Ban the mob from the Wall, not the women

Ban the mob from the Wall, not the women

Twelve days ago, the Women of the Wall once again came to that historic location, considered by many to be Judaism’s holiest site, to recite morning prayers on the first day of a new Jewish month.

In recent times, they have been met with violence and invective. This time, they were met by a cordon of baton-wielding Jerusalem police, who denied them access.

The police insist they acted in order to prevent serious large-scale violence breaking out this time around. According to a police estimate, which others dispute, there were as many as 7,000 young charedi women already in the women’s section when the Women of the Wall contingent arrived. The charedi women reportedly were summoned there by their rabbis to prevent the more liberal women from praying there in any manner. There also were said to be many men armed with stones and eggs, ready to throw at the women. One woman who did get through the cordon, an assistant rabbi at Manhattan’s Rodeph Sholom Reform synagogue who is six months pregnant, was hit in the neck by an egg.

Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the dayOn the other side of the prayer divide, a man who supported Women of the Wall had to rescued by police as he was being mercilessly beaten and kicked by an angry mob of charedim.

Whether the police acted with judiciousness and proper dispatch is not relevant. The notion that any Jew would be barred from praying at the Wall is obnoxious and disturbing. It is not the Women of the Wall who should have been barred, but the people who would deny them their rights to practice Judaism in their way.

The blame rests not on the Jerusalem police, but on Israel’s government, which continues to drag its feet on making necessary reforms in areas of gender equality and religious pluralism.

The clock is ticking. I wonder whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers realize that the clock is attached to a time bomb.

I wonder, as well, whether anyone in Israel’s government or outside it really understands that the Women of the Wall merely want to exercise rights the rabbis of the Talmud said they were born with.

I understand the force of tradition. I understand that for nearly 2,000 years, if not longer, women traditionally did not don tallitot or t’fillin. I also understand, however, that the Sages of Blessed Memory gave women a free pass on performance of these mitzvot by removing from them the obligation to do so. What I do not understand is how telling women they are not obligated to do something gets translated into “I will rip you apart if you even try.”

Over the centuries, rabbis have reinterpreted commandments to bar women from observing certain ones, such as t’fillin and tzitzit. A most notable prohibition was handed down by the 19th century rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein in his commentary to the Shulchan Aruch. My confusion is over how anyone could reach such a forbidding conclusion, given that the Talmud takes the opposite position.

There is, for example, a discussion in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Eruvin 96a about whether wearing t’fillin is required even on Shabbat. Almost as an aside – and with no sage offering an objection – it is stated that David’s ill-treated first wife, Michal, wore her t’fillin every day and no one cried foul. It also states that the wife of the prophet Jonah made it a practice to go up to offer the appropriate festival sacrifices and no one objected. Today, they would throw eggs or stones at her and Michal.

The point of mentioning these two women performing such acts is to question whether the free pass women were given for performing time-bound positive commandments (but not even all such mitzvot) applies to t’fillin in any case, or to the festive offering. The Gemara then says that while women are exempt from such positive time-bound commandments, it is a valid option for them (nashim somchot r’shut, as Rabbi Yosi put it).

How do we get from there to attacking women who choose to exercise the option (if, indeed, the free pass on observance is itself valid)?

Then there is the matter of a woman wearing a tallit. Some years ago, a prominent woman Judaic scholar had a tallit ripped off her at the Teaneck Jewish Center, which at the time was not Orthodox but traditional non-egalitarian Conservative. (I tell the story to make the point that it is not just charedim who act in such ways.)

It is not proper for women to wear a garment with tzitzit? Really? Then why are we told in BT Menachot 43a: “Our Rabbis taught: All must observe the law of tzitzit – priests, Levites, and Israelites, proselytes, women and slaves.”

The Women of the Wall are not asking to perform pagan rituals in the shadow of the hill upon which the Holy Temples once stood. They are not asking for the right to enter non-egalitarian venues in order to inflict their views on people who see things differently.

They are asking for the right, at a site sacred to all Jews, not to just a few, to return Jewish tradition to an earlier, more egalitarian stage.

That is what Jerusalem police should be protecting. That is what Israel’s government should be protecting. That they are not shames us all.