Oppressing Jewish Women Does Not Make the Western Wall Holy

When did Judaism become so obsessed with what women wear?

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A few weeks ago, I was leading a group of American teenagers to the Kotel on one of their last days in Jerusalem. We had been there many times before as a group, and the students understood the place and the expectations for dress and behavior.

Nevertheless, one of the young women decided that she simply did not like being told what to wear, and so decided not to approach the wall. While remaining in the back of the plaza, a modesty guard officer walked up to her and instructed her to put on a skirt. When the student refused, the female guard tried to physically force the skit on her.

Just a week later, I read about another issue of women's garb at the Kotel. A friend of mine had been arrested for the second time for the crime of wearing a tallit, a prayer shawl, "like a man," along with three others. Once again, women were accosted because their dress was deemed inappropriate for the Kotel.

These two incidents have forced me to wonder when Judaism became so obsessed with what women wear. Have the values of respect for humanity and all of creation been replaced with a sick desire to control women, or have those been the true Jewish values all along?

The two incidents shared much in common while at the same time being very different. Firstly, and most importantly, they both involved an authority figure overstepping their boundaries and physically accosting a woman because of what she was wearing. I do not understand how these acts, threatening only in their going against the status quo, were seen as requiring violence to suppress them.

Indeed, both of these acts involved a woman deliberately going against the supposedly accepted norms of behavior at the Western Wall. There is no doubt that both incidents were considered beyond the pale for certain segments of the population. But neither incident reflected a hurtful intention; in both cases, the accosted parties were simply carrying about their business as usual.

My student did not reserve her shorts for our visit to the Western Wall. She did not wear them to be sexually provocative. She had been wearing shorts all day, as had nearly all of the male students and staff in my group. Of course, we males were all left untouched, and we freely approached the wall in our shorts. My student recognized the double standard and so chose to stay away from the wall; this was not, however, to prevent her from being stopped and harassed.

So too were the tallit-wearing women simply continuing their standard practice. Every woman that I know who has donned a prayer shawl at the wall, both in the recent incident and previous times, does so every time she prays the morning service. If the act of wearing the tallit at the wall is a statement, then that statement is that the Western Wall - the most significant remnant of the once holiest place in Judaism - is an ideal place for a person, man or woman, to engage in the commandments of prayer. For an increasing number of women who have accepted the obligation, wearing the prayer shawl is one of those commandments.

Of course, there was a difference between the two incidents as well. In the case of my shorts-wearing student, she knew that the accepted dress for the Kotel did not allow for women to wear shorts. Indeed, traditional Jewish law, gender-biased or not, forbids men from praying in an area with women wearing shorts. Whether my student agrees with this policy or not, she made the mature and responsible decision to avoid approaching the wall itself in "inappropriate dress." Ultimately, this made no difference, for the modesty guard tried to forcibly dress her even outside of the prayer area.

The women wearing the prayer shawls, on the other hand, were not violating a religious prohibition, but rather engaging in a Jewish practice traditionally reserved for men. The action may look strange to a more traditional Jew, but it in no way affects any other Jew’s ability to fulfill his or her own religious obligations. It could easily be seen as an example of "live and let live" by those who disagree.

This issue, though, is not one of religion or religious sensitivities. The women who wear prayer shawls at the Kotel represent a diverse religious spectrum, including Reform, Conservative, and yes, even Orthodox Jews. My student, my friend, and the others were not harassed because of religion; they were harassed because they are women.

These two incidents highlight the rampant oppression of women taking place at Judaism's holiest site. The authorities, plainly, are men trying to determine what women can and cannot wear. It is time for men and women of all religious stripes to stand up and say, “We've had enough.” Treating women with dignity is a Jewish value upon which we can all agree. Those in charge of the Western Wall need to focus less on controlling women and more on respecting them.

Arie Hasit, a student at the rabbinical seminary of Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM- the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.

Members of the Women of the Wall organization pray at the Western Wall, July 12, 2010Credit: AP