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Jew vs. Jew at the Western Wall

At the Western Wall, the latest incarnation of an ancient Jewish battle between tradition and modernity

David Wolpe
January 02, 2013
Anat Hoffman arrested at the Wall on Oct. 16, 2012.(Women of the Wall)
Anat Hoffman arrested at the Wall on Oct. 16, 2012.(Women of the Wall)

For the Women of the Wall, a group that has gathered each month for the past 23 years to pray at the Western Wall, things have never been easy: They’ve been heckled, arrested for “hurting the feelings of other worshippers,” and been the target of stones and dirty diapers. But in the past few months, police enforcement at the wall has become more maladroit than Officer Krupke: Women are now being searched for tallit and tefillin as they enter the wall’s precincts, an eerie and unwitting echo of a time when the Soviets would ransack the baggage of visiting Americans for evidence of Jewish ritual objects.

The prime minister, caught in a crossfire between the Women of the Wall’s passionate American supporters and his traditionalist coalition at home, has appointed Natan Sharansky to try to figure out a way to accommodate the Orthodox rabbinate that controls the site (and has since the restoration of Jewish sovereignty) and those who wish to pray at the wall in whatever fashion they choose. Sharansky, a chess master, may find himself in Zugzwang, a position in which making any move on the board ensures a loss. In such a quintessentially Jewish way, this wall of stones has become a mirror.

When incendiary issues flare in our political or religious life, we are treated to a farrago of insinuation and insult, accusation and obloquy, and the inevitable claim of opponents being traitorous to the accuser’s view of Judaism. This is a Jewish tradition with the deepest roots: The worst catastrophes in our history were too often precipitated by infighting among the Jews themselves. Why should this fight—between those loyal to the tradition, and those determined for Judaism to adapt to modernity—be different from all others?

For the traditionalists—let’s leave specific labels aside, since on each side there are those who do not easily fit into the “haredi” or “feminist” camps—the issue is one of conservation. Although there is some warrant in Jewish law for women wearing tallitot, for thousands of years the idea of a woman wearing a tallit, or even more so tefillin, was mostly unheard of. It was so unconventional that the rabbis rarely needed to mobilize reasons.

For traditionalists, it is disturbing enough to imagine that somewhere in Beverly Hills a woman is reading from the Torah. But is there to be no precinct, even that of the Holy Temple, exempt from the inroads of a hostile modernity? Do the people who care most deeply have to be the ones whose sensibilities are always to be sacrificed?

The truth, uncomfortable for some, is that as a general rule the more Judaism dominates one’s life, the more likely one is to oppose women’s equality in Judaism. If you dismiss “this is the way God wishes it” out of hand, then why should you care so deeply about sites where the devout go to worship God?

For the modernists, part of the power of religion is its willingness to challenge the social structure. This is the legacy of the prophets and, in some incarnations, of the rabbis. Individualism, free speech, and democracy have taken root as part of the ideology of modern Judaism. Armed with these Western principles, modern Jewish scholars have searched for their antecedents in our tradition. Religion does not skate on the ice of time; Moses never wore a shtreimel and Maimonides did not speak Yiddish. God’s will, as modernists argue, is uncovered through history, not obscured by it.

Moreover, for the modernists, it is not only what is decided, but who decides. Women do not sit on the rabbinical counsels that determine that women should not sit on the rabbinical counsels—a nice bit of circular reasoning. Though Israel’s rabbinic establishment insists it is enacting God’s unchanging law, how can we not be suspicious of those who legislate in such a way that the power remains in their own hands?

In short, both the traditionalist and the modernist arguments have merit.


I can already hear the howls. The modernists will respond that the same argument for the sanctity of tradition could be made on behalf of slavery. The traditionalists will argue that giving everyone the right to determine Jewish tradition is equivalent to destroying that tradition and point to the assimilation of American Jews as Exhibit A.

I don’t want to pretend to dispassion here. I serve in a synagogue that employs female rabbis and cantors. My father, who was a rabbi in Philadelphia, hired the first female ordained by the Conservative movement as his assistant, upon her graduation. I believe the leadership of women in religious life as in all walks of life is not only tremendously beneficial, but indispensable.

Still, my conviction does not blind me to the power of the counterargument. It does not persuade me that everyone who disagrees with the Women of the Wall is motivated by ignorance or misogyny.

Failing to sympathize with the traditionalists’ ideology, as so many modernists do, demonstrates a disdain for certain religious passion, and even a certain lack of human fellow feeling. After all, the power of custom has long been venerated in Judaism. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, tradition is democracy of the dead; if everyone who ever lived had a vote, tradition would win. To disregard it without thought or reverence is simply not the Jewish way.

Too many fear that to understand the opposition means they cannot argue their own side with passion and conviction. Yet there are very few disputes in human life where all the worthiness lives on one side of the divide. We have just lived through an election season where significant numbers of each party seemed to think the other afflicted with wickedness, idiocy, or wicked idiocy. This is not an intellectually respectable position, no matter how often you hear it on talk shows—or occasionally, alas, from pulpits.

Reversing ancient religious practices is a painful process, and I don’t imagine Women of the Wall will ever sing kumbaya with the rabbinical overseers of the Old City. But I wonder how things could change if each side conceded, however grudgingly, that the other side does have a point.

When Sharansky comes up with his compromise, we will know if either side is prepared to engage in that once-venerated tradition of listening. Remember that the mezuzah stands on a slant because the rabbis disagreed about whether it should be vertical or horizontal. Every Jewish doorway is a testimony to our willingness to accommodate one another. Now let’s see if it works with a wall.


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David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and is the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiWolpe

David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and is the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiWolpe