With gratitude to a strong critic further reflection on this subject has been prompted. It has been pointed out that the Women of the Wall view themselves as operating according to halacha and as Orthodox. Therefore criticisms of reformist or liberal elements are not appropriate, although one might say that this organisation are operating to liberalise practices even if they seek to do so in a manner that does not transgress halacha.
One can still pose certain questions about their coduct. Firstly their name is objectionable. They have no greater right than other Jewish women to claim the Wall as their own, or to claim to be ‘of it’. They may not be doing so and may only want what they construe is a share equal to others. All Jewish women are women of the Wall whether they wish to take positive time bound mitzvahs on themselves or not. Any woman who wishes to pray at the Wall in the manner currently exercised by the overwhelming majority of women who do so are as much if not more so, women of the Wall.
The issue here should not be whether these women are permitted or forbidden to act as they wish at the Wall. Is it necessary for them to do so? The answer to that question is a simple ‘no’. It may indeed be rewarding to them but it is not compulsory.
The Talmud in Kiddushin/Avoda Zora/ Babba Kamma teaches that one who performs (a mitzvah) when they are commanded to do it is greater than one who performs a mitzvah when they are not commanded to do it. The Talmud points out that there is clearly reward for voluntarily doing a mitzvah, but the optimum reward goes to those who do as they are commanded. One might have thought, as much of the modern Western world do, that doing what one chooses for oneself is the ultimate virtue. I am doing what I choose to do and in doing so am being true to myself and best expressing myself.
The Talmud says it is greater to do what one is commanded to do. This does not mean that one must act out of pure compulsion. A human being is not improved by ‘merely following orders’. The aim of the game is not simply to become a doer of what one is commanded to do, a mitzvah performing robot. It seems to most of us that it is more likely that we can infuse meaning and enthusiasm into something we do voluntarily. The Tosafos explain in Kiddushin that the one who is commanded to perform has an added anxiety of needing to get things right. He is doing what he has to do, and must thus live up to the expectations of the Commander. If he performs the set task inadequately he has failed. The one who acts purely voluntarily does not share this anxiety. He can simply walk away from the activity whenever he wishes and will have lost nothing. In Avoda Zora the Tosafos point out that what is involved in performing what one is commanded to do is the need to overcome the natural inclination to rebel and against commands and compulsion. In acting voluntarily one gives expression to an impulse, one builds from an automatic drive. In acting when commanded one must overcome one’s resistance to being told what to do, and transform the act into something more than a mere mechanical obedience. One needs to fulfil the requirements of the mitzvah and to realise that one is fulfilling the desire and command of the Creator of the Universe. While the act may or may not be easy for one to perform, one is engaged in a task which involves a growth to a new level. One must try infusing this act with a desire to do God’s bidding and to elevate oneself beyond doing what one wants to or feels like doing. One is building a relationship with that which is beyond where one is now. One is expanding oneself into one who will ultimately want to do what one has been commanded to do. One is changing oneself. Greater growth comes through self expansion than expressing what was there to begin with.
The Ritvo comments that mitzvahs are not there for God’s benefit. He gains nothing by the acts of human beings, being whole and perfect. It is only the performer of a mitzvah who can benefit from the mitzvah. If in performing a mitzvah he is doing the will of the Creator, that is to his maximum benefit spiritually.
The Rambam rules on this principle in Hilvchos Deos. He is followed by the Tur and the Shulchan Aruch .
The Maharal of Prague states that one who acts voluntarily can act with equal zeal and effort to perform the mitzvah properly. He says that the true reason the one who acts when commanded is greater is that such an individual is fulfilling the will of the Creator. The mitzvah is appropriate to his spiritual potential and makeup. One who acts voluntarily does not have the same spiritual makeup vis-a-vis the mitzvah. He does it out of human impulse, not from an elevated God-created source. One who acts when commanded is thus on a higher level. He does what God has optimally created him to do. This does not negate the reward or merit of voluntarily taking upon oneself an additional mitzvah.
The message of our Sages and Rabbis is, perhaps, that what we should do in our lives is try achieve our own individual and specific task. God has created each one of us unique with their own individual make up and talents. None of us could do all mitzvahs. I could seek to send away the mother bird to take away the eggs from the nest. I could spend all day every day looking for birds’ nests to do this mitzvah as often as possible. The Talmud in Kiddushin mentions the tremendous reward for performing this mitzvah as equal to the reward for honouring parents. There is no rule that says I must not dedicate myself to try performing this mitzvah as many times as possible on a daily basis. Yet were I do so it would appear that I would be neglecting my true spiritual potential. There are other mitzvahs for me to do and Torah to be learned. Far be it from me to discourage or claim to disqualify anyone from performing a mitzvah. Surely each one of us should attempt to ascertain the optimum way of leading a truly spiritual Jewish life. This involves careful consideration and application of the wisdom of our sages. We should not let our desires to do voluntary acts overshadow the requirement to place our primary focus on our true duties. It is for our spiritual benefit that we have certain commandments. Let us focus on our complete fulfilment of God’s will and not place our own views above God’s, or above those of the general community.
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