Women Praying at the Wall: A Question of the Sun and the Moon

Sometimes we must make ourselves small in order to allow those around us to grow.

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The Women of the Wall are right. Freedom of religious expression at the Kotel should be a given, and the arrest of a woman for simply wearing a tallit is a travesty. Religious fundamentalism is a bully, and my rule is to never give in to a bully; it only makes them worse.

That being said, this particular faceoff between progressive movements and the ultra-Orthodox falls into the Talmudic category of Teiku, those questions which only Mashiach will be able to resolve. I have great admiration for Natan Sharansky, the individual charged by Prime Minister Netanyahu with mediating this challenge, but he is not the Messiah, and I suspect a solution is far off.

Haredim simply do not have the social and ideological capacity to even begin to relate to a group of women wearing talitot and teffilin, while reading from the Torah. While I pity a worldview so defined by fear that a sincere desire to connect to God is seen only as a provocation, I am realistic that this is how things are.

Occasionally I am asked to provide rabbinic counseling to couples. When a marriage is caught in conflict it not always enough to ask who is right. The capacity of each side to make space for the other in their relationship is a crucial part of the equation. The first to apologize and open a path to reconciliation will often have nothing to do with who is more in the right, rather it will be the one who is more evolved, the one whose own capacity to make room for the other is greater. Ghandi said “Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” I would add that it is also the attribute of the mature.

The Talmud (Hulin 60b) brings a story of the following discussion between the moon and The Lord: "The Moon said before God: 'Master of the world can two kings wear one crown'. He said to her: 'Go make yourself smaller'. She said before Him: 'Master of the world because I said something correct before you I should make myself smaller?' He said to her: 'Go rule during the day and the night.' She said to Him: 'What is the significance of a lamp at broad daylight?' He said to her: 'Go, Israel will count with you days and years.' She said to Him: 'Seasons are also impossible to enumerate without the Sun as it says 'And they will be for signs festivals and days and years'?' [He said to her:] Go let the righteous be called after you 'Jacob the small', 'Samuel the small', 'David the small'. He saw that her mind was not at rest; said the Blessed Be He bring an atonement for me because I minimized the Moon.”

This story is often presented as a story of the moon’s excessive ambition and punishment. But a careful reading reveals that it is a story about the true-life paradox that it is often the side that is more aware and more evolved, who is called to diminish oneself in order to allow for the relationship to survive, even though it is neither fair nor just. The story concludes with the radical idea that God sinned in creating the world in this way.

Just as people mature with time, so too does society, with some parts maturing faster than others. I can’t help but think that it is the progressive movements who, by their progressive nature, have a larger capacity to make room for other views. I cannot criticize the Women of the Wall’s choice to fight for what is right; only God could ask someone to diminish himself at his own expense. I support the Women of the Wall’s cause, and stand against violence. But there is a part of me that is sad. Sometimes it is not enough to be right, sometimes we are called upon to be wise.

I imagine a higher moral ground, one which is so confident in its truth that it shines perfectly in its own way. The rabbinic fable speaks of the Tzadikim, like King David, for whom the title “small” was an honorific connoting humility and self-confidence. The wisdom lies in seeing that this is a position of greater strength and power. If the women of the wall were to embrace the historic “territorial” compromise and hold their services at Robinsons arch or perhaps poetically at the Kotel Hakatan, I imagine they could redirect their energy to cast their spell like the moon, enchanting the public with the power and beauty of their unique flavor of prayer. Over time their reputation would grow, along with the number of participants, moving beyond the capacity of the allotted space. Their need would emerge as an objective reality, with more popular support, and notoriety. Regardless, I have no doubt that at the right time they will assume what they believe is their rightful place, for in the end, as the Prophet Isaiah says “The Moon will shine as bright as the Sun” (30:26).

Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is Dean of Sulam Yaakov, a Beit Midrash for Community Leadership Development in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.

Women of the Women of the Wall organization pray just outside the Western Wall in Jerusalem's old city, Dec. 14, 2012.Credit: AP

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