Are Women of the Wall Pathbreakers — or Provocateurs?

The Great Debates of 2013

Upsetting the Status Quo? Women of the Wall have been active for 25 years. But 2013 is the year their struggle took the world stage.
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Upsetting the Status Quo? Women of the Wall have been active for 25 years. But 2013 is the year their struggle took the world stage.

By Dahlia Lithwick and Susan Silverman and Hillel Halkin

Published December 30, 2013, issue of December 27, 2013.
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For 25 years, the Women of the Wall have met for prayer services at the Kotel at the beginning of each Jewish month. But until a Jerusalem court’s ruling this past April, women in the group who donned prayer shawls or sang too loudly would often be detained by police. Now the police are protecting the women’s new rights, and compromise plans to accommodate their demand for equality are in the works. But there has also been a backlash. Leading rabbis denounced the group in the harshest terms and called for protests, with some turning violent. And even non-religious Israelis fear that the women might be going too far in upsetting the status quo.

Hillel Halkin:

The Women of the Wall, as they’re called, are childish provocateurs. They have all of Israel in which to pray with tefillin and tallitot. Doing it demonstratively at a site that is and always has been heavily frequented by observant Jews who find the spectacle of women in traditionally male ritual garb repugnant has nothing to do with religious freedom. It has nothing to do with any sane kind of feminism. It has nothing to do with rational political protest. It has to do only with the narcissism of thinking that one’s rights matter more than anyone else’s feelings or the public interest.

This is a narcissism that’s typical of our me-first age. An Orthodox Jew is hurt by how I behave in his presence? That’s his problem. (If he were black, gay or transsexual, of course, it would be very much my problem — but that’s another story.) Large numbers of Jews coming to pray at the Wall have their experience spoiled by me? That’s their problem. I’m besmirching an Israeli government that’s simply trying to keep the peace by portraying it throughout the world as reactionary and misogynist? That’s its problem. I have my rights!

—“A Needless Provocation,” June 28

Dahlia Lithwick and Susan Silverman:

One of the arguments against us goes something like this: Since our prayer is more upsetting and horrifying to the Haredim, the right and decorous thing to do is to honor them with our capitulation. But the whole enterprise of speculating about each side’s relative sensitivity is like speculating about relative purity of body or religious conviction. It is an argument that merely repurposes all the old stereotypes: that women seeking to pray as they choose in the women’s section of the Kotel are less passionate, less sensitive or less heartfelt than other Jews. These are efforts to delegitimize and stigmatize the opponent, in lieu of entering into a meaningful debate about ideas. It’s an age-old — dare we say “political” — tactic. It’s also cheap. Take us on our own terms, accept that we are as worthy of our views as you are. That would require seeing us as equally human, which might also end the chair throwing. But it is the only, and happily the most Jewish, path to resolution.

—“The Kotel Is for Us, Too,” June 14


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