Women of the Wall and my place in Judaism

Here’s an article from when Lesley Sachs was arrested. If you ignore “this morning”, it’s still totally relevant. In case it’s not obvious, I wrote it myself. I considered editing it to remove mention of my Shul’s vice chair (anonymity!), but I don’t think that’ll be necessary. Feedback is greatly appreciated, even if you disagree (though I’m not into debating)!

WOMEN OF THE WALL AND MY PLACE IN JUDAISM

This morning, the feminist prayer group, Women of the Wall, hit the headlines again following a commotion involving Lesley Sachs, the group’s executive director. Ms. Sachs was detained after she brought a Torah scroll to the women’s section of the Kotel (Western Wall) and read from it, breaking regulations which govern public behaviour at the site. This unfortunate incident is one of many involving Women of the Wall, who claim that their aim is to enable women to pray freely at the Kotel, in a manner which involves singing, reading from the Torah, and wearing garments such as tefillin which are traditionally worn by men. This sounds fairly simple and unobtrusive. But is this really all there is to the Women of the Wall? Do their intentions stop at female-led Torah readings, and permission to don a prayer shawl? Or is their goal a broader one; one which involves re-shaping Judaism, and throwing aside traditions favoured by the Jewish people for thousands of years?

Let me start by making something clear. Women can wear prayer shawls and Tefillin at the Kotel. This isn’t my way of saying they should do so; or even that they should be allowed to do so. But the fact is, they do- and the authorities turn a blind eye. A woman attempting to pray at the Kotel wearing these garments intended for men is, in all likelihood, not going to run into any trouble. She might even sing- disturbing her male counterparts in prayer, and breaking the laws of kol isha- and it’s not likely that anyone will do anything. When you bring in Torah readings, things get a little more complicated, but despite what the Women of the Wall might insist, they’re pretty much free to wear what they want without any intrusion from a governing body.

In Judaism, there’s a concept called “tznius”- modesty. Being tzenua (modest) is important for a number of reasons, and tznius isn’t just about covering up by wearing modest clothing. Rather, a large part of tznius is about not drawing undue attention. This isn’t to say that women are expected to dress in all-black, and refrain from speaking in public (though perhaps some circles might appreciate such conduct). But intentionally disrupting prayer at a holy site, wearing garments intended for men to express how “liberated” you are, and singing loudly just to make a point? That’s not tzenua. That’s drawing attention to a political cause, and allowing your political ambitions to get in the way of your- and other people’s!- religion. It would be alot easier to understand the Women of the Wall if we accepted what they truly were- a political group. Not a prayer group. Not a religious group. But a political group. And haven’t we Jews, as a whole, had enough of political groups preventing us from practicing our traditions?

I’m not saying that these women should keep quiet if they feel that they’re being treated unfairly. But I am saying that breaking norms, causing an uproar and trying to ruin the atmosphere at a very holy site is the antithesis of Jewish womanhood. Jewish womanhood is about binah- understanding. It’s about wisdom. It’s about being an extremely spiritual, delicate and yet resilient person, and the mainstay of the Jewish household. The job of a Jewish woman is not an easy one. It takes the utmost strength, courage, and understanding to balance all your duties and ambitions. How could any woman possibly feel sidelined when she’s been entrusted by Hashem with such an important role? How could a Jewish woman feel so degraded by this extremely high position, that she feels the need to imitate Jewish men’s garments, and cause a commotion in a public place (let alone a holy one)?

I ask these women to get in touch with their feminine side. That’s right, I’m asking the members of an organisation with “women” in the title to be more feminine. Because I think they’re totally missing the point of being a Jewish woman. Somewhere along the line they’ve misunderstood. They’ve gone down the wrong path, and found themselves believing that Orthodox, or perhaps I should say traditional, Jewish women live their lives confined to the kitchen, and that they may only concern themselves with cooking, childcare and household matters. Simply put, they couldn’t be more wrong. I’m going to skip past the obvious, tried and tested example of the Matriarchs. This doesn’t seem to have satisfied the increasingly vocal “prayer group”- being like the four women who Judaism is based upon is just not enough for them!

Instead, I’m going to look back through my own life, at the women who have inspired me. I can’t fail to mention the Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka OBM (the wife of the Seventh Chabad Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson OBM). The Rebbetzin is a woman who famously remarked that all the Chassidim are her children, and who, in the 87 years of her life, never once failed to reflect this in her actions. The Rebbe OBM remarked that “only Hashem knows [the extent of her greatness]”. Surely a woman deserving of such praise is a worthy role model for Jewish girls and women? Tznius was her very essence. She never once acted or dressed inappropriately, let alone to prove a point! And her wisdom was undeniably much greater than that of the Women of the Wall activists, who seemingly struggle to come to terms with the fact they’re women.

My background is decidedly secular, and I spent some time in the liberal Jewish community before I began to explore Orthodoxy. There, I met many women who were similar in their outlook to the Women of the Wall. I even had a female rabbi, who I shall not name, because in all honesty, she did not inspire me in any way. Her conduct was not that of a bas Melech (daughter of the King), and indeed she seemed prone to many character flaws which I would rather not see in a Jewish leader (I’m not saying that I am flawless, but Judaism has always held its leaders to a higher standard than laymen). I won’t dwell on her much longer, but I must say my biggest issue with her was how she constantly criticised the position of women in traditional Judaism, and I am shocked that in her time as a rabbi, she didn’t once realise just how beautiful the role of a Jewish woman is! Most of the liberal women I met were similar in their behaviour, and I wish I could help them realise what traditional Judaism could give them.

As a liberal Jewish woman, my outlook was just like theirs. I felt stifled and constrained, and among liberal Jews I felt that I constantly had to prove myself- prove that I was liberated, and forwards-thinking. I even wore a gaudy women’s kippa, not just in the Synagogue, but when I went to other places, as well! Looking back on this, I feel amused, but also slightly regretful. I feel regretful that a joined in, wordlessly, so wanting to be like the others that when I felt that we were breaking Halacha (clue: we were), I didn’t say anything, for fear of being labelled “backwards” or “old-fashioned”. What sort of environment is this for our daughters to grow up in? We speak of the dangers of peer pressure and bullying, but what about girls in the synagogue who don’t want to don a tallis and leyn to celebrate becoming Bat Mitzvah? The Women of the Wall and their counterparts speak about freedom an awful lot, but in all honesty, I never felt free among liberal Jews.

Believe it or not, Orthodoxy has not only made me feel more feminine, but I’ve felt my horizons broaden. I do genuinely feel like I have more choice, and more freedom, than I did as a liberal Jew! And to return to my original topic, I’ve met some wonderful and very inspiring women, who have shown me just how much a Jewish woman can achieve. The vice-chair of the Synagogue I used to attend is not only an amazingly intelligent and successful barrister, but also a devoted mother of three, and of course she plays a central role in the running of the Synagogue. In what way is this inferior to the lives of her male counterparts? An Orthodox Jewish woman, like her, not only has many oppurtunities to succeed, but also to show her strength and resilience. I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting various Rebbetzins (Rabbi’s wives) who have managed to combine large families, supporting their husbands’ crucial roles, and serving the Jewish community with tact and dignity. Some (not all) of these women worked in kiruv (outreach), and I can say that their efforts in introducing other Jewish women to beautiful traditions were tremendous.

The message I am attempting to convey can be summarised (in part) by a comment I read on an article about the Women of the Wall wearing tefillin. “[As a woman] it is like wearing a hearing aid when you don’t need one!”. I couldn’t have put it better myself. And in a way, I do feel that tefillin are hearing aids. They help men hear Hashem, and feel His presence when they pray. I’ve got perfectly good hearing (B”H!), and as such I don’t wear a hearing aid. So why would I feel that I should wear a spiritual hearing aid, when, as a woman, there’s clearly no need for one? Women aren’t denied aliyahs (the act of being called to Torah) to degrade them; it’s because an aliyah provides spiritual elevation, which men need, but women don’t. Isn’t that a compliment? Surely it’s something worthy of celebration, not needing any further spiritual elevation? I certainly feel it is!

It’s the same with tefillin. I’m a woman, so I don’t need them. Nor do I need to wear a tallis when I pray, nor a kippa. And I certainly have no desire to conduct a loud and intrusive public prayer service! I understand that other women don’t feel this way. That’s why I don’t claim to speak for them. But I do feel that, deep down, every Jewish woman has a part of her that agrees with what I’m saying. And if these so-called “Jewish feminists” who make up the Women of the Wall looked within, then they might find something truly special, and something worth holding onto; Jewish femininity…

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