In one of their cleverest moves yet, the Women of the Wall recently pulled off a Bat Mitzvah service for a teenage girl at Israel's holiest site by using a tiny Torah and a magnifying glass. While countless boys have been Bar Mitzvahed at the Wall, this was the first time a girl has ever experienced the rite of passage there.
A remnant of the retaining wall that surrounded the Second Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the Western Wall is considered a sacred place by Jews around the world. The plaza in front has a partition separating the men and women's prayer spaces. On the men's side, you will find people reading from Torahs, praying with tefillin, and wearing prayer shawls. On the women's side you will find none of the above because the group that rules the Wall, which is comprised only of male Orthodox Jews, won't allow it.
Women of the Wall have been protesting these double-standards on a monthly basis since 1988 through the simple act of praying like men at the Wall. Over the years, in between many arrests and lots of heckling, they've made some legal gains, and have been offered a compromise in the form of a small egalitarian prayer section at the Wall. Still, they have not gained equal rights and continue to be threatened for their actions.
There are two ways to look at their efforts. One is that trying to reform traditionalists, like those in charge at the Wall, is a waste of time. These women should instead put their energy into creating new communities and rituals, the thinking goes. Indeed, the Reform and Conservative movements treat men and women equally, and even some in the Orthodox community are allowing women to lead services.
The other way is to see the Wall as the property of all Jews, and that such discriminatory rules should not exist in a mostly democratic country like Israel.
I lean towards the second.
There is no question that traditional Judaism has double-standards for women. It's also true that its most traditional followers will never feel comfortable with women wearing prayer shawls and chanting from the Torah. I respect that.
But the Wall does not belong to one set of Jews, or one way of being Jewish. These women are no less connected, be it genetically, historically, or mythically, to their ancestors who prayed at the Temple than an Orthodox rabbi. So their fight isn't so much about telling traditionalists how to pray, but reclaiming a public place and important symbol that belongs to them too.
Also, the idea that Judaism or any religion can't change is plain wrong. Beyond the obvious examples like the abolition of slavery or the fact that the many Orthodox Jews are required to dress like 18th century Eastern Europeans and not Moses, there is the fact that much of Jewish law was determined by rabbis over the course of hundreds of years. Sure, the rules against women praying like men are pretty clear, but the tradition is one of both strict decrees and scrupulous debate. The strength of Judaism has always been its ability to accommodate both.
Still, the important thing to note about Women of the Wall is that they aren't trying to change all of Judaism. They are not protesting Orthodox Jews at their synagogue or houses of study and demanding they allow women in. They're not crashing their Friday night services in their pink and purple prayer shawls. They are just trying to do their version of Judaism at a place they rightly perceive as theirs too.
This distinction isn't just important for those seeking to reform Judaism, but other faiths too. What's at stake here and elsewhere isn't either the rejection of traditionalism or the rejection of modernity, but the realization that the two must live together. The Women of the Wall get this. Now it's time for the rabbis of the Wall to get it too.