Atlanta rabbi joins with other around the world in supporting Women of the Wall. PHOTO / Gary Feinberg

Women of the Wall recently were the recipients of a groundbreaking ruling allowing them, and other women, to wear tallitot when praying at the Kotel. PHOTO / Gary Feinberg

BY RABBI MARK ZIMMERMAN / AJT //

This week, we celebrated the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Our tradition teaches us that every Jew was in attendance for this magnificent, historic event, including all who ever lived in the past and all those yet to be born.

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The image is a very touching one: We were all present, and the entire Jewish people stood together as one. The whole Jewish people standing together as agudah achat – one unified group – has always conveyed a beautiful, inspirational lesson for us to emulate in every generation.

Sadly, that was not the scene at the Kotel this past Rosh Chodesh, when more than 500 women came together to peacefully pray and read words of Torah together at a service organized every month by the group Neshot HaKotel (Women of the Wall, or WOW). Participants have repeatedly encountered opposition, but this time they had even more obstacles to overcome than usual.

Prior to the events, the Jerusalem District Court in a groundbreaking ruling upheld an earlier decision that women who wear tallitot at the Kotel plaza are not contravening “local custom” or causing a public disturbance, and therefore should not be arrested – as they had been in the past.

The issue of equal prayer rights at the Kotel has become more prominent recently because of the frequent detainment of women taking part in these special services, and during the Rosh Hodesh Sivan (May 10) service at the Kotel – the first since the ruling – the scene was chaotic.

A large police presence tried to keep the protesters and women praying separated. Charedi (ultra-Orthodox) women had gathered in large numbers to fill the women’s section in an attempt to prevent Women of the Wall from holding their monthly service.

Meanwhile, Charedi men and children hurled stones and insults in the direction of the women trying to gather in prayer. It was absolutely appalling.

I, like many of you, have long supported Women of the Wall and their efforts on behalf of religious pluralism in Israel. Yet when I expressed that support in the comments section of Jpost.com, I was attacked by all those people who deplore any expression of Judaism other than their own.

But let me say it clearly. WOW’s actions are not at all contrary to halacha, but Charedim throwing rocks at people clearly is a grave sin in Judaism. There is no comparison.

Halacha is dynamic, and there has never been only one authoritative interpretation of Jewish law. Our sages have taught us that there are shivim panim laTorah (“70 faces to the Torah”), and many modern Jews who support WOW are also living according to Torah. So those who say WOW and their supporters don’t accept the Torah are completely misguided.

The Kotel belongs to all Jews – not just the Charedim, not just the Orthodox and not just Conservative or Reform, either. And beyond that, ethical, moral and civil behavior should be expected of all Jews and in all places, especially in a sacred space such as the Kotel.

Others have objected to my words of support, saying that this a complex issue and the sensitivities in Israel are different than they are here in America. I couldn’t disagree more, though; it’s not complicated, at all.

I have davened at the Kotel many times over the years, and 20 years ago I could lead an egalitarian Kabbalat Shabbat service in the Kotel plaza without incident. But today, there are Charedi thugs who can’t accept that anyone has a right to any interpretation of Judaism other than their own narrow definition of Judaism.

The article on the Jerusalem Post’s website where my comments appeared was titled “Western Wall rabbi: I am hurting and crying.” In it, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz told the Jerusalem Post:

“It wasn’t for this Kotel that we prayed. We don’t want a Kotel of disagreement.”

Well, I certainly agree. The Kotel should indeed be for all of us, praying together in harmony, each in our own respective way. The Kotel belongs to all Jews, not just those who delegitimize us.

We modern Jews who identify with more progressive streams of Judaism are tired of having our voices shouted down. And refusing to even acknowledge our observance of halacha is an insult that we should no longer tolerate.

I encourage you to add your support to these brave women who are liberating the Kotel for the entirety of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Mark Zimmerman, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom, celebrates 25 years of service to his synagogue this year. 

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