Women of the Wall–thoughts about Barbra Streisand’s comment

A student has asked me what I thought about some comments made by Barbara Streisand at Hebrew University. I was not there, and only know about what she said from brief reporting about her speech. She was awarded an honorary doctorate, and is in Israel to perform as part of the ceremonies honoring Shimon Peres (President of Israel) on his 90th birthday.

Steisand apparently got most attention for talking about women although she also seems to have mentioned issues relating to Arabs and Jews and to what is sometimes called Ultra Orthodoxy, although only hints of what she said were in the news reports I looked at—and this probably all reflected on a few lines of her speech.

My wife Carol was in the Women of the Wall last week, and it was quite a different scene from that of May 10. (The group meets at the beginning of every Hebrew lunar month).  Streisand referred to chairs being thrown at the women, which did not happen this time as far as I can tell. (I was on the “non-Women of the Wall” section, and could observe pretty well what was going on). There has been more violence in the past, and today I saw a report of defacing the home of one of the organizers of the Women of the Wall. The police took the threat of violence seriously—there was, for example, a report of threats to bring pistols by those opposing the Women of the Wall. There was an organized, police-escorted convoy, and police lines to separate the various components. There was a police line-with police officers as well as barricades–keeping people away from the Mehitzah on the men’s side, and separating the Women of the Wall from other women on the women’s side, and separating the men who came with the Women of the Wall from everyone else in the back section, which is not gender-separated.

Also, there were a lot fewer women wearing tallit and tefillin than appears to have been the case in previous months, and no Torah Scroll.

Many reports noted that women are prohibited from wearing tallit and tefillin by Jewish law. This is not really strictly correct; traditional Jewish law does not mandate that women wear them, but over history, traditional Jewish reports have praised some women—very few in number–who wore tallit and tefillin, most famously perhaps the daughters of the famous commentator Rashi (d. 1105).  In fact, up to the recent Supreme Court decision, the legal basis for objecting to women wearing them at the Wall was not that this was prohibited in Jewish law, but that is was contrary to the practice at the Western Wall, which is true of course.  

One of the reports I looked at raised an important point of commentary: the reporter noted that the Haredi (ultra orthodox) worried that the women’s prayer services might erode Haredi political clout in Israel.

Carol reported that there were people who spat at the busses, and I saw quite a few Haredim who were strongly opposed, and screamed to try to disrupt—or more appropriately, perhaps, responded to the women at prayer, including singing some prayers, by themselves praying and singing (and dancing).

Although the Women of the Wall have been at it for decades now, the advent of police protection may allow the Women of the Wall to proceed within a framework which allows more continuity and less confrontation, and allows reporting about them them to concentrate more on making the kinds of statements associated with prayer and spirituality rather than strife, gender and religious politics–and which makes the chairs being thrown at them only a distant memory.

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