Prof. Pnina Lahav Brandeis University Women Of the Wall Lecture

The Segregation of Women and the Women of the Wall as a metaphor for Israel/Diaspora Relations

The Diane (Dina) Markowitz Lecture, Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Brandeis University

Pnina Lahav (c), Professor of Law, Boston University

Please do not distribute, quote, or cite without author’s permission.


I am honored and happy to be here. I have been an admirer of the Hadassah Brandeis Institute since its inception, and my respect for its work has only grown over the years. My admiration for Shula Reinharz and for Sylvia Barack Fishman is long standing, and I feel fortunate to add Lisa Fishbayn to the list of scholars I need to pay attention to. It’s wonderful to be in the circle of such great women, and it’s wonderful to see so many familiar faces in the audience. Thank you all for coming.

I plan first to introduce you to the Women of the Wall. I shall then tie their story to the current deluge of discrimination against women, as we have been reading in newspapers. The discrimination against women in Israel has proliferated of late, and has acquired the form of a kulturkampf. Each side feels very indignant and committed to its own agenda, and we are now in the midst of a fog of war, a state of affairs that does not easily lend itself to rational analysis. Let me list a few instances of the segregation we are witnessing:

• In ultra-orthodox neighborhoods there is an effort to assign separate sidewalks to men and women. There are also separate waiting rooms in medical clinics, and separate gender based cash registers is some stores.



• In the medical profession, an institute called POO-AH

(after one of the midwives in the story of Exodus) and dedicated to problems of infertility, ignores women gynecologists. A conference on infertility held this month included only men. Men doctors, male audience. They get together to discuss the woman’s body, her womb, her ovaries, but they pretend that women irrelevant. Men alone deliberate and act as decision makers.

• In the Israeli military, women are increasingly segregated and a fight is going on concerning the question of whether religious men and soldiers should be permitted to walk out when women soldiers are performing. The medieval statement that “Kol Be-ish erva” (a woman’s voice is sinful) has suddenly been revived, to reorder and restructure the public sphere.

Enough said.

My goal today is two-fold. I wish to assert that the first signs of a movement to push Israeli women back into the private sphere was launched with the reaction to the emergence of the Women of the Wall. Therefore, I wish to argue that it is a mistake to say “gender based segregation in buses is serious and of concern to all, but the matter of the Women of the Wall is minor an internal religious affair.” It is a mistake to say this is challa and this is bagel and they are not the same. They are all made of water and flour, all in the family. The seeds of what we witness today were planted more than twenty years ago when the Women of the Wall were denied the right to pray at the Wall. The majority of the public, in Israel and in the United States, buried their head in the sand.

My second goal is to persuade you that the matter of segregation is very relevant to this audience, here today. It is relevant to the American Jewish community because it goes to the heart of the glue between Israel and the Diaspora, to the heart of the very meaning of being Jewish. It concerns you in a very deep and meaningful way, and I wish to urge you to reflect upon the matter and take a stand. This is not a time to be merely interested. Each and every one of us must take a stand.

The Women of the Wall are interesting because they are themselves a metaphor for something very important concerning Israel/Diaspora relations. That, I believe, is the most important insight I have to offer.

Let me also offer a qualification. Throughout this lecture I refer to the Orthodox. I mean those Orthodox who are in power in Israel today, and who yield their power in order to promote the agenda of segregation. However, we should be aware that orthodoxy is not monolithic. There are many Orthodox, in Israel and in the diaspora, who recognize the value of gender equality and who lament the recent developments. At the moment their voice is neither heard nor followed. But they are our natural allies and we should respect them and hope that they eventually prevail.


Who are these Women of the Wall? They are a group of Jewish women, different ages, different nationalities, and different backgrounds, who wish to assemble at the Wall, behind the mehiza, and there perform the ritual of service that Jews experience in every synagogue around the world.

Specifically the women of the wall want:

*** To congregate as a group and raise their voices in song and prayer. Tefilla

*** While doing so, to wrap themselves in a Talit

*** Then to hold the Torah, open it on a table, and read from the Torah as a part of the service [some of them are very excellent Torah readers indeed]

They called it “the three T’s”: Torah, Tallit, Tefilla.

I also wish to emphasize WHAT they did not ask for:

Unlike Reform and Conservative Judaism, they did not ask to congregate in the male section.

Unlike the Reform and Conservative practice, they did not call themselves a minyan, but rather a group. They refrained from engaging in aspects of the service that are natural for a reform or conservative service, and were careful to do only that which halachically was not controversial.

Their service follows the orthodox restrictions, specifically, because the orthodox rules are the toughest to follow. They followed the ceiling rather than the floor. I would argue that this is a great example of modesty or humility.

The Women of the Wall are a diverse group. Some of their members are strictly orthodox; some are conservative, reform, even secular. They all get together because they feel a need to pray collectively, and fulfill themselves as persons who were made in the image of God. Equal under God.

Their action indicates that interdenominational cooperation and respect may be possible if you have the will.

When they began their practice in 1988, almost a quarter of a century ago, they very naively thought that the State of Israel would welcome them. They thought they were representing something precious that Israel stood for: innovation, progress, spirituality, equality — all of these while maintaining Jewish continuity.

All are values embroidered into the tablecloth of Zionism and declared explicitly in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, all values that one has every reason to believe are shared by Jewish culture and tradition.

One more crucial thing the Women of the Wall wanted: they wanted the right to pray at the Wall Plaza itself, in the section allocated to women. That was the gist of the matter. In doing so, they shot an arrow right at the heart of orthodoxy. That hurt, and was experienced as an intolerable challenge that must be nipped in the bud. Let me elaborate on this matter.

Among the several names that God has in Hebrew, two are relevant to our story. One is the Shechina, the other is Makom or Hamakom. Shechina means divine presence or dwelling, and is Female. Makom means place, and is male. Jews believe that the spirit of God, the shekhina, resides precisely at the Makom — where the Temple used to be, that is — at the site of the Wall.

Therefore it is not surprising that the first group of women who came to the Wall to practice the three T’s was particularly interested in praying at that very site. This is where they could connect to God directly, and this is where they could connect with the aspects of God, however abstract, that are associated with the female – the shekhina.

And there is more to their choice of the Wall.

As you know, until 1967, the Six Day War, the Wall was under Jordanian control. After the war, the liberated Wall came under Israeli rule; it’s a long story, but ultimately it was placed under an Orthodox administration. An Orthodox synagogue was established there, 2/3 allocated to men and 1/3 to women, and a rabbi was installed to administer the place. The rabbi is a government employee.

Until 1967, and for many centuries, there was no gender segregation at the Wall. The segregation began in 1967 when the Orthodox established a synagogue and erected a high fence to designate a mehiza, segregating men and women.

And here comes the connection to the Jewish diaspora: the State of Israel insists on its right, as a sovereign state, to keep its control of the Wall because of its sacred status in Judaism. Israel does so in the name of the Jewish people. The Wall represents ancient Jewish sovereignty; it represents the beginning of redemption; end of exile. This is a political argument that is rooted in the right of the Jewish people to this place, not merely the right of the State of Israel.

The basis of the claim by the Women of the Wall to pray at the Wall is made of these two arguments, both essential to the glue that connects the diaspora to the State of Israel: the spiritual dimension – the presence of the Shechina in the Makom; and the political dimension – the restoration of the Wall to its rightful Jewish descendants.

The women thought the state would welcome them. After all, Israel has for years declared proudly its commitment to gender equality, in its Declaration of Independence, in its laws, in its Supreme Court jurisprudence.

But the State rejected the right of the women to pray at the Wall.

Thus, the most sacred Makom in Judaism, where the Shekhina lives, does not tolerate the communal prayer of women, will not open its ears to their voice, will not see them honestly and piously wearing a talit.

When the Women of the Wall first appeared at the Wall, behind the mehiza, the regular women worshippers at the Wall were stunned. They never saw or imagined such a thing. Women getting together and praying? Women wrapped in a talit? Women reading from a Torah scroll? Can’t be. To draw an analogy, this spectacle was like the burning bush encountered by Moses in Sinai. Unnatural. There was something very disturbing in its awesomeness.

What would pious women who know their place in society do? They called their fellow men, and soon enough mayhem and pandemonium erupted. The violence was repeated every time the women appeared as a group.

As expected from a country that respects the rule of law, the police were called. But, the police failed to intervene. Rather, the police force stood by the sidelines, watching as the women were beaten, dragged on the ground, cursed, and enveloped by a tsunami of fury.

{Later the police stated that it was the Women of the Wall, not the other worshippers, who should be held responsible for breach of the peace.}

From the orthodox perspective the women presented a most extreme, even extremist claim. Women praying together, wearing a talit, touching the holy Torah – that was a flagrant attack on the ORTHODOX way of life, an affront to everything they were used to. Indeed, they do deserve our empathy.

But, as we reflect upon the matter, let us invoke the person of King George III. Think about the king, getting the message that these Bostonians in the far away colony of America are insisting on the principle of “no taxation without representation.”

Most of us believe that the American claim was just. It was just then, and it is just today. But we can still understand the king’s indignation. Throughout the millennia, kings taxed their subjects. What’s this sudden claim for representation? It’s not hard to understand that he found it offensive.

Just like King George, the orthodox establishment was certain that the action of the women amounted to a violation of law. Divine law. But some questions arise: first of all, are people entitled to change the law? This is the ultimate question of a democratic order. Is the secular State of Israel entitled to determine what kind of a synagogue will be established at the Wall? Any synagogue, even some modern Orthodox ones (known as egalitarian minyans), would have no problem with the women Tefilla groups.

But let us also focus on Jewish law. Does Jewish law unequivocally say what the Orthodox think it says? Must the halacha be interpreted as discriminatory, or is there a way to interpret it as inclusive, respectful of all human beings, men and women?

Is it possible to interpret Jewish law as compatible with democratic traditions rather than as antithetical to them?

The Orthodox did not only want Jewish law to trump secular law, they also insisted on their right to a monopoly over the interpretation of the law. In this, they are not different from King George III. And let me assure you that at the time, and certainly much more today, there is excellent scholarship, even by Orthodox Rabbis, which shows why women Teffila groups are perfectly compatible with Jewish law.

The Rabbi of the Wall understood very well that Jewish law does not prohibit the practice. Therefore, he issued a clever regulation, stating that at the site of the Wall you may only pray in accordance with custom. The custom he was familiar with was the custom that preceded the democratic age and women suffrage. And it dictated that women are forbidden the three T’s.

The women decided to go to court. After all, the Wall belonged to every Jew and Jewess, and both Israeli state law and Jewish law permitted the practice. It was not difficulty to see this as a water-tight case.

The litigation was a very long story, and I shall not dwell on it now. I only address two aspects:

• First, what did the Women of the Wall ask for?

Answer: an hour, every rosh chodesh, at 7:00 a.m., i.e., every beginning of the Jewish month, when all agree women are exempt from worldly duties and are free to do as they please.


In other words, the Women of the Wall understood the magnitude of the difficulty that the Orthodox experienced, and made a very modest demand. This was a gesture of peace, but it was rebuffed.

• Second, did the Court agree that the women have a right to the three T’s?

Yes, even Menachem Elon, the religious justice on the Supreme Court, a man extremely learned in Jewish law and a recognized authority in the matter, agreed that indeed, Jewish law is perfectly hospitable to the three T’s. (He did however, hold that at the Wall, custom should trump law.)

Even so, after a long chain of litigation, in 2003, a 5:4 panel decided that the women could not pray as a group wearing the talit and reading from the Torah. You may not be surprised to hear that everyone in the majority of justices was of the male persuasion.

The Court did emphasize that the women had a right, but their right had to be compromised in order to preserve the status quo, and to prevent offending the feelings of men. The Women of Wall’s right to pray was pushed aside, in deference to Orthodox demands.

This takes us to politics. The Orthodox camp is quite strong in Israel. It holds power over the cabinet, and it holds power over the Knesset. The Orthodox showed how strongly they felt by using unspeakable violence. All the branches of the government agreed that this matter was so important to the orthodox that it should trump rights: equal protection, human dignity, and the free exercise of religion. The principle of tolerance was shoved to the corner.

The Court, however, did insist that the Women of the Wall be offered an alternative, and so it was. A place close to the Wall – but not the Wall itself – was found: the Robinson Arch. It was renovated and reorganized so that prayers could be held there. You should go and visit there; it does not hold a candle to the majesty of the Wall.

By the way, this is also where the Conservative and Reform congregations, who wish to pray as a mixed gender group, can assemble and worship. At the site of the Wall, custom means Orthodox custom, and no challenge is tolerated. On the contrary, under the leadership of the current Rabbi of the Wall, and at taxpayer expense, the segregation between men and women has been intensified, and women are constantly harassed for not being modestly dressed sufficiently behind the mehiza.

We have seen the problem of gender-based bus segregation Anat Zuria’s film, The Black Bus. Let us pause to observe some similarities between the bus segregation case and the case of the Women of the Wall, before we focus on one dissimilarity, and then on the metaphor.

What is similar between the Women of the Wall case and the bus segregation case?

**** In both, women are segregated, confined to the margins (either at the back of the bus or at the Robinson Arch), and told to shut up. Make no mistake; this is not an incident of “separate but equal.”

**** In both cases the organs of the state acted as passive observers.

In the case of the Women of the Wall, as I indicated earlier, the police just stood there, folded their arms, and did nothing as violence erupted.

In the case of the bus the same thing occurred: the drivers, employees of a public bus company, and therefore representatives of the State, did nothing to uphold the principle of equality. Just like the police at the Wall, they expected the women to comply, to obey and to get out of sight. The representatives of the State were not interested in protecting the rights of the women. They saw their task as protecting the feelings and dictates of orthodox men.

****In both cases, there has been a protracted litigation and a string of governmental committees investigating the matter, and an attempt to offer compromises. All the compromises leaned in favor of the Orthodox. Meanwhile, women are harassed and the segregation continues.

Where is the dissimilarity? It lies in the reaction of the Israeli public. In the case of Women of the Wall, the public shrugged and looked the other way.

Those who were willing to give it a thought dismissed it as an intra-religious affair, not worth the energy and indignation of the secular majority. In the case of the

bus segregation we see a strong public reaction. The public, both secular and religious, has organized to protest and uphold the values of equal protection under the law.

There may be a lesson here: because these cases are so politically charged, because the government values the political support of the Orthodox more than it values the dignity of women, it may be better to organize as a social movement rather than go to court.

Of course, human rights should be protected by the courts, but a civic society also has a responsibility to take a stand. The big difference between the Women of the Wall case and the bus case is that in the bus segregation case the public rose to action.

We do not yet know if the segregated buses, which are currently proliferating, will become a fixed attribute of Israeli society, but if they don’t it will not be because of the courts. It will be because the people did not think it was either Israeli or Jewish to segregate in this fashion.

You should ask: why is it that bus segregation ignites rage, whereas tefilla and talit and torah do not?

To understand this you have to understand the place of Jewish religion in the Jewish state.

When you ask a secular Israeli whether they have heard of the Women of the Wall and, if so, what they think of them, in general, and in my experience, you get a baffled look. The Women of the Wall, comes a hesitant answer, “are they not American?”

Or: You mean these “Reform” women?

What you see in these answers is that in the mind of the ordinary Israeli, American and Reform are one of the same, and they are not “us.”

If you probe underneath, you will discover the belief that there is only one way to practice Jewish religion: the Orthodox way. And when I say Orthodox, I don’t even mean modern Orthodox, because it, too, is conceived as an American phenomenon. I mean Orthodox as, more or less, it has been practiced in Eastern Europe in the 19th century.

So Israelis would say, “They, the Americans, are Reform, and therefore insist on the three T’s.” They are different from “us.”

So let us ask: what are they talking about when they say “us”? It is certainly not Orthodox.

Rather, it’s the absence of religious practice. In Israel we have a clear dichotomy, polka dots or stripes, meat or milk: either you are secular, in which case you are oblivious to religious practice, or you are religious, in which case you are Orthodox. (Of course I am generalizing a bit, but I still believe that this is a correct representation.)

Here we finally touch the core of the Women of the Wall as a metaphor. The Women of the Wall represent the intractable problem between Israel and the Diaspora.

The Diaspora comes with a coat of many colors, multiple ways to worship under God. Israelis adhere to one color – black – to designate Orthodox.

Let me dwell on history in order to understand this conflict. There were two big movements in 20th Century American Jewish life: the rise of the Conservative movement as a viable alternative to Orthodoxy, and Jewish feminism.

In the United States, Conservative and Reform Judaism were necessary as a response to the spiritual crisis inflicting the masses of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Many could not, others would not, continue the old shtetl way of worship. They needed something else, and they found it in the Conservative or in the Americanized Reform practice. Professor Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis has written extensively about that.

What happened in Israel? The majority of Jewish immigrants who chose to come to Palestine instead of to the United States, did not need religion to nurture their Jewish identity. They had Zionism. They turned secular, but shaped their secular lifestyle with Zionist themes and culture.

And therefore they were content to leave to the Orthodox minority the monopoly over religion. They did not care about religion, and believed — this was a widespread belief — that religion was withering away.

And so we witness a split between Israel and the Jewish American Diaspora. In Israel you have two ways to express your Jewishness: the secular, Zionist way of life, and the Orthodox way of life. In the United States, the secular is not an option. A Jew shares a secular American identity with the Christian, the Muslim, the Atheist. An American Jew, therefore, needs to decide how to worship.

Take Yom Kippur as an example. Yom Kippur in the United States is a secular day. The stores are open, and so are the schools. The newspapers are published. You need to decide that you want to celebrate Yom Kippur. You have to be proactive. In Israel, the country is shut down. No stores, no schools, no newspapers and television. You don’t need to do anything. Whether you fast or not, whether you do or do not go to schul, you breath and exhale Yom Kippur.

So it is not surprising that Israelis look at the Women of the Wall as something unfamiliar that comes from America.

The other great American Revolution was feminist Judaism. Jewish women wanted to be a part of the Jewish way of life, wanted meaning, and in the 1980s they began to get it. Once the Conservative and Reform accepted gender equality, and women were integrated into the tefilla, Orthodox Jewish women insisted that they, too, may participate in the ritual. This process was very well presented by the scholarship of Brandeis’ Professor Sylvia Fishman.

It is therefore not surprising that the Women of the Wall launched their effort in 1988, in the context of the feminist revolution, and it is not surprising that the Orthodox establishment in Israel flatly rejects them. The Orthodox fear feminism because they don’t pause to understand it. They fear it may bring with it the spirit of the Conservative movement or, God forbid, the Reform. They see in it an affront to the status quo, and therefore something not kosher.

The Women of Wall are more interesting than bus segregation, from a Jewish point of view, because they represent the enlightment, haskala. They represent Western culture, a way of life that bespeaks openness and dynamism, which bespeaks egalitarianism and love of learning. And they show that the two, enlightenment and Jewishness, are compatible.

When the State of Israel, through the Rabbi of the Wall who is a state employee, through its police force, through the judicial branch, sides with the Orthodox, the State thereby rejects the enlightenment and rejects the values of the large majority of American Jewry.

The story of the Women of the Wall is a metaphor, signaling that the religious practices of American Jews are less legitimate. Somehow, American Jews are lesser Jews. This should hurt.

Let me emphasize. It’s not as if Israel does not appreciate American Jews. To the contrary, Israel and Israelis embrace the Diaspora, and cultivate the partnership with the United States in many areas.

But there is a bright line that Americans are invited not to cross: the line of religious self-expression.

It is for this reason that I characterized the act of the Women of the Wall, at the Wall, as an arrow sent right into the heart of Orthodoxy. The Orthodox have enormous difficulty accepting a reinterpretation of Jewish law. They insist that everything should be as it was decades ago, before the feminist movement, and before the universal right to vote.

We should ask ourselves whether this state of affairs is acceptable. American Jews have shown, in volumes of scholarship, in building synagogues and other places of worship, that Jewish law is not written in stone, that it is a living tree, capable of adjustment and change. American Jews have shown that it is not difficult to interpret halacha as compatible with the dignity of women.

This University is named after a glorious American Justice, Louis Brandeis, who was a great American, a great Zionist, and a man who believed in equal protection for women. In one of his memorable judicial opinions, in a case called Whitney v. California, he warned : “Men feared witches and burned women.”

To paraphrase: men fear globalization, fear the internet, fear television, fear their own sexuality – and translate this fear into the belief that women are dangerous. How does one escape all of this and go back to the golden age? Simple. Insist on re-making women. Focus on modesty of dress, of expression, of conduct, and then get them out of sight.

This is what the fear of feminism is about. Fear of the unnatural, which in turn permits segregation, exclusion, oppression of real women.

Today I am a guest of the Hadassa- Brandeis Institute. It was co-established by Hadassah, again, a formidable organization, with a proven record of activism, by women, to benefit both American society and Israeli society. We need this blessed energy to fight the wave of exclusion and face the future with confidence, not fear.

Both Brandeis University and the Haddassah-Brandeis Institute are testimony to the fact that feminism is not a dirty word and not a movement that is antithetical to either halacha or Zionism. Just think of Miriam, Moshe’s sister; of Debora the prophetess; and in America of Henrietta Szold, of Rama LIndheim (two of Hadassah’s founders); in Israel of Manya Shohat (a great pioneer), about whom Professor Shulamit Reinharz has written; about Shulamit Alony; or Golda Meir. All are women that Jews should be very proud of, but that some (by no means all) Orthodox men may feel free to spit upon or insult with impunity.

The current wave of segregation in Israel is meant to banish us from the public sphere, to send us back to the kitchens. Our answer should be:

Yah, nothing wrong with the kitchen. Some of us love it. I certainly do. But we want more and we are entitled to more. Progress, dignity, tolerance — and Judaism — are not like oil and water. Rather, they are like milk and honey – mixing beautifully and harmoniously.

One final point: a segregated Israel, where women are banished from the public sphere, is fundamentally at odds with American culture, American values, and what American Jews, men and women, stand for. A segregated Israel will knock down a most valuable bridge between Israel and the diaspora, and this should give us pause.

Equality and inclusion are sublime values. Like men, women are made in the image of God, and are entitled to come under the Succah of humanity. Let us not be afraid to insist on this simple truth.





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