Prophecy, we are told, is now the province of children and fools (see the Babylonian Talmud tractate Bava Batra 12b.) I am not a child, but I do offer this prophecy: On Sunday, June 13, there will be a violent confrontation at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, sparked by the sight of women wearing kippot and donning tallitot and tefillin.
Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day As prophecies go, this one is a no-brainer. Such violent confrontations are becoming routine at the Wall at the beginning of each Jewish month (June 13 is the first of Tammuz). That is when the group known as Women of the Wall seeks to conduct its own services in an area of the Wall plaza that is guaranteed to inflame passions of the more extreme elements among the worshippers in what has become the world’s largest open air synagogue.
Think of someone waving a blood-red cape in front of a charging bull and you have a sense of the level of provocation.
What is scarier is that this violent response may be spreading far away from the Wall’s precincts to anyplace in Israel at any time.
Thus, on Tuesday, May 11, a Conservative Jewish woman named Noa Raz rose early as usual, washed, dressed, put on her tallit and tefillin, said her morning prayers, and went to Beersheba’s Central Bus Station on her way to work. At the station, she was kicked, beaten, and strangled because her left arm sported the “ruddy stripes … that linger on the skin after taking off tefillin,” as she wrote in an article posted on the Internet. Her attacker, allegedly a haredi, “forcefully gripped my left arm and simply began kicking me…. I don’t want to think what might have happened had I not managed to get away,” Raz wrote.
I sympathize with the cause espoused by Women of the Wall, but disagree with its intentionally provocative method. This does not mean that I agree with the men who throw chairs at them, because I do not. Rather, I fear that someone is bound to be severely injured or killed one day. When, however, a woman is attacked in a bus station because of tefillin marks on her arm, it is time for all of us to become Women of the Wall supporters. The best way to do so is for rabbis and educators to be truthful about the issue that is at the heart of it all.
Bluntly stated, there does not exist an unequivocal, not subject to interpretation, halachic objection to women wearing tallitot, donning tefillin, taking aliyot, or even singing before the congregation; of women touching sacred objects or standing on a bimah because they may be ritually impure; of women sitting with men during prayer services and Torah study.
Anyone who claims that such absolute proscriptions exist is wrong – ignorantly so, deliberately so, or perhaps maliciously so.
Let us deal with the impurity issue. Nachmanides in the 13th century did rule that women could not touch sacred objects because of possible impurity, but in so doing he went against a clear statement to the contrary in the Talmud that had been widely accepted as the general rule. In BT B’rachot 22a, the Land of Israel sage Rabbi Yehudah ben Bathyra II declares that “the words of the Torah are not susceptible to uncleanness,” in which case there is no time during the month when a woman may not touch a Torah scroll or other such sacred object. BT Chullin 136b assures us that even in the academies of Babylonia two centuries later, Ben Bathyra’s view is accepted as the norm. So it remained until Nachmanides ruled otherwise nearly 1,000 years later.
A woman can do more than touch a Torah scroll, however, according to BT Megillah 23a. She can be called up to read from the Torah. Although the text adds a warning against the practice made by some anonymous sages, that does not change the unambiguous assertion that women have a natural right to an aliyah.
The subject of women and aliyot also addresses whether women may sing before the congregation. In fact, “singing” is how an aliyah was fulfilled in the days of the Talmud and for centuries thereafter. The person who was called to the Torah for an aliyah was also the person who chanted that aliyah; there was no “Torah reader.” Thus, the discussion in BT Megillah 23a also means that a woman’s voice may be heard by the congregation in song. It must be noted, too, that no objection is raised there regarding a woman’s voice being potentially seductive (“kol isha”).
The Tanach itself would seem to confirm this. In the Book of Ezra, we are told (2:65-66) that he brought back to Jerusalem with him “200 singing men and singing women” for the Temple service. Obviously, then, in Ezra’s day (and presumably before that time), there was no issue of “kol isha” or any other objection to women joining with men in singing the prayers.
One can also infer both from the just-cited verse in Ezra and from the discussion in the Talmud about women and aliyot that women were not hidden behind any kind of barrier in those days because, if so, someone would have raised an objection along those lines. No such question was raised.
Interestingly, the 13th-century scholar Rabbi Mordechai ben Hillel, author of the Sefer Mordechai, tells us, “On Shabbat, we may erect the curtain between men and women during the time of the sermon.” Why “during the time of the sermon,” meaning during the study of Torah broadly defined (but not apparently during the reading of the Torah itself), if separation during prayer was such a hard-and-fast rule?
Obviously, it is because there is no such hard-and-fast rule. Halachically, it can be argued, women may pray with men; they may wear tefillin; they may be called to the Torah; and they may sing before the congregation.
Women can also wear tsitsit, the ritual fringes that are attached to the four squared-off corners of a tallit, or so we are told in BT M’nachot 43a. If we are to take BT Eruvin 96a-b at its word, women are not barred from wearing tefillin, either.
Who is right and who is wrong in this debate?
The beauty of Jewish law is that “these and these are [both] the words of the Living God” (see BT Eruvin 13b), meaning that as long as a ruling is “for the sake of heaven,” it cannot be wrong even if it runs contrary to the halachic approach others take. The ugliness of Jewish life comes when we ignore the beauty of Jewish law. God forbid that it take the murder of women who dare to don tefillin to remember that.