There are a group of so called women’s rights activists who want to end what they call the Orthodox monopoly over access to the Western Wall. They wish to don prayer shawls and phylacteries and pray together with men at the Western Wall. They deem it discriminatory to deny them this right. it is claimed that as the Jewish people are diverse their constituency should have equal access to do as they feel appropriate in expressing their version of Judaism. Someone said to me that they could not imagine God not wanting people to pray when I expressed opposition to the idea of joint prayers at the Wall. This is an argument that has no basis. The traditional Jewish sources all show that all Jews have an obligation to pray. The Torah clearly states that God listens to and at some level accedes to all sincere prayer. Rather than being some stuffy bigot the ‘Orthodox’ God is open to prayer from all humanity all the time. There may be times when prayer can be more powerful, or environments that are conducive to enhanced spiritual connection, but ultimately it is the sincerity of the one praying that achieves a connection with the Divine.
Prayer to God is not a demonstration to others of one’s sincerity, motives or beliefs. Praying where others may see you, may testify to your devotion, but it is not the reason you are praying. Prayer is ultimately a connection between those who are praying and the Divine.
A tremendous irony about these protesters, and indeed about much of Jewish reformist movements, is that the initial reformers rejected the institution of The Temple and its rebuilding as being a necessary part of their religion. Since the founding of the State of Israel the Reform movement, in many of its guises, has become Zionistic, the original nineteenth century nationalism behind their rejection of an idea of Jewish nationality is now outmoded. A Jew was to be a citizen of his native country but a Jew by religion. However since Israel has become a Jewish state the reformers and their ilk have craved recognition by the Zionist creation they once rejected. Furthermore since 1967 and the liberation of Jerusalem those whose forbears rejected the notion of a Temple rebuilt, and who called their synagogues ‘temples’ in consequence, and who still call their houses of prayers temples today, want a piece of the Western Wall pie. At some point these reformers have become more traditional and moved back to a more orthodox Israel/Jerusalem/Temple- centred Judaism. The orthodox have never given up on Jerusalem and have remained faithful to it.
Even more ironic is that we have a movement of people who want not merely mixed prayer sessions at the Wall, but those who insist on the right of women to don prayer shawls and phylacteries. At our Jewish day school a boy whose family belonged to the local Temple was given a pair of phylacteries by his clergyman to use at school. He was told, ‘We (Reform) don’t wear them but they (Orthodox) do’. In order that this boy fit in with the ethos of a school run on Orthodox lines he wore tephilin in the daily prayers. Early reformers removed a large number of ritual practices from their modernised forms of Judaism. Phylacteries were among those rituals that were earlier deemed to have no further relevance in a modern world and a modern religion. Prayer shawls have been maintained in synagogue services, but praying three times a day has also been discarded. I wonder how many Liberal or Reform Jewish men ever wear or have any ambition to don phylacteries, either at the Western Wall or elsewhere. The numbers are probably extremely low. Indeed feminism was not a force in the early nineteenth century in Western Europe, but there is something strange about members of a sector of the Jewish world, whose movements have discarded certain practices as being outmoded medieval rituals, and yet are embracing these practices as part of their feminist rights. One wonders when they will call for female circumcision!
In fact there is a disproportionate involvement of women to men in these movements where women are taking on traditionally male only practices.
The traditional Orthodox notion of Judaism is for a person to try coming closer to God by fulfilling His will as contained in both the Written and Oral Law. A woman is able to come close to God without participation in a quorum of ten or donning phylacteries or prayer shawls. She is not barred from wearing these items as such, but she has no need for doing so. The men should be complaining. Why should God insist on us going to join a quorum in the synagogue to pray? That is discriminating against us. There is no obligation in traditional Judaism for a woman to do various things. God will hear her loud and clear from where she may currently pray, both at the Kotel and elsewhere. These protesters do not have a religious obligation to pray together with men, or to wear any prayer apparel. They choose to want to do so in their version of Judaism which places a virtue in doing what one perceives to be relevant or desirable. They are content to do without many other Jewish practices or prohibitions without another thought. Many reform members have little or no kashrut observance. There are no distinctions to be drawn between men and women and no feminist brownie points to be won.
These protesters also fail to recognise a fundamental point. Traditional Jewish practice separates men and women during prayer for reasons of modesty. Men being men (and women being women) may be tempted to look at members of the opposite sex and thus lose focus on the prayer service. Are orthodox men so weak and so sex starved that they cannot keep their eyes off women and on their prayer books and God? They are no weaker nor less vulnerable than others. It is safer not to place a stumbling block in their way. A cynic might say that these phylactery donning feminists are not much to look at and unlikely to inspire any man to temptation.
Let us keep the status quo and try to work out what God wants from each of us
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