Women of the Wall: fighting inequality and discrimination at every opportunity

Two of the most heated topics that are avidly discussed by OT members in recent blogs are gender equality and anti-Semitism—both worthy of serious consideration—and not mutually exclusive.

As those who know me will attest, I am not a big fan of organized religion—or for that matter of religion itself. Not to offend anyone, but to my rational way of thinking—I cannot view religious belief as more than superstition. Now, I have had formal training in Jewish philosophy, so I know that those who ‘believe’ do need to take the ‘leap of faith’—after all, that’s what it’s all about—religion is the relinquishment of rationalism for belief.

Having said that, unfortunately I have also had too much experience with friends suffering from tragedy, illness and loss to understand that for some, religion and belief can be a tremendous consolation for those who are bereaved or suffering. So, who am I to criticize it if it helps them through difficult times? It would be like knocking the placebo effect. If the placebo is effective, then why not take advantage of it? But for me, of course, there is no placebo effect. One needs to believe in the placebo for it to work.

In any case, religion is a personal matter, and I fully recognize the rights of any group to their own beliefs (as long as they accord the very same respect to non-believers). Unfortunately, this tolerance for others is not always the case.

I’m sure most readers will have heard of the Western Wall or Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, as it is sometimes known. This is thought to be a remaining wall of the courtyard to the second Temple (built ~19 BC), and is considered the most holy site for Jews.

Since Israel has been unable/unwilling to separate religion and state, the Wall has become a contentious area. This is because it is administered by the Rabbinate in Israel—an institution that fails to recognize any forms of Judaism, aside from the ultra-orthodox stream. Effectively, this means that the majority of Jews outside of Israel—those who belong to the conservative and reform congregations—are basically excluded from the agenda.

In fact, Israel’s former 67 year-old president—a purely symbolic position (analogous to the monarchy in the UK) and who by the way is now in jail for rape—was famous for his refusal to address the head of the American Union for Reform Judaism and acknowledge him as Rabbi Eric Yoffie.

Due to the control of the Wall by the orthodox rabbinate, there has been continual discrimination against women. On the other hand, the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism have long ago moved to an egalitarian system, where women have become equal partners in religion, and a growing number of communities sport head rabbis who are female. This, of course, is no less than heresy to the ultra-orthodox, who would probably even prefer atheists like me—who at least don’t pose a threat to their authority over the Wall and religion within the State of Israel.

One group in Israel that has been committed to advancing the religious and overall rights of women is known as “The Women of the Wall.”

To begin, at the Wall itself, there is enforced gender separation, as for the orthodox, women pose a threat, due to their ‘provocative sexual nature’ and due to their ‘uncleanliness.’ Accordingly, a small fringe area of the Wall is currently designated for the other half of the population.

The Women of the Wall group has been instrumental in continuing to fight for both gender equality and to fight religious discrimination (albeit, not the classic form of anti-Semitism). Equipped with prayer shawls and religious apparel that are typically reserved for men in the orthodox community, they faithfully come to pray at the Wall every month, enduring dark discrimination from the orthodox, and even arrests by the Israeli police.

Perhaps after so many years of discrimination, there is a possibility of some change, based on a new proposal by former Soviet-refusenik Natan Sharansky, who now chairs the Jewish Agency. However, being a cell biologist, for me seeing is believing—and in this case, I’ll believe it when I see it.

In the meantime, I hope that all of our bloggers and readers will remain united as a group that is committed to bettering our world by supporting equality and fighting discrimination wherever we can.




About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). https://www.amazon.com/kindle-dbs/entity/author/B006CSULBW? All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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3 Responses to Women of the Wall: fighting inequality and discrimination at every opportunity

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    I am pleased to see that Netanyahu is taking action on this – the quote below is from today’s The Independent

    The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has given his approval to a plan that will reform praying at Judaism’s holiest location, the Western Wall, in a move that will wrest control of the site from orthodox Jews for the first time.

    The issue of access to the Western Wall has become increasingly controversial, and has been highlighted by a group called the Women of the Wall who have insisted on praying at the Wall each month, wearing traditional religious clothing, which was outlawed by the Israeli Supreme Court in 2003.

    In the run-up to January’s general election, Mr Netanyahu asked Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, to draw up plans at reforming the site. Mr Sharansky’s idea is the building of a new, ‘egalitarian’ section of the site, which is will be open to all to pray. That would inevitably mean that the orthodox community, which currently governs that site, would lose its monopoly. Orthodox Jews have protested loudly at prayer sessions organised by the Women of the Wall.

  2. Ronit Peskin- Women For The Wall says:

    Women of the Wall have a right to pray however they want. However, when there are certain standards set in a certain place, and yes, the fact that every day since the liberation of the Western Wall, and before 1948, the people who flocked to the Western Wall have been traditional men and women, who want to pray traditionally, makes a difference to what the standards are. When non traditional Jews are able to get daily numbers to the Western Wall in as great numbers as Orthodox Jews and Traditional jews, then maybe it might make sense for them to claim that they have an equal say. But its a very small movement, in comparison to huge amounts of people in Israel that are traditional or traditionally minded, and even if they’re not observant themselves, when they go to pray at the Western Wall or at any synagogue, they want it run by traditional standards. Why should a small group of American people, most of whom are here for one year, have the right to force their standards on Israelis when most secular Israelis aren’t even interested in the Kotel? And if the Women of the Wall wanted to simply pray in peace, and not cause a provocation, they could pray at Robinson’s Arch, a place with the same amount of holiness, just that won’t cause waves. A place of prayer shouldn’t be used as a place to push political agendas or stage protests- that’s what the courtroom is for. The Women of the Wall, regardless of what laws state is allowed or not, are being disrespectful of the vast majority of people who want things run traditionally at the Kotel.
    http://WomenForTheWall.org <– An organization dedicated to preserving tradition at the Western Wall and making it a pleasant place for women to pray.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      The first sentence: “Women of the Wall have a right to pray however they want,” is obviously not true. If it were, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. It’s also arrogant to assume that only ‘traditional’ men and women have/interests or deserve to be taken into consideration.

      The issue at stake is one of fundamental equality. Reform and conservative Jews appear to be the biggest threat to the orthodox in Israel (and the Wall is the symbol of Israel in this case)–more so than secular Jews like myself–because they have a perfectly legitimate claim over their style of Judaism, and this threatens the ridiculous monopoly that the orthodox have over every issue related directly or indirectly to religion in Israel.

      This includes, but isn’t limited to burial, marriage, conversion and so on. Secular, Reform and Conservative Jews happen to make up the majority of Jews in the world, and a high percentage of those living in Israel. But even if that were not so, pluralism and democracy dictate that the rights of all should be respected.

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