The media is wild over the Women of the Wall controversy, and it's not hard to understand why. It deliciously combines women's rights issues, religion and, media's favorite topic, the Middle East, all in one bite-sized package of scandal.
A quick recap: Laws at the Western Wall in Israel dictate that prayer at the Wall, a religious site for all Jews, must be performed in a mostly Orthodox manner -- men and women are separate, women cannot wear prayer shawls, read from the Torah, or say the mourner's prayer in the presence of 10 or more women. These rituals can all be done in a separate, egalitarian section of the Wall, which is actually an archeological site that's further from the Wall's main plaza area, and must be scheduled in advance for prayers.
The Women of the Wall are a group of women, led by a Reform woman, who want to pray in the main section once a month on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the Hebrew month and a holiday special to women. They've been arrested for this multiple times, but continue to do so, causing much anger on both sides: On the side of secular or liberal Jews, who feel an injustice is being done to those who don't practice Orthodoxy, and on the side of Orthodox Jews, who see this group as one who care less about religion and more about making a scene and causing friction among Jews. Recently, a plan was announced to renovate the egalitarian section to make it more accessible and more expanded. This, of course, led to more controversy, because everyone loves a good fight, but my question here is: What about the Jews in the middle? What about, say, the Modern Orthodox Jews?
I am one such Modern Orthodox Jew, and I've spoken with others among my peers about this topic as well. There's a more balance approach to be found here, but unfortunately it's not one that's easily found in all the mounds of articles and especially opinions pieces discussing this issue. That, too, is understandable. For starters, moderate grounds are more boring to read and write about than extremist views. But perhaps more consequential is the utter lack of Modern Orthodox media platforms with which to publish such views.
Jewish publications abound. I could probably list 20 of them just in the New York/New Jersey area, and that would just be off the top of my head. For less than 2 percent of the American population, we sure print and post a lot of news. But for the most part, these papers are either unaffiliated with any specific denomination and lean toward the more liberal stances, or affiliate strongly with one denomination. All Orthodox papers and publications lean heavily toward the ultra-Orthodox side of things -- and by ultra-Orthodox, I mean that if you weren't raised with a Jewish background, you wouldn't understand half the words in the articles, so strongly is the language peppered with Hebrew and Yiddish phrases and idioms and religious knowledge that the reader is presumed to have.
The opinions pieces in these papers are slanted in one major direction: religion. What God wants is what the writer wants. So when I searched Hamodia, one such Orthodox paper, for articles discussing the Women of the Wall, I came up with an opinions piece that states that the Western Wall is not for us Orthodox Jews to give away, because the Wall belongs to God. In other words, God dictates Jewish law, only Orthodox Jews follow Jewish law correctly, ergo the wall must be governed by Orthodox law as it has been until now (and presumably continue to be enforced by the secular government in that way).
This author, with whom I am lumped together by the rest of the world for us both being Orthodox, and I stand worlds apart on this issue. Do I believe God gave us the Wall? Yes, in a way, the Wall used to surround the Temple, which was the place to worship God, and God's presence is said to be there still, so in a way this man-made wall is God's place. I also believe God set down the law, and I believe Orthodox Jews are careful (if not obsessive) about following those laws. But that's where our agreement ends, and my shame at being categorized with this opinion begins. To say that therefore only Orthodox Jews should be able to pray at the Wall is insulting and harmful to the unity of the Jewish people, not to mention completely arrogant.
Instead, I and many other Modern Orthodox Jews believe that there should be equality for Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall. We don't think Orthodox Jews should have a monopoly on the Wall, nor do we believe that the egalitarian section should be shunted off to a side section that most people don't even know exists. But when I try to find an article that states this viewpoint, that makes it clear that there are Orthodox Jews who don't agree with the current practice, I come up empty-handed. Until a publication emerges that dedicates itself to representing the Modern Orthodox viewpoint, these more moderate voices will go unheard.
So Orthodox Jews continue to be portrayed and therefore seen as a group bent on exclusivity, a group who will proudly declare that they are right and everyone else is wrong, and that they have God on their side to prove it. A group who, at most, will graciously lend out our Wall's maid's quarters to those beneath us, as long as we don't have to see or hear them. When in fact only the more right-wing Orthodox Jews believe that.
I suppose I do agree with the Hamodia writer in one regard: The Wall is not ours to give away. Because the Wall does not belong to anyone, but to everyone.
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