I write this after years of frustration and anger over how women are treated at the Kotel (Western Wall). I have not had the fortune to visit Israel yet so I speak as a true outsider on this issue.
The Kotel is managed by the Haredi Rabbinate through the Western Wall Heritage Foundation whose chair is Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz. The Foundation is a government-funded institution that has sole authority over the Kotel. Rabinowitz, a Haredi rabbi, “refuses to abide any deviation from traditional Jewish law, which prohibits women from singing aloud, reading the Torah and wearing a tallit at the Kotel.”1 Currently only Orthodox worship is permitted at the Kotel – this means that women are forbidden from wearing tallit and tefillin and they are not permitted to read (or even carry) a Sefer Torah (Torah Scroll) or sing out loud. Some women however do wear tallit and tefillin and many have been arrested for doing so “despite the 2003 Israeli Supreme Court ruling upholding a ban on women wearing tefillin or tallit prayer shawls at the site, or reading from a Torah scroll.”2
Rabbi Rabinowitz has sole authority to make decisions over the “community standards” of the Kotel. His authority stems from a 1981 law that gives the Kotel’s chief rabbi power to “give instructions and ensure the enforcement of restrictions.” The law also establishes that any prayer at the Kotel must be according to “local custom.”1 Currently the Kotel is treated as an Orthodox synagogue. There is a mechitza (barrier) between the men’s section (consisting of 75 percent of the space) and the women’s section (consisting of 25 percent of the space). The separation of men and women is, according to Orthodoxy, a millennium old practice and is therefore standard practice and halakhah. The idea behind a mechitza is the custom of separating men and women during the Simchat Beit HaShoevah (Water Drawing Ceremony) during Sukkot. It is recorded that a balcony was made for the women to use while the men sat below them. This was in order to reduce “frivolity” between the genders.
Our Rabbis have taught, Originally the women used to sit within [the Court of the Women] while the men were without, but as this caused levity, it was instituted that the women should sit without and the men within. As this, however, still led to levity, it was instituted that the women should sit above and the men below. (Talmud Bavli – Sukkah 51b)3
The question is asked how this decision was made. Rab answered the question thus:
And the land shall mourn, every family apart; the family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart. [Zechariah 12:12] Is it not, they said, an a for tiori argument? If in the future when they will be engaged in mourning and the Evil Inclination will have no power over them, the Torah nevertheless says, men separately and women separately, how much more so now when they are engaged in rejoicing and the Evil Inclination has sway over them. (Talmud Bavli – Sukkah 52a)3
Zechariah does not state that the wives of the families are separate from the husbands. It is simply stating that it is both men and women who will mourn – each family separate from the other. There is no rational reason to believe that this verse means that men and women are to be separated. In addition, the “evil inclination” is also mentioned as a problem during the festival (and by extension during any mixture between the genders). The rabbis use the Torah as a proof for the “evil inclination.”
And the Eternal One saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Genesis 6:5)
Yet, God also states that we have the ability to overcome this “evil inclination.”
If you do well, shall it not be lifted up? And if you do not well, sin couches at the door; and unto you is its desire, but you may rule over it. (Genesis 4:7)
Of course we should not put ourselves in situations where we are tempted however why does this mean that all men and all women must be separated based upon a rabbinical interpretation of a verse in Zechariah. The idea of a mechitza is based upon rabbinical tradition from the Talmud and does not have any basis in Torah. If a man (or woman) is tempted when in a mixed-group setting then that individual should remove themselves from the situation rather than demanding that everyone be separated based upon their gender.
…to be continued
1Ben Sales. “Who controls the status quo at the Western Wall?” JTA, 27 November 2012. [http://www.jta.org/news/article/2012/11/27/3112941/the-foundation-keeping-the-kotel-orthodox]
2Ben Sales. “Women of the Wall pray, wear tallit at Kotel with no arrests.” Crescent City Jewish News, 12 March 2013. [http://www.crescentcityjewishnews.com/women-of-the-wall-pray-wear-tallit-at-kotel-with-no-arrests/]
3I. Epstein. Tractate Sukkah, n.d. [http://halakhah.com/pdf/moed/Sukkah.pdf]