This week, Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi whose euphemistically named Western Wall Heritage Foundation operates the Kotel and its plaza as an ultra-Orthodox synagogue, publicly called on the Women of the Wall to back off their demands to worship openly and communally at Judaism’s most revered site. He used what is essentially the “mi Sinai” argument: that they are seeking to upend millennia of traditional practice that he is protecting. He accused them of wanting to struggle and argue more than wanting to pray. He insisted that he is the reasonable one here, trying to balance the needs of Jews of all backgrounds who want to go to the Kotel.
In throwing all of these arguments out, he is tacitly acknowledging that his position is untenable.
First the historical argument: In charging the women with trying to change “the entire Jewish nation’s ancient prayer practices,” he is creating a false façade of homogeneity when, in fact, Jewish prayer practices have developed and evolved in unique ways wherever Jews have settled. The Women of the Wall are really reaching back to the practices of women in early Ashkenaz (Northern France and Germany, 11th-13th centuries), who took upon themselves such ritual practices as dwelling in the sukkah, wearing tallitot and t’fillin, and publicly leading worship for other women, without interference. Such halakhic luminaries as Rabbi Jacob Tam and Rabbi Nathan b. Eliezer of Mainz ruled that not only could women do so, but they also could recite the traditional blessings of mitzvot when performing them.
Then there’s the halakhic argument: The entire prohibition against kol isha, hearing the voice of a woman, is based on a single non-sequitur in the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 24a) in which a series of rabbis share with one another what turns them on sexually. When it comes Shmuel’s turn he replies “kol b’isha.” There is no advanced halakhic argument or reasoning why this is adapted to the context of women at prayer; it comes to be minhag (custom) that is enforced as though it is law. Furthermore, as Avi Shafran — the Haredi rabbi who serves as the Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel of America — recently wrote in an opinion piece in Forward on the history of halakhah and tradition: “the truth is that religious praxis does change, and that should be expected. While the Torah’s mandate, to observe the laws God has given us, doesn’t ever change, the particular directives of halacha (Jewish law) regarding many of those laws continue to evolve, as they always have, with normative rulings in many cases emerging only over years. That is part and parcel of Judaism’s halachic system since Sinai.” Religious praxis is changing, though Rabinowitz is trying with all of his might to stop it.
Beyond this, Rabinowitz also knows he has no civil legal argument – not since the Jerusalem District Court ruled more than two years ago that WOW be permitted to pray communally as is their custom, and that no one may presume that ultra-Orthodoxy is the only acceptable custom of the Kotel Plaza. Rabinowitz and the Haredi authorities have ignored the ruling, of course, in the mistaken belief that civil law simply doesn’t apply to them.
Which relegates Rabinowitz to the ‘pretty please’ argument: Ladies, pretty please, don’t push this because you’re making my life so hard. You really ought to humbly submit to what I have decided is the norm here.
To which we must respond, most emphatically: No.
Rabinowitz’s position is untenable because, as he himself acknowledges in his letter, the Kotel is a draw for millions of Jews from all backgrounds and homelands, from secularlists to ultra-traditionalists, from Israeli soldiers to Diaspora civilians. It is not the struggle of the Women of the Wall that, as he contends, has made the Kotel a site of dissension; it is rather the status quo of Haredi hegemony.
If the Kotel and its environs truly are to be a treasure for all Jews, then there is only one way forward: to remove Rabinowitz, to take control out of the hands of the Haredim and out of the religious sphere and put it in the hands of secular, civil authorities such as the Antiquities Department, whose express purpose is to protect and maintain historic sites in Israel for all Jews to appreciate. Then all Jews will be free to come and visit, to pray, to do as they wish in the most sacred, revered space in the Jewish world.
©2015 Audrey R. Korotkin