One of the hottest topics in Judaism in Israel today is the attempt by elements in the Jewish Reform and Conservative movements to change the status quo, the current Jewish tradition of separation between men and women at the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem. The Israeli government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu is struggling to find a compromise that will satisfy both sides.
Under extreme pressure from the large American Jewish community, which is mostly consists of Reform and Conservative Jews , Netanyahu tries to accommodate the demand of the community that supports Israel politically and financially so generously. However, his government is dependent on the continues support of the Orthodox religion parties that pressures him maintain the status quo. Thus, every few months the Israeli government changes its position on the subject, which just adds to the confusion.
In its latest decision, the Israeli government reversed its previous decision to allow mixed prayers in a remote section of the Western Wall. It is fair to assume that this decision is likely to be reversed, if a future Israeli governments will not include the orthodox parties, just as Netayahu’s previous coalition, which did not include religious parties, changed the status quo on another contentious topic: The implementation of a mandatory military service for orthodox yeshiva students.
In this article, I want to highlight two point of views that are usually lost in the media coverage: The orthodox woman, and a secular Jew, who is in support of the status quo. More points of views are welcomed.
Mixed services at the Wall: What does God want?
by Rivka Levy
In all the talk about ‘equality’ and ‘respect’ etc when discussing whether mixed services should be allowed at the wall, there’s a couple of crucial points that often get completely missed in the debate, but that really change the whole picture.
Point one: God decides what Jews should do, and not the other way round.
And God has very clearly been against mixed services for the last 3,300 years or so, ever since Moshe Rabbenu was given the written and oral Torah in front of around two million people, at Mount Sinai.
Authentic Judaism is not a religion of convenience, or a politically-correct creed that changes its tenets and foundational ideas every few years, to keep pace with popular opinion. Authentic Judaism is based on the basic idea that God set out some very clear rules about what He wants from the Jewish people, and how He’d like us to serve Him.
A lot of those things make ‘logical’ sense to our limited human intellects, but a lot of those things don’t, and that’s where the fundamental concept of believing in God kicks in. Because even the most clever, compassionate and caring human being can’t hold a candle to God, and has no idea about how or why God chooses to run the world the way He does, or what spiritual worlds depend on Jews following the rules that God set out in His Torah – including the ones that don’t make logical sense.
So the first point to make is: God doesn’t want Jews to have mixed services. If He did, we would have been doing that for the last 3,300 years, already.
Which brings me on to the second, and probably more controversial, point: What makes a religious practice ‘Jewish’, if it’s been cut off from authentic Judaism and the Torah view of what constitutes ‘right’ and ‘wrong’?
This is not a simple point, because just because a bunch of Jews choose to engage in a particular religious rite, service or practice, that doesn’t automatically follow that the practice is ‘Jewish’.
A case in point: Jews for Jesus has some apparently very frum adherents, who are meticulous about keeping the commandments prescribed by the Torah – with one big caveat, namely they believe Yoshki is the messiah.
Clearly, that false belief is enough to tip Jews for Jesus into the category of being a completely different religion from authentic Judaism. If a spokesperson for Jews for Jesus requested ‘equal access’ to hold their own services at the Wall, they’d be met with outrage and disgust.
Because the Wailing Wall is a Jewish holy site.
Just like you couldn’t set up a permanent minyan in the Vatican, or by the Kaaba stone in Mecca unless you were intent on showing maximum disrespect to those religions, you couldn’t have an official Buddhist prayer session, a Jews for Jesus service, or a Scientology get-together at the Wailing Wall, either.
Which brings us to the crux of the issue: can a religious service that’s cut off from the Torah, and contrary to the principles enshrined by authentic Judaism – the same Judaism that’s been practiced in an unbroken tradition of more than 3,300 years – really claim to be a Jewish religious practise, and to demand ‘equal access’ to a Jewish holy site?
Again, lots of Jews unfortunately practice Buddhism; lots of Jews have unfortunately joined some form of Jews for Jesus, or have accepted other faiths and beliefs. If they want to come and pray at the Wailing Wall as individuals – welcome! But please respect the Jewish sanctity of the site.
But if they want to come and pray ‘their own way’ as part of a group affiliated to a religion that’s NOT Judaism, and that doesn’t accept the validity of the Torah, or the wishes of the Creator – it’s insulting and disrespectful to Judaism, to put it mildly.
So to sum up the argument: Any group that doesn’t have a genuine respect for, and commitment to, God and His Torah, will be hard-pressed to argue that what they are doing is really ‘Jewish’, in any religious sense of the word.
Just being founded by a Jew, or being practiced by Jews, or even calling yourself some form of Judaism, doesn’t make a religious practice or service Jewish. If it did, then evangelical Xtians, the Samaritans, and Jews for Jesus could also be asking for ‘equal access’ to practice their ‘reformed’ version of Judaism at the Wall, too.
Real Judaism has God and His Torah front and centre – and if those two bits are missing, then it’s really not Yiddishkeit, and it’s simply not appropriate to be holding that type of ‘un-Jewish’ service at the Wailing Wall.
Respect for other people’s beliefs works both ways.
The place of tradition in Judaism
When I pray (not often), I do it in all Jewish synagogues: orthodox, conservative, and reform. I do not have a preference: I respect all Jewish streams equally. I’m tolerant and have a traditional-moderate outlook on life and religion. I try to keep an open mind and embrace changes.
My first reaction, when I heard about the arrest of reform women at the Wall, when they attempted to conduct a service and read from the Torah, was to side with the women. Why not? I asked my self. After all, the Wall belongs to all Jews. Every Jew should be able to pray at the Wall according to his (her) believe.
When I dug deeper, I learned that not all conservative and reform Jews are pushing to change the status quo for the same reason that I changed my original position. I now support maintaining the status quo. The reason for it is tradition: After all, the Jewish faith is built on traditions.
Whether people like it or not, the tradition of separation of prayer at the Wall is well established, so regardless of what my religious practice preferences are, I oppose the destruction of one tradition in favor of creating another. I much prefer the model on which the State of Israel was built: Respecting each other’s tradition.
Jews came to Israel from all over the world, bringing their traditions with them. In some cases they had different interpretations to Jewish laws. Those traditions were preserved and later found themselves into mainstream Judaism in Israel. One example is eating legumes in Passover (now that most Israeli families are neither pure Sephardi nor pure Ashkenazi anymore). There are plenty of other places in Israel where Jews can practice mixed prayers. There is no need to provoke the orthodox Jewish community by insisting on mixed services at the Wall. I’m certain that the Israeli government would be glad to dedicate an area overlooking the Wall, but not at the wall for mixed prayers if there was a willingness by the challengers to do so. Who knows, just like eating legumes in Passover, this too may become a non-issue fifty years from now.
Response to the article: The Women of the Wall
History: Women pray at the Wall in early 20th century
Women challenging the status quo at the Wall
Women in a traditional prayer at the Wall
Current status quo: Women’s prayer section at the top. Men’s prayer section at the bottom.
Jewish women confronted by police at the Wall when attempting to conduct a mixed service
Jewish women arrested at the Wall
Police separates between orthodox men and women who challenge the status quo at the Wall.
High Holiday: Prayer at the Wall