Women of the Wall Are Fighting the Wrong Battle

Did those women fighting for freedom of worship at the Western Wall ever stop to think why they should be encouraging such a primitive, fetishistic aspect of Judaism, so disconnected from our reality? Who wants the Wall anyway?

The telephone rang at 7:00 AM. It was my mother, who told me that she’d been holding back from calling for half-an-hour. “It’s just that it’s really, really important,” she said, by way of apology. And then she told me excitedly that a Jerusalem Magistrate Court judge had dismissed the police’s case against five members of Women of the Wall. The police had arrested the women for wearing prayer shawls at the Western Wall and wished to bar them from the site for three months. But the court decided that Women of the Wall’s prayer services were neither a violation of the public order, nor a deviation from local religious custom, and that with all due respect to Western Wall rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitch, he was not the one who determined what the local custom was.

That was the signal for the celebrations to start. Decades of perseverance in wind and rain, during friendly or hostile governments, had paid off. The Women of the Wall had received another acknowledgment of their right to pray near the western supporting wall of the Temple Mount. And I’m happy for them. But only a little.

This was not the first time Israeli women have succeeded in conquering a fortified target that, once the battle is over, the question will be asked in a whisper: Was it worth conquering, considering all the blood that had been spilled on it? The classic example of this is the question of whether women should serve in IDF combat units. In the 1990s, supported by rulings of Israel’s High Court of Justice, women began trickling into combat roles that, until then, had been reserved for the best of our sons. Today, about 2,000 women combat soldiers serve in the IDF.

The traditional feminists see that as one of the greatest accomplishments in their fight for equality. Once it was our job to know that the commanding officer got two spoonfuls of sugar in his coffee, and now we can stop Palestinians on Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda Street and ask them for their ID. Whoopee — we sure have come a long way.

Other feminists ask themselves what kind of feminism submits so easily to a set of militaristic, macho values. Have we moved the world forward or, to bring things into sharper focus, have we moved women forward by letting them, too, tire Palestinians out at checkpoints or bombard them from the air? With the decision to join the military discourse, we forfeited the option of trying to change its rules. It would have been even better, rather than changing the rules, to change our focus: Abandoning the agenda of militarism and belligerence, in favor of a different, civilian, civil society tune.

Women of the Wall’s accomplishment is more complex. Supposedly, every Jew who is in any way progressive should be celebrating the new freedom that has been laid at its doorstep. It is a highly significant achievement for civil rights. But there’s an enormous elephant in WOW’s room that everyone is choosing to ignore. I realized that when I noticed that even I, who have never been taken with the charms of the Western Wall, thought of joining them one Rosh Hodesh to celebrate their accomplishment. Barely two minutes later, I realized that the idea contradicted a great many basic components of my world view.

True, Women of the Wall succeeded in challenging Israel's problematic status quo in matters of religion and state. But for the same price, they also entrenched the Western Wall deeper in Israelis’ religious awareness, as if all that awareness needed was another focus of fetishism or one more ritual soap-opera, with those childish slips of paper placed among the stones and the ceremony of walking backward when leaving the site so as not to turn one’s back on its holiness. Under Israel, the Western Wall, which was once the symbol of a shred of hope for a rejuvenated and sovereign Jewish life, became a site focused entirely on pathos.

I have always felt like a stranger there. For years, I have winked to myself as I recite the phrase in the Amida prayer, “Restore the service to the inner sanctuary of Your Temple.” I not only omit the last sentence of this section, about (re)building the Temple speedily and in our time, but I also convinced my daughter to do the same, because it is a request that is disconnected from the reality of our lives. Recently, she was learning about the institution of prayer as a replacement for animal sacrifices in Tractate Berachot of the Babylonian Talmud. It was then that we finally had the talk about how, once the mourning over the destruction of the Second Temple was over, many of the sages living at that time probably lifted up their heads and muttered: Good riddance. Yet it’s there, of all places, that my feminist sisters have chosen to focus their fight for freedom of worship.

So perhaps some of them really do hold the slightly odd position that combines nationalist feeling, love for the holy places and Jewish feminism, and for them that combination is completely authentic. But I’m guessing that for most of the women taking part in the struggle, the Western Wall is a tactical and symbolic choice that, with time, received significance that disconnected it from its historical and problematic status as a remnant of a superfluous ritual. At any point along the way, did they ever stop to ask if it was worth it? Is the freedom of worship won by legal force worth the encouragement of such a primitive aspect of Judaism? Is the freedom for equal employment in the army worth the price of smearing feminism with rifle grease?

Maybe a close look at their advantages and disadvantages would lead us to conclude that it really is worth paying the price, since no ideology functions in a sterile environment. We have to move forward with what there is. But even if that’s true, we shouldn’t be ignoring the cost that we are paying even now for these supposed achievements for women. One day, we will have to answer for them, too. Until then, I will be happy for Women of the Wall, but only a little, and only from a distance.

Vered Kellner has worked as a journalist in Israel for 17 years. She recently moved with her family from Tel Aviv to New York. Follow her on Twitter at @veredkl

Michal Fattal