On the Ritual Fringes

Rabbi Kari Hofmaister Tuling isn’t putting down her tallit. She explains the history, politics, and religious strife behind the recent court decision in Israel.


[De Rouwdagen] De treurdagen, 1884
[De Rouwdagen] De treurdagen, 1884

On a bright Saturday morning, I stand behind the lectern at my Reform synagogue and recite the blessing for the tallit. In a fluid sweeping motion, I wrap it around myself and flip each of the sides up onto my shoulders, one after another, so that the tzitzit—the ritual fringes—are visible in front and back.

One hundred years ago, almost no one in a Reform congregation would have been interested in wearing a tallit, largely for reasons of ideology. In those years, the Reform movement tended to eschew distinctively Jewish ritual practices. But that has changed. Especially in the past four decades, the Reform movement has been willing to take on more of the traditional rituals, and wearing the tallit has since become a normative practice.

Traditionally, the tallit is a male garment. While Jewish law does not specifically prohibit women from wearing it, they are barred from wearing men’s clothing. And they also do not have the same requirements for prayer as men do. This combination has amounted to a de facto prohibition.

The position of the liberal streams of Judaism, however, has been to encourage women to take on all of the practices traditionally reserved for men, such as Torah study, regular prayer, and the tallit. So it is not unusual, here in the United States, to see a female wearing a tallit. Nor is it unusual for that woman to be rabbi. The Reform movement, for example, has been ordaining women since the early 1970s and, as of this ordination year, there will be more than 600 female Reform rabbis. I am the fifth female rabbi to lead this 151-year-old congregation.

The other mainline liberal movements in the United States and Canada—such as the Conservative and Reconstructionist movements—have also long been committed to gender equity and have adopted egalitarian practices as well. For this reason, wearing a tallit during morning services has become a normative practice for both genders for a majority of Jews in America.

A female wearing a tallit at the Western Wall in Israel is a different story. The Western Wall is one of the last remaining structures of the Second Temple and has long been a holy site for Jews. It is also one of the most recognizable symbols of Judaism, equally visible in tourist travel brochures and pious folk art.

When the state of Israel was first established, Jews did not have access to the Wall: it was under Jordanian control and defended by snipers. Only in the wake of the 1967 war has it been possible for Jews to approach it in prayer. The paratroopers who broke through enemy lines to liberate the Wall are heroes in Israel. Their iconic photograph is available for sale in nearly every souvenir shop in Jerusalem, and Jerusalem Day is a holiday in Israel.

Women and men together, near the end of the Ottoman era.
Photographer: American Colony Photo Dept/Matson Photo Service; Institution: U.S. Library of Congress

Early photographs from the British Mandate period show women and men standing near each other in prayer. The Jews pictured in those early photographs were pious traditionalists, untouched by the Enlightenment or other forms of modernity. At that time, there were two kinds of Jews in the land: the pious Jews of the old Yishuv, who had maintained a small settlement in Jerusalem supported by donations from the diaspora, and the “new Jews” who were seeking to establish a national homeland for Jews, supported by donations from political Zionists. The “new Jews” were aggressively secular in their outlook, rejecting many of the tenets of traditional Judaism.

These two groups made for strange bedfellows. In the early years of the founding of the state, David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister, was in need of the support of the orthodox religious parties to create a coalition government. He made an agreement with them—usually referred to as the “status quo” agreement—in which the orthodox parties would have control over issues relating to personal status, such as marriage and divorce. They also received important exemptions from army service and financial support of the community.

In other words, the orthodox parties were given the responsibility for defining the practice of Judaism in the Jewish state. Israel follows the European model with regard to the clergy: salaries are paid by the national government. Christian clergy in Israel are also funded in this manner.

But when it comes to Judaism, only the orthodox can count on this income. Though the courts have ruled that the rabbis of the liberal movements should also be paid, so far that ruling has not been implemented in any meaningful sense. The orthodox are in charge of the purse strings and, for both ideological and financial reasons, they are not interested in sharing that bounty with the liberal movements. Not surprisingly, then, sixty-five years after the founding of the state, orthodoxy remains the dominant form of religious expression in Israel.

This state of affairs has created a persistent tension within Israel. The secular majority largely resents the efforts to render Israel into a theocratic state. Israel, for example, does not have secular options for marriage and divorce. It is not uncommon for secular Israelis to travel to Cyprus to get married (as foreign ceremonies are recognized) or to eschew marriage altogether.

Thus, at this point in time, the Western Wall serves as a kind of open-air orthodox synagogue. There is a mechitzah—a divider—that separates men and women in prayer, according to the orthodox custom. Because only men have the responsibility to pray, their section is also much larger. The net impression is one of “separate and unequal.”

Orthodoxy maintains that the voice of a woman is a distraction to a man in prayer: women should not be seen or heard in this context. But women are allowed, according to tradition, to pray with other women. The participants in the Women of the Wall’s monthly Rosh Hodesh service come from different strands of Judaism—some are from the liberal denominations, and some identify as orthodox—but they come to engage in the ritual of declaring the new moon.

Credit: Michael Patelle

Because the blessings for Rosh Hodesh take place during the morning service, when it is customary (for men) to wear a tallit and tefillin, many of the women present are wearing them. And for this practice, throughout their service the women are heckled and harassed by orthodox men, who spit at them and throw chairs.

For a while, the women were barred by the authorities managing the Wall from wearing the tallit as a prayer shawl over their shoulders while praying at the wall. Then the tallit was banned altogether. On multiple occasions, they have been surrounded by a ring of police, facing them. Individuals from Women of the Wall have been arrested for participating in this prayer service at the Western Wall, on the grounds that they are offending local custom.

If one reads the comments to articles about Women of the Wall in the English-language Israeli news sources (The Jerusalem Post, for example, or Haaretz), it quickly becomes apparent that some significant percentage of Israelis believe that the women are there not to pray but to make a political point. “Shame on them,” these writers say, “for politicizing a holy site.”

To be sure, that position is partly correct: the organization is indeed attempting to secure women’s rights with regard to prayer in shared spaces. So in that sense, they are engaged in a form of political protest.

But there are a couple of ways in which this position is incorrect. Though traditionalists might discount women’s prayer—or they might view the tallit-wearing as a political stunt—the deeper reality is that prayerful feminism may be found across the spectrum: in the all-female Torah study groups among orthodox women and in the alternate God-language in the Reconstructionist prayer book. It is in fact a heart-felt prayer service that the women are conducting each month at the Wall.

Second, it ignores the broader context: this conflict is not simply about the status of the Western Wall. Rather, at stake here is a series of larger questions regarding the role of women in Judaism and the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.

Israel and the Diaspora often talk past each other, not recognizing the gulf in their thinking. It is not uncommon, for example, for Israelis to assume that the liberal forms of Judaism are on their way to oblivion, about to disappear in a generation due to intermarriage and assimilation. And, according to this line of thinking, this kind of activist feminism is merely a fad. So, the argument goes, why should Israel accommodate them?

Whereas many American Jews, living as they do in a country where the liberal streams are so clearly visible and established, are simply appalled: why is Israel arresting Jews for engaging in what amounts to normative Jewish practice?

Israel has long been responsive to public pressure from American Jews, which explains why the Netanyahu government has been seeking alternative solutions, tapping Natan Sharansky to develop a plan. Sharansky’s proposal to create a separate egalitarian area is appealing to American Jews. (At last, a mother can be present at her son’s Bar Mitzvah!) But it is not so helpful for the situation of the Women of the Wall.

Adopting Sharansky’s plan would mean abandoning their current practice of praying in the women’s section while waiting for the bureaucracy of the state to implement the plan. And, as the delay in funding liberal rabbis’ salaries indicates, the gap between the approval of the plan and its implementation can be infinite.

Moreover, at this point, they have little incentive to do so. On April 24, 2013, the Women of the Wall won a major court victory: the judge determined that the chair-throwing men were the ones disturbing the peace. [Watch the live interview with Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson.]

The decision may well be overturned at some point, but in the meantime it has had an immediate effect. At their most recent Rosh Hodesh service on May 10th, for the first time ever, the ring of police officers around their prayer-service faced outward toward the men’s section rather than inward toward the women’s section.

For the Women of the Wall, this is progress.