I Beg to Disagree, Rabbi Avi Shafran

January 2, 2013

After reading the recent “It’s easy to dismiss the antics of Warrior of the Wall Anat Hoffman.”
The name of the group is Women of the Wall. In a post that purports to be about showing sensitivity to others, the least you could do is not start out by insulting an entire group of people. And what the Women of the Wall are doing are not antics. They are saying traditional Jewish prayers. To see a rabbi characterize traditional Jewish prayer at the Kotel as “antics” is a sad thing.

“Her guerrilla gatherings of women…”
These are gatherings of women who are there to pray the traditional prayers. They are there to pray, not to fight. There is nothing “guerilla” about them. It is only others who attempt to turn their gatherings into a fight, against the will of the Women of the Wall.

“She can bank, too, on the support – although some of it is uneasy – from the non-Orthodox American Jewish community.”
She can also bank on support from members of the Orthodox American Jewish community, as well as the Orthodox Israeli Jewish community, some of whom are loyal members of Women of the Wall, a non-denominational group supported by women from across the Jewish spectrum.

“Even those of us, however, who see danger and disunity in Ms. Hoffman’s goal of “liberating” the Wall from Jewish religious tradition – halacha forbids Jewish men from hearing the voices of women singing or chanting…”
If the only problem is that Jewish men are not allowed to hear the voices of women, then why is the only solution to prohibit women from praying out loud? There are many other possible solutions. For instance, there could be specific days and times (such as the morning of Rosh Chodesh – the beginning of each Hebrew month – when women traditionally pray) when women’s prayer is allowed, and men who don’t want to hear it can stay away. It is completely absurd to say the women have to accommodate the men 100% of the time and the men can’t accommodate the women some small part of the time.

Another option would be for the men to wear earplugs. Another option would be to build a sound proof room for the men who don’t want to hear the women. There are many options other than excluding women’s prayer 100% of the time. Just because you don’t like those other options doesn’t mean the the option you choose is the only possible one. However, note that the only option you choose is the one that excludes a large portion of the Jewish people, 100% of the time. Choosing this option is completely insensitive when there are other viable options available.

“… – would do well to realize that not all the women who flock to the activist’s side are political agitators. Some are surely sincere, and deserve our own sincere consideration.”
Most, if not all, are surely sincere in their desire to be allowed to pray at Judaism’s holiest site. It is insensitive of you to suggest this is not the case.

“Imagine a woman raised in a Reform or Conservative environment, who read from the Torah at her bat-mitzvah and for whom services led by women in the presence of men are the norm.  When she visits Israel and is drawn to the Kosel she may well feel that something is somehow 'wrong,' that while many women are present and praying, only men are conducting group services and reading from the Torah.  Can we not empathize with her? If we can’t, we are lacking. Even misguided feelings are feelings.”
These feelings are not misguided, and they are not held only by Reform and Conservative people. They are also held by Orthodox women, some of whom pray with the Women of the Wall on a monthly basis, and by men. We feel something is wrong because we are being completely excluded, 100% of the time, when other options are available, if only a decent amount of sensitivity were shown to us.

“There are powerful arguments for maintaining the status quo at the Kosel: Halacha is the historical heritage of all Jews. The Kosel is a remnant of the courtyard wall of the Second Holy Temple, where 'Orthodox' services were the only ones there were.  And permitting non-traditional group services at the Kosel main plaza will invite proponents of atheistic 'Humanistic Judaism' to claim their fair share of the area, not to mention 'Hebrew Christian' groups seeking their own time-share.”
Nice slippery slope argument, but just because one thing happens, it doesn’t mean another thing will happen. More importantly, what you miss completely is that these women are conducting traditional prayer services. The only thing you say you don’t like about them is that the men can hear the women. As I said above, if the men just absent themselves for the short amount of time these traditional services take to conduct, there will be no non-traditional praying being conducted.

“Making the case for halachic standards at the Kosel with reason, though, is one thing. More important than arguments in the end is empathy – on all sides.”
If you had any empathy for these Jewish women at all, you would allow them at least some small portion of time in which to pray aloud at Judaism’s holiest site. You show them none by saying they must accommodate the men 100% of the time, and the men have no need to accommodate them at all, ever.

“For tradition-revering Jews, empathy means not confusing rabble-rousers with heartfelt Jews, not dismissing the feelings of differently-raised fellow Jews of good will.”
And yet, in your article, you are doing exactly that. You are calling heartfelt Jewish women rabble-rousers. You are calling their heartfelt prayers “antics.”

“And for those latter Jews, empathy means trying to feel what traditional Jews at the Kosel will feel if they are compelled by their commitment to halacha to leave the plaza during vocal women’s services.”
If only they would actually leave the plaza for the short time these services take, rather than throwing chairs and dirty diapers at the women, yelling at them, and sending the police after them. You betray yourself by offering a perfectly reasonable option and then pretending there is something wrong with it. How is it worse for the men to absent themselves for a short period of time each month rather than the women absenting themselves forever?

“I once queried a young granddaughter of mine about what she brought to school for lunch.  She listed an assortment of sandwiches but an iconic one was missing.  ‘What about peanut butter?’ I asked.  Her eyes widened and she said, ‘Oh, no.  We don’t bring peanut butter into the school.  Some kids are ‘lergic to it!’”
Cute story. People can die from food allergies. I know; I have one. Nobody has ever died from hearing the voice of a woman. And no matter what some may say, eating a peanut butter sandwich is not a religious experience.

“No doubt, Ms. Hoffman and others would proclaim that they are equally hurt by being unable to hold services ‘their way’ at the Kosel, that their own tradition is insulted by halachic restrictions.  But I think that a sincere, agenda-less non-Orthodox Jew will find the claim unpersuasive.”
You are wrong. Many Orthodox, as well as non-Orthodox Jews find the fact of the hurt persuasive. Especially since the services they are holding are traditional Jewish services. We are insulted by your unwillingness to make accomodations that would be entirely within halachic restrictions, such as allowing the women to pray out loud and informing the men that if they don’t want to hear women during that short period of time once a month they should stay away.

“For more than forty years, the Kosel has been a place – perhaps the only one in the world – where Jews of all affiliations and persuasions have regularly prayed side by side. That has been possible because of the good will of non-Orthodox Jews – Israelis and Westerners alike – who, although they may opt for very different services in their own homes, synagogues or temples, have considered the feelings of those who embrace the entirety of the Jewish religious tradition.”
No, it is because the Orthodox Jews who run the Kotel are completely insensitive to the desire of religious Jewish women to pray aloud at Judaism’s holiest site. And don’t pretend all the prayers on the men’s side are traditional. Non-Orthodox Jewish men have prayed the Reform version of the prayers (which the Women of the Wall do not do) at the Kotel, and they had nothing thrown at them, and they were not arrested. This isn’t about maintaining tradition. It is about excluding women.

“Recapturing that good will amid a manufactured and media-seductive ‘War of the Wall’…”
It is the Orthodox men who are trying to turn this into a war by shouting and throwing things at the women. All the women want to do is pray out loud at Judaism’s holiest site.

“…will not be easy. We Orthodox, though, might begin with empathy for fellow Jews who were raised very differently from us.  And perhaps, in turn, that will merit us their empathy as well.”
You may want to have some empathy for those women who were raised the same as you as well, and stop pretending this is only about the non-Orthodox, or only about excluding non-traditional prayer.

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