Women praying at the Western Wall (Image credit: Mark Neyman/Government Press Office of Israel)
There are loud and angry voices calling for the abolition of gender separation at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. At a time when the whole world appears to be weighing in on the subject, it seemed appropriate to evaluate my stance on this issue.
Perhaps it is due to the ethos I absorbed at my all-women college that I have a great appreciation for the unique advantages provided by women-only designated areas. Important and reliable studies have proven time and again that women thrive and flourish in an environment where they are not forced to compete with men.
When men and women are thrown together, the woman by virtue of her feminine physique is at a notable disadvantage. Men, as a rule, are bigger and stronger and there is just no getting around that fact of nature. In a space as limited and crowded as the Western Wall prayer area, how many women would ever get close enough to the stones to touch them? How many male bodies would she be crushed against if she tried to push her way forward? Perish the thought! No woman with any real desire to come closer to HKB”H through prayer would tolerate such a scenario.
This was the very same thought process behind the building of the balconies in the Ezrat Nashim of the Temple Complex. Like the women’s area at the Western Wall today, it was meant not to exclude women, but to guarantee their inclusion! The modesty of Jewish women will not allow them to compete with the men for a limited physical space. Therefore, space was set aside and designated “for women only” in order to guarantee their access and inclusion.
Now, in the interests of the politics of division, which come masquerading as an attempt to unify and assert “rights,” Jewish women who choose to pray at the Kotel are in danger of losing their right to a space which absolutely guarantees their exclusive access to this holy place.
Like many things, it is often in how you look at it. A fence can be seen as a means to restrict movement or as a protection from outside intrusion. The same can be said of a mechitzah.
I expect that some Jewish women who feel restricted by the gender separation carry it over from childhood when their understanding was limited. A child chafes at any restriction of movement, while an adult with adult understanding has a greater appreciation for the concepts which inspire the rules of behavior. Or perhaps they never had any experience of women-only separation outside the religious context.
When I became an observant Jewess, I did not bring any pre-conceived bias with me in this regard. Instead, as aforementioned, I came with the experience of having attended an all-women college which valued and cherished the concept of a gender-specific learning environment which catered to women’s unique needs. So, it was no great leap to apply that same ideal to my religious life.
Men and women are different. That is a fact of life. Their needs are different and their ways of relating are different. And vive la différence!
Honestly, you would think that the liberal streams, with their feminist bent, would be in favor of the current arrangement. And no doubt, if they were motivated purely by their ideals, they would have to see the value of it. If anything, they should be lobbying for a bigger share of the pie, so to speak – an enlargement of the area now designated for women. Since the building of the unsightly ramp to the Mughrabi Gate to the Temple Mount, the size of the women’s section has decreased and it was already smaller than the men’s section.
It occurs to me, however, that this challenge to the status quo has nothing whatever to do with “rights” or “unity.” Something which causes such divisiveness and which actually denies women their rights to be separate is not about building anything of value. It is about pure destruction; an outgrowth of hatred, a hatred without any cause whatsoever - sinat chinam!
As we enter the period of the Three Weeks leading to Tishah b’Av, our thoughts naturally turn to this reputed cause of the Temple’s ultimate destruction. And just as “naturally” there will be those who will accuse the Jews who think like me to be the purveyors of sinat chinam because we refuse to give way to bullies on the attack; to step meekly aside and let them steal away our rights. It is the typical way of bullies to blame their victims; to claim some moral high ground. Well, enough!
The modesty of the Jewish women who cherish the privacy and protection the mechitzah affords does not compel them to stand by silently while their rights are bargained away for political expediency.