Monday, 13 September 2010

"Let women sing at Wailing Wall"

First, take a look at this article from the New York Daily News:

Now, of course, one would say that it is obvious that I, as an Orthodox rabbi, would have difficulties with this article -- yet, doesn't it just express the basic sentiment of freedom of (and from) religion, just as the author herself concludes this article? But maybe it is time to read between the lines -- and recognize that there is much more going on in this article than just a simple battle across religious lines. The article reflects an obscurantism that is rampant in the Jewish world -- an obscurantism that is even promoted in the Jewish world -- in order to maintain the status quo: a Jewish world that makes no sense but is maintained because it allows people to promote whatever they want as Jewishness.

What exactly was this woman's argument? Was it that the Kotel is also a secular/historical site and that, as such, it should not be solely defined as a religious site, thus being subject to religious restrictions? Or was it that, in recognition that Judaism has many different branches, each one seeing the Kotel as their holiest site, all the branches of Judaism should have equal determination as to the religious practice at the Kotel (l'havdel, to be approached in the same manner as the Ma'arat Hamachpeila which had to accommodate different religious practices)? This woman included both questions and neither question in her article. The reason is that either question would actually challenge her perception of Jewishness. If she argues from the viewpoint of different religious perspectives, she would have to deal with the reality of theological distinctions within the generic perception of Judaism; her and the charedim at the Wall are thus not just in disagreement on some practice or ritual but in regard to the basic tenets of the faith. She doesn't want to go there. When she argues from the secular perspective, though, eventually her own religious desires become challenged; she, in the end, effectively wants to pray there. Thus put together an article that ultimately makes no sense -- I want the Wall to be seen as secular so I can use it religiously as I see fit. Welcome to the Kotel -- the holiest, adamantly secular site in the Jewish world.

Yet what about the two possible arguments that I have presented. If the Kotel is the holy site of different religions (Orthodox Judaism, Reform Judaism etc.), in line with Western thought, shouldn't it be divided amongst the religions? And if it also has secular/historical significance, shouldn't it have a secular place as well? There is one statement within this article that actually answers both these questions -- albeit that the author did not really mean it this way. She wrote:
"However, it is the ultra-Orthodox and Haredi Jews who have turned this ancient attraction into their home." Yes, they have -- because it is their home. The Kotel is not an ancient attraction to them. It is part of their daily life. For many, it is the place they attend, at least twice a day, to daven. It is their life. And that is not something new; this is the way it was until Jordan did not allow access for 19 years.

What, as she terms them, the charedim are doing is simply what has happened at the Kotel for close to 2000 years. But let's stop all that -- because some tourist wants a better photo opportunity. (Okay, that may be a low blow). The fact is that the Kotel is more than a historical relic; it is history itself. It should be respected on this level as well.

Rabbi Ben Hecht


dave willig said...

What she is saying is that she is a human being, entitled to all the rights and privileges thereof. IOW she is not going to sit in the back of the bus. I do not blame her.

Anonymous said...

All pictures of the kotel before 1967 show both men and women daavening together without a mechitza. Were their prayers not valid? Were they no less frum than those who daaven there today?

And why do you say different "religions?" We have various "movements" or "streams" or even "denominations," but different "religions" is a little bizarre.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...


If her articulated argument was simply one based upon Western rights (such as freedom of relgion), I could see your point. I may not necessarily agree with it but it would be a real issue, reflecting a greater issue tied to this conflict of value structures. This conflict, actually, is one that demands more investigation on both a theoretical as well as a practical level. Practically, it is at the essence of many of the issues in domestic Israel policy -- although never articulated as such. My point, though, is that she doesn't simply state or present this argument. She skips around it -- exactly because it is a complex issue that forces us to look at our specific Jewish particularism. Western rights are built upon a universalist vision of humanity. A Jewish state is built upon Jewish particularism. There is an inherent contradiction to these two systems -- yet no one wants to face this head on. Thus you have articles such as this one that just skip around the issue.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...


Part of the issue may revolve our definition of the word "religion." I simply used this term in this situation to emphasize the theological distinctions between the variant branches of broader Judaism. In response, I believe that the reason that the general Jewish community wishes to avoid this word -- even more so, wishes to use the word "branches" instead of the word "denominations" -- to hide these distinctions. Make no mistake, there are large theological distinctions between variant forms of Judaism that we choose to ignore under some spell that thereby, in the name of Jewish unity, we can avoid these theological issues. This is one of those issues.

As to the question of the pre-1967 pictures, indeed the realm of the Kotel was vastly different before the State was founded and afterwards. (By pre-1967, I am assuming you mean, by extension, pre-1948, as Jews, between 1948 and 1967, could not go near the Kotel.) My point was that, in whatever fashion, it was over the centuries a holy place essentially serving Orthodox Judaism. The fact that men and women prayed 'together' there reflected the reality that it was a place of private prayer that changed with the Kotel being under Jewish rule. It was not a reflection of the pluralism or secularism that seems to be expressed in this article.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Garnel Ironheart said...

I have no trouble with WoW singing at the wall, as long as they're lip syncing a male singer.

I think what needs to be mentioned is an essential difference between Torah Judaism and the other lite formats. In Torah Judaism there are restrictions in ritual. It doesn't matter if I understand or feel comfortable with a particular ritual. There are limitations and they must be obeyed.
In Reformativism, there is not such thing as a restriction in ritual. Let's be blunt - everything is negotiable. There are no hard and fast rules because the golden rule: "God approves of anything that I approve of" overrides them.
As a result, while Orthodox folks cannot pray in mixed company, there is no rule in Reformativism that says that they cannot pray with separate seating. Orthodox man cannot listen to women singing. Reformatives don't HAVE to listen to them singing.
Therefore the WoW, by insisting on their "religious rights" actually go on and deprive me of mine while I'm at the Wall. For the sake of a cheap religious thrill and the not so subtle "stick it to the Orthodox" motivation, I have to forgo a meaningful religious experience of my own.
It's that selfishness in the name of liberalism that I find so odious.