Ronit Peskin, co-founder of Women for the Wall, proclaims that the disagreement between her group and mine, Women of the Wall, is not about religious freedom, but rather about theology. I agree that our disagreement is theological and go even further than she does on that point. The core of our disagreement is not only about theology but about general worldviews.
But that does not negate the idea that this is also a battle over religious freedom.
For the record, it is important to stress that even according to Peskin our disagreement is not about Halachah. Even she agrees that Halachah permits women to pray aloud in a group, and read from a Torah scroll and wear a tallit and tefillin while doing so. The disagreement is about whether or not it is a good idea. That is where theology and worldview come into play.
Women of the Wall is a feminist group. We believe that women taking on men's roles and men taking on women's roles is a good thing, not only for women but for men as well. We believe that including women's voices in the public sphere as well as men's voices in the private sphere will bring about a better world, and that encouraging people to reach their full potential as human beings and not members of a specific socially constructed gender will help the human species reach its full potential. And we see this all as part of tikkun olam, the repairing of the world. So for us our feminism is part of our theology, a theology that considers progress to be part of God's plan for the world.
This is not the view of Women for the Wall, who hold firmly to the status quo. For them, preserving tradition is paramount, and progress is a threat. They believe that crossing over gender lines will fell the hierarchy that keeps Torah alive and will result in the destruction of the Jewish people. Women for the Wall believe that gender roles are God-given. This is a belief, not a fact, and not even a halachic truth (no more nor less than our claiming that God wants women who so desire to wrap themselves in a tallit is a fact or a halachic truth). But it is the basis of how they have chosen to live their lives, and therefore, when we blur these lines that they consider sacred, we rock their world and threaten their identities as Jewish women. We make them uncomfortable. And that is why they claim that they cannot tolerate praying alongside us.
We in Women of the Wall could also claim that it offends our feminist sensibilities to pray alongside women who whisper their prayers and cover every inch of their bodies lest they appear immodest or cause a man on the other side of the mehitzah, the barrier between the women's and men's sections, to lose focus on his prayers. That approach goes against our worldview. We have based our life choices on progressive feminist ideology in the same way that they have based theirs on regressive traditionalist ideology. But we do not attack these women. We do not throw things at them or spit at them or call them names. We respectfully allow them to pray. All that we ask is that they show us the same courtesy.
I personally do not think that ours is a disagreement that can be bridged, even with dialogue. Women of the Wall have tried that already numerous times, but to no avail. We sat in dialogue groups with ultra-Orthodox women who pray regularly at the Wall to try to find a solution we could all live with, but when it came down to it, those women were not willing to consider anything that went against what their rabbinic authorities told them.
Bowing to male authority vs. autonomous feminist thinking -- that is the main difference between us. But it is also beside the point.
Women of the Wall are not asking to come into Peskin's ultra-Orthodox synagogue wrapped in tallitot and read from the Torah. We are demanding our right to pray as per our custom at a public holy site that no more belongs to Women for the Wall than it does to Women of the Wall. The fact that one group's theology considers intolerance a religious right does not give it a civil right to exile another group from a public space. If we threaten Women for the Wall, let them choose not to pray at the Wall when we are there.
They claim that we are fighting a political battle on sacred space, which they consider a sacrilege. We claim that they are fighting a theological battle on public space, which we consider a violation of our civil rights. We are not asking Women for the Wall to adopt our worldview. We acknowledge that our differences are too great to be reconciled. We are simply asking them to let us pray in peace despite our differences.
Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David is the author of several books on women's roles in Judaism and has been active in Women of the Wall, womenofthewall.org.il, since its inception.