05/13/2013 12:25 EDT | Updated 07/13/2013 05:12 EDT

Jewish Women Should be Stonewalled No More

An abomination.

That only begins to describe what occurred at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Friday, when thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews bullied a few hundred women attempting to pray at the holy site, hurling water bottles, chairs and verbal abuse. If police hadn't protected the women, there would almost assuredly have been physical assault as well.

But the Women of the Wall held firm. The Jewish women's organization that has been attempting, by political and activist methods, to gain access to the Wall so that it may worship there in its preferred style -- in which women read from the Torah, wrap phylacteries and don prayer shawls, religious acts and garb in the ultra-Orthodox world reserved exclusively for men -- for years braved the gang to chant and sing, even as the ultra-Orthodox mob tried its best to stop it. And in the process, Women of the Wall a) took a giant leap forward for Judaism, and b) dealt a staggering blow to the ultra-Orthodox.

Female participation in prayer at the leadership levels is entrenched in every Jewish sect except for the Orthodox, and even there among the modern Orthodox women have been gaining more and more prominent roles in the last 10 years (including in a burgeoning egalitarian strain and, most recently, with the ordination of three female quasi-rabbis in New York).

But not at the Western Wall, where the ultra-Orthodox have ruled since Israel captured it during 1967's Six Day War. There, Women of the Wall, and, frankly, all of progressive Jewish thought, is reviled -- especially if it involves women and prayer. At the Wall, women are second-class citizens, just as they are in ultra-Orthodox communities (ghettos is probably a better word), where women are expected to breed and keep silent and out of sight so as not to arouse within men any thought that is even remotely untoward. And that's if they're lucky: in some communities, the women are forced to work -- in addition to keeping house and taking care of what is more often than not a large litter of children -- in order to support their husbands, who are too busy studying the Bible and Talmud to get a job. For the ultra-Orthodox, the mere existence of Women of the Wall is inconceivable -- disgusting, disgraceful, wrong.

And so you get what happened last week.

Israeli governments have been searching for years for a solution to Western Wall governance, most recently enlisting Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky who served up the lame idea of building a separate -- read: not the Western Wall -- area for progressive, egalitarian prayer groups like Women of the Wall. That isn't good enough -- the only equitable resolution is that these women, and any other Jewish person or group who wishes to pray at the Western Wall, be granted equal access (though I wouldn't necessarily be against banning outright the Neturei Karta). The Wall should be for all, not just the few who think they are holier than the rest.

This can never be achieved unless the rulership of the ultra-Orthodox at the Wall ends. The good news is, it looks like that's precisely what's coming to pass. A recent Israeli poll found half the country supported Women of the Wall's right to pray at the Western Wall (the poll was conducted before this most recent incident; support for the group, which has been rising, will undoubtedly rise further after Friday's debacle), so it appears the public is on board. And with the new Israeli coalition government already looking to crack down on the ridiculously unfair benefits the ultra-Orthodox have enjoyed for far too long (most significantly, exemption from mandatory army service and generally living off the public dole), ultra-Orthodoxy is clearly in the crosshairs. Quite right: this is the era of the Women of the Wall -- we're way beyond the shtetl.

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