Thank you, Nicholas Kristof, for asking this question many are unfortunately too afraid to ask. I have wondered in these past few weeks as I’ve seen article after article about Nofrat Frenkel, the Israeli woman who was arrested for praying at the Western Wall, if Judaism inherently oppresses women. Frenkel is part of a groundbreaking organization of nonviolent resistance in Israel, Women of the Wall, which seeks to give women the opportunity to pray at the actual Kotel, rather than at the segregated fragmented piece of a wall that is always claustrophobic and too public for serious prayer.
Israel, like most of the world, operates under a patriarchy, but more than that, Israel has a deep divide within its relatively new society: a divide between the ultra-Orthodox and the less-observant (or those who are observant in different ways). The ultra-Orthodox Haredim – who I will definitely write more about – do not want to pray with women for fear of distraction. It is a law for them. It is a Jewish law for them. The way they practice their Judaism does oppress women.
Kristof writes, “My own take is that religion has often been part of the problem, but that it also can be part of the solution.” This is especially true of Judaism because it is a religion based on community. Where there is a community of Haredim that outlaws women praying at the Kotel, there is a community of Jewish women fighting for their right to pray, fighting to overcome oppression. Religion can be part of the problem. It can cause exclusion. It can be a scapegoat for “justified” sexism. Judaism is also characterized by a pursuit of tzedek (justice) through social action. It is how we choose to practice our Judaism that matters. Do we include rather than exclude? Do we seek to better our many communities through progressive ideals? We can fight such sexism with Jewish values to expose the flaws of a system that will arrest a woman for praying.