Women of the Wall: Praying, or Disturbing Prayer?

It is a pleasure to note that two active members of the Women Of the Wall, Susan Silverman and Dahlia Lithwick, have attempted to address several arguments which, they claim, have been made by writers who oppose them, especially the founders of the Women For the Wall (The Kotel is for Us, Too: The Forward, June 14, 2013, also published as Dispelling nine myths about Women of the Wall: HaAretz, June 11, 2013). Dialogue is something which the leaders of W4W, Ronit Peskin and Leah Aharoni, have consistently invited, yet until now they have been rebuffed. Nonetheless, I think it would be premature to call this truly a dialogue between the two groups — and, perhaps predictably, neither HaAretz nor The Forward was interested in publishing a response to the challenges laid down.

If there is one thing upon which secular and Jewish scholars agree, it is the importance of referring back to primary sources. Whether it comes from Shakespeare, Einstein or Maimonides, that I may quote an idea accurately does not make it mine. If we look again at Silverman and Lithwick’s examples of arguments against them, we find that most of them are well sourced in statements by the founders and leaders of Women of the Wall. Though they quoted Ronit Peskin, Leah Aharoni, Jonathan Rosenblum, Avi Shafran and myself, the simple fact is that the Women of the Wall are arguing with themselves.

For example, Silverman and Lithwick insist that “we have no objection to Haredi women, or men, praying as they choose, and no desire to evangelize or inspire them.” Their beef should not be with W4W, but with Susan Aranoff and Rivka Haut, two founders of WOW, for saying the opposite:

WOW models to all Jewish women who pray at the Kotel that women can take control over their own religious lives… This represents a revolution in haredi lives… Their women will be influenced, strengthened, perhaps even demand change… And that is why WOW must win the struggle to remain at the Kotel. Our cause transcends women praying, women wearing tallitot. It goes directly to the heart of Jewish women’s lives in all spheres.

To “live and let live,” Silverman and Lithwick will have to join a group that shares that philosophy. It is wrong for them to imply that W4W have no grounds to object, much less to imply that they do so violently. Both video and reports from Shmuel Rosner (hardly a W4W supporter) show that W4W have tried to get troublemakers to simmer down and/or leave. Unless Women of the Wall wish to take direct responsibility for the death threats against the Chief Rabbis, the Rabbi of the Kotel, and assorted Knesset members, they cannot impugn W4W, an organization of women only, based upon the misbehavior of the 50 young men who have assisted WOW with PR and fundraising since long before W4W was formed.

The writers, of course, deny that WOW wants media awareness — but you can’t run a public campaign to launch “a revolution in Haredi lives” without it, and once again they find themselves arguing with the rest of their own group. One of WOW’s only two staff people is their PR Director, and WOW has hired an external media consultant as well. Anat Hoffman said that she joined WOW not to pray, but to demonstrate: “I had a folding table and they asked me to join them. You know, for demonstrations you always need a folding table and a megaphone, and I have both.” Hoffman now Chairs their Board. After their most recent event, member Lior Nevo told the press: “at least they notice us now.” If they were coming to the Wall to pray to G-d, then where would being noticed by other human beings come into the picture?

The writers concede that WOW has a much broader agenda than prayer. Hoffman has both proposed that “for six hours a day the Wall will be a national monument, open to others but not to Orthodox men,” and stated (while wearing her Tallis on the BBC) that the Western Wall is merely a stepping stone: “when you change the holiest site for the Jewish people, you’re actually asking ‘why not?’ about a variety of other life choices dictated to Israelis.”

Thus the argument against WOW has nothing at all to do with typical non-Orthodox women. It is whether the women who are regular denizens of the Western Wall should object to being told that they have “secondary status,” worship an “archaic, alien and repulsive” Judaism, and are “forced to obey ultra-misogynist views of what women are allowed to do at a public holy site” — while they are trying to pray.

Is disturbing the prayers of others the right time and place to pursue change? One who answers “yes” evidences that he or she doesn’t have the faintest comprehension of what prayer is. Indeed, one of their recent attendees wrote that “I don’t know how to pray anyway,” and stated that her first activity, upon arrival, was to “choose a potential victim to argue with.”

While Hoffman, Aranoff, Haut and Reform Rabbi Elianna Yolkut clearly think this type of activity is appropriate, the paltry showing of the Women of the Wall each month indicates that most Israelis — those who pray regularly, and those who don’t — at least understand that prayer must be respected. When Likud MK Miri Regev saw for herself what WOW was doing, she said that they should have gone to the Robinson’s Arch section of the Kotel. The few exceptions, as the writers again concede, are primarily Americans.

While seven of its ten Board and Staff are American-born, the problem isn’t that WOW is filled with American immigrants, so much as American tourists. Lithwick herself is “living in Jerusalem for the year.” Project OTZMA and Hebrew Union College’s Year in Israel programs claim to be opportunities to learn from Israelis — yet WOW draws much of its numbers from those programs. Nor does it end there; Elianna Yolkut lectured Leah Aharoni (of Kochav Yaakov) about Judaism in Israel from her loft in New York. The land founded by refugees seeking religious liberty has become a leading exporter of religious colonialism.

As a teenager, a cousin’s Reform Bat Mitzvah was enough to give me a strong impression that what goes on in a Reform Temple is performance, not prayer — and the fact that WOW draws so much of its strength from American Reform Rabbinical candidates does precious little to change my mind. It takes a non-Rabbi to doubt the righteousness of their path; in a moment of honest self-reflection, Rachel Frank considered that she probably shouldn’t be telling Israelis how to do Judaism during her few remaining months in Israel.

So, should we then conclude that Americans don’t understand prayer or its importance? That would be an inaccurate generalization. Even most American visitors and students, when they see WOW’s activities, leave it a wide berth — thus after 25 years, their most aggressive publicity and busing campaign yet garnered only 250 people.

WOW has vastly more support among those in the United States who have never seen any of this for themselves, but learn of events only through the careful filter of the dominant Jewish media. From Silverman and Lithwick’s valient attempts to cover for the statements of WOW’s own leadership, it appears they understand that WOW’s support depends upon American Jewry continuing to believe that the WOW wants nothing more than to pray. The words of their own leaders, however, tell a very different story.

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