Yesterday, the Women of the Wall held a special Rosh Chodesh service at the Kotel. And rather than arresting them (as normally happens), the police protected them from protesters. Why? Because three members of the Knesset attended. You can read about it at the Jewish Telegraph Agency (JTA).
Women of the Wall is "a group of Jewish women from around the world who strive to achieve the right, as women, to wear prayer shawls [and tefillin], pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem, Israel." (From their website.) They have special, arrest-heavy services at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh each month. They may hold services at other times, but I'm only aware of the Rosh Chodesh controversy.
Why is this a big deal? It can lead to a riot. Seriously. Rocks, punches, etc. You'd be surprised. A man may not be willing to walk beside a woman on the street or shake a woman's hand at work, but he can believe that punching a woman in the face or throwing a rock at her is a mitzvah. This is a small minority, but I don't know why we're not placing them in cherem, where they belong. Violence against anyone (whether physical, mental, or emotional) for an alleged violation of halacha is not okay nor is it acceptable in halacha (minus a Sanhedrin), secular law, nor is it behavior befitting a ben Torah.
So now that we've covered the basics, I'm going to editorialize. You may disagree with me, and that's your right. But hear me out. The condemnation in the community may be the loudest voice, but that doesn't mean it's right (or that it's the right approach to take).
From my (American) legal perspective: If Israel is going to be a democracy, they have no right to have such a prohibition at the Kotel, and they certainly have no right to help orthodox groups to intimidate or harm any woman involved. In fact, a democratic government has the obligation to protect minority groups from intimidation and violence and arrest those who would attack the Women of the Wall. The Kotel is a public space holy to people of many faiths. Why is it okay to do this, but not ban Christians and Muslims? Or, like the Muslim authorities on the Temple Mount, ban the prayer of other faiths being spoken aloud? Shouldn't we next be arresting women who enter orthodox synagogues in pants or tank tops? Just as the state has no right to send in police to enforce the standards of a synagogue owned by a Jewish group, there should be no justification for the police to arrest women at the Kotel to enforce the standards of the same Jewish groups. It's just the right thing to do: police protect people from the riot, not help the riot accomplish its goal of silence and intimidation. That is why we have police: enforce property laws and prevent mob rule.
My halachic understanding: This is where things get very heated and tricky. The "party line" in orthodox conversations is that this is prohibited by Jewish law. What you rarely hear is that it's not really prohibited (if it is prohibited at all); it's just "not done" in orthodoxy. That doesn't make it against halacha.
What are the women trying to do? Wear tefillin and a tallit and have prayer services at the Kotel. Not all women who attend these events choose to wear a tefillin or talis. Strictly speaking, women are not prohibited from wearing a tallis and tefilin. Rashi's daughters famously did so. It's just "not done" and it's certainly not obligatory on women. (Arguments against it largely center around it being against custom, if I understand correctly.) According to what I learned, women can choose to obligate themselves in new mitzvot, whether it's davening maariv daily or donning tefilin. However, there is a caveat. A women should only obligate herself in a new mitzvah if she's already fulfilling the mitzvot commanded of her. So if a woman is fulfilling her mitzvot as commanded, I don't have a problem with her taking on non-mandatory mitzvot that have meaning to her. But don't fulfill your mitzvot haphazardly and then claim you want more (that you happen to like better for whatever reason). That's caring only about what you want, not what Hashem wants of you.
Next we will question the sexual orientation of men who separate challah! Husbands fulfill this "women's mitzvah" all the time. Would we have the same objection to men choosing to do another of the "female mitzvot"? I doubt it. But it's the same thing: it's not done as a general rule. And we all seem to understand why men don't obligate themselves in new mitzvot: they have plenty to do! Yet we degrade women's mitzvot by implying it's "less" and also "less worthy" than the mitzvot of a man. If it makes a man feel more important and "manly" to degrade my obligation in mitzvot, then he lacks a great deal of the qualities required by the Torah. It's comparing apples and oranges. We're different. We have different stuff to do. That doesn't make one more valuable than another or mean there's less work for either. The argument is simply non-sensical to me. And implies he has a lot of problems that have nothing to do with me or my mitzvot.
But this is why I personally don't take vows to take on new mitzvot. There is always something more for me to work on in the areas I'm commanded. I don't need more mitzvot, I need less if I'm ever going to get this right! I also know that I stumble frequently. There is no need to obligate myself to something I will inevitably mess up later. I mess up my own stuff just fine, thankyouverymuch.
Prayer services are held every day at the Kotel. Playing devil's advocate for the terribleness for women attending minyan at the Kotel: Often the women's side can't hear the service(s), even if a co-ed group stands beside each other at the mechitza (speaking from experience). Women's tefilah groups exist in orthodox and non-orthodox congregations, whether those groups focus on reading Tehillim together or having a full Torah service to allow a learned bat mitzvah to read from the Torah to other women. Should these groups be banned automatically from the Kotel when we allow them in (some of) our shuls?
Sidenote: If you're a conversion candidate, I don't recommend that you attend (or mention attendance) at a women's prayer group unless it's strictly a Tehillim session. While most rabbis I know of agree it's not "wrong," it's "suspicious" and may show "tendencies" of a future of going "off the derech." Didn't you get the memo that women's participation in any mitzvah "above and beyond" is a warning sign of future rebellion?)
But women reading Torah to other women? Women holding a Torah scroll? Women leading davening of other women? I'm not aware of anything wrong with that, though the minyan-specific parts wouldn't be said. My guess is that a Women of the Wall service does hold that women can "count" in a minyan, but even if they didn't, is there something halachically wrong with them saying the parts for minyan at the Kotel, where there is clearly going to be at least a minyan of men present? Those parts of the service aren't supposed to be said without a minyan, but I'm not aware of a prohibition against women saying them. In fact, many orthodox congregations allow women to recite Kaddish loudly (loud enough for the men to hear) during their time of mourning, though they may require "saying" it rather than "singing" it. More shuls allow women to bentch gomel during the Torah service, though saying it from their seat.
Why do all of the "egalitarian" ideas above become a null and void argument for the Women of the Wall because most (if not all) of the participants are not orthodox Jews? If orthodox Jews could do it, I see no reason why non-orthodox Jews can't. Add that to the legal argument above, which I think is the proper approach for government authorities. I am particularly disappointed in the statement by the Rabbi of the Kotel:
"The rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, condemned Tuesday's prayer service. In a statement issued to the media, he said the women brought 'brothers against brothers in unnecessary confrontation' and noted that the wall next to Robinson's Arch has been designated as the area for women's prayer services. 'The Western Wall is the only place shared by all the people of Israel -- and it is not the place to decide or express a world view,' Rabinowitz said. 'I urge anyone for whom the Wall is dear to do whatever he can to keep disputes outside the plaza, and leave the people of Israel one place where there are no demonstrations, clashes and hatred.' "
Isn't protecting the demands of one Jewish group against another Jewish group a "world view" that shouldn't be "decided or expressed" at the Kotel? If that's the case, then both groups should be banned from the Kotel. Or, as befits a democracy, let them both attend. If people wish to protest, they should have the right to do so peacefully. Instead, the group he supports is the one creating demonstrations, hatred, and violent clashes. Not the Women of the Wall.
Doing what you think is right might lead to a riot. See, for example, the Civil Rights Movement. However, as in the Civil Rights Movement, it is categorically wrong for the oppressor to lay the blame for his actions at the feet of the person intimidated. "She made me spit on her because she wore a tallis at the Kotel (or wore a tank top or had her picture in the newspaper)" should never, ever be allowed to be a justification for conduct in violation of the law, halacha, and being a mensch. You are responsible for your own bad conduct and the chillul Hashems created by it. So own up to it.
At the end of the day, the Women of the Wall should not be a big deal. This unnatural obsession with enforcing the modesty of women is worrisome and looks more and more pathological the longer I hang around the orthodox community. And it's one of the major reasons I am not more "right wing." Though there are many right-wing orthodox people who view these issues reasonably and in proper perspective in comparison with the other mitzvot, these people are overwhelmingly not speaking against the major violations of modesty and derech eretz of the loud, hateful, and sometimes violent "modesty police" in orthodox communities around the world. Their leaders are doing a particularly poor job, usually supporting the poor behavior. And I can't imagine being around people who don't feel the Torah is worth defending against that kind of behavior. Every community has its faults, but I highly value the ability I have, as a modern orthodox woman, to speak about these wrongs and chilul Hashems without fearing that I or my family will be ostracized for it.
"Your silence gives consent" - Plato