legitimate practice of Judaism.

Simply put, I believe that there is more than one way to be a Jew.

According to Ha’aretz, “6,000 seminary girls crowded the Plaza at behest of rabbis” on Friday and “at least 2,000 Haredi men vocally protested against the Women of the Wall. Some of them cursed and threw garbage, chairs, paper cups and plastic bottles.” Friends reported that they and their children were spat on and that sewage, coffee and dirty water were hurled at them.

Ve’ahavta lere’acha kamocha – clal gadol baTorah.

You have stated that you do not condone the violence that took place at the gathering that you initiated, and for that I commend you. But are you truly so unable or unwilling to accept any Jewish practice that differs from your own that you view one Rosh Chodesh service a month as a grave threat that necessitates your call up of thousands upon thousands of women and girls in protest and the establishment of an organization whose entire raison d’être is to so vehemently oppose a different form of Jewish observance?

How is that conducive to unity?

What is it about non-Orthodox Jewry that you are so afraid of? Why can’t you, for the sake of “achdus”, quietly accept us for who we are, without trying to change us or silence us or conceal us from view? Why can’t there be room – at the Western Wall, in the public sphere, and in the State of Israel – for more than one form of recognized and legitimate Judaism?

Talit and tefillin are not my personal preference. While there are women in my synagogue who worship with them, they are foreign to my own Jewish experience and to that of my daughter (who, I might add, is an exquisite and gifted Torah reader). Notwithstanding,  I fully respect the mode of prayer of every Jewish woman. And I don’t believe that any woman needs to be hidden away in order to engage in her religious preferences.

You speak of “achdus.” I would like to ask you this. Where is the unity in decrying and delegitimizing the practices of the overwhelming majority of world Jewry?

There is an entire, vibrant Jewish world out there that you may not agree with, but  that you should, as a person who rightly cares about Jewish unity, recognize – and yes – respect. Women rabbis who are deeply committed to Jewish observance and learning and who work tirelessly to promote them. Reform and Conservative congregations where men and women sit together on every Shabbat and holiday and raise their voices in fervent and beautiful Jewish prayer.  Gay and lesbian Jews who want nothing more than to be able to meld the religious ritual that is dear to them with the inherent essence of who they are.

Unity demands a readiness to include all Jews on their own terms, without trying to change anyone or shield them from view.

I recently attended a Limmud Conference where I was astounded by the singular beauty of a Shabbat that incorporated multiple services. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, egalitarian, non-egalitarian, Chassidish, musical, traditional – all took place next to each other. If my memory serves me, there were some 17 different styles of services. There was not only a tolerance of the other, but a true mutual embrace. And yes, there were many Orthodox – and even some ultra-Orthodox – Jews present. Each person found the place in which he or she would be most comfortable and derive the most spiritual meaning. I draw inspiration from my Shabbat at Limmud for my vision of what the Kotel could be.

Instead of Women of the Wall and Women for the Wall, how about Women for the Jewish People or Women for Jewish Unity – an organization dedicated to embracing and learning from each other in a pluralistic spirit of mutual tolerance and respect, making room for all of us at the Wall, and everywhere in the public and religious sphere.

I extend my hand to you in invitation, in a real manifestation of  the “achdus” that you speak of. Recognize us. Respect us – and our rituals. Just as I respect you and yours. For we are not going away.

Let’s truly embrace each other as sisters, and stop protesting and creating divisiveness where none need exist. With some tolerance, goodwill and an honest and genuine desire for unity, there is more than enough space in Judaism – and at the Wall – for all of us, together with our different forms of practice, side by side.

About the Author
Translator. Traveler. Challah baker. Salad maker. Enamored savta. Proud Israeli. Family, food, fashion and photography. Tel Aviv is my happy place.