Woman vs. Women of the Wall

Is the self-appointed leader of the anti-Women of the Wall movement, Ronit Peskin, the right person to represent those who oppose the group, or do they deserve better?

Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer
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Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer

Let’s get one thing straight. There are many women in Israel who do not personally identify with the Women of the Wall. Frankly, the vast majority of Israeli women have little interest in joining a women’s prayer group and praying at the Wall, and even fewer have a desire to don a tallit and tefillin. They are either too traditional or too secular to want to join in their activities, and while they follow the ongoing controversy in the news, few feel it affects their everyday lives.

Among that population, there are those who, like me, still strongly support the right of female worshippers to wear the prayer garments of their choice, pray as they choose, and support their goal of fighting for a better space for women’s groups and mixed-gender groups to pray as they wish, and consider the current Robinson’s Arch arrangement unsatisfactory.

But I know there are also women, particularly Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox women, who truly and sincerely want the Western Wall to be a space operated strictly by mainstream Orthodox - if not Haredi - rules, including regulations on how women pray and what they wear there. Those women believe that the Women of the Wall’s monthly services disturb women who worship there on a regular basis, and should therefore not be permitted.

While I might strongly disagree with these women - 38 percent of the female population, if you believe this poll - they do deserve a voice.

Until recently, however there was no such voice. Nearly all of those who were publicly critical of Women of the Wall were male - which made it easy to argue that if they simply kept to the men’s section of the Wall, there wouldn’t be any reason for them to complain about the WOW’s activities.

Then, about a month ago, apparently out of the blue, a new group appeared: "Women for the Wall", which was created by feisty, young, self-styled “founder and director”, American immigrant Ronit Peskin.

The group popped up on Facebook on April 15, 2013, debuted a sophisticated website shortly afterward, and Peskin began, every few days, publishing anti-Women of the Wall blog posts in the Times of Israel, describing herself as having “made it her goal to increase Torah and increase love between Jews in Israel and around the world.” It wasn’t clear precisely whom Peskin was representing or speaking for besides herself and her handful of friends who created the group, but Women of the Wall has never exactly been a mass movement either.

As a result of having filled this empty niche, Peskin was profiled by several Jewish outlets and her perspective was included in coverage of the Western Wall events on May 10. She and her organization took credit for having come up with the idea of convincing influential rabbis - “gedolim” - for busing hundreds of young seminary girls to the Western Wall ten days ago in order to "crowd out" the Women of the Wall.

Some cast doubt on that claim. I spoke with a source close to the Haredi community who knows Peskin personally. The source, who requested to remain anonymous, said the Haredi press was reporting that the school administrators were waiting for the final go-ahead from rabbis to send the girls to a counter-protest even before Peskin spoke of it.

“All in all, the idea that Ronit successfully lobbied the Gedolim for support seems tenuous at best, and it is a claim that is not supported by documented facts. Even closely examining her claimed endorsements. You have several supposed verbal endorsements, a letter from Rav Amar (which honestly doesn't mention W4W), and to what he seems to have a very different idea of its aims (such as praying for the soldiers of the IDF) than Ronit is publicly touting. She also has a Paskhveil (again which does not mention her, her organization or her Rabbinic overseer) that she claims as an endorsement,” he said via email.

Others, however, give them full credit. This past Friday, Jonathan Rosenblum sang her praises in a piece called "The Feminist Story the Media Missed at the Kotel", writing that without Women for the Wall, “there would have been no organized women’s prayer gathering last Friday morning” describing their activity to bring women to the Wall and accused the media of exaggerating the violent activity of the male Haredi protester while ignoring the “special purity” he found in the Haredi and national religious women’s mass prayer, which he said “brought tears to my admittedly biased eyes.”

He described Peskin and Women for the Wall co-founder Leah Aharoni as friends from the settlement of Kochav Ya’acov, saying that neither is "mainstream haredi" and that:

Peskin, 25, home-schools her three young children, teaches women how to forage for edible food growing wild, and runs a website called Penniless Parenting, on how to keep down the family food budget, which receives 60,000 to 70,000 hits worldwide a month. In response to the boast of WoW founder Susan Aranoff that WoW seeks to liberate haredi women so that they can 'function religiously… without the help of men,' Peskin describes her religious journey from her modern Orthodox upbringing in Cleveland to 'quasi-haredi,' including a rebellious teenage period of no observance in between. Her religious search forced her to become financially independent at 17. Of her current life, she writes, 'It was a path I chose, and fought lots of obstacles to get there. I don’t live this way because I haven’t witnessed alternatives. I’ve witnessed them and rejected them, and made the choice to live as I do because I find it the most meaningful type of life for me.'”

Rosenblum, it appears, may not simply be an observer, but played a part in organizing Women for the Wall. According to another source, Peskin told friends back in April, as she was forming the group, that four rabbis “from the U.S.” were "advising" her as she was doing so, including Rosenblum. Yet when representatives of Women of the Wall or journalists have doubted whether she and Aharoni were indeed the driving forces behind last Friday’s turnout, Peskin has called them “misogynist,” a term the group’s co-founder Aharoni is also fond of using.

Disagree as I may with Peskin, I might have respected her for her sheer chutzpah after reading the Rosenblum piece had it not appeared on the very same day she published a stunning fire-and-brimstone tract in the Times of Israel titled “Why I Care About How People Pray at the Kotel” that could make even the most extreme Haredi rabbi blink.

Her jumping-off point were the unseasonal thunderstorms that occurred around Shavuot this year. She noted that in the prayer Shema, God says rain will fall in its proper time unless Jews serve “false gods” - in which case “the wrath of Hashem will blaze upon you… and the land won’t produce, and you’ll swiftly be lost from this good land that Hashem is giving you.” Pointing out that unseasonal rain was happening, Israel’s economic problems, the locust swarms, and just for the heck of it, the nuclear threat - “countries steadily gaining nuclear capabilities who are threatening to wipe Israel off the map.”

As the “false gods,” the “ideals other than Torah ideals” and “foreign worship” who might be irritating our higher power at the moment, she pointed to “pluralism and feminism.” Feminism, she says, is the golden calf - the Women of the Wall’s "foreign intermediary" for serving God, equating the “pursuit of feminism above all else is avoda zara, foreign worship” - or in other words, feminism = idolatry.

Peskin wrote:

“When one does Godly acts for feminist reasons, such as wearing a tallis and tefillin because they want to do everything that men do, including religious things, these actions are problematic, perhaps even borderline avoda zara, strange worship, because they are saying feminism and feminist activism is the most important thing to them. So important to them that they’re even going to serve God via their feminism...

"The reason why I and many other traditional Jews have an issue with what the Women of the Wall are doing isn’t because we say there is a halachic issue with the specific actions they’re doing, but since what they’re doing is done specifically because of feminism, it turns from a mitzva into problematic, if not outright assur (forbidden) territory.

"Bringing foreign worship into the holiest place we Jews have today is a terrible thing. Many consider it the equivalent of when the Hellenists came and brought an idol into the Beis Hamikdash, the holy Temple in Jerusalem....

"People ask me repeatedly why I am making such a big deal about what the Women of the Wall are doing, why I care if they want to pray in a way that is different than I do, why it bothers me. Why don’t I make a fuss about the “real important things”?

"Its [sic] because I read the Shema, and I worry- what will happen if, as a Jewish nation, no one stands up when people try to allow foreign worship in our holiest places? In a country where according to many non Jewish [sic] sources, we don’t survive on might alone but on sheer miracles, it worries me that we, as a nation, are doing things that might cause us to lose that Divine protection. It seems to me that God is already sending us messages that He’s not happy with our actions.

"Are you prepared for the rest of the curses in the Shema to come true, to get wiped off this land, Chas Veshalom, if we don’t stand up to people trying to push for foreign worship being allowed in our holiest place, the Western Wall, the place where it is said that God’s presence has resided ever since the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash?”

It’s a long journey from opposing the Women of the Wall to charging that they are pulling the trigger on a devastating Biblical curse, but Peskin made it. The piece was pulled from the Times of Israel site the next day after outraged reactions piled up and it was later, “set aside” by Peskin, replaced by a notice that fell short of an apology, saying, ”I regret posting it. I made a mistake. And for that, I ask your forgiveness for any pain I caused anyone.”

The episode made me very curious to learn more about the holier-than-thou Ms. Peskin. So I took a close look at the website of which Rosenblum spoke, Penniless Parenting.

But when I went there, apart from her photograph, I found no trace of an Orthodox Jewish or Haredi woman named Ronit Peskin who lives in Israel. No, I met “Penny, frugalista extraordinaire, tree hugging, real food eating, gluten free living, homeschooling, breastfeeding, co-sleeping, DIYer” who is “an American girl, born and raised in the US, who moved to my current location approximately 5 years ago to marry my husband, who grew up in this country, but also was born in another country.” Her husband she calls Mike, and "my 2 wonderful children, Lee and Ike". She admits that she is writing under a pseudonym and that she refuses to discuss her country of residence or her religion.

Plenty of bloggers protect their privacy by keeping their real name and identity under wraps, but few have a blog completely ethnically cleansed of mentions of their nationality and religion. Peskin, for example discusses making dairy-free cheesecake last week, but no mention of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot that she invokes so passionately in her anti-Women of the Wall tract.

It’s a pretty odd way for a woman who, in another arena, holds herself up as a living paragon of traditional Jewish values, to make a living.

It would be easy for me, given what I’ve learned about her, to judge Peskin, to ridicule and criticize her. There is certainly an inherent contradiction in her being so public and vocal and determined in order to tell other women that they shouldn’t be so public and vocal and determined. The same goes for the way she invokes her rebellious personal decisions to defend a lifestyle in which women are, from a young age, discouraged from rebelling and making their own choices.

Part of me wants to take that bait. But if I decided to vilify her with angry and belittling name-calling that was intolerant of her lifestyle and her chosen form of religious and political expression, I would be doing to her precisely what she is doing to the Women of the Wall.

What I will say is that while women who disagree with the Women of the Wall may well deserve a voice, I am not at all sure that Peskin’s is the voice they would - or should - choose.

Israeli policemen block ultra-Orthodox Jewish women as members of Women of the Wall (not pictured) leave the Western Wall after a monthly prayer session there, May 10, 2013.Credit: Reuters