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May 24, 2012

Rabbi Lipman Responds On The Women Tallit and Kotel Mechitza Issues

This post has been written in response to my post yesterday about the issue of moving the mechitza at the Kotel to divide the space more equally between men and women..

A Guest Post by Rabbi Dov Lipman

Thank you, Rafi, for offering me the opportunity to respond.

Let me begin by stating that I appreciate someone being intellectually honest and saying, "I agree regarding the mechitza issue but not about the tallit issue." That is very mature and I hope you will join in any efforts made to change the policy regarding the mechitza. We do not have to agree about everything. I applaud the approach of agreeing to disagree but still respecting one another. 

And now to explain. I am not in favor calling women all over the world to being wearing a tallit and my wife and daughters will not wear a tallit.  But, numerous experiences over the last few years have led me to understand two things:  
  1. We cannot give extremists even an inch of space to flex their muscles 
  2. We have to start thinking about am yisrael.  

I will start with number 2.  When I was in the United States a few months ago, I met with one of the leaders of the Orthodox community.  He explained that 20 years ago, Reform and Conservative Judaism were insignificant.  Orthodoxy was alive and vibrant and Reform and Conservative held little clout and had no real future.  That has changed.  Why?  He explained that it is 100% percent because of the stringencies and extremist policies which are taking hold in the Orthodox world.   

People who used to feel welcome and more at home in Orthodox circles no longer feel that way and they are looking for a religious home.   This has become glaringly true in Israel where these movements did not try to make inroads – even when they were very strong.  But now, they are on the rise in Israel and are creating serious challenges to the religious establishment.

If we think about am yisrael for a moment, there is something we can do about it.  If we find ways within halacha, I emphasize WITHIN HALACHA, to make all Jews feel comfortable, then on the issues where we cannot compromise they won't make a fuss.  If we allow people to use any rabbi they want for a burial where there are no halachic issues at all, then they will respect the demands to kiddushin to be done according to halacha.  If we work to make conversions more lenient, ACCORDING TO LEGITIMATE HALACHIC OPINIONS, then they won't demand that every one of their conversions be accepted.  We are am yisrael and we have to find a way to work together even if we disagree and this can be done.  

The same with the tallit issue.  Until 2001 there was no law against talitot at the Kotel.  Were there masses of women flocking to the Kotel with a tallit?  No!  And that could make it easier to deal with some of the more stickier issues which may violate halacha.  I believe that we can repeal the law regarding tallit and other practices on the women side and actually meet with these groups about a compromise to insure that halacha is kept at that site.  

Am I advocating that women should start wearing talitot?  No.  But Tosfot, the Rosh, and the Ran all said that women can wear them and make a bracha as quoted by the Rema before he suggests that they don't so why make an issue out of it?   Let's embrace Jews and make them feel more comfortable and work together to make compromises which still conform to halacha.

Which leads me to point #1.  Why is there such a policy at the Kotel?  We all know that the average graduate of Mir or Ponovezh could not care less about a woman putting on a tallit at the Kotel.  So, who does it bother?  Extremists.  Let me begin with a story which a madricha from MMY wrote to me this week.  She took her students to the Kotel on Friday night.  The girls were bothered by the fact that they had no space and they could not hear anything from the men's side.  So, to give the girls a good experience, she brought them back later, after the seuda, when women weren't even davening there and, on the women's side (not right next to the mechtitza) they had a kumzits.   What was the result?  Men threw chairs at them!  Yes, threw chairs at them.  This madricha does not have an "anti-Charedi" bone in her body so let's not turn this into a discussion about that.  She and the girls were in shock.  How can anyone think they have that type of control where they can begin throwing chairs at young women? The answer is, they have been given the feeling that they have control!   

Let's go back to Bet Shemesh for a moment.  Grown men on  a street verbally assaulting 8 year old girls?  Yes, they were given a sense of control from the Mayor and the Haredi political leadership.  Think about it for a moment.  Israeli flags fly in Beitar and Bnei Brak.  Why?  Because the average chareidi, even if he is not a Zionist, knows that he lives in the State of Israel and it is normal for the government to put up flags around its Independence Day and they respect that.  But, the Mayor chose not to fly flags near the extremist areas.  I emphasize, NEAR their areas.  I understand and respect not flying them in their neighborhoods.  But not anywhere NEAR them?  This gives them the sense of control.  It makes it THEIR territory.  And, if it is THEIR territory they can police how people act, including little girls.  

The same with the Kotel.  Who made the demand to make tallitot forbidden at the Kotel?  Extremists!  The average chareidi does not care.  Once that law passes and they have control, they then feel empowered to throw chairs at young, religious women who are innocently singing in a group on the women's side.

And that is why the issue of the mechitza and tallit are linked.  Think for a moment what will happen the first time they try to move the mechitza to take away space from the men's side.  The average person, chareidi or not, would not flinch.  But the extremists will riot.  And no one wants a riot.  So, they control the site.  And they, through UTJ and Shas, control religious policy in the country.   And that is what I hope to change and what Am Shalem hopes to change.  Halacha?  Yes.  Chumros?  No.  Unity?  Yes.  Polarizing Judaism and distancing fellow Jews?  No.   

So, I believe we should change the law.  I don't think we should be asking women to start wearing talitot nor do I think women will start doing this en masse once the law is changed.  I simply believe that the Torah world is alive, well, strong, and unthreatened and, therefore, we should seek the lenient path in halacha - IN HALACHA - to make more Jews feel welcome instead of pushing them away.  I believe that is what the Ribbono Shel Olam wants from us at this point in time and I believe that this will save our future as a people.
You want to disagree with me?  That is your right.  But make sure you prepare your answer for the Ribbono Shel Olam when he asks you why you didn't find ways to proactively embrace more Jews and create more unity.  Have your answer prepared for when He asks why enforcing stringent opinions regarding bein adam lamakom was more important than following lenient, but acceptable halachic opinions while being strict bein adam l'chaveiro and saving Jews.  You have an answer?  Fantastic.  If you don't, give it some thought.

The time has come for us to have open and honest discussions about real issues without the venom and vitriol which has become all too common and serves no productive purpose. 

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  1. I am reminded of a great comment made by R' Isaac Bernstein ztl, a learned Rav in London who died far too young, who said that in the last 100 years every single chumra he is aware of was in the realm of bein adam l'makom. When we start making chumrot in the realm of bein adam l'chaveiro, we'll know we're on the right path.

  2. This is a very nice post and I mostly agree with it. But I am curious.
    I hope Rav Dov Lipman has time to respond to my questions.

    1. How do we get the laws changed?
    2. What type of demonstrations and protests are you looking for?
    3. How can people who have busy lives but want to "demonstrate" for more open and less stifling laws in the public sphere do so?

    4. I'd love to see the government open/enforce/engage in, the most open and least restrictive halachic laws as possible. But how can this be done? How can people be convinced that X halacha is ok for the government and allowed on the books, but in our own communities we should behave differently? I know it needs to be done for the klal, and would love to help in those efforts, but how is it possible?

  3. I would point out that i think Rabbi Lipman misunderstood my point, at least in part. I do not disagree about the tallit issue. At least, not completely. I would choose to ignore the situation of a woman wore a tallit in a shul I was attending or at the Kotel. If a woman wants to wear a tallit it does not bother me.
    I only disagreed to the linkage between the two issues of the tallit and the mechitza.

    1. So Rafi if I understood what you wrote, you said you don't think the extremists made the women's section squishy so how can he compare that to stopping women from wearing talitot. But from what Rabbi Lippman writes it sounds like he's saying we need to give the women's section more room but if we'd try the extremists would prevent it. He's anticipating extremist interference with the space for women, just like there was extremist interference for the tallitot.

  4. I wanna know, what is the highest spot held by a woman in the Am Shalem party? Is that spot a reasonably realistic spot to get into the Knesset in the next elections.

    if you are going to fight for equality for women in every situation in which you see their rights being repressed, what about in your own party?

  5. Beautifully written, Reb Dov. I'm with you 100%.

  6. Dov, how do you know that your daughters won't one day wear a tallit?

  7. Very good article (both of them), and I totally agree. Keep up the good fight!

  8. I don't think the Reform and Conservative are really growing here. Their main appeal is to Western olim. Most secular Israelis feel the that the Shul they don't do to is an Orthodox one. And as for most of the traditional Sefardim they wouldn't go near a reform Shul.
    Do a survey of Israeli secular Women and find out how many of them really want to wear a talit? I am sure you will find very few. So I am not sure who you are trying to make comfortable but you may make many others uncomfortable.
    One thing is for sure, Charedim who have left yeshiva and have gone out to work and feel ostracised by the traditional Charedi parties will not consider voting for Am Shalem if these are the policies they are pursuing.

  9. "One thing is for sure, Charedim who have left yeshiva and have gone out to work and feel ostracised by the traditional Charedi parties will not consider voting for Am Shalem if these are the policies they are pursuing."

    Halavei we can have a party that promotes policies because they are right, rather than because they are looking for votes. Anyway, I can't see Am Shalem making an impact in elections anyway. Most haredim will probably continue to vote for the establishment parties, and those that don't will probably vote for mainstream parties like Likud - particularly if they raise the election threshold, which I think they are likely to do. If all that Am Shalem and people like Dov Lipman do is to raise a fuss when people are being harassed and persecuted in the name of religion, e.g. the situation a few months ago at Orot, they will be doing far more good than a lot of the politicians have been doing.
    As to Reform and Conservative, true that they don't have an impact here. But I do think that extremism drives a lot of people away from religion in general, and pushes away people that might otherwise be interested in exporing traditional judaism.

  10. So, as a husband and father and future Conservative Rabbi, I want to raise a few points.
    1) Kol haKavod to Rabbi Lipman on your views. The extremist fringes have been given control over the past 20 years over religious spheres that have consistently been used as a wedge against klal yisrael. The relegation of progressive groups to Robinson's Arch (Separate but unequal) and the denial of Sifre Torah to mixed groups of students are just two recent examples of the 'extremists' pushing progressive Jews away from Israel.
    2) In terms of the history of the progressive streams of Judaism, Masorti congregations are growing all throughout Israel, despite the institutional barriers keeping them from success (such as recognition of our Rabbis, lack of state subsidies, etc). Moreshet Yisrael and Moreshet Avraham, here in Jerusalem, are consistently well attended, both in services and programming. There are multiple independent minyanim who would self identify as progressive here in Jerusalem. In the United States, Reform and Conservative Judaism, for the past 60 years, have been the streams of Judaism most American Jews affiliate with. To say they have no power is not knowing the history of American Judaism.
    3) Last time I checked, Olim are Israelis and to define them as an 'other' is a disservice to their choice to come live here. They pay their arnona, pay their taxes, vote in elections, and unlike some Haredi, some serve to defend the state and the Jewish people. To label someone as 'Olim' as a derogatory category goes against the spirit of Baba Metzia 58b (Malbin Panim).
    4) Lastly, I am proud of my friends and wife who go and 'fight the good fight' every Rosh Chodesh at WoW. I am honored to call the three women who were intimidated and detained friends. I think that repealing the law regarding women wearing tallitot is the final step. The first step is for everyone to stand up to the extremists and tell them their behavior is unacceptable. Who thinks that interrupting someone's prayer is a valid expression of Judaism? Or who will stand up and tell those 'holy' men that throwing chairs at girls is a shanda? If I were there, I can say I would have. Would you?

    1. Marc - I would ask you why your wife and her friends go to the kotel - is it due to a deep, spiritual urge, or is it to make a statement?

  11. I really don't want to get into the whole "extremist" issue, but I have a comment on a suggestion from the original article. Dov suggests that moveable mechitzot be installed at the Kotel. Does he really think that this is a good idea? Move the permanent mechitzot, and some people get bent out of shape until they get distracted by some other nonsense; replace them with portable mechitzot, and there will be fights every day between otherwise level-headed people.

  12. I work in a lab in Hebrew University we are a small group 3 Dati 3 Chiloni. The three Israeli Chiloni scientists I work with all chose to get married in Israel through a non rabbanut ceremony (reform or conservative) and then get married in Chutz L'aretz rather than stepping foot in the Rabbanut. One till this day attends a thriving Reform synagogue with a female Rabbi in Meveseret they are not anglo olim (his family is Iraqui). There is definitely a reform and conservative movement here and it will grow if we allow the rabbanut to be dominated by people who have no interest in the greater good of Klal Yisrael.

  13. Hi, this is Dov Lipman. Here are responses to all the questions:

    1) Anonymous - We can change the laws with a government like we have now in which the extremist parties have no power to stop the legislation by threatening to leave the coalition. Many of the rules can change with someone like MK Rabbi Haim Amsalem as religion minister, something which I am working towards.

    2)Anonymous - I am not calling for anyone to demonstrate although I personally think women should. What can you do? Explore all the options when it comes to election time and vote for the party which will focus on these issues.

    3)Rafi – the issues are linked because why do you think they will never move the mechitza? Because it will cause a riot. Why will it cause a riot? Because extremists have been given a feeling of control at the Kotel.

    4)Shmuel - Yes, there will be a woman in a realistic spot on the list. Yes, women are involved with Am Shalem today. We had a gathering at the Knesset last week and two out of the four speakers were women including one who delivered a shiur.

    5)A human – if my daughters decide to wear a tallit that is their choice and according to the Mishna Berurah they will receive reward for it. We are not bringing them up to do so since I do believe there is a concept of "mechzi k'yuhara" as the Rema says and I would never instruct them to change from the way things have been done.

    6)Shimon A – Israelis are starting to take notice of reform and conservative in huge numbers and they are becoming very relevant. See the comments from Yael and Marc. As for Chareidim voting for Am Shalem, one of our core flags is being lenient with conversions within halacha. Am Shalem will be the salvation for Chareidim who want to raise their children to have Torah and general studies like in the United States but they will have to be comfortable with some leniencies that are within halacha that we think are necessary. 20% of our support comes from Chareidim according to the polls.

    7) Baruch Gitlin – we will most likely end up running as Am Shalem but along with another party. There are many offers on the table and we will choose the one which makes the most sense for our success in making changes.

    8)Yoni – yes, change the policy of control that the extremists have and move the mechitza when necessary. Arrest people who make trouble over it for disorderly conduct. By the way, most of the time it will be like it is set up now but be prepared to adjust it if the women are very crowded and them are not.

    1. "7) Baruch Gitlin – we will most likely end up running as Am Shalem but along with another party. There are many offers on the table and we will choose the one which makes the most sense for our success in making changes."

      Well, I wish you and the party very much hazlacha. This sounds like the kind of thing Maimad did a few years ago.

    2. if that "other party" ends up being Likud, you've got a supporter from the inside!:-)

  14. I think the idea of linkage was basically shooting both yourself and the great idea in the foot. Why bother bringing it up? The moveable mechitza would not be a piece of cardboard for the extremists to move on their whim but rather a pretty sturdy wood and metal construction that could be set up and removed similar to the ones erected for large events like Tisha b'av. There is a 'baal habayit' of the kotel and I think would have been much more open to the idea without the linkage to talit and tefillin wearing which is irrelevant to the occasional space crisis. You lost before you even started.

    1. Hashkafically I'm with you Josh. But when I read Dov's writeup I understand that the Am Shalem platform is telling its potential supporters: we're going to make some hard choices for the overall good, we're not going to hide those from you, and you need to decide if you're with us for the big picture.

      That said, there's a big problem with politics nowadays, that most people shy away from the hard choices and prefer the fiction that it will all work out fine - subsidies to more people but forget that it further bankrupts the working class, don't arrest the potential terrorist because of the potential international fallout and pretend there's nothing to worry about, tiptoe around getting serious with the conversion issue and just hope that miraculously those pushing the stringent side will ease up.

      Can Israelis be counted on to think their choices through, and stick to them?

    2. So now I assume that including the female tallit people was to generate 'progressive' support for the idea and for Am Shalem in general, and therefore, not really looking for a solution.

  15. Rabbi Lipman,

    I think what the orthodox Rabbi told you is indicative of a larger problem; lack of knowledge.

    By preventing generations of Jews from connecting in any way to the outside world, be it culturally, geographically, and educationally, you end up with Rabbis and people with no connection to the larger reality. For an orthodox Rabbi, clearly someone important enough for you to meet and converse with and quote, to be so fatally misinformed on the history and current affairs of orthodox Judaism and progressive Judaism; reveals a much deeper problem.

    As for progressive Judaism in Israel: I live in HodHasharon. There are more trief restaurants than kosher. Within 4 blocks of my apartment are a number of shops where one may buy bacon, shrimp and other items. Hod HaSharon has a movie theatre, bars, tattoo parlor, snooker hall, and 5 gyms (that I know of) and is generally a secular town.

    And there are over a dozen orthodox and charedi shuls. And there is only 1 reform shul (that I know of).

    The reform shul is privatly funded.

    All the other shuls were given land and money and continued state support.

    Because the people who control the money are the rabbanut. And while most charediim don't trust their hecsher, they do control how the rabbanut distributes funds.

    So if the vast majority of funding goes to the orthodox, and the orthodox gets to build most of the shuls, is it any wonder that the shul an israeli doesn't go to is an orthodox shul? What other choice does anyone really have?

    Your party is attempting to treat a symptom, not the disease. Jews aren't turning away because of the taliit issue. The tallit issue is a minor part in the feeling that orthodox jewry give others the feeling of fundamentalist extremism. The feeling I get when I see fundamentalist christians or fundamentalist muslims and others in the news, that sick and scared ache in the pit of my gut, is the same feeling I get from fundamentalist jews.

    Secular jews don't hate the charediim, thats a misconception. We are scared like hell of them.

  16. Regarding the portable mechitzah, I'm reminded of when I last went to the kotel and behind the main divider was a bunch of portable mechitzot. There were men on one side trying to keep it straight and tell women to go to the other side, while there was a line of elder women sitting on chairs against the "men's" side (because that's where the shade on the hot day was).

    It was very funny seeing them tell all the young women to go to the other side, while completely ignoring the older ladies in the chairs. And I'm glad they behaved that way.. but still it was funny.


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