Mixed services at the Wall: Why we object to it

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. 

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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.

Why?

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.

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 The place of tradition in Judaism

by Gideon

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.

 

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 Response to the article: The Women of the Wall

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

Although I basically agree your conclusions, I think that your picture of the Women of the Wall is somewhat misinformed and obscured. You ultimately argued, “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.” You favor the status quo simply because you feel that one preexisting tradition cannot supersede another newly created tradition. I would state the argument even stronger: A new tradition is NOT a tradition, it’s something completely made up. If I were to decide tomorrow that people should be able to pray naked at the wall and then claim the right to follow that tradition, would you consider my tradition a new tradition that cannot displace an old tradition or would you simply reject my new tradition and say its a joke and not a tradition? This is exactly what the Women of the Wall are doing. They are purposely flouting tradition to be controversial and create sensation. Their crazy ideas are not a tradition that needs to be respected.
Secondly, the Women of the Wall have broken the law. Just as you would not advocate clemency for others who break the law (e.g., storekeepers who illegally open their shops on Israel Independence Day or anti-Government protesters who damage private and public property), why should the women of the wall not be arrested? Yet, instead of punishing them, people advocate giving into their demands. Would you say the same of anti-Government protesters? These women are essentially protesting the government’s prior decisions.
You wrote: “I much prefer the model on which the State of Israel was built: Respecting each other’s tradition.” I have found no evidence of such an ideal in the consciousness of Israel’s founding fathers. On the contrary, this country was built on the idea that they can create their own “brand” of secular Judaism which recognizes such features as a Modern Hebrew Language, a Modern Hebrew culture, Modern Hebrew Cuisine, etc…, but has no place for religion. Ben Gurion only agreed to the terms of religious status quo because he truly believed that the religious sector would cease to exist within a generation (partly because of the compulsive military service which was especially instituted to facilitate the “assimilation” of all types of Jews into one). Is that called respecting each other’s tradition?
Your last paragraph compares apples and oranges. The different customs regarding eating kitniyos on Pesach are and were always considered legitimate opinions. You have to know the history of the prohibition of Kitniyos and how and where it started. Ashkenazim do not say that Sefardim should not eat Kitniyos and Sefaradim do not say that Ashkenazim should. It’s not a dispute like that. I don’t know where you get your information from, but eating Kitniyos has not become a more accepted in the Ashkenazi community except in the more liberal streams of Religious Zionism who have always been trying to avail themselves of as many elements of religion as possible, so they also did away with the prohibition because it can be justified more easily. I don’t know where you got you information about “most Israeli families are neither pure Sephardi nor pure Ashkenazi anymore” and besides being faulty, I think it also destroys your entire argument because even if eating Kitniyos has become more mainstreamed, it can be chalked up to the intermarriage between Sefardim and Ashkenazim and proves nothing about justifying the abhorrent acts of the Women of the Wall people.
Eating legumes on Pesach is a non-issue because each community follows its custom as it has been doing for hundreds of years. The matter of mixed services is a prohibition that as Talmudic basis and has been accepted by the whole of Judaism since time immemorial–until Reform and Conservative came about. Again, they created a new tradition. The Jewish people have outlived many others who claimed to be the real inheritors of the Judaism and we will outlive Reform and Conservative as well. So you might be right, in 50 years it might be a non-issue simply because Reform and Conservative might not exist then.
One more point: You wrote “There are plenty of other places in Israel where Jews can practice mixed prayers.” I think this depends on your definition of the word “plenty”. In truth, the presence of R&C in the Holy Land is quite negligible because most people recognize them as a fake. Here in Israel, people are either secular or religious, they do not do the fake half-way thing of Reform and Conservative. As Golda Meir supposedly said, “The synagogue I don’t go to is Orthodox”.
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Women pray at the wall in early 20th centry

History: Women pray at the Wall in early 20th century

Provocative women prayer at the Wall

Women challenging the status quo  at the Wall

Women at Western Wall, Jerusalem, Israel

Women in a traditional prayer at the Wall

Separate prayer at the wall

Current status quo: Women’s prayer section at the top. Men’s  prayer section at the bottom.

jewish women at the arrested at the wall

Jewish women confronted by police at the Wall when attempting to conduct a mixed service

women arrested at the wall

Jewish women arrested at the Wall

 

Police seperates between orthodox and reform women at the wall

Police separates between orthodox men and women who challenge the status quo at the Wall.

 

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Police shields women in confrontation at the Wall

 

Preyer at the Kotel

High Holiday: Prayer at the Wall

 

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