Moving Beyond the Western Wall Hatefest

Rather than contributing to a debate about the politicization of religious customs in Israel, the animosity of the 'Western Wall Wars' reduces these issues to a sectarian fight pitting women against other women.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 17a) explains that, in order to qualify for the Sanhedrin (high court), a member needed to be able to prove that a sheretz, an insect, is ritually pure. It even cites a particular wise man who was able to provide 150 such proofs (Eruvin 13b).

Not only is a sheretz impure, it is often used as the archetypal forbidden object. This exercise ensured that leaders did not blindly follow the path of least resistance, since there is no great challenge in setting up evidence to support a preexisting idea regardless of that idea's merit. To be a leader, it is not enough to simply be right; effective leadership requires the foresight to achieve the right outcome.

A productive society must constantly and critically examine its methods in order to determine the efficacy of its policies. In the face of conflict, the stance of each opposing party matters less in the long run than the strategies they employ to resolve it. Points of contention are embraced as opportunities for refining the system. A defensive society that cannot recognize its own weaknesses, however, will attempt to spin those weaknesses as virtues. Not only is this counterproductive, it is unsustainable and ultimately destructive.

The characterization of Israel as a Jewish state engenders many questions of aligning civil liberties with religious rights. All matters of personal legal status (marriage, divorce, conversion) are given over to a simultaneously extra-judicial yet state-sanctioned body that is the Israeli Rabbinate, creating glaring legal lacunae when it comes to the most fundamental of civil rights. There is no shortage of issues that highlight the ongoing need for useful, healthy debate to promote constructive strategies for moving Israel forward.

One such debate is the ongoing saga of Women of the Wall, a women’s prayer group that meets once a month at the Western Wall. Following accusations that the women’s gathering was ritually provocative, a series of Supreme Court rulings aimed to settle what appeared to be a religious conflict in a legal forum.

The situation became absurd, however, when the State proceeded to arrest its citizens for violation not of legal codes but of religious ones. Police statements confirmed that women were arrested, not for provocation and not even for wearing tallitot. The police arrested women for the crime of wearing a tallit in what was deemed the “male style.” As my colleague Bahtya Minkin notes, it was, quite literally, a strike of the fashion police.

Understandably, a media uproar ensued. The debate was not centered around halakhah or the legitimacy of the women’s prayer; indeed, they were cited as violating minhag hamakom, local custom, not halakhah. Rather, the focus was on the government’s role in sanctioning religious practice and the place of the police in enforcing it. To what extent should the secular court be considered a halakhic body for the purposes of formulating religious law and settling religious disputes? How comfortable are we appointing the State to maintain the religious standards it creates, especially when that entails meting out jail sentences and criminalizing ritual 'transgression'?

This is the same question that the Haredi sectors in Israel grapple with as the government aims to introduce changes to the Haredi lifestyle in the form of educational reform and compulsory army service. It is the same controversy that arises when bogus kashrut certifications are issued due to procedural corruption within the Israeli Rabbinate. It was a legal and political question, albeit a very emotionally charged one. The Western Wall was never the issue; the Western Wall merely provided the backdrop for the issue.

That is, until the nascent counter movement, Women for the Wall, entered the scene. Women for the Wall (known as W4W for short) is a group of women who have taken offense to the Women of the Wall’s activities. Ever since the court ruled that Women of the Wall’s gatherings did not constitute a criminal offense, W4W has led a media smear campaign against them. They have protested their prayer by busing in thousands of seminary girls during the Women of the Wall’s scheduled prayer time, essentially choking the group out of the Western Wall plaza.

In focusing on lambasting the prayer group, rather than contributing to a constructive discussion about the issues of religion and state that brought about their cause, W4W effectively shifted the issue from a debate about the politicization of religious customs to a nasty fight pitting women against other women.

W4W’s entire platform demeans and delegitimizes other women under the guise of propriety and religious honor. The very choice of the name Women for the Wall is a strategic move implying that their opponents support the opposite label, i.e., that Women of the Wall are somehow “anti” the Western Wall. It inaccurately flags the sanctity of the Wall as the issue at hand, when really it is just the setting, in order to manipulatively invoke religious fervor.

The war for the Western Wall is the embodiment of everything that is wrong with political discourse in the State of Israel today. It exploits the emotionally sensitive nature of the content and uses it to derail the form. It stirs up sectarian hostility, encourages the “Us vs. Them” mindset and mistakes uniformity for unity. It ultimately forsakes righteousness in the name of being right.

Discussions on Facebook oscillate between a hatefest of vitriolic harangues and holier-than-thou calls for love, ironically painting protests as “unity rallies” specifically designed to exclude their opponents. The Orwellian language regularly employed is even worse, since it acknowledges its own flaws yet makes the conscious choice to disregard them anyway. It is no longer a case of misguided good intentions.

By choosing to pursue this route, those arguing for the delegitimization of others have been caught in the trap of defensive policy rather than constructive action. They measure their success by the failure of others. There is nowhere to go but down.

The mobilization of women in the last few months highlights a trend that has been percolating in Israel for the last few years. Women are passionate, active and determined. This is a promising movement ripe with potential to effect real, meaningful progress in our national growth if it can be harnessed in an efficient way.

Recognizing this tremendous opportunity, a group of halakhically devoted women under the name of Chochmat Nashim aims to do just that. Named after King Solomon’s portrayal of uniquely feminine vision for effecting change (Proverbs 14:1), Chochmat Nashim embraces challenge for the sake of refining and improving contemporary Jewish society.

This is not another counter movement to any particular group; we feel no need to fight these women, not because we condone their activities but because they have simply proven to be irrelevant as agents of constructive change. We call on women to harness our collective strength to promote a platform of reason as a catalyst for practical and relevant, forward-thinking innovation.

The Talmud (Taanit 16a) uses the idiom of tovel v’sheretz b’yado (immersing for the sake of purifying oneself while clutching an impure creature in one’s hand) to describe the fallacy inherent in ineffective change. Desperately hanging onto our sectarian shortcomings will prevent us from bettering ourselves as a nation. It is not enough to justify our fighting, to spin our prejudices as holy causes, to declare the sheretz as pure in 150 ways. We must let go of our communal hangups if we hope to lead our nation into an era of constructive growth with justice and integrity.

Rachel Stomel is a founding member of Chochmat Nashim an initiative by Jewish women committed to the dictates and spirit of halakha, who seek to work as a collective to confront injustice and intolerance within the Jewish world through a platform of reason and moderation as catalysts for practical and just solutions to contemporary challenges.

Michal Fattal