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The Blessing of Dissension

Updated: Aug 10, 2023

The Blessing of Dissension

By Rabbi Pamela Frydman

International Co-Chair, Rabbis for Women of the Wall

We have been blessed with women of great capacity from the beginning of our people’s history until now. According to the sages, there are seven female prophetesses mentioned in the Bible: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah and Esther.[1] According to the Talmud, Beruriah studied three hundred laws from three hundred teachers in a day.[2] The commentaries of Nechama Leibowitz are studied by Torah scholars around the world. And a woman named Rivka Haut had a vision that brought together seventy women to pray at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem in a service that served as the founding of the modern Jewish feminist movement known as Women of the Wall.

What do these women have in common? What do all great women have in common? We do ordinary things in extraordinary ways like our mothers and grandmothers before us and our daughters and granddaughters who will forge their own path or follow in our footsteps.

Seventy is an important Jewish number. Seven are the days of the week. The seventh day is Shabbat (the Sabbath), the seventh year is the Sabbatical year and the year following seven Sabbatical years is the Jubilee.[3] Ten is the number of top commandments in the Torah. It is also the number of sephirot, divine emanations, with which, according to the mystics, God created the universe.[4]

Seventy is the number of Israelites who arrived in Egypt with Jacob.[5] It is also the number of elders of Israel who began to prophesize in the wilderness when the spirit of God rested upon them.[6] And it is the number of sages who sat on the high court known as the Sanhedrin.[7]

The sages of the Sanhedrin were the final arbiters of legal decisions in their society. They operated on principles of Torah and halachah (Jewish law), but they did not see eye to eye, and in fact, diversity of opinion was required in order for a decision to be binding. If all the members of the Sanhedrin voted alike, the vote was discarded. We learn from that that according to our sages, dissent is a requirement for majority rule and this sensibility permeates the Talmud where dissenting opinions are presented side by side with the opinion that carried the day.

There are many moments in the life of a social justice movement when everyone in the cause feels aligned. Be it through success or failure, recognition or rejection, winning or losing, there are moments when everyone feels the same elation or defeat, albeit perhaps for different reasons.

The true moments of greatness, however, are when we do not see eye to eye. The fear of history repeating itself, the terror that we might acquiesce too soon and for the wrong reasons, the apprehension that government and allies might betray us no matter what they promise and how sincere they sound—these are the social justice dividers that create and foster factions, sending their leaders scurrying in different directions toward same goal.

It is only when the founders of nations and movements were divided that true progress ensued in ways heretofore unimaginable. The Prophet Samuel anointed David king of Israel while Saul was still on the throne.[8] Politicians divide at every turn in the name of progress. Strategists divide over when to litigate and when to legislate. Women of the Wall were of diverse opinions in the days between April 11 and 23, 2013. On April 11th, Judge Sharon Lari-Bavli dismissed the charges against five Women of the Wall and on April 23rd Judge Moshe Sobel exceeded all expectations and when he ruled that all women, and not just Women of the Wall, may wear a tallit (prayer shawl) and read from a Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) at the Western Wall.

We are on the precipice of a great moment in Jewish feminist history. So great is this moment that some of our own founders and leaders are lobbying publicly against us. This is not a sign of failure and it is certainly not a sign of defeat. Rather, it is a sign of our very success. Without the appeal of the Israeli Police from the ruling of Judge Lari-Bavli, we would not have the broad based ruling of Judge Sobel. Without the Sobel ruling there would be no basis in law for Women of the Wall to be protected by the very police whose higher ups made the arrests, brought the arrestees into Judge Lari-Bavli’s courtroom and appealed from her verdict.

There are some who say that the most important person in the Torah is the man who told Joseph how to find his brothers when he was looking for them so he could tell them his dreams, which led to the horrible events that brought him to Egypt. Why is that man, whose name we do not even know, considered to be so important? Because, but for him, Joseph might not have found his brothers that day, he might not have ended up in the pit and later in prison and later as governor of Egypt to save his own family from famine together with the Egyptian people and many others.

It does not matter whether Israelite slavery is fact or myth; either way, the principles we learn from the stories bring us to an understanding of social institutions and social justice as well as social change and social dynamics.

Only history will tell whether the Board of Directors of Women of the Wall or our dissenters are speaking the voice of truth. But if “history” is a source for learning “herstory,” then it does not matter who is right. What matters is that these women of great passion, who hold to great ideals, remain in sisterhood with their rivals. Only in doing so can we serve as an example to those who hiss and spit, stammer and swear at the sight of our worship. It is in our dissension and the maintaining of our sisterhood in the midst of it that we will lead the next stage of our struggle for the right to pray with women as women in a women’s section that is imbued with the holiness of our mothers and our fathers, our daughters and our sons, and the divine in all of Her Glory and His Mercy. Keyn yehi ratzon. So may it be.

[1] [Babylonian Talmud] Tractate Megila 14a. (References to Sarah, Genesis 11:29 - 23:20; Miriam, Exodus 15:20-21, Numbers 12:1-12:15 and 20:1; Deborah, Judges 4:1 - 5:31; Hannah, First Samuel 1:1 - 2:21; Abigail, First Samuel 25:1 - 25:42; Huldah, Second Kings 22:14-20; and Esther, Book of Esther.

[2] Bruriah was the wife of Rabbi Meir Baal HaNes, and daughter of Rabbi Hanina ben Teradion. [Babylonian Talmud] Tractate Pesachim 62a.

[3] Leviticus 25:11.

[4] <> 2013.

[5] Genesis 46:27.

[6] Numbers 11:25.

[7] Bamidbar Rabbah 5:9.

[8] First Samuel 16:13


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