When a “movement” has more media appearances than members, do we notice something amiss? When a group claiming to favor prayer calls for dismantling a place of worship, do we smell smoke? And when leaders of an organization demand “Ahavat Yisrael” and then express outright rev-ulsion for all who oppose their agenda, do we finally penetrate the veneer?
This is the tragic saga of the Women of the Wall, which portrays itself worldwide as advocating for women’s rights, but in Israel is known primarily for dishonoring a holy site with political circus — and sewing offense and discord.
They claim to speak for women but disparage their spirituality. Chair Anat Hoffman referred to traditional prayers at the Wall as “men only,” discarding those of millions of women annually. Founding member Phyllis Chesler asse-rted that recognition of their group will “acknowledge women as spiritual and religious beings, capable of noncoerced autonomous, independent and halachic prayer.” She imagines that traditional women, “forced to obey ultra-misogynist views,” are lacking in all of the above.
But founding and current member Shulamit Magnus takes the crown. She claims that only women ignorant of Judaism oppose them, and having invented this fact, she then declares that it “speaks volumes about the subjugated place of women in [traditional] society and about the male structures that construct and control that society with an iron hand.” She describes traditional Judaism as “archaic, alien and repulsive.”
With the exception of their own monthly pilgrimages, the leadership doesn’t seem to find praying at the Wall all that momentous either. As a leader of the Reform movement in Israel, Hoffman recently proposed dismantling the place of worship in favor of a “national monument.”
Reform rabbis in Israel declared in 1999 that “one should not consider the Western Wall as possessing any sanctity.” Why, then, the brouhaha?
Recently, Hoffman confronted a Knesset committee wearing a tallit, and a Likud Knesset member had a moment of comprehension. “This is not an halachic argument,” he said. “It is about hegemony. They are trying to take over.” Hoffman made this explicit in an interview with the BBC. She said she wants to fragment Judaism in the Jewish state and is using a place of worship for political theater.
In “secular” Tel Aviv there are more than 550 traditional (what Americans might call Orthodox) synagogues with daily prayers and one Reform Temple open only on Shabbat. The movement has scant footing in Israel, and Hoffman hopes to use this as a wedge issue to shore up support. Sadly, she seems to care little for the alienation she causes among Jews who needlessly fear their rights might be ignored in the Jewish state.
After all of the tumult and media coverage, only around 50 Women of the Wall go to the Wall itself on a monthly basis. Most women respect the sanctity and tradition practiced at the Wall for millennia and are not interested in offending others in a place of worship.
Recently some of the heretofore silent majority launched a new group, striving to preserve the Kotel as the one place on earth where Jews of all persuasions pray peacefully, side by side. They are the Women for the Wall, and it is they who deserve our support and admiration.
Rabbi Yaakov Menken is the director of Project Genesis — Torah.org, a Baltimore-based Jewish outreach organization.