Home > Canada, Germany, Israel, Judaism, Rabbi Dow Marmur > Commentary: Women of the Wall pioneering true egalitarianism in Judaism

Commentary: Women of the Wall pioneering true egalitarianism in Judaism

By Rabbi Dow Marmur

Rabbi Dow Marmur

TORONTO–A scandalous aspect of virtually all religions has been their treatment of women. My own has shunned many excesses — stoning for alleged adultery, so-called honour killings or officially putting the ordination of women in the same category as pedophilia — but it nevertheless has a history of embarrassing discrimination.

One of the reasons for the growth of Reform Judaism, which this month marks its birth in Germany 200 years ago, was to bring about gender equality in worship and practice. Nowadays women and men have identical rights and obligations in Reform synagogues. Other Jewish religious streams have followed their example. There are now hundreds of women rabbis ordained by different rabbinic schools; about a dozen of them work in the GTA.

Though not a rabbi herself, Anat Hoffman is one of the leaders of Reform Judaism in Israel. She heads its Religious Action Centre that champions the rights of all citizens. She also chairs an interdenominational Jewish organization called Women of the Wall that conducts worship services at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest place. The aim is to challenge the misogynist franchise that the Israeli ultra-Orthodox rabbinate has arrogated to itself there and with which political parties in power cynically collude.

At a service at the Wall earlier this month, Hoffman was arrested for carrying a Scroll of the Torah in the women’s precinct. The ultra-Orthodox custodians regard this as sacrilege and a provocation. In its effort to keep the peace, the local police tend to placate the fanatics at the expense of the women. Hence the arrest.

A couple of days later, Hoffman was in Toronto. When I suggested to her that normative Judaism celebrates holy events, not holy places, she said that the monthly worship services the women hold at the Wall are indeed holy events. It’s the only opportunity anywhere in the world for Jews across the denominational spectrum to pray together. In the 22 years that her group has existed — 21 of them with her as leader — countless women, many of them Orthodox, have participated and been greatly enriched by the experience.

Hoffman insists that the remnant of an outer wall that once surrounded the ancient Temple in Jerusalem isn’t an Orthodox synagogue that would entitle its male worshippers to relegate women to the back, or exclude them altogether, preventing them from even touching Torah Scrolls. She argues that the Wall is a national monument that must be accessible to all. To give one group sole rights to the exclusion of all others goes against Israeli democracy.

But, I ventured to suggest, in view of Israel’s precarious diplomatic and security situation, its leaders have more urgent matters to deal with than gender equality at the Wall. She disagreed and argued that religious fanatics can be no less dangerous than armed terrorists. Erosion from within may turn out to be an even greater threat than attacks from without. The women are defending the soul of Israel, she told me.

They also reflect an important trend in contemporary Jewry. Gender equality has had a profound effect on all Jewish denominations. There are now even Orthodox congregations in Israel and elsewhere that encourage women to be full and equal participants in worship, including holding the Torah and reading from it. A maverick Orthodox rabbinic school in New York ordains women rabbis.

A seemingly local skirmish in Jerusalem is the tip of an enormous iceberg that stands in the way of dramatic changes in the very fabric of Judaism. Anat Hoffman and her group are pioneers. People of all faiths committed to religious freedom and women’s rights have reason to applaud and support them.

Rabbi Marmur is spiritual leader emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. This column appeared in the Star of Toronto.

  1. ghj
    November 1, 2010 at 10:17 am

    The pursuit of egalitarianism in many cases sacrifices the essence of one’s religious experience for an ideal that is at best secondary to one’s spirituality – and at worst detrimental to it.

  2. Pete
    July 26, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    P.S. for every Orthodox woman who participates in groups like “Women of the Wall,” I can show you a dozen baalei teshuva who were hard core, card carrying feminists (including a prominent member of NOW). They realized, in exploring their own heritage that the quality they seek has been their all along. They just didn’t realize it because of the stigma caused by the distortions of Orthodox Judaism like those contained in this article. Far from being ignorant, controlled, or put upon, most Orthodox Jewish women are strong, powerful and intelligent people who know exactly why they do what they do. That’s why so few of them stand with the women of the wall.

  3. Pete
    July 26, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    The problem isn’t with Orthodox “misogyny.” The core problem is a misreading of Orthodox practice by non-Orthodox Jews. Liberal Jewish “strains” have watered down practice outside of the synagogue so much that, to most people synagogue practice (and rituals) is itself Judaism. Far from being unequal, Judaism has always emphasized the idea of different roles for men and women. While the American left pursues its ongoing obsession with complete egalitarianism in every single facet of life, normative Judaism allows for men to be central in certain roles, and women to be central in others. Because, despite the overused, and discredited, mantra of 70s era feminism, men and women are (gasp!) different. In liberal Judaism the centrality of the synagogue means that what most people see is synagogue ritual. So it appears that women are left out of meaningful Jewish participation if they are not wearing a tallis or yarmulke and reading from the Torah. But the fact is, that for the Orthodox, and most of Jewish history, the home was central to Jewish life. Yes, the synagogue served as a meeting place (Beit Knesset) or a place of study (Beit Midrash), but as Jews we do not need to go to a synagogue to pray or perform most of the other 613 commandments. That is why, it is extremely rare to come across an Orthodox Jewish woman who feels that she is somehow lacking by not participating in synagogue ritual (in the same way that men do). Lastly, women are not commanded to pray 3 times a day and men are. Why? Because it has always been acknowledged that women possess a higher level of innate spirituality than men. While they can and should pray as many times as they wish, men are commanded to – not because we are superior, but because of our innate spiritual inferiority. That is the main reason why the synagogue is the realm of men and the home (and not in a 1950s Ozzie and Harriet way) is the domain of Jewish women. Women are on a spiritually higher plane and therefore are central to the most spiritually important domain is our religion. Lastly, it is also a mistake to use the values of 2010 as a prism in which to view Judaism. Times change and while the core of observance does not (i.e. Kashrut, Shabbat, Family Purity), some aspects of our cultural practice change over time. But women have always, without exception, held a more equal place in Jewish life than the cultures of surrounding civilizations. The use of the word “misogynist” isn’t just wrong – it is a politically loaded term that displays the innate bias of American liberalism against religion in general and formal religious practice in particular.

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