Thursday, September 23, 2010

Women of the Wall

I grew up Orthodox. The synagogue we attended in my childhood maintained a strict separation of the sexes. All the liturgy was conducted in the mens' section. The women watched from a curtained gallery. The women were invisible to the men, hidden behind the screen above the clock at the back of the synagogue. As a young boy, I was allowed occasional access to the women's section. My job on the fast day of Yom Kippur was to ferry the small, brown bottle of smelling salts back-and-forth between my mother up in he gallery and my father with whom I sat for services.
Yet, the first time I attended an egalitarian service it immediately felt right. I was already in my 20s and had left the Orthodox world. I visited a non-Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem and was directed to sit next to a family. "Family seating" was in sync with every other aspect of life where the sexes are not separated.

The emanicipation of women in Judaism is a fault line between Israeli and American Jews. The overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews don't get what all the fuss is about. 20% of them attend an Orthodox synagogue. Almost everybody else, while not attending services themselves, do not recognize non-Orthodox Judaism as authentic. In the Israeli mind, Jewish ritual = invisible women.

Over here on the other side of the Atlantic and the Mediteranean, American Jews - even Orthodox - find the question of the role of women to be urgent and relevant.

Yet, the recent, successful mobilization of liberal American Jewish organizations on behalf of Anat Hoffman and Women of the Wall is making an impact in Israel. The Israeli political establishment gets that American Jews care passionately about the equality of women in Judaism.

The campaign demonstrates to Orthodox Jews (and disaffected Israeli Jews) that American Jews stand for something. This could be the beginning of a respectful conversation about competing views of Judaism.
This campaign brings to light the influence that American Jews can have on Israeli policy. It opens the door to a discussion on equal rights for Arabs.

Now, if the mainstream American Jewish organizations took on the shooting of non-violent Palestinian demonstrators by Israeli forces and the campaign of violence against innocent Arab farmers, and the formalized, legal discrimination against non-Jews - that would be something to celebrate!

The success of the Women of the Wall campaign is showing that we have the power.

What are we going to with it?


  1. "In the Israeli mind, Jewish ritual = invisible women."
    And therefore it is in your mind as well...... How believable do you think this mea culpa about your split from Israeli-style orthodoxy really is?

    As a formerly orthodox Israeli, you will always be suspect in the eyes of Reform Jews in the US. The problem for you is "Israeli" and not "orthodox"

  2. myjewishlearning,
    I offered some personal biography as background and to show how unnatural is the separation of sexes in in our world. The inexorable move towards family seating throughout Judaism, including current trends in some Orthodox communities, show how normal this is today. There are some beautiful things in traditional services, but being separated from my wife is not something I miss.
    Many religions claim to be attracting new adherents:
    and moving between religions and different denominations is very common in the U.S. If any break with the religious practice of one's childhood required a "mea culpa", there's going to be lots of guilty folks out there.
    On your second point, I find other people who have made substantial changes (such as converting from Christianity to Judaism) to be interesting. I expect it works both ways. You may be familiar with the tradition in Judaism that celebrates the outside experiences of the "ger", the one who was not born within the tradition. Think, for example, of the Talmudic Akilas and Maimonides stance on Ovadiah the Proselyte.

    Finally, if you are suggesting that there is an essential distinction to be made between Israeli Orthodox and American Orthodox, then we agree.

    In practical terms, what you suggest has not been my experience. On the contrary, the variety of my religious experience seems to be of interest to people.