Women of the Wall Is a Diversion From the Real Issue: The Occupation

The battle for Orthodox women’s rights is a fig-leaf for liberals who, by fetishizing the Western Wall, are avoiding the one issue posing the greatest threat to Jews and Judaism around the world.

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An Israeli border policeman scuffles with a Palestinian woman during clashes on Jerusalem Day, near Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, Israel, May 28, 2014.
An Israeli border policeman scuffles with a Palestinian woman during clashes on Jerusalem Day, near Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, Israel, May 28, 2014. Credit: Ammar Awad, Reuters

Reading Avrum Burg’s cri de coeur on the Women of the Wall (“What’s Truly Absurd About Women of the Wall,”), I thought my work had been done for me. I harbor the same growing disgust, and terror, at the sight of Jews of all stripes claiming a place at the wall that supports not just the remnants of Herod’s Temple but a form of idol worship and potentially apocalyptic violence that Jews haven’t known since the destruction of the Second Temple.

But encountering Allison Kaplan Sommer’s furious retort (“Avrum Burg, Check Your Orthodox Male Privilege Before Bashing Women of the Wall,”) made my morning coffee curdle, and I realized that I have to weigh in on a battle that Kaplan Sommer and many like-minded Jewish feminists choose to cast in gender terms. So allow me to state my credentials: I am a woman. I am observant. I am not even a bat-Cohen but I don’t have any priest-envy. And Jerusalem with its ‘sacred,’ radioactive center, is at the forefront of the scholarship and political advocacy I have been engaged in for years.

In her literally ad hominem attack on Avrum Burg, Kaplan Sommer trots out elements of his CV to assert that his privilege somehow disqualifies him from speaking his heart and mind. She cites an Orthodox feminist scholar to prove that “such disdain for the cause” (of women’s rights within Judaism) “follows a grand tradition” of “disdain” for women’s causes generally, an “agonizingly manipulative sexist twist used to maintain women’s exclusion” from “male preserves in and out of the Jewish world.” Really? Let’s talk about those “preserves.”

First of all, I happen to know what Allison Kaplan Sommer and her Orthodox feminist scholar may not: that Avrum Burg out of principle will not doven in a minyan — even in a house of mourning — that does not include and count women.

I am truly glad that observant women have won some rights in the synagogue, and are counted in many prayer quorums, but for me, as for Burg, that battle is another way for women to keep each other quiet about the real challenge to all Jews in our time: The direction that Judaism has taken in the State of Israel that will surely lead us all to destruction.

I personally don’t care any more about the internal issues that the Reform movement — whose values I generally endorse — is struggling with. Nor do I care any more about the internal issues plaguing the Conservative movement; sadly, the Conservative Jews with whom I came of age, a cadre that, led by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, marched proudly alongside Martin Luther King, has become a hollow vessel mimicking the Orthodoxy it was supposed to replace.

The internecine battles among and within the various movements, including the women’s struggle, have become, in my view, unfortunate fig leafs for professed liberalism when even the most liberal synagogues are afraid to touch the subject of Israel, the Occupation, and most importantly, the ever-wailing Wall.

Do we really need to reinvent the convulsions that led to Yochanan ben Zakkai’s ploy to escape the suffocating embrace of an embattled Jerusalem, dramatically enacting his understanding that human life and a more elastic form of Judaism were more important than the idols of — and in — the Temple? Those who followed Ben Zakkai to Yavneh reinvented forms of worship, of ethics and of culture that flourished in the ‘bimkom,’ the substitute places where prayer could be performed without sacrifice, where God’s glory filled the universe and not just one small edifice on one small hill. Have we lost all that wisdom, accumulated over two millennia — in less than fifty years?

As my friend and colleague Prof. Tova Hartman, a feminist scholar and founder of the liberal Orthodox Shira Hadasha congregation in Jerusalem, wrote: “How can our prayers at the Kotel take into account[that] we are treading on the foundations of someone’s destroyed home? How do we pray at a place that is also the place of pain for so many?”

Maybe those men and women rushing through the Old City to claim their place at the Wall might pause for a moment on that ‘sanctified’ path to ponder how many lives were sacrificed, Jewish and Arab, to secure this Wall; how many homes were demolished, after 1967, to create the path and the plaza in front of it. How much rubble, past and future, will it take for all of us to understand what is truly sacred?

On the Mount above the Wall, in the Temple that Jews worldwide pray will be rebuilt ‘speedily and in our days’ is the ‘altar’ on which all our Isaacs and all our Ishmaels will be slaughtered.

Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi is professor emerita of comparative literature at the Hebrew University, and a Guggenheim Fellow.



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