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Singing at the Western Wall: Etiquette

The Western Wall is a constant source of discussion among Jews. Usually, the discussion (at least in my social circles)  involved discussing some event that made the news – usually an action by the more traditional Jews to try and maintain what they view as appropriate decorum at the wall. I have to admit that, in general, most of the issues that they have are not particularly relevant to my practice of Judaism. In part, because I live halfway around the world from the Wall, but also in part because I think they are just as entitled to practice their version of Judaism as I am. Here’s where the etiquette bit comes in.

Recently, there was a news article about a group of American Female Reform Rabbis who went to the western wall to Daven (pray). Now it is important to recognize some of the differences between Orthodox and Reform:

  1. Orthodox Jews segregate men and women during their prayers. Reform Jews don’t.
  2. Orthodox Jews do not allow women to be rabbis. Reform do.
  3. Orthodox Jews do not have women wear Kippot or tallis. Reform do.
  4. Orthodox Jews (typically) pray quietly, without song or lots of noise. Reform Jews sing, play musical instruments, and are no particularly quiet.
  5. Orthodox Jews do the majority of the prayer service by themselves, at their own pace, only joining together for a few prayers. Reform Jews tend to pray together, and as a group.

These are only some of the differences, but you get the idea.

Anyway, this group of female reform rabbi’s show up at the wall, and make their way to the woman’s section. This in itself is a pretty significant point of etiquette. By accepting that the Orthodox Jews prefer to maintain separate male and female sections, and respecting that boundary, they are showing respect for the Orthodox Jews beliefs. Yay Reform. One Point for you. By the same token, the Orthodox Jews recognize that a group of female rabbis has showed to pray, and doesn’t make a stink about it even though they are wearing tallis and kippot (in the past, this has been an issue). Once again, showing respect for the others, and letting them do their thing. Yay Orthodox. One point for you.

Things progress like this for a while – both groups being respectful, both groups doing their own thing, and both groups (I assume) managing to have a meaningful prayer session at the Western Wall. Yay everyone. One more point each.

Of course, so far there hasn’t been anything except some ideallogical differences – nothing requiring interaction or contact between the two groups. You stay on your side of the line, I’ll stay on mine, and we’ll both be fine. If things had continued on in this way, there’d be much happiness, and many points, and everyone would win. Of course, if that had happened, I wouldn’t be blogging about it, now would I?. This particular prayer group included more women than normal, and was louder than normal (according to the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) – the Reform Movement’s legal arm. As they got a bit loud, some men shouted over the curtain between the men’s and women’s sections, shouting that a women’s voice is lewd (according to Orthodox Jewish Law, loud singing or shouting by women is considered unchaste and promiscuous. The ladies continued to sing, and apparently some Orthodox Women approached them, and asked them to quiet down. Things escalated, and the police ended up getting called in. I haven’t been able to find out if the Rabbis were allowed to finish their service, agreed to quiet down, or were allowed to continue.

So what happened to all the respect and good feelings that began? My guess is that the cultural differences simply blew up, and a simple situation got out of control. In general, Americans (not just Reform Rabbis, but most Americans) don’t take criticism very well, and, when traveling, tend to have the attitude that "our way is the right way, no matter where ther are. (I hate to say it, but most Americans live up to the international stereotype of fat, noisy, and obnoxious.) In my experience, Reform Jews tend to have some sort of complex when they are dealing with more observant Jews, and seem to often feel that they have to somehow "prove" that hey really are Jews. Of course, the Orthodox tend to be rather blunt in stating their opinions – in this case a simple "could you please be a bit more quiet" might have avoided the whole situation.

In any case, someone got their shorts in a knot, and things escalated. So after this rather circuitous path, we get to the whole issue of etiquette. Were the Orthodox out of line in expecting the Reform to be quiet? Were the Reform Rabbis out of line by being too loud? Were the individuals out of line for not being more polite? I like this one because some of the answers are easy, but some aren’t. The Reform rabbis were definitely out of line for being loud. Regardless of their tradition in their temples, the Western Wall is an area that is (usaully successfully) shared by all Jews. There is a fairly well established convention of what is tolerated, reached after many years of arguing and compromise.  A convention that requires everyone involved to give a little, look the other way, and cut others some slack. In other words, a compromise. So, the first breach of etiquette was in the volume. Penalty. One point off from the Reforms.

Of course, the response from the Orthodox man is pretty rude – at least by our standards. But, once again, we have to view this based on the norms of the Western Wall. Having only been there a couple of times, I don’t have a solid basis for this, but my impression is that a Jerusalem Jew would accept his shouting as “normal”. The far end of normal, but normal. Of course, in the interest of peace and harmony, it would have been NICE if he’d been a bit more polite.  Of course, the fact that the Reform Rabbis ignored the (albeit rude) request doesn’t put them into a particularly favorable light.Not enough for a full penalty, but definitely a warning for both sides.

I could go on, but the basic problem is that the group of Reform Rabbis broke the conventions that have been worked out. When informed that they had crossed a line, they didn’t return, but continued. I can’t tell if this is a religious issue  or just another instance of the Ugly American, but it really doesn’t matter. Even though we may not all agree with the way things are done at the western wall, there IS a workable balance. Anyone who has been the Wall will recognize it – especially if they are open minded and willing to look at all of the points of view. Everyone gives a little, and by doing so, everyone manages to share. When a group enters and tips the scales, they should expect to be asked to honor the local traditions. Jewish law (all Jewish law, not just orthodox) requires it – local traditions trump personal preferences.

It has been interesting to read the flurry of discussions on this topic – almost all of them are the typical knee-jerk “those Orthodox guys are crazy! they don’t own the wall etc. etc. etc.”. The real issue isn’t who owns the wall, or even what is or is not acceptable at the wall. The issue is “Is it OK to flaunt local traditions and agreements simply because you prefer to do things differently”. In my opinion, the answer is a definite, strong, and emphatic  “NO”. The Reform Rabbis were 100% wrong. They failed to follow the local norms and traditions (which allow all Jews to share the wall), and when informed that they were had violated the local mores, refused to back down. In this case, the Orthodox were simply requesting that the visitors respect established rules and agreements. The Reform Rabbis don’t have an ethical or moral leg to stand on.


5 Responses

  1. Good post. It’s not often that you’ll see someone in the US not defending the Reform movement. If I may just correct a couple of points, Orthodox jews do daven together (although some may be difficulty to follow), and are not always quiet (a visit to any Carlebach-style shul will prove that).


    Enrique (kctravelagency.wordpress.com)

  2. I find it difficult to keep from falling into despair about the fact that GROWN PEOPLE – INTELLIGENT, KIND people, even – can’t manage to play nicely together. Seriously?! I think we’re kind of doomed…

  3. KC: I agree on all of your points, but I;d like to clarify:

    when I wrote that Orthodox Jews don’t daven together, I was referring to the fact that they don’t all daven the exact same prayer at the exact same time. Instead, they daven at their own pace, coming together at the required points of the service. There may be some groups that do daven as a group, but I haven’t been in an Orthodox shul where the services are “led” the way reform/conservative do.

    Also, while there are definitely some Orthodox shuls where the davening is fairly noisy, the noise is usually individuals davening at their own pace, and the collective sound can get loud (of course there are also individuals that can be very loud…). What I was trying to get across was the idea that the reform group was SINGING loudly, and as a group. This made them much more noticeable (hence the problem) simply because there were so many of them, all singing the same prayers, and their collective volume was the problem.

    From what I saw at the wall, no one has problems with individuals singing when they daven, and even some small groups, as long as they are considerate of the others around them. This group had problems not because they were singing, but because they chose to ignore the accepted norms of the area by being too loud.

    Thanks for the great comment!

  4. Thank you for the clarification. Minor point and getting off topic, but Orthodox services are led, just maybe not in the same way as Reform. If you’re ever in Miami and want to see a shul were service are led and people sing together…let me know (my shul’s website is http://www.bdhls.org).

    Regards and Shabbat Shalom,

    Enrique (kctravelagency.wordpress.com)

  5. Thanks, if I’m ever there again, I’ll drop you a line!

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