So, back to Yom Kippur. When I was at the wall, I had a really traumatic experience. I walked up to the wall, put on my tallit, closed my eyes, and began to pray. Moments later I was tapped on the shoulder and a woman demanded that I take off my tallit. She said that I was not allowed to wear it at the Kotel and that she “didn’t care what I did at home, but I could not offend and do this here.” I was completely flabbergasted. I did not want to take it off, but I also did not want to disrespect by getting in an argument standing at the wall. I simply removed it and began to cry. I think that I was most upset solely because I was caught so off-guard. I was totally in the zone saying my prayers when this woman disturbed me. I also felt stupid, as if I should have known better. The rest of the time that I was there, the women around me kept staring at me. It also made me so sad to see a woman enforcing this belief. To have a woman tell another woman that she may not do something because of her gender makes me so sad. I had an extraordinarily hard time focusing the rest of the time that I was at the Wall, got upset that I was so upset, and eventually gave up and left. It makes me so sad that this is how I am going to remember my Yom Kippur prayer at the wall. I wish so badly I could turn back time and have it happened differently.
After telling my family about what happened to me, I received a call from my father a few hours later. He explained to me that the sermon he heard at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, hundreds of miles away from where I was, dealt with the exact same issue. His Rabbi, Rabbi Saphire, discussed the need for more political pull in Israel from the secular side and discussed examples of ultra-orthodox ideals affecting modern society. She discussed Israel’s need to adhere to ‘Jewish values’ and focused much of her remarks about the mistreatment of women. One example she used were rules against women wearing tallit at the Kotel. She discussed an organization called Women of the Wall.
Women of the Wall was partially started by the IRAC, the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel. It is group of women who both work to change the rules against women at the Wall, as well as to push boundaries and protest once in a while. Once a month, they hold services at the wall in which they are allowed to sing together, carry a Torah, and wear tallit. I have been reading about them a lot and am so excited by their work. I hope to get involved with them and will be attending their next service.
I have never been largely interested in women’s rights, but this experience has caused me to really think about this issue often. While I am not taking on all interests of women’s rights, the one of women in Judaism has begun to fascinate me and once I am more educated, I hope to become involved with groups such as Women of the Wall.
In this vein, I requested that during one of our beit midrash lessons, we discuss women in Judaism. We identified that there are many mitzvot that women are exempt from doing (not forbidden from). These are typically mitzvot that are time sensitive. The idea is that women may be too busy taking care of the children (and yes, in the kitchen) to be able to participate in mitzvot that must be done at a certain time of day, mitzvot assay she’hazeman gerama, such as listening to the shofar, residing in the Sukkah, and raising the lulav on Sukkot.
I asked the question, then, specifically about the issue of women wearing a tallis. It is a commandment for a man to wear tsittsit when wearing a garment with four corners. Therefore, the tallis itself isn’t holy, rather it is a specific garment to carry out this obligation. Men are obligated, logically, to only carry out this mitzvah when wearing a garment with four corners. Women are exempt from this because it is time-bound. However, there is nothing that forbids them from wearing a tallis. My beit midrash leader explained that while women are technically allowed to wear a tallis, it is considered a sign of haughtiness because some men do not always follow this commandment. When a woman wears a tallis, it is perceived that she thinks that she is better than men. So, this act is only offensive to others because it is not socially accepted. But, if this is the argument against women wearing a tallis, what is the issue with wearing them in a group of only women, as I was when I stood on the women’s side at the Kotel? Throughout my continued research, this question has yet to be answered. My discussion leader did mention that she believes that if a woman wants to wear a tallis at one instance, she must be prepared to take on that obligation every day. But what if she is?
Aviva Cayam writes (what I hear is) a fascinating article on this exact topic. Her essay, Fringe Benefits: Women and Tzitzit, “presents a halakhic analysis of women’s exemption from the commandment of tzitzit. She discusses halakhic sources relating to the permissibility of a woman to perform this commandment and the value of such performance.” The article is found on the JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) website. I would love to read this article except that it costs money. So if anyone wants to donate to the cause of a poor volunteer, let me know! Or read it yourself and let me know what you think!
The idea of an “Orthodox feminist alliance” fascinates me. From the outside it seems that women in Orthodoxy are repressed, however, I am starting to rethink this. I had never heard before about women being “exempt” from certain commandments. While there are 613 mitzvot, commandments, in Jewish tradition, it is actually impossible for a person to complete all of them. This is become some are directed solely for certain professions, families, and genders. Perhaps, Orthodox women are just fitting into the role that they interpret is meant to be, and maybe they’re even happy with that role! So, now if this is the case, why is there a need or a Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance?
The Alliance is “a grassroots non-profit organization established in 1997 to educate and advocate for women’s increased participation in Orthodox Jewish life and to create a community for women and men dedicated to such change.” So then, the existence of this group suggests that there is room for growth. Their mission is to “expand the spiritual, ritual, intellectual and political opportunities for women within the framework of halakha.” It seems to me that they are not trying to fight the things that women in Judaism are simply not allowed to do, but rather open up the opportunities for participation in activities from which they are only exempt. I assume they would not have been happy with what happened to me at the kotel. Most of JOFA’s programming is educational workshops and classes for women.
So, moral of the story is that while it still hurts to remember what happened to me on Yom Kippur, it really sparked an interest in me. I know I have barely skimmed the surface of this topic and I am sorry for all the things I’ve left out or assumptions I have made, I am just really excited about my new passion and wanted to share what I have learned and thought thus far. And PLEASE feel free to comment if you completely disagree with anything I’ve said (or agree), I am just trying to learn! Hopefully soon I will have more to report on things I’ve learned or ways that I’ve gotten involved in organizations such as Women of the Wall and JOFA.
Photo from Women of the Wall