Halakha and Women of the Wall
by Natalie Bergner
This article will focus on the nuances of halakha (Jewish law) with regards to women who, while praying as a part of a women’s prayer group (not a minyan), wish to wear tallit, sing prayers aloud, and read from the Torah at the Western Wall.
Halakha literally means “to walk” or “to go,” but within Jewish practice it refers to biblical, Talmudic and rabbinic law as well as customs and traditions. There are certain halakhot, such as the prohibition against worshiping idols, which are fixed and observed by all Jewish denominations. Other halakhot, such as whether or not women can wear tallitot, vary in different Jewish communities because of the number of halakhic authorities who have disagreed with each other across generations and have formed their own sets of practices and legal rulings. It is this diversity of opinion in Jewish legal interpretation and practice that has brought internal conflict to the Jewish people; it is also this diversity that brings depth, complexity and beauty.
The Torah (Exodus 35:25) teaches that the wise and skilled women of the desert generation wove a cover for the ark, creating a cloth of many hues that blended into a harmonious whole. We, at Women of the Wall, view our services as a similar offering to God, utilizing all our talents, all our differing theological views, to create a united service. The Western Wall stands today as a reminder of the First and Second Temple. The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 2) states that the Shekhinah, God’s immanent presence in the world, has never left the Western Wall. It is a holy place that should be open to all Jews and should be open to different interpretations and expressions of halakha.
But how is halakha used within Israeli society and particularly at the Western Wall? The chief rabbinate of Israel, which is led by two Chief Rabbis, one Ashkenazi, one Sephardic, holds halakhic and spiritual authority over the Jewish people in Israel. The rabbinate is a part of Israel’s judicial system, managed by the Ministry of Religious Services; it holds a monopoly over marriage, divorce, burials, conversion and supervision of Jewish holy sights. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who was appointed by the Prime Minister’s office and by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, has been given the authority to oversee decisions at the Western Wall. Rabinowitz has chosen to issue his rulings based on certain strict Orthodox interpretations of halakha. As such, Rabinowitz imposes specific halakhic opinions, which dictate local behavior at the Western Wall, halakhic precepts that are commonly accepted in the Orthodox community but that do not allow for women to wear tallit, sing prayers or read from the Torah among other behaviors. Because of the government’s authority, these practices are prohibited to women—but they are not prohibited by halakha. And while women are not obligated to perform such religious acts, they are not prohibited from doing so under many Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law.
The Talmud (Yoma 9b) warns that when Jews are not united tragedy results. Therefore, it is our hope that Women of the Wall can honor God in prayer at the Western Wall and transcend the differences within Judaism in a tolerant, loving and spiritual way.