Woman Arrested at the Wall for Wearing a Tallit?!

Byline: Friday, 2:00 PM

This past week, the Israeli police arrested a woman who was praying at the Western Wall, while wearing a tallit (prayer shawl). This was the first time a woman was arrested for wearing a tallit and reading from the Torah.

The Haredi Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch argues that the “Women of the Wall” group is creating strife and friction that defiles the sacredness of the Wall “The group has a place to touch the Kotel, the High Court of Justice gave it all it needs,” he said, referring to a ruling allocating an area adjacent to the Kotel, yet away from the public eye, where woman may don talitot.

The origin of this dispute centers on whether a tallit is considered to be an exclusively male garment or not; one  ancient Targum asserts that a tallit and phylacteries are a “men’s garment,” which is off-limits to women (Deut 22:5).[1] However, the Talmud itself merely says that a woman is exempt from wearing a tallit or phylacteries because these are time-bound precepts that must be observed within a specific time of the day. Commentaries point out that while a woman is “exempt” from observing these precepts, she certainly is not excluded from observing these precepts—should she choose to do so.

Illustrative of this latter perspective, Maimonides rules that a woman may certainly wear a tzitzit if she wants to (MT Hilchot Tzitzit). He is hardly alone; there are many other scholars who concur, e.g., Rashi, Rabbanu Tam, Rashba, Aharon HaLevi of Barcelona, and many others, saw nothing wrong with women wearing tzitzit.

Today’s Haredi and Hassidic rabbinate generally take a much more stringent approach. Among modern Haredi rabbis, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Israel’s chief Sephardi rabbi, said during his weekly sermon that the women in the feminist movement are “stupid” and act the way they do out of a selfish desire for equality, not “for heavens’ sake.”

Rabbi Ovadia also said about the groups’ custom to pray at the Western Wall that “there are stupid women who come to the Western Wall, put on a tallit (prayer shawl), and pray,” and added that they should be condemned.

If this were 15th century Germany, that would be one thing; but as we mentioned above, women are permitted to observe time-bound precepts. In fact, precepts like shofar and lulav have been observed by women despite the protests expressed in the 14th century. Why should the precept of tzitzit  be any different?

The current Israeli rabbinate in charge of the WesternWall also fails to grasp the public mockery they are making of Jewish Law before the entire world. Instead of being a light unto the nations, our leaders seem hell bent on being a “joke unto the nations.” Responsible Jewish leaders across the denominational divide—from the Orthodox to the Reform—need to speak out against a public desecration of our faith.

[1] Targum Pseudo-Jonathan.

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