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Why Are Israeli Police Stopping Jewish Women from Praying?

06/21/2012 03:15 EDT | Updated 08/21/2012 05:12 EDT

On June 21, for the second month in a row, a Jewish woman praying in a once-a-month prayer service was detained for hours by Israeli police for the crime of wearing a tallit -- a prayer shawl -- at the Western Wall.

The Western Wall is considered holy because it is directly adjacent to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the holiest spot in Judaism.

Before delving into the issue of whether or not a woman may wear a tallit according to halakhah, we must take note of the fact that there is another related issue here as well. That is the question of whether or not Israeli police should enforce Jewish law at the Western Wall. Should the Kotel be a specifically sacred place in strict accordance with Jewish law, or should it be a place where people can worship and act as they please? However, we are not focusing on that issue here.

Here we are discussing how women were denied the right by the Israeli government to practice Jewish law in a manner that is permitted by many great traditional rabbinic authorities. In essence, the Jewish State denied them their right to practice Judaism.

Let us delve deeper into the nitty-gritty of this law.

The commandment to wear a tallit is found in a biblical verse that states: "Speak to the children of Israel and command them to make fringes [also known as tzitzit] on the corner of their garments" (Numbers 15:38).

In the Talmud, a debate is recorded as to whether or not this law applies to men and women, or just to men. According to Menachot (43a): "The rabbis taught: all are obligated in the laws of tzitzit: priests, Levi'im, and Israelites, converts, women, and slaves. Rabbi Shimon exempts women because it is a positive commandment limited by time, and from all positive commandments limited by time women are exempt."

In Talmudic times we learn of two different sages who attached tzitzit to the garments of the women of their houses. We are told in tractate Sukkah (11a) that both Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Amram the Pious would attach tzitzit to the women's aprons.

Even though Rabbi Shimon does not obligate women to wear tzitzit, does he allow them to participate in this ritual if they so desire? This issue is taken up in the three major halakhic cultures of the medieval period. The three major cultures are Spain-Egypt, southern France, and northern Europe. In all three places the ruling is very clear that woman may absolutely wear the tallit. The only dispute is whether or not she may recite a blessing when she wears this tallit.

In Egypt, for example, the great Maimonides ruled (Laws of Tzitzit 3:9): "Women are exempt from the biblical law of tzitzit. Women who want to wear tzitzit wrap themselves in it without a blessing. And this is the case from other positive commandments from which women are exempt. If they want to perform them without a blessing they are not prevented."

So too, the leading rabbis of northern Europe allowed women to wear a tallit and recite a blessing when doing so. (See Tosafot's commentary to Rosh Hashanah 33a.)

It is clear that the leading rabbis of medieval Jewry all rule that a woman may wear a tallit.

In the early modern period we see the idea introduced by some that if a woman wears a tallit, she is considered arrogant. This is because hardly any women are doing it, and if she does it, then she is standing out from the crowd with her piety. This concept is called yoharah, and it is the idea that one should not act in a way that appears excessively pious.

Accordingly, one respected scholar, Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe, writes in the sixteenth century: "[It is legally permitted for women to wear tzitzit] but it is still foolish and arrogant to do so" (Levush, Hilkhot Tzitzit 17:2).

Modern codes of Jewish law debate whether or not a woman can wear a tallit. All agree that technically, she can wear a tallit; the only question is whether or not it is arrogant for her to do so.

This issue was also directly addressed by one of the great contemporary authorities, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. In 1976, he was asked the question whether or not a woman can wear a tallit. From the language of his response we see that he was right in the middle of the feminist battles of the time. And he felt that the motivation to wear a tallit was not stemming from a desire to come closer to Hashem, but to score another notch in the battle for feminist equality:

Thus he ruled as follows:

It is clear that all women have the right to perform those commandments that the Torah did not obligate them in, and they are fulfilling a mitzvah and receiving a reward for doing it. According to the opinion of Tosafot, they are permitted to recite the blessing, and it is our custom that women observe the law of shofar and lulav and also say the blessing. Therefore, even tzitzit are allowed for a woman who wants to wear a garment which is distinguishable from men's clothing, yet has four corners on which she is able to attach fringes and fulfill the commandment. However, clearly this only applies when the woman desires to observe the law although she was not commanded; yet when it is not due to this intention, but rather stems from her resentment toward God and His Torah, then it is not a precept. On the contrary, it is a forbidden act of denial when she thinks that there will be any change in the laws of Torah that she took on. (Iggrot Moshe, Orach Chayim, 4:49)

Rav Moshe was responding to a certain situation: a situation where he saw the world of feminism trying to destroy the walls of Orthodox Judaism.

Today we are living in a different world. It is a world where most women who desire to wear a tallit come from more liberal streams of Judaism and are very much accustomed to wearing a tallit. They have grown up wearing a tallit and it is entirely natural and spiritual for them. We should not see a woman wearing a tallit as part of a larger attempt to destroy Orthodox tenets.

Moreover, we must be exceedingly careful against impugning someone's motives. We cannot know what a woman or a man is thinking when they come to pray. We must give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that a woman who wears a tallit is doing so because she wants to perform a ritual act that will allow her to feel closer to Hashem.

The decision of the Israeli police to arrest a woman for the crime of wearing a tallit is a colossal disgrace.