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May 23, 2012

Unequal Distribution At The Kotel

Rabbi Dov Lipman wrote an interesting, and important, op-ed in the Jerusalem Post about women at the Kotel.

The piece is mostly focused on the inequality of how the space in front of the Kotel s divided up between the men and the women. The men have a very large area, probably about 80% of the space along the length of the wall, along with a large indoor section as well. Except when it is unusually crowded, men have plenty of space to spread out and to approach the Wall.

On the women's side, on the other hand, the amount of space is very small, and there is not really an indoor section for those days where one needs protection from the extreme elements (e.g. heavy rain, hot and glaring sun, etc.). The women are crowded in a number of rows deep, and it is not easy either to spread out or for any individual woman to approach the Wall without waiting a long time for her turn.

even on what looks like a quiet day, the women
are crowded and men have lots of empty space
Anybody going to the Kotel has noticed the discrepancy and most have probably wondered how this came to be. I know I did.

Rabbi Lipman suggests that the space be divided more equally between the mens side and the womens side. the mechitza should be a mobile mechitza, generally placed in or near the middle but moveable for those occasions where there is unusual crowding on one of the sides.

I think it is a great idea.

From Jpost:
My wife and I chose to bring our daughter to the Kotel, the Western Wall, on the night she turned 12. We figured what better way to begin her life as a bat mitzva than praying at the site where our ancient Temple stood. I prepared myself for inspiration as I watched her approach the wall with her mother – but instead experienced great indignation.
The men’s side of the partition consisted of a single line of men along the entire length of the wall. The women’s side, which is far less than half the size of the men’s side, was stuffed with women six rows deep. My wife could only bring my daughter up to the wall after waiting a long time and, even then, had to push her way through.
I watched this happen and could not believe the disgrace to my daughter, to my wife, and to all women. Then, as I continued to observe my daughter praying, I could not avoid noticing how women had to wait and push to get close to the wall while on the men’s side, they could easily and immediately walk up to the wall. The time has come for this situation to change! A brief overview of what the classic Torah sources say about women demands that the situation at the Kotel must change.
Right at the beginning of Creation, the Torah describes that God created one being: “male and female He created them.” If there was only one being, why is it described as “male and female” and referred to as “them?” The Talmud explains that God fashioned an original being which embodied both male and female characteristics and then separated that one being into two. Why did God do it that way? Why didn’t he make them into separate male and female beings from the start? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of the most prominent Orthodox rabbis of the 19th century, explained as follows: “So that what was previously one creature was not two, and thereby the complete equality of women forever attested.”
Complete equality! Not a secondary being who should be treated differently from the men in terms of access to the wall and feeling that closeness to God.
Our tradition actually goes even beyond demanding equality and puts women on a pedestal. The Talmud teaches that the Jews were redeemed from slavery in Egypt due to the merit of Jewish women, and that the women did not worship the golden calf or believe the negative report of the spies about Israel. Our salvation in the Hanukka and Purim stories came because our women rose to the occasion. According to our tradition, women have “binah yeteira” – an ability to understand and comprehend which has repeatedly helped save the Jewish people throughout history.
Finally, Maimonides taught in medieval times, when most men in the world treated women as nothing more than property, that “a husband must honor his wife more than his own self.”
How, exactly, does making a woman go through such effort and experience such discomfort while praying at the Kotel fit the command to honor our wives more than ourselves? The conditions for women at the Kotel are disturbing for an additional reason. The Talmud (Tractate Brachot 31a) teaches that we learn the most basic laws of prayer from... a woman! It is absurd that the men praying with such comfort at the wall, are praying based on the example of a woman, while the women themselves must struggle to achieve meaningful prayer on their side of the partition.
A reasonable solution to this issue starts with changing the location of the partition to the middle of the Kotel plaza. That is equality! That is respect! The partition should be portable so that it can be shifted based on the needs of either side.
This idea is simple, practical and fair.
I must take this issue of women at the wall one step further. I completely agree with the policy of observing halacha, traditional Jewish law, at the Kotel. This is the place where the Temple stood and total reverence to the traditional understanding of God’s will should be observed in such a holy place. That is why there must be a partition between the women and men.
However, the guidelines and policies should not go beyond basic laws and cross into the realm of stringencies and customs. Women should have the freedom to do that which enables them to connect best to God if it conforms to halacha.
Therefore, since according to Jewish law there is nothing wrong with a woman wearing a tallit, why are women not permitted to wear a tallit at the Kotel? It is correct that traditionally women have not worn them, but a woman violates no Jewish law when she does. Creating legislation forbidding women to wear a tallit simply because it rubs certain individuals the wrong way is not valid. Everyone should focus on their own prayers and not be concerned with how others connect to God. And, if men are the ones complaining, I must ask: Why are they looking at the women’s side of the partition anyway? 
The time has come for us to recognize that the State of Israel is a blessing from God which can be a unifying force for the Jewish people instead of a polarizing force. It should be a vehicle for embracing more people to connect to their Judaism instead of pushing them away from it. What I witnessed at the Kotel that night, and hearing about women being arrested for wearing a tallit while praying there, creates polarization and distancing without any Torah or rabbinic law having been transgressed.
I hope all women view this as a call to action. If Jewish women have been praised throughout history for saving the day, perhaps it is time for women to end this madness as well.
Women should rise up and demand that while accepting halacha at the Kotel is important, the degradation of women will no longer be tolerated. Let us begin correcting this lack of respect by erecting a moveable partition which starts every day with half the wall for men and half the wall for women.
We now find ourselves in the days during which we commemorate the miraculous return of the Kotel to our hands. There is, no doubt, a strong religious connotation to these celebrations and these remind us that the Kotel is a holy place where everyone can agree that halacha should be observed.
But that can be accomplished without the current policies toward women. Our holy women demand better treatment than this. I want my next daughter to have no problem approaching that special wall on her bat mitzva night.
I agree 100% with Rabbi Lipman on this issue. There is no reason for the women to be crowded in like that. The space should be divided up more equally, and allowing for a flexible mechitza makes a lot of sense.

I dislike the inclusion of the women wearing tallit issue as part of the article. I agree that people should mind their own business, and if it is not going against halacha, and technically women are allowed to wear tzitzit even though today it is uncommon and perhaps only done today as a sign of womens lib or some form of progressive Judaism, the issue should be ignored when it happens rather than turned into a fight. 

In a discussion (on Facebook) about that very point, Rabbi Lipman insists the issues are connected - he says they are both the result of extremists being in control of the Kotel area, and really of Judaism in general. (I hope I am presenting his position accurately - Rabbi Lipman is welcome, as always, to write a guest post here in response to clarify his position or to respond to my thoughts). The extremists stick their nose into what other people do, they stop the women from wearing tallit at the Kotel on the womens side of the mechitza turning the issue into a big fight where people from both sides often get arrested, and they are also responsible for the crowding of the women into a small section.

I don't know the history of how the plaza was divided up. I don't know how the women got such a small section compared to the expanse of the mens section. Perhaps someone can fill me in with the history and background of this. I do not think it has anything to do with extremists controlling the area and determining that women should only have a small amount of space. For whatever reason, originally it was divided up unequally and has remained so until this day. Perhaps nobody has tried hard enough to get it redesigned and more equally distributed.

not everything is an issue of extremism. 

Yes, it is unfair and unequal. yes there is a need to rectify the situation. No, not everything needs to be turned into a big fight of survival and existence.

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  1. i'm just going to point out quickly that the distribution you see there in that picture is very rare usually both sides are almost empty, and also women claimed spots inside the tunnels as well(including the closest spot to where the ark used to sit)
    most of the time the space for the men may not be needed but come any kind of even and all of a sudden it's 10 to 1 men crowding everyone. the space for men is definitely needed

  2. At least part of the issue is due to the colapse several years ago of the ramp to the Har HaBayit. The replacement ramp was built over, and took space from, the women's section only. Also, there used to be a room under the ramp that women could use, that has also been off-limits (if it still exists) since the colapse.

  3. "No, not everything needs to be turned into a big fight of survival and existence."

    But unfortunately it has to be a fight for votes...!! On that note not to look like a complete jerk, was this Rabbi Lipman so vocal BEFORE beit shemesh incident and the forming of the new party?

  4. The only problem I can see with a mobile mechitza is that we may start to see "men's only" events where the entire wall is sequestered for men's use for this or that occasion. Maybe they could set up the mechitza such that it physically cannot be moved within the current 20% position.

    By the way, none of this solves the egalitarian issue - i.e., that there is no place for men and women to daven together. The Kotel is a national heritage for all Klal Yisrael - not the "property" of frum Jews. We can't just make the Kotel "for us" without regard to other groups' needs. That's going to have to change eventually - as are other areas of Orthodox monopoly.

  5. 20 years ago, the women's section was much larger than it is today.

  6. Just looked at some old pictures. I think the Mechitza was pretty much in the same place. It's the "temporary bridge" that is stealing a lot of space. (Doesn't mean it shouldn't have been moved as soon as that bridge went up.) Also the mechitza was much lower. Women are looking over it without standing on anything!

    I agree with Dov that this is all related. It's all part of the same "Chareidization" that's going on at the Kotel, in Bet Shemesh, and the country in general. It's a multi-headed beast that must be continually fought.

    As aside, did you know that there is actually a law on the books that a woman cannot wear a Talis "like a man" at the Kotel? This means that it's ok to wear one like a scarf, as the conservative often do, but not folded over the shoulders as orthodox usually do. I'm sorry, that is just bizarre. These idiots should just mind their own damn business. If they were truly "pious" they'd be busy praying to God and not looking over the mechitza at what the women are wearing.

  7. Woman traditionally have not worn talits. There are many people who will be upset by seeing this done at the kotel. I am not speaking about a few extremist men but rather many people on the Women's side including traditional sefardi woman will object to seeing this. I see no reason why to change the status quo.

    The truth is I think Dov has blown it. The Am Shalem party was set up to be the moderate voice of Charedim. But from what I can see the party hasn't made any impact amongst Modern Charedim and campaigning for Women's rights to wear a talit at the kotel will make sure that while Alisa Coleman may vote for Am Shalem no Charedi however 'modern' will vote for them.

  8. Women have "traditionally" not learned Chumash, Tanach, Gemorah. Women have "traditionally" not left the house except when absolutely necessary. Women have "traditionally" not received degrees in higher education or become professionals.

    Yes, by all means, let's base our society on the least common denominator of backward thinking.

    Move on.

  9. Menachem, If you want to make change you don't need to start it at the Kotel. If women wearing talits became a normal practice then by all means they can do it at the kotel too BUT at the moment most women don't do it and if you ask me have no desire to do it either.

  10. For many Jewish women this already is a norm. It's really so sad, millions of Jews couldn't give a you-know-what about the Kotel yet it's beyond some to show a little tolerance for those that do care but in a different way.

    How about, since these people consider the Kotel plaza to be such a holy place and since this ongoing exile was essentially caused by Sina, that the denizens of that holy place (who SHOULD know better) be more "Frum" about how they treat their fellow Jew and less concerned about what they wear?

  11. First of all I am no not sure that the Women who come to the Kotel and wear a talit are doing it because they 'care' about the Kotel but rather they may well be doing it to make a feminist statement.

    My 2nd point which I also made above is that you shouldn't think that the people objecting to women wearing a talit are just a bunch of extreme Charedi men. Many traditional women who come to the kotel in trousers (that's pants for you Yankies)and wrap the material round there legs come to the kotel to be in a traditional atmosphere and they don't wish this atmosphere upset by these women changing tradition. Shouldn't these "Talit women" be more "Frum" about how they upset their fellow Jew and less concerned about what they themselves wear?

  12. Bottom line is that "your not sure" either way because we can't know what's in a person's heart. But the fact is that they are coming to pray at the Kotel.

    "Shouldn't these "Talit women" be more "Frum" about how they upset their fellow Jew and less concerned about what they themselves wear?"

    Halevi everyone should feel this way. But this issue is one of behavior. Whether or not it bothers the traditional women, they are not the ones throwing chairs and yelling. Regardless, the idea that there's a law on the books about this is ridiculous and only encourages extremist behavior. The law must be eradicated.

  13. that is true of most "religious laws". Right now about 98% of jews commemorate YK, mostly by fasting. If there was a law requiring fasting on YK, that number would drop considerably.

    same with circumcision and with pesach seder.


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