A former Chief Sephardic Rabbi and current spiritual leader of Israel’s Shas religious political party, Rav Ovadia Yosef, in his weekly sermon last Saturday night called women who wear prayer shawls to daven at the Western Wall “stupid” and “deviants.”
He was speaking of Women of the Wall, a group of devoted and, dare I say it, devout Jewish women who believe that women may read from a Sefer Torah. Some of these women also wear a yarmulke and tallit, or prayer shawl.
This article from the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot says that Rav Yosef was speaking of the laws regarding saying Kiddush on Shabbat when he said:
…Women are obligated to perform Kiddush and can fulfill their obligation either by hearing a man perform the blessing or by reciting it themselves.
He went on to say:
“Tefillin (phylacteries) she must be careful not to lay. There are stupid women who come to the Western Wall, put on a tallit (prayer shawl), and pray.”“These are deviants who serve equality, not Heaven. They must be condemned and warned of.”
Rav Yosef is widely regarded as being one of the greatest rabbinic sages of this generation, making his strong language even sadder and more regrettable.
The stalwart souls who are part of Women of the Wall began their effort to find space – almost any space – at the Kotel 21 years ago. The Kotel is that last vestige of the walls which once surrounded the holy Temple, those sacred remnants which remain so evocative, so moving, so holy to each and every Jew who visits them.
Unfortunately, the Kotel has become in fact if not in law an ultra-Orthodox-run synagogue where women must stand on chairs if they are to be able to get a glimpse over the high mechitzah at the bar mitzvahs of their sons, nephews, grandsons happening in the larger men’s section. It is a haredi synagogue run, on the ladies’ side, by a fearsome gaggle of women who insist on covering you with a shmata if they deem your sleeves insufficiently long, and then demandingly beg money from you for the privilege of being forced to wear their shmata.
For women, there is only one way to pray at the Kotel; individually and inaudibly.
It has been Rabbi Yosef’s party, Shas, which has for years pushed to have the government classify the Kotel as an Orthodox synagogue rather than a national historic site.
At the Kotel today no woman dares wear a tallit or yarmulke – even if this is her normal practice – for fear of the reaction that would likely ensue.
The Women of the Wall have been physically attacked for simply trying to hold a quiet small-group service on the women’s side with a Torah scroll. In fact, as I understand it, for reasons of safety they now go elsewhere to read the Torah.
You can read more of their history here.
I am sad to say that the Kotel no longer feels like a place for all Jews. It feels like a place only for the Orthodox.
My first visit there, when I was 18 and living on kibbutz for the year, was a deeply powerful experience. Though it didn’t prompt a particular sense of connection with the Creator, I was awed by what the enormous stones rising above me represented, overwhelmed by what had befallen the Jewish people on this spot and that it was again our own. And I felt connected with every other Jew there.
Just over a year ago, we joined friends at the Kotel as they celebrated their son’s bar mitzvah and it was, most unfortunately, a very different experience.
On Torah-reading mornings the Kotel is now a bar mitzvah factory. It is crowded and chaotic, with people paying off rabbis to “reserve” one of the best spots early in the morning. Families jockey for position on both sides of the mechitzah, the women needing to balance on chairs to witness their sons’ rite of passage.
I was literally pushed off a chair by French women who couldn’t wait for our friend’s ritual to end for me to move out of the spot they wanted. Resigned, I went to wait for the end of our friend’s bar mitzvah in an empty chair in the tiny sliver of shade on the other side of the women’s section when an older woman put her shmata on me and “requested” payment.
I could not wait to get out of there and, even more sadly, have no desire to return.
Personally I’d like to see the Kotel have three sections, each separated by a mechitzah; one for men, one for women, and one as a place where women and men can daven together with the rest of their families and communities. Only Orthodox hegemony, that sense of superiority which led to the recent words of Rabbi Yosef, is what stands in the way of the Kotel being a place where all Jews can find room – physically and spiritually – to pray.
I pray that the time comes when I again feel that there is space for me to pray at the Kotel.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen is an award-winning journalist who covers philanthropy, religion, gender and other contemporary issues. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and New York magazine, among many other publications. She authored the book “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant.”
Orthodox Sage to Women in Tallitot at Kotel: You Are Deviant and Stupid