Trojan Horse at the Western Wall


By R’ Avi Shafran, Tammuz 5760

[Web Page Last Revised: Friday, April 28, 2006 01:20 PM ]


Some in the Orthodox community, while fully alert to the dire threat to Jewish souls and Jewish unity posed by the import of American-style "Jewish religious pluralism" to Israel, nevertheless regard the "Women of the Wall" controversy as much ado about very little.

"Women of the Wall", for those who have been blessedly occupied with more pressing matters over past weeks, is an organization that sued the Israeli government for the right to hold monthly group prayer services in the Kosel Ma’aravi plaza, with its members wearing taleisos and a "chazzanit" singing and chanting from a Sefer Torah. At the end of May, Israel’s High Court decided that the group’s request was, as required by law, fully in accordance with "local custom", and ordered the government to accommodate the women within six months.

Those who regard that development as benign note that the "Women of the Wall" do not seek to hold mixed-gender services or to abolish the mechitzah at the Kosel; that women wearing taleisos, especially the clearly feminine ones favored by the "Women of the Wall", is not clearly prohibited by halacha; and that even the group’s members who don tefillin can point to precedents for their practice in Jewish history. Moreover, and perhaps most compelling of all, while many of the "Women of the Wall" are non-Orthodox clergy and even avowed secularists (including a representative of the Meretz party), some of the group’s members identify themselves as believing, committed Orthodox Jews, women seeking not to provoke or protest, but simply to pray, in a place adjacent to the holiest spot in the universe.

There is not, they assert, a quest to erode Jewish religious integrity in Israel or to promote the non-Orthodox movements' agendas there. It is rather, they contend, a straightforward and heartfelt expression of women’s legitimate desire to interact, in an albeit new but sincere way, with the Divine.

Many of us in the Orthodox community tend to demonstrate an almost knee-jerk reaction to all such claims. It does not, however, behoove us to automatically dismiss as insincere any Jew who embraces an innovative practice, legitimate or not. Yearning for kirvas Elokim can take a heartfelt Jew on a number of different paths. When they are misguided ones, we have a responsibility to point the fact out, but we have no right to assume insincerity.

Here, though, sadly, an inspection of the words of the "Women of the Wall" spokesmen and supporters, however, does seem to reveal an interest in things other than avodas Hashem.

The first clue that the members of "Women of the Wall" are not drunk with love for G~d is the group’s unbridled embrace of misleading and divisive tactics. Its "Statement of Purpose" characterizes the effort to prevent its services as a violation of "Israeli law guaranteeing free access to the holy places" – as if anyone were actually seeking to prevent women from praying at the Kosel. In a similar venal vein, two leaders of the group characterize their quest as a challenge to "the traditional perception that women are unfit to stand on sacred ground," as if Jewish tradition promotes some such perception.

One of the group’s members, moreover, Barbara Sofer, has asserted that "if a woman Torah scholar reaches for the leather straps [of a pair of tefillin] like the Hassidic Maiden of Ludomir, she’s more likely to get tear-gas from the riot patrol", an image as insolent as it is incendiary.

Similarly outrageous and telling are comparisons like that of one of the group’s United States supporters, Marlene Adler Marks, a senior columnist for the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, who invoked "Governor George Wallace blocking the schoolhouse doors" as "the equivalent of Israel’s religious intransigents" who seek to preserve Jewish tradition at the Kosel.

Where sheker, falsehood, is rampant, it is reasonable to suspect that love of G~d does not abound.

The air of belligerence, too, that permeates the group’s directives to its followers bespeaks something considerably less rarified than spiritual yearning. "Remember why you are doing this," writes Jesse Bonn, an Israeli member of the group offering "inspirational words" – "[because] Jewish women's voices, whether in polemics or prayer, will not be silenced..."

Even the language employed by the group’s spokesman is the language of war: "The struggle still lies before us... Armed with this legal declaration of our rights, we will be able to continue the fight..." [emphases added], write Danielle Bernstein, a self-described Orthodox Jew, and Phyllis Chesler, a director of the women’s group’s board of directors.

Clearly, something other than ahavas Hashem is operative here. What exactly it is becomes more obvious with a bit more reading.

Shortly before Shevuos, Ms. Sofer wrote an article for the Jerusalem Post in which she advised Jewish men: "Listen up, fellas – we women were [at kabbolas hatorah] too. And we weren’t just dishing up blintzes and cheesecake." No one, of course, disputes that Klal Yisroel was and is comprised of both men and women, but Ms. Sofer’s words seem to be carrying some other… baggage.

She goes on to berate both "the leering, catcalling men" who oppose her group and the "exhibitionist haredi women" at the Kosel who dare to be offended by the invasion of the area by a loud and pointedly non-traditional group. Her considerable ire still unsatisfied, though, Ms. Sofer then advises male worshippers to move to "a distant corner of the Wall plaza... the way women have always done when they didn’t want men's sometimes atonal singing or lecherous gaze to disturb their personal meditation".

"Lecherous"? "Leering"? "Exhibitionist"? What you smell, of course, is the unmistakable odor of standard-issue militant feminism. And if you think your nose might be fooling you, consider the words of Mss. Bernstein and Chesler: "The way our group has been publicly treated is the way that women, one by one, have been treated behind closed doors." While there is much truth to the contention that women have been mistreated, and continue to be, in society at large, is that "Women of the Wall"'s issue, or is avodah she’bilev?

The two immediately aforementioned "Women of the Wall" tip their hand not only regarding their feminist motivation but regarding their championship of Jewish religious pluralism too, pointing to inclusion of both Orthodox and non-Orthodox women as "proof that denominational differences can be cast aside. We speak in one breath of faith in G~d, in love of G~d, and in pluralism before G~d."

In that they are seconded by Ms. Marks, who cuts right through all the "girls just wanna have prayer" obfuscation and warns, revealingly: "if the religious right cannot tolerate this group, it will not tolerate any kind of elastic interpretation of pluralism at the Wall or elsewhere in Israel."

And, just in case you miss her point, she goes on to declare: "As has been clear all along, the rights of Orthodox women in Israel have an impact on all expressions of pluralism throughout the Diaspora. These women are our stand-ins."


Many non-Orthodox American Jews regard Jewish religious pluralism as a blessing they seek to share with Israelis, and are not offended in the least at the thought that the "Women of the Wall" might be advance troops for Conservative and Reform and Reconstructionist services at the Kosel (or even, for that matter, for "Messianic" services, as one spokesperson for the group actually intimated).

Those of us, though, who see the issue in a different light, need to see the "Women of the Wall" for what it is as well. Not a mere bête noir but a veritable TrojanHorse, braying words of worship, and stuffed solid with the "gift" of Jewish religious pluralism, packed with the seeds of manifold standards for things like marriage and conversion and, Rachmona litzlan, a multiplicity of "Jewish peoples" in the Jewish State.

There may indeed be sincere women among the "Women of the Wall", Jews who only wish to serve Hashem. If there are, though, it’s time they faced the fact that they are being cynically exploited by others with a very different agenda.

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