Sisterhood Blog

Orthodox Sage to Women in Tallitot at Kotel: You Are Deviant and Stupid

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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A former Chief Sephardic Rabbi and current spiritual leader of Israel’s Shas religious political party, Rav Ovadia Yosef, in his weekly sermon last Saturday night called women who wear prayer shawls to daven at the Western Wall “stupid” and “deviants.”

He was speaking of Women of the Wall, a group of devoted and, dare I say it, devout Jewish women who believe that women may read from a Sefer Torah. Some of these women also wear a yarmulke and tallit, or prayer shawl.

This article from the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot says that Rav Yosef was speaking of the laws regarding saying Kiddush on Shabbat when he said:

…Women are obligated to perform Kiddush and can fulfill their obligation either by hearing a man perform the blessing or by reciting it themselves.

He went on to say:

“Tefillin (phylacteries) she must be careful not to lay. There are stupid women who come to the Western Wall, put on a tallit (prayer shawl), and pray.”

“These are deviants who serve equality, not Heaven. They must be condemned and warned of.”


Rav Yosef is widely regarded as being one of the greatest rabbinic sages of this generation, making his strong language even sadder and more regrettable.

The stalwart souls who are part of Women of the Wall began their effort to find space – almost any space – at the Kotel 21 years ago. The Kotel is that last vestige of the walls which once surrounded the holy Temple, those sacred remnants which remain so evocative, so moving, so holy to each and every Jew who visits them.

Unfortunately, the Kotel has become in fact if not in law an ultra-Orthodox-run synagogue where women must stand on chairs if they are to be able to get a glimpse over the high mechitzah at the bar mitzvahs of their sons, nephews, grandsons happening in the larger men’s section. It is a haredi synagogue run, on the ladies’ side, by a fearsome gaggle of women who insist on covering you with a shmata if they deem your sleeves insufficiently long, and then demandingly beg money from you for the privilege of being forced to wear their shmata.

For women, there is only one way to pray at the Kotel; individually and inaudibly.

It has been Rabbi Yosef’s party, Shas, which has for years pushed to have the government classify the Kotel as an Orthodox synagogue rather than a national historic site.

At the Kotel today no woman dares wear a tallit or yarmulke – even if this is her normal practice – for fear of the reaction that would likely ensue.

The Women of the Wall have been physically attacked for simply trying to hold a quiet small-group service on the women’s side with a Torah scroll. In fact, as I understand it, for reasons of safety they now go elsewhere to read the Torah.

You can read more of their history here.

I am sad to say that the Kotel no longer feels like a place for all Jews. It feels like a place only for the Orthodox.

My first visit there, when I was 18 and living on kibbutz for the year, was a deeply powerful experience. Though it didn’t prompt a particular sense of connection with the Creator, I was awed by what the enormous stones rising above me represented, overwhelmed by what had befallen the Jewish people on this spot and that it was again our own. And I felt connected with every other Jew there.

Just over a year ago, we joined friends at the Kotel as they celebrated their son’s bar mitzvah and it was, most unfortunately, a very different experience.

On Torah-reading mornings the Kotel is now a bar mitzvah factory. It is crowded and chaotic, with people paying off rabbis to “reserve” one of the best spots early in the morning. Families jockey for position on both sides of the mechitzah, the women needing to balance on chairs to witness their sons’ rite of passage.

I was literally pushed off a chair by French women who couldn’t wait for our friend’s ritual to end for me to move out of the spot they wanted. Resigned, I went to wait for the end of our friend’s bar mitzvah in an empty chair in the tiny sliver of shade on the other side of the women’s section when an older woman put her shmata on me and “requested” payment.

I could not wait to get out of there and, even more sadly, have no desire to return.

Personally I’d like to see the Kotel have three sections, each separated by a mechitzah; one for men, one for women, and one as a place where women and men can daven together with the rest of their families and communities. Only Orthodox hegemony, that sense of superiority which led to the recent words of Rabbi Yosef, is what stands in the way of the Kotel being a place where all Jews can find room – physically and spiritually – to pray.

I pray that the time comes when I again feel that there is space for me to pray at the Kotel.

esthermiriam Wed. Nov 11, 2009

Keyn Y'hi Ratzon.

[ There was a moment, way back, when it seemed Hadassah might have supported sanity on this issue: that would've been a force to reckon -- but alas, seems success in this struggle and return of women who wish to pray in their way may wait for the Messiah, or for the day when holy sites are under international control!

Meanwhile, Kol ha Kavod to the WoW and Masorti/Reform folk who carry it on. ]

Elana Wed. Nov 11, 2009

It is really depressing what has happened to the Kotel. I also find that I can't go there. A bar mitzvah from the women's section is pure humiliation: women dressed to the hilt standing on their tippy-toes on chairs to get a tiny glimpse of something over the other side where the 'action' is. Humiliating, just horrible. Every time I'm invited to a kotel bar mitzvah, I cringe. Kudos to the Women of Wall for trying all this time to make the kotel a place that women can enjoy. How very depressing all that they have experienced. Ovadia Yosef, is he REALLY someone who should be leading the Jewish people?

Joe Feld Wed. Nov 11, 2009

There is a mixed section close to the Kotel at Robinson's Arch, where Conservative and Reform services take place. Regarding women wearing a talit and yamulka, if they do so, it should be different from a man's talit or yamulka because of the Biblical prohibition of women dressing as men and visa versa. A married women who wants to cover her hair out of modesty should wear something to cover more hair than an average yamulka. Reb Moshe Feinstein wrote in Igros Moshe that if a woman is guided by pure spirituality she can take on 'men's mitzvahs' -- but NOT if she just wants to show she can do whatever men do, .i.e feminism. Some Orthodox authorities do allow women to read from the Torah at a women's service, and all authorities allow a woman to read the Scroll of Esther for a women's minyan. If she wants to wear Tefillin she should speak to her Rabbi. Regarding the women gaboyim and their shmattas, write to Rabbi Rabbinowitz, Rabbi of the Kotel. If no one complains nothing will change. The Kotel often seems more a tourist site than a place of the utmost sanctity. I fear that if too many people ascend the Temple Mount it will also become another site for tourists 'to do.'

Helene Aylon Wed. Nov 11, 2009

I am grateful that someone has spoken up about the disgraceful denigration of women by one of our sages. This attitude manifests particularly in association with the Kotel and the Beit din rulings concerning the Aguna. I am an artist, and created a 30 foot freestanding wall of every page of The Five Books of Moses (English on one side of the wall and Hebrew on the other side of the wall) with misogynistic passages highlighted. That is why I called it "My Wailing Wall." The pages are bordered with grout and crinkled like ancient stones.

This Wall format followed the book format of "The Liberation of G-d," the previous installation that resembled a Beit Midrash. The Wall resembled Beit Hamikdash.

Another installation, "The Partition is in Place But the Service Can't Begin" also dealt with the Kotel. There's a 21 foot Mechitza made out of large size tsitsit, and 3 six foot images of the Kotel in three casts of light signifying the three times of day. Shacharit, Mincha, Maariv. The inference: Whether it's Shacharit, Mincha or Marariv, the service can't begin; There may be 100 women but if there are only 9 men, the service cannot begin...In this installation, dedicated to the Women at the Wall, their struggles are shown.

Right now, at New York's Jewish Museum (until February 7, 2010) my imaginary feminist courtroom installation, "All Rise" addresses the supposed wisdom of the Beit Din that feels no sympathy for the Aguna. The solution: three female judges. We have female Rabbis and female Cantors: Why not female judges?

The installation will travel to the Contemporary Jewish Museum in SF from April 22 to September 28, 2010. If you visit the museum, do write your comment in the Viewers' Comment Book.

Rabbi Marc D. Angel Wed. Nov 11, 2009

My suggestion is that there should not be formal prayer services of any type allowed at the kotel. There should be no minyanim, no tallit or tefilin, no reading from the Torah etc. It should be open to all people only for private prayer. This would not only eliminate the inter-denominational tensions, but would also improve the spiritual quality of prayer at the kotel. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is an elderly rabbi with fixed ideas on what is and isn't religiously appropriate. He is known to use sharp and undiplomatic language. Energy shouldn't be wasted complaining about him, but should be devoted to rectifying the situation at its root. If the kotel is to be a religious shrine for all Jews, then all Jews should be able to pray there at an appropriate comfort level. This can't be achieved as long as there are official, formal religious services held there. Let's turn the kotel into a place of private worship and meditation, and take it out of the realm of being a battleground among various religious factions.

Daniel Fri. Nov 13, 2009

Rabbi Angel - do you really mean to propose that Prayer Police be positioned on Kotel grounds, walking the beat to ensure no group may surreptitiously be gathering to say the Kaddish for a loved one? Or to commemorate the destruction of the Temple on the 9th of Av by reading the Book of Lamentations? Or simply to fulfill the obligation to pray with a minyan when there is no time to find an alternative venue?

In other words, which is the lesser of two evils: the current state, or a regime reminiscent of the British Mandate rules that prohibited bringing Torah scrolls, shofrot, or other vestiges of organized prayer to the Kotel. While I sympathize with the women and groups who feel marginalized by the present rules, I find your proposal to be far more extreme a solution than necessary. Certainly accommodations can be made without banning public prayer entirely, and instituting the enforcement mechanisms that such a rule would require.

Rebecca Lesses Fri. Nov 13, 2009

Actually, I agree with Rabbi Angel. When I first visited the Kotel in 1983, while it was still an Orthodox prayer area, it was much more peaceful than it is today. There was no construction, no cars on the Kotel plaza, the women's section was larger than it is today (since it has been encroached upon by the rebuilding of the ramp to the Mughrabi Gate), and it seemed less politicized than now. During one visit two or three years ago I was trying to pray when my concentration was destroyed by a group of supposedly pious people drumming loudly somewhere nearby. The Kotel is holy to all Jews and should be open to all Jews. Another advantage to forbidding congregational prayer is that we would not need a mehitza. People could just stand by themselves and pray. Another distraction I would abolish if I could would be beggars (professionals) coming in and disturbing people and talking to them even during the Amidah, when one is not supposed to respond to another person. The Kotel needs to regain its sanctity.

David Fri. Nov 13, 2009

Excellent idea, Rabbi Angel. A sound, pragmatic, easy-to-implement solution. Have you ever considered running for office?

sharon Fri. Nov 13, 2009

Daniel, It is easy for you to say that Rabbi Angel's proposal is too extreme when you are not the one being marginalized. As someone who is marginalized, I think Rabbi Angel's proposal is an excellent idea.

David Mollen Fri. Nov 13, 2009

Go for it, Rabbi! Nothing I like better than Orthodox Rabbis condemning women for challenging the traditional rules concerning them: that's the best way to expose the blot on Judaism that Orthodoxy so often is today.

Judaism is sublime. Jack Paar once said that Walter Winchell "wears the American flag like a bathrobe." Orthodoxy today often wears Judaism like a bathrobe -- it cheapens our sublime religion by focusing maniacally on rules about symbolic, ritual behavior rather than the guidance for living a more meaningful life that is Judaism's true contribution to the world.

The Rabbi's rants, like so many of his peers, expose what he and others are trying to make Judaism. The revulsion that women and their male supporters feel at such tactics is the best way to bring Judaism to where it needs to be to continue our contributions to humanity.

Ari Kahn Sat. Nov 14, 2009

Debra, very well put, and I have t say that I completely agree. I find the Kotel unwelcoming for women now, and, as I attend an egalitarian service at my egalitarian synagogue, I find it ridiculous that this is the way the Kotel is set up! I am impressed week after week by your blog posts, Debra, keep up the good work!

David braunstein Sun. Nov 15, 2009

As an Orthodox Jew i would find Eglaitarian services at the wall repulsive and I would not daven at the Kotel. The Kotel must have a Mechitza!

Mr Mollen if Judaism abandons halacha and will become anarchy!

Sarah Sun. Nov 15, 2009

I read Debra's post several days ago and, as always, her thoughtful writing got me thinking.

Also as always, I am aching to comment on so much of what Debra and others have said here.

But with all the thoughts flying around in my head, with everything I want to say - ultimately, I'm afraid I may have nothing to say.

I don't believe any of the issues raised here are as simple or one-sided - in any direction - as many seem to think. Not Rav Ovadia Yosef, not Orthodoxy, not the Women of the Wall, not the women offering shawls and/or asking for tzedaka, not the effect of mechitza on prayer, not the definition of legitimate standards vs. potentially marginalizing legitimately different views... Everybody is right, and nobody is right.

I am hurt and offended by some of the statements about orthodoxy I see here. Is it fair to marginalize orthodoxy because one thinks orthodoxy marginalizes others? Can't we just disagree and leave it at that? But of course, that's not good enough - because sometimes decisions do have to be made. And it's not always clear how to make decisions that maintain the basic rights of all.

I was amused (in a sad sort of way) by this line in an earlier comment: "... was trying to pray when my concentration was destroyed by a group of supposedly pious people drumming loudly somewhere nearby. The Kotel is holy to all Jews and should be open to all Jews." Shouldn't the Kotel also be open to those who need to drum loudly to inspire their prayer? Oh, but it bothers you? Well, we can find something to bother everyone, and someone to be bothered by everything. Who gets to decide which needs are legitimate?

Growing up Orthodox, I used to think the obvious solution in mixed-denomination gatherings was to follow Orthodox halacha for group purposes. For instance, order kosher food - that way, everyone can eat it. As I got older, I started to realize things aren't so simple: it's not just a question of finding a common denominator of practice; people might actually have objections even to what seems to be the "strictest" option. Should all weddings have separate seating, so everyone will feel comfortable? Well, not everyone will feel comfortable - I, for one, would hate to sit with strangers instead of my husband. Some think - as I used to - that having a mechitzah allows everyone to feel comfortable. They don't realize - and it took me a long time to understand this, too - that some are actively offended by the presence of a mechitzah. So we can't just lay down blanket strict rules and leave it at that. But, on the other hand, there are clearly some who would be offended by the presence of an egalitarian minyan. Who's right? How do we make everyone happy? Which rules or sensibilities should we follow to avoid offending or marginalizing or disrespecting any of the many individuals who deserve a share in the Kotel?

I wish I knew. But ultimately, I guess I really have nothing to say.

C. Tamir Mon. Nov 16, 2009

Although Rabbi Angel's solution seems to be a good one, I need to agree with Daniel. Who would be "in charge" of ensuring that no formal prayer is taking place?

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's comments were rude and inexcusable. However, solutions (like banning formal prayer) cannot be more forceful and intrusive than the original problem. I presume that if enough vocal and persuasive members of Conservative and Reform movement (I don't mean pockets of women or men, I mean leadership of organizations and synagogues) were to discuss this issue with the presiding board (is there one) of the Kotel then perhaps an area can be set for egalitarian minyanim.

Marc Tue. Nov 17, 2009

Judaism is not homogenous and while each of us may think we have a monopoly on the truth, none of us really know whether we do. I practice and believe in what I consider to be traditional, Orthodox Judaism, but I don't believe in imposing my worldview on others (and I don't like it when others try to impose their views on me). Even within Orthodoxy, there are a multiplicity of opinions as to the appropriate role of Women in communal tefila. Some of the views I've read above that state a view of what is "permitted within Orthodxy" do not, themselves, accurately reflect the diversity of Orthodox opinions.

The best solution was articulated by the author -- separate parts of the Kotel to permit religious observance my major "denominations" of Judaism in accordance with the rules they each follow. I don't think that implementing such a solution would be easy. There would need to be rules adopted to limit the number of such subdivisions, but it seems to be the best practical solution. Rabbi Angel's alternative of eliminating communal tefilah cannot be right -- the ability to daven with a minyan -- with talit and tefillin -- is too important to have it eliminated from the Kotel. And I do not think that accomodations need to be made for "all Jews." We need a practical solution.

esthermiriam Thu. Nov 19, 2009

Ah, Marc, but the ability that you prize, to daven with a minyan -- with talit and tefillin -- HAS been eliminated from the Kotel FOR WOMEN... and that's only a part of attacks on the spirit (and the bodies) of many Jews who might wish to pray there.

I really like Rabbi Angel's proposal -- which at least has the virtue of forcing people to think beyond the polarized debate that has grown less and less civil in Jerusalem, even beyond the Kotel, as those who believe they are empowered to decide for all press harder and harder to establish a Land divided by mechitza.

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