Until now, the Women of the Wall were known as a group that has been working for decades in an effort to obtain equal prayer rights for women at Judaism’s holiest site. But last Friday, group members moved from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. They set up a table at the entrance to Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market and began approaching other women and asking if they would like to put on a tallit and tefillin — a prayer shawl and the leather straps and boxes that traditionally accompany men’s morning prayer.
In their demonstration on the eve of International Women’s Day, the Women of the Wall appear to have taken a chapter from the Chabad movement and its well-known outreach effort to encourage men to take part in the tefillin ritual. But this new activity begs the question: What is Women of the Wall? The group achieved a long-desired victory this year when a Jerusalem district judge ruled that the group’s monthly prayer service at the Western Wall was legal, a move long opposed by the rabbinic authority at the Wall. The group is also negotiating with the government of Israel over a pluralistic prayer space at nearby Robinson’s Arch. Consistent with their name and monthly prayer service activities, the group’s efforts have heretofore focused on equal access issues at the Kotel.
Having won hard-fought victories, one might think the group would move to deepen and strengthen its new found rights at the Kotel. By branching out to Tel Aviv and tefillin, however, it appears that Women of the Wall are searching for new controversial areas of religious activity. It also gives the appearance of a group seeking publicity for publicity’s sake, as opposed to making a positive contribution to religious expression.
In liberal Judaism, women donning tefillin is becoming more common. Even some American Orthodox day schools have started to allow their young women students to perform these rituals. Clearly, women and tefillin is an issue that Jews are considering and rethinking.
So is that Women of the Wall’s new mission?
It is not uncommon for an issue-focused organization to expand into new, related areas once it has accomplished its founding goal. But if, in taking tefillin to the Carmel Market, Women of the Wall has decided to become a permanent advocacy group on an array of religious observance issues that affect women, they should probably say so.