By Rabbi Steven Morgen, Congregation Beth Yeshurun, July 12, 2013
For nearly 25 years a group of women from all denominations – Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and even Modern Orthodox – have gathered at the Western Wall of the Old City of Jerusalem to pray every Rosh Hodesh, the first day of each month in the Hebrew calendar. As you know, the Western Wall has been the holiest site in Jewish tradition since the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 C.E. Prior to the Temple’s destruction, of course, the holiest site was the Temple itself which stood on the platform supported by the “Western Wall”, along with similarly constructed walls on the North, East and South, together forming a box around the Temple Mount and providing a foundation for the enormous plaza on which the Temple was built.
The “Women of the Wall” – as they have called themselves – have sought to conduct their own Rosh Hodesh prayer service every month, many choosing to wear a tallit, and/or tefillin. And, some of the women wear a kippah. The women sing the prayers for the morning service out loud. On Rosh Hodesh, the Torah scrolls are taken out, unrolled and read. These women bring a Torah scroll with them and open it at the appropriate time in the service and chant the customary Torah passages using the traditional melody or Trope.
Over the course of these 25 years, they have often found it difficult to pray. Ultra-Orthodox women – and men – come over to harass them, to call them names (like “Nazis”), even to spit on them (or to throw things at them: “stink bombs”, rocks, or chairs, for instance). From time to time they have had police protection. On other occasions the police have arrested some of them for “disturbing the peace” or “violating the sanctity of the Western Wall plaza.” However, recently, the Israeli Court of Jerusalem ruled that their worship does not “disturb the peace” and that “local custom” for Jewish worship in the plaza should be pluralistic and inclusive.
Well, as we announced last Shabbat morning, the month of Av began on Monday, and so that morning, the Women of the Wall met again at the Western Wall plaza to welcome the new month. This time, the women were escorted by the police to a barricaded area in the southern part of the plaza where the Western Wall itself could not even be seen. Thousands of ultra-orthodox women and yeshiva girls had arrived much earlier to fill the “women’s area” of the plaza so that the Women of the Wall would not be able to get close to the Wall itself. However, there was ample space further back in the plaza overlooking the Wall, but the police did not allow the Women of the Wall to pray there.
Meanwhile, a large group of ultra-Orthodox women, girls, and even men, gathered around the barricade to jeer, scream, blow whistles to drown out the prayers, and even to throw eggs at those who were trying to pray. When the worshippers came to the part of the service for the prayer for the State of Israel, and when they sang Hatikva at the end, there were tears in their eyes as they sang the words “lihiyot am hofshi b’artzenu” (“to be a free nation in our land”). The barricades, the jeering, and the egg-throwing mob made the words very much more a prayer than a reality. It is ironic that in the Jewish State, Jews are not able to pray in a more tolerant and respectful environment.
The former head of the office of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, Rabbi Dov Halbertal, wrote afterward that the next thing these women will seek to do is to pray naked at the Kotel. After all, he argued, Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden, and what could be holier than that? How is praying naked any different than praying in a tallit and tefillin? he asked.
Well, since he asked …
Let’s begin with some background. The Sages of the Talmud ruled that women are exempt from having to fulfill commandments to do something at a fixed time. It is not clear why they are exempt. The usual reason given is that in the culture of 2000 years ago, women were the primary care givers for the children in the family, and had responsibilities to cook the family meals and to clean the house. Therefore, it was deemed too burdensome to require women to drop these important tasks in order to fulfill another mitzvah that had to be done at a particular time. Sometimes these commandments are called “Positive Time-Bound Commandments”.
Wearing a tallit is only considered to be commanded during daylight hours. The reason is the mitzvah includes the obligation to “see” the fringes, and at night – before there was electricity – you generally could not see the fringes well because it was too dark. That is why the congregation does not wear a tallit at the evening service, be we do during the morning service.
Wearing tefillin was only considered to be an obligation on weekdays. On the Sabbath or festival, you are not supposed to wear tefillin. Why? Because the tefillin are considered an “ot” – a symbol of our relationship with God. And the Sabbath and Festivals are themselves symbols of our relationship with God (as we sing in Vishamru [Exdous 13:17] – “bayni uvayn bnay Yisrael ot hi l’olam” – “between Me and the Children of Israel it [the Sabbath] shall be an eternal symbol”). Therefore we do not “wear” a symbol on the day that is itself a symbol. That is why we are not wearing tefillin this morning.
Women are therefore exempt from wearing tallit and tefillin because they are only obligations during specific times. But the law is that they are exempt. It does not say they are prohibited from wearing them. Our movement has determined that it is not only permissible for women to wear a tallit and tefillin, but that they are encouraged to do so, especially if they find these mitzvot meaningful.
Wearing a kippah is not even a mitzvah it is a minhag – a custom. Some may argue that a kippah is a “man’s garment” and that there is a prohibition against women wearing men’s garments. [Deuteronomy 22:5] But I would argue that kippot are really ritual garments, like a tallit or tefillin, and therefore are neither male nor female. But in any case, there are plenty of kippot that are obviously designed for women and do not appear the least bit like a “man’s garment.”
The Talmud specifically permits women to read from the Torah, but only ruled out their actually doing so because it was thought that having a woman read from the Torah would humiliate the men in the congregation. You see, to have a woman read from the Torah apparently implied that none of the men knew how to read from the Torah, so they needed a woman to do it for them. Clearly that is not an assumption we make today in our congregation, and we are delighted to have both men and women reading from the Torah.
Now you might be thinking, “Yes, Rabbi, but you are Conservative, and our movement has developed over the past few decades to fully embrace the equality of women in ritual observances. But the Orthodox do not accept these decisions. Well, Modern Orthodoxy has begun to do just that.
In response to Rabbi Dov Halbertal’s editorial, Yoseif Bloch, an Orthodox rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion, and Yeshivat Shivlei Hatorh, brought Orthodox sources to argue these very same points. He concludes his very brief response with these words:
“Women of the Wall has a varied membership: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, etc. However, they have chosen to worship in a way which conforms to Jewish law. They have never indicated a desire to pray in a mixed setting, to violate halakhic standards or to desecrate the holy. So why must others do so in the name of stopping their prayers?”
Many other Modern Orthodox rabbis also support the right of the Women of the Wall to worship in the Kotel Plaza.
Now, let’s consider the issue from another perspective. Since when did the ultra Orthodox authorities have the final determination about what is appropriate and what is inappropriate at the Kotel plaza? My teacher Rabbi David Golinkin has written a paper summarizing the history of the Western Wall as a place for Jewish worship. In his typical encyclopedic fashion he recounts scores of historical records from travel logs, paintings, photographs and other material that all prove conclusively that for centuries there was no division at the Western Wall for men and women’s worship.
Apparently, it was at the beginning of the Ottoman rule over Palestine, in 1520, that the Western Wall became more commonly thought of as a place for Jews to worship. From that time until 1948, when the Jews were expelled from the Old City by the Jordanians, women and men prayed together at the Wall. In fact, women were frequently the majority of worshippers there. There was no permanent mehitza in place, and there are only a few occasions when it seems that a temporary mehitza was set up.
In 1967, Israel recaptured the Old City and cleared away the debris and ramshackle houses that were left by the Jordanians in the Jewish Quarter and created the huge Kotel Plaza that now exists.
“At that time, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan wanted to give the responsibility for all the religious and historical sites in Judea and Samaria [i.e. the “West Bank”] including the Kotel to the National Parks Authority. Dr. Zerah Warhaftig, the Minister of Religion, was adamantly opposed and by June 26th, the Kotel was under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Religion. At the same time, the Knesset passed the “Protection of Holy Places Law 5727, 1967” which appointed the Chief Rabbis of Israel to set the rules and regulations of the Kotel. … By July 19, 1967, the Ministry of Religion had erected a mehitzah and the men’s section was four times larger than the women’s section.”
In other words, the ultra-Orthodox claim that the Kotel plaza has somehow historically always been thought of as sacred ground upon which men and women must be separated in prayer, and rituals must accord with their strict interpretations of Jewish law, is ridiculous and without any basis. The Plaza was essentially created by the Jewish State when it obtained control over the area in 1967. The fact that the Ministry of Religion wrangled control over this area through political maneuvering does not mean they were given this right from the Torah, but rather by the Jewish State itself.
It is unconscionable that we Jews have returned to our homeland to fulfill our historical, religious dream of re-establishing a Jewish commonwealth, only to disenfranchise the overwhelming majority of Jews in the world from worshipping according to their custom at the holiest Jewish site in the world. For centuries Jews were forbidden from worshipping there at all by the non-Jewish governments that ruled over Palestine. When Jews were allowed to worship there, there were no mehitzahs, and no restrictions about who could worship or how they worshipped. Now that the Kotel is in Jewish hands, how can the Jewish State discriminate against the majority of world Jewry in such a heavy-handed manner?
What was particularly disturbing about the incident last Monday was that it was Rosh Hodesh Av – the first day of the month of Av. This Monday night we begin Tisha B’av – the Fast Day on which we mourn the destruction of the very Temple that stood above the Western Wall on the Temple Mount. Our Sages tell us that that Temple, The Second Temple, was destroyed because of Sinat Hinam – Causeless Hatred. They spell out in some detail what they specifically mean by that label. Jews in the days of Roman Rule were constantly fighting among themselves. There were then – as there are now – different sects of Jewish observance and belief: Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, and Hellenists, to name a few. They all hated each other and fought with each other – and not only with words. Some Zealots, called Siccari, would assassinate Jews who wanted to find a way to peacefully live under Roman rule. This hatred, bickering and violence, our Sages say, is what led to our own downfall.
It is particularly alarming, then, that such hatred among Jews was so apparent on Rosh Hodesh Av when a group of women – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist – came to worship at Judaism’s holiest site. Have we learned nothing in 2000 years?
On Monday night as we mourn the Temple’s destruction, I will be including in my prayers a special prayer that in our days we will find a way to overcome our petty hatreds and our intolerance of different opinions. The strength of Judaism has always been in listening to opposing arguments, keeping an open mind, finding compromise in a dispute, and being willing to adapt to new situations. May we find a way to do so at Judaism’s holiest site – at the Kotel.
 In this illustration (http://www.templemountnews.com/layout.html), the entire perimeter of the structure pictured is the “box”. The Temple is in the middle (a little to the left side) of the plaza that is surrounded by the box. The Temple itself is the tall structure with the golden gate entrance. Surrounding the Temple is the inner Temple courtyard with various administrative buildings. In the diagram, the “left” side of the box is the Western retaining wall, the “right” side of the box is the Eastern retaining wall (which also served as the outer wall of the city itself). The front-left wall is the Southern retaining wall which had two gates (a triple-gate and a double-gate) through which visitors would enter (and exit) the Temple Mount to offer their sacrifices. What is called today the “Western Wall” is the small section of the Western retaining wall (in the back left side of the diagram) near the bridge that is illustrated leading to a gate structure there. I wanted to clarify all of this because there is so often mis-information about what the Western Wall actually is. It is NOT part of the Temple itself. And it is NOT the only part of the retaining wall that is still intact today. In fact, the entire retaining wall is still intact. What is called the Western Wall was that part of the Western retaining wall that was still visible in the Ottoman Period (i.e. not covered by debris and “fill”) and therefore visible to visitors. Since it was relatively close in proximity to where the Temple would have stood, it was considered the holiest site at which Jews could come to pray (since they were prohibited from going up to the Mount itself).
 See this wonderful summary of the development of this area of Halakhah (Jewish law): http://www.myjewishlearning.com/practices/Ritual/Jewish_Practices/Mitzvot/Classical_Understandings/woman_timebound.shtml?p=2 And, this article from a more “right wing” Orthodox perspective: http://halachipedia.com/index.php?title=Mitzvot_Aseh_SheHazman_Grama. And, for a more chauvinistic rationale for exempting women from Positive Time Bound Commandments (PTBC), see http://scheinerman.net/judaism/Holidays/women-texts.html where Rav Scheinerman simply states that the wife must obey her husband, and if he asks her to do something at a time when she would otherwise have to do a PTBC, she is trapped: either she disobeys her husband (God forbid!), or she disobeys God (God forbid!). So God, as it were, exempted women from this potential conflict.
 For a thorough discussion of the halakhah about women wearing tefillin, see my teacher’s excellent article: David Golinkin, “May Women Wear Tefillin?” at Conservative Judaism, Fall 1997, http://web.archive.org/web/20041207101038/www.rabbinicalassembly.org/cjmag/97fa/womtef.html Included in this article is a disputation of the argument that tallit and tefillin are “men’s garments”. What the issue really comes down to is “yehora” – it is considered by some authorities to be “haughty” for women to wear tefillin and tallit. That is, they appear to be “putting on airs” of piety. They are not sincerely moved by the mitzvah, but rather trying to prove how devout they are. Of course, as the halakhic sources themselves indicate, what constitutes “haughtiness” is very much culturally based. Sure, in a community in which no women would dream of putting on tefillin, it may seem that a woman who does so is “putting on airs”. On the other hand, once there are large numbers of women in a community putting on tefillin, they would not be seen as “putting on airs” – just putting on tefillin! And how does a community/culture ever change if the first one who attempts the change is humiliated? I am thinking of Rosa Parks, for instance …
 For a summary of the issue from an Orthodox perspective, see Shlomo Brody, “May Women Read from the Torah?” in Jerusalem Post Magazine, June 14, 2012, http://www.jpost.com/Magazine/Judaism/May-women-read-from-the-Torah