Women Are Jews, Too

Criticism of the right of women to pray openly at the Western Wall supports the monopoly of a radical fringe of Orthodoxy that believes that women should not be seen or heard anywhere.

When a woman is arrested, shackled, strip-searched, and held in a cell, one might expect to learn that she committed a horrific crime of some sort, like a terrorist attack or breaking into the White House. The fact that Anat Hoffman’s crime for which she received this treatment was singing at the Western Wall has left many people reeling – but apparently not David Landau. In an opinion piece here,  Landau tried to justify the police's attitude, dismissing women’s prayer at the Kotel as a “cynical charade” and nothing more than a “stunt” to make Israel look bad. Landau’s entire essay, which is based on flawed thinking that dismisses women's religious experience and ignores the sentiments of most of American Jewry and of modern Orthodoxy, not only failed to convince, but actually works to justify institutional hostility towards women.  

In trying to argue that women’s prayer groups are offensive and should be banned at one of Israel’s holiest sites, Landau likens women’s singing to “a few Armenians encroaching onto one minute of the prayer-time demarcated by ancient accords for the Greek Orthodox,” and adds, “Wars were launched for less.” He might as well have said that women’s singing in prayer is akin to serving pork to the Chief Rabbi. The portrait he tries to paint is one in which the female voice is a mortal enemy of Judaism, that a female presence when “Jews” – read, men – are in prayer is enough to start a war.

There are a few things wrong with Landau’s troubling analogies. For one thing, his unfortunate analysis places women completely outside of Judaism, beings whose presence is damaging to Jewish men, who are seen as the normative ones in terms of religious practice. Landau's androcentrism is used to justify the notion that the police apparatus should have the right to do whatever it takes to ensure to protect Jewish men from encroaching, interfering, offensive women. If the sound of women’s voices is experienced as an offense this grave, then women’s very presence becomes the opposite of “authentic” Judaism, a presence that can never be remedied other than making women completely silent and invisible.

At the risk of stating the obvious, I would like to note that women are Jews, too.
Second, Landau makes the outrageous claim that Orthodoxy is the state’s religion and that everyone in the world just has to accept that. The primary defect in this assertion is that this issue is not about Orthodoxy but about a radical fringe of Orthodoxy that believes that women should not be seen or heard anywhere. Landau would be wise to remember that many Orthodox communities around the world embrace women’s prayer groups, and have been for the past forty years. What he seems to be saying is that radical anti-women Orthodoxy, a phenomenon that unfortunately seems to be gaining influence in some places, should guide all of life in Israel.

Moreover, Landau forgets that there is tremendous opposition in Israel and throughout the Jewish world to the idea that this radical Orthodoxy should determine everything that has to do with Judaism in Israel. If it may have been once arguable that, half a century ago, there was a not-quite-unanimous consensus in Israel that religious parties should have control over marriage, divorce, and Shabbat in national institutions, those days are long gone. It has taken a generation or two for Jews in Israel and around the world to realize that giving religious parties these powers to determine how the state guards Judaism was one of David Ben Gurion’s greatest mistakes.

Ripples from that mistake are felt in every area of life in Israel, by every demographic sector – including by ultra-Orthodox women and men, who are often stuck in lifestyles that they have no say in controlling. So Landau may scream and shout that the entire Jewish world should just listen to the radicals and shut up about it, but that sentiment is out of step with the overwhelming sentiments of Israelis and the Jewish people at large.  

We need to be asking ourselves a very simple question: What side of history do we want to be on? Generations from now, our descendants will be looking back at these events, and asking how people could hold such prejudiced views about other human beings. What we will be able to answer our great-grandchildren when they ask us, where were we when women were crying out for the right to sing to God - without being arrested for it.  

Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is the author of The Men's Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World (Hadassah Brandeis Institute, UPNE 2011), and the Interim Executive Director of The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA).

Reform Jewish women doing a practice run for a bat mitzvah.
Lior Mizrahi/Baubau