By Brian GORDON, Barnet councillor.
Respect for religious tradition is a vitally important part of being Jewish. So too is respect for the sanctity of holy sites and behaving appropriately at places of worship.
There can be no tradition more precious to Judaism than the way we pray. The outward features of our prayer include the wearing of Tallit and Tefillin. It is fundamentally established that men wear these whereas women do not since they are classified as positive, time-bound commandments from which women are generally exempt.
It is true that certain of such commandments are widely observed by women on a voluntary basis, like lulav and esrog and hearing the Shofar. But Tallit and Tefillin are not among them. It is also well established that women do not read from a Sefer Torah. There are many practical reasons for this, which are beyond the remit of this column.
I referred to the importance of respecting holy sites. There is no site more sacred to Jews than the Western Wall, commonly known as the “Kotel”. It is the location of the former Temple, symbolising our closest earthly contact with the Almighty. If there is any place that demands adherence to religious tradition and the ultimate in personal self-discipline it is surely the Kotel.
It is therefore a tragedy that after so many years where tradition has prevailed virtually without hindrance the peace and sanctity of the Kotel have recently been shattered. It has been caused by a self-styled rebellious phenomenon – a small but overtly militant group calling itself “Women of the Wall”.
The women of the wall demand the right to don Tallis and Tefillin in full public view. They flaunt dancing with a Sefer Torah and reading loudly from it, knowing fully well how provocative their actions are – to women and men alike. They would never presume to enter an orthodox synagogue and behave in such a fashion, still less to offend the sensitivities of other religions, like Christianity and Islam. Yet they do so at our holiest site on the basis that they are under Israeli jurisdiction, exercising their rights to religious self-expression.
I would hesitate to dignify the women of the wall by calling them “worshippers”. Their antics are clearly more about feminism than Judaism. To add insult to injury their events are generally staged on Rosh Chodesh – the beginning of the month being rabbinically designated as a semi-official holiday for ladies.
However, if the women in question think that their eccentric conduct is what the Rabbis had in mind, then far from being “of the wall” they are “up the wall”.
The brazenness and chutzpah of these people has been compounded by the unprecedented ultra-secular policies of the Israeli government. The women know that their radical behaviour will strike a welcome chord in leftist circles and curry favour in the current anti-religious atmosphere whipped up by Yair Lapid and his cronies.
Equally regrettably, the Jerusalem police seem to have accorded the women maximum personal security as if they were a group of vunerable and threatened VIPs needing rigid protection.
On one of the women’s recent Rosh Chodesh exploits, hundreds of genuine worshippers were barred for over an hour from entering the Kotel area to recite morning prayers. The ludicrous pretext for the exclusion was that the women of the wall might be attacked by other worshippers.
I have spoken to worshippers who were turned away from the Kotel on that shameful Rosh Chodesh morning. One of them observed that never in Jewish history have Jews prevented other Jews from praying in Jerusalem.
Not under the Crusaders, The Turks, the British, or indeed the Israelis. There have unfortunately been occasions where violent mobs hurling bricks from the adjacent Al Aqsa Mosque have caused the Kotel area to be temporarily evacuated by Israeli police. However this was a matter of Jewish safety. The Rosh Chodesh lock-out was totally different. It was a case of the Jewish world going mad.
In my view it is high time the women of the wall were prevailed upon – if not by persuasion then by legislation – to cease their divisive and highly disrespectful activities.
If they wish to continue promoting their version of Jewish ritual there are no doubt many reformist establishments in Israel and elsewhere who would welcome them with open arms. The Western Wall, of all places, should not be one of them.