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Op-Ed: Praying at the Western Wall

A Response to "Egalitarian Jewish Worship" by Julie Schonfeld, Vice President of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, JPost, 3.1.13.
Published: Sunday, January 13, 2013 7:44 AM


Reform and secular groups have filed a petition in the Israeli courts to change the long-standing halakhically mandated practice of separate gender prayer at  the  Jerusalem's Western Wall, the Kotel, to allow mixed gender prayer in the large plaza facing the Wall.; this despite the fact that another area of the Kotel, not visible from the  plaza, has been set aside for the "Women of the Wall"  and for mixed groups.

Words go in and out of fashion, as do objects. And with the age of instant media  communication , there is often no time to reflect on whether,  in the context in which they are used, words mean what they really represent. Politically correct words such as "egalitarian" and "equal rights", whenever used, instinctively arouse sympathy, whether or not they are telling the whole truth.  The State of Israel is familiar with that phenomenon, as the Palestinian Arab "human rights" issues for which the UN regularly condemns her are never juxtaposed with matters of life and death – certainly a basic human right - for Israelis.

And in fact, despite the bandying about of the above expressions in the courts and in a recent article on "Egalitarian Jewish Worship" by the Vice President of the Convservative Rabbinical Assembly, Reform and Conservative visitors to the Kotel do have equal rights to pray there as do all the myriad non-Jewish visitors who respect the halakhic rules without objecting to them. Indeed, those petitioning the courts are using that useful 'equal rights' term to demand the ability to infringe on the rights of those thousands of Orthodox and traditional Jews who pray there every day and believe strongly that mixed prayer defiles the holy site.

 "Egalitarian service" is a clever choice of name for a practice contradicting a basic tenet of Judaism, which separates the sexes in prayer for obvious reasons.  Mixed seating was originally instituted by the movements that broke off from traditional Judaism and wanted to copy the way prayer is conducted in church.  Despite the more recent use of feminist mantras against gender separation, in prayer services it has nothing to do with equality and everything to do with devotion.

The writer of the "Egalitarian" article asserts that the Kotel has inspired "loyalty, commitment and connection" to Jews from the time that the Second Temple was destroyed.  She must, however, except the Reform movement from that assertion, as it removed all references to Zion from its liturgy until after the Jewish state was reestablished, when its leaders realized that young people were identifying with Israel and that, while it was already losing over half a generation to intermarriage, it was also going to lose the rest to Zionism.  While Israel welcomes all Jews, it does not mean that ancient and long-standing tradition must give way to relatively recent and halakhically unacceptable practice.

 The Kotel, after all, is what is left of the Holy Temple's retaining wall. It is inconceivable that the High Priest who officiated there and the Sanhedrin, whose chambers were within Temple precincts, would have wanted a mixed gender prayer service, in which the worshipers, paradoxically, yearn for the rebuilding of that very same Temple which would forbid their practices . (Those contending that men and women were not separated at the Kotel before 1948, should recall that Jews did not make the rules at the site until 1967, nor did ancient synagogues where there is no evidence of separation have regular women worshipers).

And tellingly, Israel absorbed hundreds of thousands of immigrants with a multitude of customs, from Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Syria, North Africa, India and more. Many of them had been cut off for centuries from their Ashkenazi brethren, but all blended naturally into the Torah-true prayers at the Kotel, because they, too, believed in the halakhic practices observed at the site. Each group prays with its own liturgy there today, making up the beautiful panoply of sound and color that people come for thousands of miles to join or observe, all respecting Jewish tradition without offending one another.

So should we be looking for a compromise, a p'shara, as the writer of the article says? Judaism's legal tradition posits p'shara when both views are within the framework of halakhic Judaism.  When one view is outside that framework, the concept is not applicable and its use is an oxymoron.  However, the Supreme Court of Israel did decide on a compromise, and allotted the "Women of the Wall" and mixed prayer groups the beautiful part of the Kotel at Robinson's Arch, which is not visible to the much larger groups at the plaza. As is the nature of the best compromises, neither side is satisfied, but then, neither is any side demonstrably offended .

Do we have to learn to" live together", as the same writer asked?  The way to live together is for everyone to respect those Jews who come to the Kotel every day – and they are the ones there from vatikin prayers at dawn, on through the wee hours of the night – and stop attempting to impose changes on thousands of years of tradition.  Reform and Conservative Jews, small in number in Israel, but recipients of government and media attention due to their overseas adherents' financial clout – which they have not refrained from using as blackmail on other issues – are free to build centers and places of worship in Israel just as no one prevents women from wearing a tallit and tefilin in their own synagogues – legitimate, as long as they do not cause disputes in their congregations, in which case they should find a synagogue where that practice is accepted. There are Judaic values above that of wearing a tallit or holding a Torah – such as observing its tenets on modesty and consideration for others.

As for the self-named "Women of the Wall", as I have written before, it is those women who pour out their souls to G-d at dawn and fill the plaza all the time who are the real Women of the Wall.  What gives Reform and Conservative visitors the right to suggest that their times there be limited ? Why should the one-hour-a-month "Women of the Wall" offend their sensibilities with publicity-seeking provocations?

The Supreme Court, which has allotted the beautiful Robinson's arch area for other forms of worship, was deemed "not just" in the article. However, the courts have Judaic knowledge that the writer seems to lack. The Robinson's Arch area, as well as the area called the Kotel Hakatan, are exactly the same as the Kotel Plaza in holiness, while the plaza is simply able to accommodate the thousands of Israeli Orthodox Jews who come there daily and is therefore allotted to halakhic prayer.  The spurious comparison to Uganda in the article is totally out of place.   Anyone seeking genuine spirituality and not a power struggle or publicity, would be happy to pray in those spots, as indeed many do, including this Orthodox and non-feminist writer.

Orthodox Jewry rejects Conservative and Reform clergy because they accuse them of responsibility for misleading the Jews who turn to them for leadership (they also believe that intermarriage will eventually bring the movements to an end). No better evidence for their opinion could be given than the quote from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein cited in the JPost article.

Rabbi Feinstein's words on the inevitability of different opinions in Judaism, which she quoted, certainly  were not aimed at Reform and Conservative Judaism, a fact which the writer admits. There is, however, a certain irony in their being quoted irrelevantly and out of context. Igrot Moshe is, first of all, not a commentary, as the Vice President of the Conservative Rabbinic Assembly erroneously called it, but a seminal set of books of halakhic responsa, universally accepted in the Ashkenazi Orthodox world. Had the writer been familiar with them,  she would have found that 20th century sage Rabbi Feinstein included many responsa on the importance of mechitza – separation of men and women in prayer (Orach Chaim, 39 and 89 for example) -  which he considers d'Orayta (mandated by the written Torah), so that he could hardly have considered mixed prayer a valid opinion.

In fact, Rabbi Feinstein not only vehemently forbids praying in a mixed gender group – he has several responsa excoriating the Reform and Conservative movements. He wrote, for example, that anyone who runs  a Conservative educational institution may not teach Torah in an Orthodox one (Yoreh Deah I, 139) and even addresses the question of whether one can attend a function in a wedding hall attached to a Conservative synagogue as that may seem like recognition of the movement's standing.

The Torah sage's absolute rejection of two streams which he saw as destructive to the future of the Jewish people was aimed at their clergymen, but did not extend to the Jews belonging to them. A warm and beloved Talmudic genius, who was also my neighborhood rabbi, he told me that I could teach in a Conservative afternoon school if I taught only Orthodox halakhah, because the children are Jewish and should get a proper Jewish background (also found in Yoreh Deah I, 139).

Many religious Jews might boycott the Kotel if the changes proposed by the writer were to be effected. They have prayed fervently to G-d to rebuild the Temple three times a day for thousands of years without being able to approach its outer perimeter and have witnessed the Temple Mount takeover by the Wakf. Egalitarian services might take over the Kotel if that occurred, making it a much emptier place. In that case, I wonder if those who initiated the controversy would soon lose interest in their cause.