Les femmes du mur

30/10/2014 16:36

The struggle between women who want to fulfill mitzvot at the Western Wall and the rabbi of the Western Wall who wants to prevent them from doing so has now reached the point when tragedy turns into farce.

Previously we have witnessed women being stopped by police and arrested for wearing talitot or for letting their voices be heard in prayer and now – the latest event – last week they were prevented from carrying a Torah scroll into the site, but then managed to smuggle in a very small one so that a young girl could read from it for her bat mitzvah. The reason they had to bring in their own Torah scroll – although there are hundreds at the Wall – is that the regulations of the rabbi do not permit these scrolls to be used by women, only by men. So – “catch 22” – no scrolls can be brought in because there are scrolls there, but women cannot use them and are still prohibited from bringing in their own.

The statement made by the rabbi of the Wall speaks for itself. He said, “A small group of Women of the Wall carried out a deception this morning: after they were prevented from entering with a large Torah scroll, they cunningly took a small Torah [scroll] into the women’s section.”

Imagine that. Leave it to women to be cunning and to carry out deceptions like that. Imagine sneaking around with a little Torah scroll so that the guardians of the Wall won’t see it. For this we have struggled to create a Jewish state! The reading and study of the Torah is a central facet of Jewish life for which Jews have suffered and died. As I recall, in the 2nd century it was the Romans who forbade the public teaching of the Torah, and some of our greatest sages, Rabbi Akiva among them, were willing to give up their lives to keep Torah alive, and indeed did so. And now the official representatives of the State of Israel, the Jewish state, are preventing women from reading the Torah in a totally feminine environment. Who would believe it.

Surely Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz is familiar with Jewish law. He must have studied the teaching of the Tannaim in Tosefta Megilla 3:11 that, “Everyone goes up to read among the seven who read from the Torah, even a woman, even a minor.” In those days each person read their own portion, not merely reciting a blessing. Later sages modified this, saying, “A woman may not read from the Torah because of the honor of the congregation” (Bavli Megilah 23a), or that a woman should not be brought to read for the public (Tosefta there). There is no question but that the congregation that smuggled in this Torah did not feel that there was any problem of honor involved, nor were these women reading for the men.

There are myriads of women’s minyanim in Israel and throughout the world – Orthodox minyanim – where women read from the Torah and this brings only honor to the congregation. One must ask, if the Western Wall is to be given into the authority of the Orthodox, could it not be given to a Orthodox rabbi who is moderate and modern and who would uphold Jewish law rather than enforcing antiquated strictures that are unnecessarily harsh and demeaning? It is all very well for the government to provide another section of the Wall at Robinson’s Arch where non-Orthodox groups can hold mixed minyanim for men and women, a place that is not under the control of the rabbi of the Wall. The current efforts of Natan Sharansky to enhance that place and widen the scope of its use is to be commended, but that is not a substitute for permitting women to use the women’s section of the Wall in ways that do not contradict Orthodox Jewish law. Surely they can wear tallitot or even tefillin there; they can raise their voices in song and they can read from a Torah and should not have to smuggle it in.

The farce has gone on long enough. It is time to finish the comedy and restore respect for the Western Wall, honor for women who wish to observe mitzvot and glory for the Torah and those who wish to read and study it openly.

The author, a past president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award.
His forthcoming book is Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy (Jewish Publication Society).