Nov 4, 2013

OMFWOW (Orthodox Men For Women of the Wall)

I got really tired of the monthly fights about Women of the Wall and the davening by the Kotel. I found the entire issue distasteful and distracting, and began to block it out completely. Still not interested in reading anything about those fights, I did find this piece by David Bar-Cohn to be intriguing and thoughtful...

A guest post by David Bar-Cohn

I’ve been thinking about this morning’s Rosh Chodesh prayers at the Western Wall, which were no doubt made more “lively” (to put it euphemistically) due to protests against the Women of the Wall.

I for one was not among the protesters. In fact if I were at the Kotel I’d sooner have been part of the counter-protest, holding up my own sign: “Do we really want to antagonize a bunch of women praying?” Okay, I admit that’s not so catchy. How about: “Chill out – they’re just davening!”

Now, I know what many people are thinking: No, they’re not “just davening”. They’re at the Kotel because they have a political agenda. Yes, you’re absolutely right. It’s clear there’s an agenda. But I would say this:

1) Having an agenda isn’t mutually exclusive to being there ALSO because they sincerely want to daven. This group (in various incarnations) has been coming to the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh for 25 years, most of that time garnering little if any media attention, so if you want to accuse anyone of coming purely with a political agenda, you may want to speak to the protesters.

2) You can’t make rules about who's allowed to do what at the Kotel based on a person’s “motivation”. That’s not a practical criterion – in fact it borders on “thought crime” territory. Either women’s groups like this are allowed to pray at the Kotel, or they aren’t – agenda and motivation are immaterial. Besides, if we could do a “thought test” and prove that they (or a similar group) were there purely because they wanted to pray, would everyone protesting on the basis of the “agenda” suddenly offer Women of the Wall their support? If not, this isn’t a sincere objection.

3) Who says the “agenda” in question isn’t honorable in its own right? Should a women’s prayer group really be banned from davening in the women’s section of the Kotel? Do we really want to live in a society which makes it illegal for a woman to wear a Tallit or read from the Torah at the Western Wall? Granted it’s not typical Orthodox practice, but would it be so hard for people to be just a little inclusive and accommodating? Is it really too much to ask? I don’t think so. Even if there is another place they can pray, is what they’re doing so beyond the pale that they can’t daven in the regular women’s section? Are we really that narrow, that rigid? I hope not.

Now, there is one issue where I do potentially differ from Women of the Wall. I’ll quote from the FAQ page on their website:

“Q: You shouldn’t make noise at the Kotel. It bothers the other worshipers.”
“A: The Kotel is not a quiet place, at a bar mitzvah, the family will yell and cheer the young boy from the parking lot and down to the Kotel. Why is this OK for Western Wall Heritage Foundation- sanctioned bar mitzvahs for a boy but when a group of women sing together in actual prayer, this is “noise”? No, this is sexism.”

True, it’s not about noise, but it's also unfair to simply attribute the problem to sexism. For many religious men, it’s a problem to pray in the presence of women singing. Now granted, the issue of “kol isha” is used as a red herring for most of the outspoken protesters, who would object to Women of the Wall even if they were totally silent. Still though, it can be argued from a sincere religious position that hearing women singing does make it difficult for some men to pray. A few thoughts on this:

1) It's not a question of whether anyone is "allowed" to sing according to the law - women have every right to sing. What we’re really talking about here is a question of sensitivity. The question is, who should be sensitive? My answer: everyone.

2) If it were me in the men’s section, and I was concerned about hearing women singing, I’d be sensitive to the women and simply move to the inside section of the Kotel. I’d sooner be the one who moved for them, rather than ask them to move for me (and I certainly wouldn’t holler at them!). I'd much rather adopt a giving approach, employ a little chivalry. To me, that's just as much of a religious/spiritual experience as the davening itself.

3) That said, if I were one of the Women of the Wall, I would also want to do whatever I could (short of packing up and leaving) to be sensitive to others – e.g. by davening toward the side of the women’s section farthest from the men’s section, or potentially by singing a bit softer if there wasn’t enough ambient noise at the Kotel and our voices were indeed carrying across the whole plaza - because I wouldn't want my prayer to impinge on the ability of others to pray. It comes down to simply trying to be a good neighbor. An analogy: There's no law against playing loud music in my house with the window open facing the neighbor – that’s true. But that doesn’t mean I necessarily want to make my neighbor miserable either. I'd try to balance the enjoyment of my music with a little awareness and sensitivity.

One more issue. There’s the question of acting for “shalom,” peace. Some people sympathize with the Women of the Wall, but they’re upset with the fact that these women continue to press the issue and turn the Kotel into a place of “strife.” The thought is that it’s better to stand down and not assert your needs – even if those needs are legitimate – rather than cause a scene every Rosh Chodesh at such a holy site. Especially when there are other spaces further down the Kotel (i.e. removed from the main plaza) that can be used without causing a stir – even if those spaces aren’t yet ideal or equal. Reactions to that:

1) If it’s truly “shalom” which is the concern, how about calling for the protesters to stand down for the sake of peace? Why only ask it of the Women of the Wall? And why possibly support the protesters? If people would simply allow the Women of the Wall to do their thing, we wouldn’t have nearly the same “scene” on our hands. Is there any question there would be far less commotion, far more peace and quiet, if it weren't for the protests? Indeed it was quiet for most of the preceding 25 years of the Women of the Wall praying there.

2) The calls for Women of the Wall to give in for the sake of peace remind me of the Orot Banot school situation in Beit Shemesh. Many people preferred to blame the lack of peace on the families who pressed the issue and “insisted” on having the school there, rather than placing the onus on those people who weren’t willing to accommodate them – i.e. the people who heckled/frightened the schoolgirls and threw garbage and feces into the school. Here too, at the Kotel, we have women being heckled, and objects – chairs, bottles, eggs, dirty diapers, etc. – thrown at them. And I hope they – like the Orot Banot families – continue to stand their ground.

3) This is not just about a group of women wanting to pray at the Western Wall. It’s really about a much larger issue – the fate of minority religious rights in the State of Israel. So even if there is an alternative prayer section they can use, and even if they do in fact move there at some point, this is still an issue we need to address as a society, and it's an issue of “shalom.” In other words, having the women move to another section might bring a temporary quiet, but it is not achieving “shalom” – it’s really sidestepping the issue.

At bottom, what I find troubling here is not the fact that minorities feel they need to press the issue and advocate for their rights – it’s the fact that more of the majority isn’t also looking out for them, supporting them, coming to their defense.

Is the only time we’re willing to speak up as Orthodox Jews when it’s our own rights and freedom which are on the line? Isn’t it a bit glaring when the lines we draw regarding democracy and freedom of religious expression happen to be just to the “left” (or even the “right”) of our own mode of practice? Are we really not concerned with the rights and desires of others? To paraphrase Hillel: If we are only for ourselves, what are we?

In short, that’s why I feel the need to speak out publicly in support of the Women of the Wall. It's a statement that I'm not only for myself. I may be Orthodox, I may be male, but the concerns, rights and happiness of others are my concerns as well. And so while I'm not sure that “OMFWOW” is an acronym that’s likely to catch on, I certainly hope the idea does.


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30 comments:

  1. Ok,
    the bottom line is that the WoW want to take down the mehitza.

    So for twenty years, they were not allowed to even bring a torah or tefillin or whatever, and the courts even backed the Orthodox up, but since we don't want to fight now, because we are trying to convince ourselves that, hey, it's not such a big deal, because we are afraid to poetically speaking 'draw blood', then it's only a matter of time before they win.

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    1. Josh,
      Where did you get the idea that WoW wants to remove the mechitza? Has v'shalom, the Orthodox members of WoW want so such thing! They just want to conduct prayer and read Torah with other women. Yes, there are WoW members who are non-Orthodox; it's a pluralistic group. It's not a question of winning or losing; we all want to praise Hashem. But, as always in our shared history, people differ on how to do it.

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  2. Thoughtful article. But wouldn't it be helpful if you told us a bit about David Bar-Cohn?

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  3. Josh: Yes, Anat Hoffman did speak about taking down the mechitzah, but that was part of WoW's agenda. And no one would be listening to her talk about it if there hadn't been so much opposition to WoW, giving them a voice in the media.
    Great piece, articulates a lot of what I feel about the situation. Thanks for posting!

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  4. EDIT: *never part of WoW's agenda, sorry

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    1. Please clarify - if it's Anat Hoffman's agenda, why isn't it WOW's agenda - how is Ms. Hoffman associated with Wow Or not?

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    2. Anat Hoffman is both the spokeswoman for WoW AND for the Reform Movement in Israel (ICAR?). But while the Reform movement may want the mechitza removed, WoW includes Orthodox women who will not daven in a mixed congregation. The problem is when Ms. Hoffman makes a statement it's impossible to know exactly who she is representing...

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    3. If there are Orthodox women in the WoW, then they are certainly misguided and unaware of the true intentions of the organizers.

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  5. LI Reader - I'm happy to oblige. I live in Ramat Beit Shemesh, moved from Los Angeles in 2006. (Also lived in Jerusalem 1993-2000.) I'm a psychotherapist by training, also produce Jewish children's entertainment with my wife Kerry ("Rebbetzin Tap"). I'm finishing an English sefer on the morning brachot which will be coming out soon. And I'm a hopeless (yet hopeful) idealist, concerned citizen, who's both happy and immensely grateful to live in Israel but also wants to see things improve here on many levels. Thanks for asking! ;-)

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  6. David--It's a great letter. Many of us find us so repulsed by the behavior of too many of WoW's opponents, and generally impressed by the consistency and non-violence of the WoW group. It's not a position we might have originally chosen, but sometimes actions do speak louder than words.

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  7. WOW are about feminism. A foreign entity trying to creep in and destroy Judaism. 90% of WOW are not orthodox. Why do they choose Tefillen? How do they know what it is since it is described int he Talmud? They dont accept most things from the Talmud? It is about man and women being equal and reform and conservative taking over. Anat Hoffman is their chief spokeperson if not head of it. She clearly reiterates her aspirations in an interview she gave on the bbc a few months ago. They talk about prayer and praying to Hashem. Let them keep kosher, shabbos and otehr mitzvahs and then we will talk about tefillin. Its all a joke and people who mean well are being sucked into their lies about spirituality.

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    1. lets assume that you are right about 90% not being orthodox, and not keeping Kosher etc (not that you are, but for sake of argument). Shouldn't we be happy that this group of non observant women are coming closer to G-d and Judaism and beginning to keep some mitzvot? The long road to perfection starts with a small step. Instead of putting barriers in front of their first steps, why not clear the road and help them take more? It is attitudes like yours which cause so many Jews in Israel and the world to hate the orthodox and everything they stand for

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    2. Many women who previously were not interested in davening are now inspired to come to daven at the kotel due to the actions of WOW. As you said so beautifully Jeff, we should laud each step taken in the direction of a journey towards observance. Conversely, and more sadly, many have been driven from the kotel, not by WOW, but by various women and men who appoint themselves as G-d's police force.

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    3. Anonymous - stand by your position by stating your name!!

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  8. Thanks David! Great to hear such a sensible approach to a situation that has gotten completely out of hand.

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  9. @Anonymous from 11/4 11:23: Did you poll the WoW to know that 90% are not "Orthodox"? Are you "Orthodox"? Even if you think you are, you know that there are other "Orthodox" Jews who think they are more "Orthodox" than you and consider you a "lesser" Jew. And there's the problem. And as far as feminism being "foreign" to Judaism -- was HaShem wrong in directing Moshe to grant B'not Tzelof'chad their father's inheritance? Was Moshe wrong bringing the situation to HaShem in the first place? Judaism survived that change, and it is doing very nicely with a few women who want to wear a tallit and be ba'alot k'ri'a and tefilla. I guess men and women are not equal in your eyes.

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  10. Reb Zisha,
    The articles about WOW all point to them beinging mostly not orthodox. I even hold that the "orthodox" ones there arent orthodox because what orthodox women thinks women are men?
    Feminism is not B'not Tzelof'chad. They were shomer shabbos and observant whereas mos of the wow are not(fact, not fiction). Men and women are different-simple. If you havent notice that then change your glasses.
    Do u know any places that have unisex bathrooms? Most dont. Why? Hmmn..
    Even womens boutique hotels are popular in Europe where they have women only floors or whole hotels. not for religious views. Oh, that is ok becuase it isnt hareidim demanding it.
    The mainstream dati leumi gedolim and haredim gedolim are united on this. WOW belong at the wall in their homes and not at the kotel. The kotel is for true sincere prayer. If they want true prayer, let them ask the talmedei chachamim what true prayer is and they will be told its prayer as a women and not women trying to pray like men.

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  11. David, sign me up for OMFWOW. Kol Hakavod for writing this. You hit the nail on the head - several times!

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  12. Women and men were not created equally, and therefore do not have the same mitzvot. Men have many more requirements including praying, whereas women have a nearly 100% different set of mitzvot.

    I would say that the religion was designed with complementary roles, so we function as a team unit. Women are not to do male roles, like tallis and tefilin. Men can't give birth, wear skirts, skip davenings, etc.

    WOMEN of the Wall are violating Jewish Law, as brought from Moshe at Sinai, and that's what makes it wrong.

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    1. Andrew, you obviously have never studied Talmud. While women are not required to do many mitzvot they are not forbidden from doing them. So, while they are not required to wear Tallit and T'fillin, they are not forbidden to do so. Think of your teenage daughter who babysits her younger siblings every afternoon. One day, your wife tells her that she doesn't have to come home early to watch the kids. Does this mean your daughter can't come home early and watch the kids? Of course not, just that she isn't required to. Same idea with women and Mitzvot-not required but not forbidden. AS for Torah via Moshe at Sinai--we don't do that either. We are Rabbinic Jews, who live acording to the Mishna, G'mara, and psakim our Rabbis have given over time. How many Jewish slaves do you own? Kill any Sabath desecraters lately? How much debt did you forgive last Yovel?

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  13. Jeff,
    WOW are not trying to come closer to G-d, they are trying to destroy Judaism in Israel. Anat Hoffman, their spokeperson and president(I believe) clearly states this is the 1st step to reform and conservative taking power in Israel.
    Could there be some sincere WOW, whom want to serve G-d? Of course, however there are also Jews for J that want to serve G-d, and buddists that want to and pagan idol worshippers that want to. Should we give each of them a platform opposite the kotel? There must be standards. I guarantee you that when a WOW goes to a foreign country like india, she doesnt eat a hamburger in public as not offend anyone who doesnt eat meat(against their religion). So why doesnt she have the same respect in her own country? Ah, you will say who says orthodoxy is right. DO they really think hinduism is right? No, just a matter of respect. The majority of regular kotel visitors are orthodox jews. Respect them too.
    Give me the name of one mainstream orthodox Rabbi, dati leumi or hareidi, that says the WOW are correct in what they are doing. You wont find one.
    The people who dont like orthodox jews, dont do so becuase orthodox jews stop the WOW. They dont do so because they are either self hating jews who feel guilty when they see the orthodox because deep down they know they arent keeping the mitzvot and the orthodox do or other people that are jealous.
    Orthodoxy keeps growing where as the other streams keep shrinking. Hmmnn.....

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  14. I have made this observation elsewhere but it bears repeating: When people are so concerned about how others daven, it means they are not paying enough attention to their own davening.

    Thank you for an excellent post.

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  15. Dear OMFWOW - or even Orthodox men *thinking* about being for WOW! So glad you are formulating a thoughtful position on the issue. I invite you to meet us personally at the Kotel next month. You will have to form your own minyan as we are women's only - but you can stand on white plastic chairs and peek over the mehitza from time to time to see what's going on ;-) Now that our numbers are in the hundreds, our voices certainly do carry at times over the plaza. But for most of our 25 year history, we were a very small group - we would stand as far away from the mehitza and as far away from the other women praying in the women's section as we could. Men who would come to support us would rarely be able to hear us. We are extremely sensitive and considerate of the other worshipers at the Kotel - one of the reasons we always came at 7am - was because that was a time when the plaza was still mostly empty. It is only since we won the court case against us in April that mass protests began against us and suddenly the Kotel became THE place to be at 7am. LOL...- or cry? or be happy we bring so many girls to pray at the Kotel?

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    1. Rachel, thanks so much for the comment. It's important for people to hear the message that you/WoW genuinely care about being sensitive to the other people present. Also, I was wondering why the protests intensified lately. Thanks for filling in the details on that!

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  16. Thanks everyone for the great comments (supportive or not!). If anyone's interested, I've just started a blog to try to hash out issues like these in more detail: http://emetshalom.blogspot.co.il. Your input is welcome!

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    1. Thanks so much for your nuanced approach.

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  17. David,
    Which Rabbi told you its ok to support the WOW?

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    1. I respect the question. If you're interested in discussing it, feel free to write me at dbarcohn at gmail.com.

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  18. You chose to write a blog about it so I think you should tell everyone who reads it who gives you the permsiion.
    Did you see the article on Arutz & that said most of the WOW leadership are radical left wingers who get funded by the new israel fund? Worth your reading. Anat Hoffman headed the women in black which were radical leftists. Do a little research and then you will see the WOW are about destroying judaism and not about worshipping G-d,

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