Hillel Halkin thinks that in their demands to pray as they see fit at the Kotel—to wear tallit, to read aloud from the Torah, to chant the Shema—Women of the Wall are being childish. To make his point, he uses as an example the Jewish custom of wearing a kippah.
Halkin writes, “on a rare visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, for example—I’ll put on a kippah even though I resent having to do it. As a Jew and an Israeli, I feel that the Wall is as much mine as anyone else’s; being forced to place a round piece of fabric on my head...irritates me.”Halkin goes on to acknowledge, however, that he would never fight for bareheaded praying rights. That, he insists, would be ridiculous. It would “offend the sensibilities of hundreds or thousands of people” who might “have their experience spoiled.” Besides, it might even cause a riot.
Though name-calling labels—like the charge of childishness in one paragraph and narcissism in another—contain more heat than light, I am willing to entertain Halkin’s claims. But I suspect that there’s a lack of authenticity, just at the point where it’s most needed in order to sustain his own argument.
In a democracy, where rights not only need to be upheld by the courts, but where everyday civility must reign, we need to find ways to adjudicate among competing preferences, sensibilities, orientations and identities.
Halkin, who, when he does attend synagogue from time to time, prefers an Orthodox one, and who falls somewhere between “secular” and “traditional,” says that he is irritated by having to wear a kippah. Indeed, he probably is.
What Halkin leaves out in his discussion, though, is an acknowledgment of the depth of meaning and identity attributed to women’s practice of chanting the Shema, and yes, wearing a tallit. Since, when one reads from the Torah—the Judaic textual tradition that belongs every bit as much to the women who were standing at Sinai, Judith Plaskow poetically reminds us, as to the men—one should customarily approach the sacred scroll wearing the fringed garment, and since, when one declares “Hear O Israel,” one might just be moved to chant those words aloud rather than to hide one’s voice from men’s ears, these women might just be experiencing these ritual acts in a way that connects deeply to their core identity as Jews.
Does Halkin’s desire to be bareheaded while facing the stones of the Western Wall connect deeply to his core identity as a Jew? It may sound absurd, but for his argument to stand, the question is crucial.
Indeed, it could in fact be the case that the intensity of Halkin’s experience of alienation spurred by wearing a kippah at the Kotel is equivalent in depth and affect to the emotions experienced by the women being denied ritual personhood in legal prayer quorums who are told to keep a wide berth from their own sacred scrolls, and whose audible praying voices would be snuffed out.
But for Halkin’s proposed social contract to work, he would have to truly, openly, and authentically describe his emotional experience, while truly, openly, and authentically inviting others to share theirs. Sadly, his piece did neither.