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Halakhah for Our Time: A Conservative Approach to Jewish Law

Why follow halakha (Jewish law)? What is the rationale behind accepting  the Torah’s mitzvot?

Mishnah Kehati series

Many in Orthodoxy believe that God, more or less literally, revealed His will to mankind in sentences clear and literal, and that the record of God’s revelation, from the time of Moses to today, is nearly infallible. As such any reasonable person should understand the immense need to follow God’s word as closely as possible.

For a wide variety of theological and historical reasons, most people – including many religious Jews – reject the idea that God unambiguously speaks like a person, and also reject the claim that God’s words were infallibly transmitted for thousands of years. Most post-Talmudic forms of Jewish theology, in fact, including philosophical rationalism and Kabbalah (mysticism), hold that God is totally unlike man, that God is not anthropomorphic, and so a simple/literal view of revelation is not tenable – as well as theologically unnecessary. And outside of strict Orthodoxy, we recognize that the text of the Torah is maculate – it shows the signs of human editing over time.

As such, especially if one is coming from a strictly Orthodox or literalist background, it is reasonable to ask: why should we Jews still accept the Torah, and view halakhah – our way of life – as normative?

The following answers are from Rabbi David Golinkin, “Halakhah for Our Time: A Conservative Approach to Jewish Law”, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.


image from The Schechter Institutes, Jerusalem, Israel.

A. Theocentric reasons

1. We must observe the laws commandments because they are Divine in origin; they were given to us in the Torah at Mount Sinai by God Himself. And what about all the laws that were added by the rabbis throughout the ages? According to this approach, they too were given at Mount Sinai, as we read in the Palestinian Talmud “Even what a clever pupil will expound before his teacher has already been given to Moses at Sinai.”

2. Halakhah is the way that the Jewish people throughout the generations understood God’s revelations at Mount Sinai and observed it. A Jew who observes mitzvot fulfill’s God’s will as Klal Yisrael – the collective people of Israel – understood God’s will for 3,000 years.

3. The Torah and the mitzvot express the eternal brit [covenant] made between God and the Jewish people. As Moses states in Deuteronomy:

“It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today. Face to face the Lord spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire.”

This statement would not be surprising if it had been made to the people who had been present at the revelation at Mt. Sinai. But Moses is speaking to their children forty years later – and yet he says “us”, “every one of us”, “you” ! His point was that the covenant was not a one shot deal; it is renewed in every generation as Moses clearly explains at the end of Deuteronomy:

“I make this covenant not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.”

4. The mitzvot lead us to holiness, sanctify our lives and bring us closer to God. This is the approach taught by the Tanna Issi ben Yehuda 1700 years ago: “With each new command, God adds holiness to the people of Israel. [Mekhilta, parashah 20] This approach is also reflected in the standard formula of blessings recited over mitzvot such as Shabbat and Hanukkah candles, lulav, tefillin and tallit: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His mitzvot and commanded us…”

B. Ethnocentric reasons

1. Halakhah is the cement that binds together the scattered “bricks” of the Jewish people. Without it, the Jewish people would have long ago disappeared. The mitzvot tie every Jew in the world together with every other Jew in the world, as we all perform the same mitzvot. When we put on tefillin in the morning, we know that a Jew in Morocco does the same. When we light candles on Hanukkah, we know that a Jew in Argentina does the same. When we give tzedakah, we know that a Jew in Australia does the same.

2. The mitzvot are the golden chain which binds us and our children to our ancestors, and to the history of our people. Without them we would lose our continuity and we would feel like orphans in history. When we observe Shabbat, we know that Moses our teacher did the same. When we keep kosher, we know that Rabbi Akiva of the second century did the same. When we visit the sick, we know that Rashi of the eleventh century did the same. When we comfort the mourner, we know that Maimonides of the 12th century did the same.

3. The greatest threat to the Jewish people is assimilation and intermarriage. For thousands of years the mitzvot have protected the Jewish people from these threats. The famous Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am said “More than the Jews have preserved the Sabbath, the Sabbath has preserved the Jews.” The same can be said of all mitzvot.

C. Anthropocentric reasons

1. Mitzvot are a means of self-discipline, of improving character and of making us better human beings. This idea sounds very modern, but it is not. It was first suggested by the Letter if Aristeas, one of the books of the Apocrypha, written by a Greek jew in the second century B.C.E. The author states: “The sacred commandments were given for the sake of righteousness to arouse pious thoughts, and to perfect one’s character.” [Letter of Aristeas, paragraph 144].

A similar suggestion was made three hundred years later by Rav, a Babylonian rabbi and a major contributor to the Talmud. He said: “The commandments were given only in order to refine and discipline the person who performs them.” [Bereshit Rabbah, 44:1 ed. Theodore Albreck, p.424]

2. We perform Mitzvot because they are enjoyable! They uplift the spirit and bring joy to the heart. This point of view has been popular from biblical times until today. The Psalmist wrote three thousand years ago: “The precepts of the Lord are just, making the heart rejoice.”

…There are many other possible responses to the question “Why observe the halakhah?” but in the final analysis the chief thing is not to expounds the Law but to do it. [Mishna, Avot 1:17]


Principles of Jewish Faith FAQ

Does Judaism have an official set of principles of faith?

“In the same sense as Christianity or Islam, Judaism can not be credited with the possession of Articles of Faith.  Many attempts have indeed been made at systematizing and reducing to a fixed phraseology and sequence the contents Of the Jewish religion. But these have always lacked the one essential element: authoritative sanction on the part of a supreme ecclesiastical body.  And for this reason they have not been recognized as final or regarded as of universally binding force.  Though to a certain extent incorporated in the liturgy and utilized for purposes of instruction, these formulations of the cardinal tenets of Judaism carried no greater weight than that imparted to them by the fame and scholarship of their respective authors.  The first to make the attempt to formulate them was Philo of Alexandria….In his work “De Mundi Opificio,” lxi., Philo enumerates five articles as embracing the chief tenets of [the Jewish faith] (1):

God exists and rules; God is one; The world was created; Creation is one; God’s providence rules Creation’

“But among the Tannaim and Amoraim [rabbis of the Mishna and Talmud] this example of Philo found no followers, though many of their number were drawn into controversies with both Jews and non-Jews, and had to fortify their faith against the attacks of contemporaneous philosophy as well as against rising Christianity. Only in a general way the Mishnah, in Sanhedrin 11:1, excludes from the world to come the Epicureans and those who deny belief in resurrection or in the divine origin of the Torah.” (1)

In another demarcation between acceptable and unacceptable belief, the Talmud records that Rabbi Akiva held it heretical to read from the “outside works”.  This phrase is widely understood to refer to the apocrypha.  In truth, this identification is not so clear.  Akiva may have been referring to other books, possibly even some of the books of the Ketuvim (Writings), which eventually were canonized as part of the Tanakh [Hebrew Bible]. (2)

“Abba Saul designated as under suspicion of infidelity those that pronounce the ineffable name of the Deity. By implication, the contrary doctrine and attitude may thus be regarded as having been proclaimed as orthodox. On the other hand, Akiva himself declares that the command to love one’s neighbor the fundamental the principle of the Law; while Ben Asa assigns this distinction to the Biblical verse, “This is the book of the generations of man” (Genesis v.i.; Midrash Genesis Rabbah xxiv).” (1)

The 13 Principles of Faith is the most well known Jewish creed; it was formulated by Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides, or Rambam (1135-1204 CE).  These principles were controversial when first proposed, and they were not accepted by most of the Jewish community for the next few centuries. (3)

Over time two poetic restatements of these principles (Ani Ma’amim and Yigdal) became canonized in the siddur, and these principles eventually became widely held.  Today most of the Orthodox Jewish community holds these beliefs to be obligatory.  However, “even a cursory examination of Jewish literature shows that Maimonides’ principles were never regarded as the last word in Jewish theology.” (4)  Further, many of the beliefs that people attribute to Maimonides were, in fact, the opposite of what he held to be true.  Many “true believers” thus, ironically, hold beliefs that Maimonides held to be heretical.

Below we quote each of these principles as phrased in the “Ani Ma’amim”, and discuss how the modern Jewish denominations understand them.  Maimonides’ comments are taken from his commentary on the Mishnah (10th chapter of Sanhedrin) and the Mishneh Torah (Yesodey HaTorah), using the translation of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. (5)

Note that the Ani Ma’amim was not written by Maimonides, and it sometimes contradicts Maimonides’ views.  We quote the Ani Ma’amim because in practice most Orthodox Jews base their faith on its formulation.  In a separate essay we list each of the principles in Maimonides’ own words.

Readers should be aware that each of these, with the exception of the first) has been questioned and in some way by rabbinical authorities.

1. I believe that God creates and guides all creatures, and that God alone made, makes and will make everything.

Judaism affirms theism as the basis for religion, as does Islam and Christianity.  Beyond merely teaching that a god exists – which rules out atheism and agnosticism – Judaism specifically notes that only one god exists, thereby ruling out polytheism.  God is posited as a creator and a source of morality, and has the power to intervene in the world in some fashion.  The term ‘God’ thus corresponds to an actual ontological reality, and is not merely a projection of the human psyche.  Maimonides writes “There is a Being, perfect in every possible way, who is the ultimate cause of all existence.  All existence depends on God and is derived from God.”
This is accepted by Orthodox, Conservative, most Reform and some Reconstructionist Jews.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement, did not believe in God as most people had previously understood the term. Instead he spoke of the “God-idea”.  He transvalued the word God to mean the set of natural processes within the universe that man can use to become self-fulfilled.  He also defined God as “the power in the universe that makes for salvation”, where “salvation” is defined as man’s ability to achieve self-realization and fulfillment.

Or consider the theology of Rabbi Alvin Reines, professor of Jewish Philosophy at the Reform movement’s primary seminary, Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.  He teaches that theology is not the study of God, but instead is the study of the possible meanings of the term “God”.  He holds that those who do not believe in God can continue to use theistic language.  He then presents a redefinition of the word God: “The enduring possibility of being”.  Using his redefinition, he reasons that since nothing can exist without the possibility of its being, whenever we experience existence, we experience God.  Thus, everyone can be said to believe in God. (15)

This phenomenon has been termed “conversion by definition”. (6)  Rabbi Michael Samuels has noted that these reinterpretations exploit the traditional prestige of words that they have emptied of their original meaning. (7)

2. I believe that God is one, and that there is no unity that is in any way like God’s.  He alone is our God, Who is, Who was and Who always will be.

Maimonides explains  “If one even allows himself to think that there is another deity other than God, than he violates the commandment “You shall have no other gods before me”.

This is accepted by Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and many Reconstructionist Jews.

Mordecai Kaplan outlines the Reconstructionist view: God is part of “the cosmos itself” which is really “a unified field of relationships”.  God is the sum of everything that is needed for “human fulfillment or salvation, both individual and collective, which is compatible with the cultural climate of contemporary life.” (8)  Kaplan also defines God as “those forces in human life and its environment which make for health, happiness and progress.” (9)

3. I believe that God is not physical and is not affected by physical phenomenon, and that there is no comparison to God whatsoever.

Maimonides explains  “In many places our holy scriptures do speak of God in physical terms.  Thus we find concepts such as walking, standing, sitting and speaking used in relation to God.  In all these cases, though, scripture is only speaking metaphorically.  In the Talmud our sages teach us that “The Torah speaks in the language of man” (Berachot, 31b).

This principle is accepted by all denominations.

4. I believe that God is the very first and the very last.

Maimonides explains  “The fourth principle involves the absolute eternity of the One.  Nothing else shares God’s eternal quality.  This is discussed many times in Scripture, and the Torah teaches it to us when it says “The Eternal God is a refuge” (Deuteronomy 33:27).

This principle is accepted by all denominations.

5. I believe that to God alone is it proper to pray, and it is not proper to pray to any other.
Maimonides writes “God is the only one we may serve and praise….We many not act in this way toward anything beneath God, whether it be an angel, a star, or one of the elements…..There are no intermediaries between us and God.  All our prayers should be directed towards God; nothing else should even be considered.

Jewish law requires the worshiper to be aware that it is God being addressed, to “know before Whom you are standing” (Berakhot, 28b).  Merely reading from a prayer book, appreciating the beauty of the poetry, or meditating on some words, does not by itself constitute Jewish prayer.  To transform reading into praying, there must at least be a sense of standing in the presence of God and the intent to fulfill at least one of God’s commandments. (10)

This principle is accepted by Orthodox, Conservative and most Reform Jews.

In contrast, most Reconstructionist and some Reform Jews have redefined the word prayer. Instead of believing in a personal God, the word ‘God’ is redefined as a natural process or a philosophical idea, not an ontological reality. As such, what does it mean to pray? Mordecai Kaplan says “Prayer aims at deriving, from the Process that constitutes God, the power that would strengthen the forces and relationships by which we fulfill ourselves as persons.”(11)  That is, prayer is an action that allows people to understand their desires, which need to be recognized in order to be fulfilled.

Some Reconstructionists seek to abolish all references to God, even in the context of this redefined concept of prayer.  Ira Eisenstein, President Emeritus of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and an editor of the first Reconstructionist prayer book, writes:
“Prayer does not necessarily require a ‘thou’….When I   pray I confine myself to the kind of text that enables  me to achieve what Walter Kaufman calls ‘passionate  reflection’….I suggest that traditional Jewish values  become the central theme of passionate reflection. (12)

Eisenstein goes on to state that “a dialogue with some Other” does not constitute authentic prayer, and urges Reconstructionist Jews to pray “without the Thou [God]”. (12) If this is true, then prayer by all other Jews is not authentic prayer. Knowing how liberal Jews feel when told by certain Orthodox rabbis that their worship isn’t “authentic”, one wonders how a supposedly liberal rabbi can make statements with similar presumption.

This practice of prayer “without the Thou” is not a rare occurance; it is practiced by many Reconstructionists. It has been popularized by Marcia Falk, whose non-deity oriented poetry and prayers have entered new Reconstructionist liturgical works. (13)

In a direct contradiction of Maimonides’ fifth principle many Chassidic Jews pray to their deceased Rebbes, asking them to intercede on their behalf.  They argue that they are only asking the souls of the dead to act as intermediaries between them and God, but this is precisely what Maimonides attacks as heresy. Chasidic Jews view their rebbes as a  necessary intermediary in worship of God. Here is an extreme example of this:

“What’s Really Going On” By Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Ginsberg,  Beis Moshiach

Rosh HaShana is not only the Day of Judgment, but most importantly, the day on which we crown the King of the universe and accept His sovereignty. On Rosh HaShana, we rise above the particulars of Torah and mitzvos and go directly to the King Himself. The common theme in all our Yomim Noraim prayers is the Creation’s acceptance of Hashem’s malchus, which, according to the Divine plan, is accomplished by acceptance of Melech HaMoshiach’s sovereignty. As mentioned before, this is why it is so important to declare “Yechi Adoneinu Moreinu V’Rabbeinu Melech HaMoshiach L’olam Va’ed” before the shofar is sounded and at the conclusion of Yom Kippur after “Hashem Hu HaElokim.” This custom was instituted in the Rebbe’s presence in Beis Chayeinu in 5754. As Chassidus explains, the way to achieve hiskashrus with HaKadosh Boruch Hu is by being connected to the Rebbe Melech HaMoshiach, the “connecting intermediary,” through whom we attach ourselves to the Infinite, as it states, “I stand between you and G-d, to convey to you G-d’s word.” This includes not only obeying all the Rebbe’s directives, seeking his advice and believing in his prophecies, but striving toward an essential hiskarshus with the Rebbe himself.


6. I believe that all the words of the prophets are true.

Maimonides explains  “We must realize that there exist human beings who have such lofty qualities and achieve such great perfection that their souls become prepared to receive pure spiritual wisdom.  Their human wisdom can then become bound up with Creative Mind of God and receive an inspired emanation from it.  This is prophecy, and those people who achieve it are prophets.”
“All prophets have one thing in common.  They all see their prophecy only in a dream, a vision or a trance.  This is what the Torah means when it says “If there be a prophet among you, then I, God, will make Myself known to him in a vision – I will speak to him in a dream.” (Numbers 12:6)

This principle is accepted by Orthodox, Conservative, most Reform Jews.

7. I believe that the prophecy of Moses was true, and that he was the chief of all prophets, both those before him and those after him.

Maimonides explains  “Moses was superior to all prophets, whether they preceded him or arose afterwards.  Moses attained the highest possible human level.  He perceived God to a degree surpassing every human that ever existed….God spoke to all other prophets through an intermediary.  Moses alone did not need this;  this is what the Torah means when God says “Mouth to mouth, I will speak to him.”

This principle is accepted by all Orthodox and most Conservative Jews. However, this does not imply that the text of the Torah should be understood literally.  The rabbinic tradition maintains that God conveyed not only the words of the Torah, but the meaning of the Torah.  God gave rules as to how the laws were to be understood and implemented, and these were passed down as an oral tradition.  This oral law ultimately was written down almost 2,000 years later in the Mishna and the two Talmuds.

The founders of Reform Judaism replaced this principle with the idea of progressive revelation.  In this view, Moses was not the highest degree of prophecy; rather it was the first in a long chain of progressive revelations in which mankind gradually began to better understand the will of God.  As such, the laws of Moses are no longer binding, and it is today’s generation that must assess what God wants of them.  (See the works of Gunther Plaut or Eugene Borowitz).  This principle is also rejected by most Reconstructionists, but for a different reason;  most posit that God is not a being with a will; thus no will can be revealed.

8. I believe that the entire Torah now in our hands is the same one that was given to Moses our teacher.

Maimonides explains  “We do not know exactly how the Torah was transmitted to Moses.  But when it was transmitted, Moses merely wrote it down like a secretary taking dictation….[Thus] every verse in the Torah is equally holy, as they all originate from God, and are all part of God’s Torah, which is perfect, holy and true….The person who says that some passages were written by Moses of his own accord is considered by our prophets and sages to be the worst sort of nonbeliever, and a perverter of the Torah….Such a person is in the category of those who say “The Torah is not in heaven”….Regarding such a person the Torah says “He has despised the word of God, his soul shall be utterly cut off.” (Numbers 15:31)

Maimonides writes that to a lesser degree, this principle also covers the Oral, as well as the Written Torah.  This includes the Mishna, early halakhic Midrashim, and the two Talmuds.  We, of course, are not supposed to believe that every word or rule in these works came directly from God.  However, Maimonides says that we have to believe that all this material is nevertheless directly based on the law that God disclosed to Moses.  Maimonides explains  “One who does not believe in the Oral Torah…is counted as an apikores (heretic).  However, this is only true when one denies the Oral Torah on the basis of his owns thoughts and opinions…this does not include the children of those who go astray or their descendants.”

No modern Jewish denomination totally accepts this principle.  Orthodox Jews recognize that over the millennia, many scribal errors have crept into the Torah’s text.  The Masoretes (7th to 10th centuries CE) compared all extant variations and attempted to create a definitive text.  Also, there are a number of places in the Torah where gaps are seen – part of the story in these places has been edited out.

In general, though, Orthodox Jews view the Written and Oral Torah as virtually the same that Moses taught, for all practical purposes.

Due to advances in biblical scholarship, and archeological and linguistic research, all non-Orthodox Jews reject this principle outright.  Instead, they accept that the core of the Oral and Written Torah may come from the Moses, but that the document that we have today has been edited together from several documents.  Conservative Jews tend to believe that much of the Oral law is divinely inspired, while Reform and Reconstructionist Jews tend to view all of the Oral law as an entirely human creation.  For more details see Richard Elliot Friedman’s “Who Wrote the Bible?”

9. I believe that the Torah will not be changed nor will there be another Torah from God.
Maimonides explains  “If any prophet comes to alter the Torah, we immediately know that he is a false prophet.  It does not matter whether he is Jewish or gentile, or how many signs and miracles he performs.  If he says that God sent him to add or subtract a commandment…he is a false prophet.  The same is true if he teaches that the commandments were only given for a limited time and not forever.

This principle is accepted by Orthodox and Conservative Jews, as long as one understands that this claim is understood within the system of the dual Torah, the written and the oral law.  In contrast, Reform Jews state instead that Revelation is progressive, thus Jews are not bound by the understanding of Revelation that came from the Written or Oral Torah.  This can be seen in the writings of the early Reformers, as well as modern day prominent Reform theologians such as Eugene Borowitz and Gunther Plaut.  They teach that the laws of the Torah and Talmud are no longer binding;  Instead, each Jews is empowered to interpret the word of God, and this interpretation literally creates new and separate commandments for each person. Reconstructionists dismissed the idea of mitzvot altogether, and replaced it with folk-ways that can be democratically altered by the will of the people.

10. I believe that God knows all the deeds of human beings and their thoughts. Maimonides explains  “The tenth principle is that God knows all that men do, and never turns His eyes away from them.  It denies the opinion of those who say “God has abandoned His world”.

This principle is accepted by Orthodox, Conservative and most Reform Jews.  It is rejected by some Reform and most Reconstructionist Jews, as Kaplan’s conception of God does not have the property of knowledge.

11.  I believe that God rewards with good those who observe his commandments, and punishes those who violate His commandments.

This is a case where the Ani Ma’amim states the opposite of what Maimonides actually taught; Maimonides wrote that only fools believe that God rewarded or punished people.  Maimonides believed that the only possible reward was that if a person perfected his intellect to the highest degree, then the part of his intellect that connected to God, the active intellect, would be immortalized.

The common understanding of this principle – against Maimonides’s view – is accepted by most Orthodox, and some Conservative and Reform Jews.

12.  I believe in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he may delay, nevertheless I anticipate every day that he will come.

Maimonides explains  “We believe that the Messiah will be greater than any other king or ruler that has ever lives….One who doubts this denies the Torah itself.  The Messianic age is when the Jews will regain their independence and all return to the land of Israel. The Messiah will be a very great king, he will achieve great fame, and his reputation among the gentile nations will be even greater than that of King Solomon. His great righteousness and the wonders that he will bring about will cause all peoples to make peace with him and all lands to serve him…. Nothing will change in the Messianic age, however, except that Jews will regain their independence. Rich and poor, strong and weak, will still exist.  However it will be very easy for people to make a living, and with very little effort they will be able to accomplish very much…. it will be a time when the number of wise men will increase…war shall not exist, and nation shall no longer lift up sword against nation…. The Messianic age will be highlighted by a community of the righteous and dominated by goodness and wisdom. It will be ruled by the Messiah, a righteous and honest king, outstanding in wisdom, and close to God. Do not think that the ways of the world or the laws of nature will change, this is not true.  The world will continue as it is. The prophet Isaiah predicted “The wolf shall live with the sheep, the leopard shall lie down with the kid.”  This, however, is merely allegory, meaning that the Jews will live safely, even with the formerly wicked nations.  All nations will return to the true religion [monotheism, although not necessarily Judaism] and will no longer steal or oppress.  Note that all prophecies regarding the Messiah are allegorical – Only in the Messianic age will we know the meaning of each allegory and what it comes to teach us.  Our sages and prophets did not long for the Messianic age in order that they might rule the world and dominate the gentiles….the only thing they wanted was to be free for Jews to involve themselves with the Torah and its wisdom.”

This principle is accepted by Orthodox Jews.  Conservative Jews vary in their beliefs, some affirming a personal messiah, while others affirm a messianic era.  Emet Ve-Emunah (14), the Conservative movement’s statement of principles, notes:

“We do not know when the Messiah will come, nor whether he will be acharismatic human figure or is a symbol of the redemption of human-kind from the evils of the world.  Through the doctrine of aMessianic figure, Judaism teaches us that every individual human being must live as if he or she, individually, has the responsibilityto bring about the messianic age.  Beyond that, we echo the words ofMaimonides based on the prophet Habakkuk (2:3) that though he may tarry, yet do we wait for him each day….[Since no one can say forcertain what will happen in the Messianic era] each of us is free tofashion personal speculation.  Some of us accept these speculationsare literally true, while others understand them as elaboratemetaphors….For the world community we dream of an age when warfarewill be abolished, when justice and compassion will be axioms of all,as it is said in Isaiah 11: “…the land shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”  For our people,we dream of the ingathering of all Jews to Zion where we can again be masters of our own destiny and express our distinctive genius inevery area of our national life.  We affirm Isaiah’s prophecy (2:3)that ‘…Torah shall come forth from Zion, the word of the Lord fromJerusalem’. ” (14)

Reform Jews generally concur with this; they are more likely to believe in a messianic era than a personal messiah. Reconstructionist Jews reject the idea that God can send a personal messiah or bring about a messianic age, but they do teach that man can use the power or process termed God to help bring about such a world.

13. I believe that there will be a resurrection of the dead whenever the wish emanates from God.

Maimonides wrote much on this topic, but in most cases he wrote about the immortality of the soul for people of perfected intellect; his writings were not about any resurrection of dead bodies.  This prompted hostile criticism from the rabbis of his day, and sparked a controversy over his true views, which has gone on unabated to this day.
Rabbinic works usually refer to this afterlife as “Olam Haba” (the world to come).  Note that some books use this phrase to refer to the messianic era, a physical realm right here on Earth; in other works this phrase refers to a purely spiritual realm.  It was during Maimonides’s lifetime, that this lack of agreement flared into a full blown theological dispute, with Maimonides himself charged as being a heretic by many Jewish leaders.
Some Jews at this time taught that Judaism did not require a belief in the physical resurrection of the dead, as the afterlife would be a purely spiritual realm.  They used Maimonides’ works on this subject to back up their position.  In return, their opponents claimed that this was outright heresy;  for them the afterlife was right here on Earth, where God would raise dead bodies from the grave so that the rsurrected could live eternally. Maimonides was brought into this dispute by both sides, as the first group stated that his writings agreed with them, and the second group portrayed him as a heretic for writing that the afterlife is for the immaterial spirit alone. Eventually, Maimonides felt pressured to write a treatise on the subject, the “Ma’amar Tehiyyat Hametim” (the treatise on resurrection).

In it he shows that contrary to the prevailing dogma, the Tanakh [Hebrew Bible] is ambiguous on resurrection; most verses on this topic can be read in two ways, and these are only hints or allusions. It is only the book of Daniel that Maimonides accepts as definitively stating that “many of them that sleep in the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence”. (12:2)  This is taken as referring to a physical resurrection of the dead, which clearly would be a miracle.  However, we must take care to understand Maimonides’ understanding of “miracles”, for it is not the same as the definition used by many sages of the Talmud, nor is it the same one used by many Orthodox Jews.

Maimonides writes that God never violates the laws of nature.  Rather, all divine interaction is by way of angels.  Maimonides also states that the layman’s understanding of the term “angel” is ignorant in the extreme; the Bible’s and Talmud’s references to “angels” are really metaphors for the various laws of nature, or the principlies by which the physical universe operates, or kinds of platonic eternal forms. Thus, if a unique event actually occurs, even it is perceived as a miracle, it is not a violation of the world’s order [“Perush ha-Mishnah” (Commentary on the Mishnah), Avot 5:6]

In contrast to the dogma of his day, Maimonides believes that miracles are not permanent.  Thus, any dead who are resurrected must eventually die again.  Maimonides thus disassociated the resurrection of the dead from both the afterlife as well as from the Messianic era.

Note that Maimonides says nothing of a universal resurrection.  All he says it is that whatever resurrection does take place, it will occur at an indeterminate time before the world to come, which he repeatedly states will be purely spiritual.  He writes “It appears to us on the basis of these verses [Daniel 11:2,13] that those people who will return to those bodies will eat, drink, copulate, beget, and die after a very long life, like the lives of those who will live in the Days of the Messiah.”  This clearly states that (a) the resurrection is not the world to come, and (b) it has nothing to do with the messianic era.
In a move that infuriated his critics, chapter two of the letter on resurrection refers to those who believe that the world to come involves physically resurrected bodies;  he refers to one with such beliefs as being an “utter fool” whose belief is “folly”:  “If one of the multitude refuses to believe [that angels are incorporeal] and prefers to believe that angels have bodies and even that they eat, since it is written (Gen. 18:8) `they ate’, or that those who exist in the World to Come will also have bodies – we won’t hold it against him or consider him a heretic; we will not distance ourselves from him, nor will he regard one who speaks thus to be an utter fool.  Let us hope that no fool will go farther than this in his folly.”

One can now see why so many people regarded Maimonides as heretical.  At that time, many Jews believed that the physical resurrection was identical to the world to come;  thus denial of a permanent and universal resurrection was considered tantamount to denying the words of the Talmudic sages.  However, instead of denying the resurrection, or maintaining the current dogma, Maimonides posited a third way: That resurrection had nothing to do with the messianic era (here in this world) nor to do with Olam Haba (the purely spiritual afterlife). Rather, he considered resurrection to simply be a miracle that the book of Daniel predicted;  thus at some point in time we could thus expect some instances of resurrection to temporarily occur, which would have no place in any eschatological scheme.

Emet Ve-Emunah, the statement of principles of Conservative Judaism, affirms “that death does not mean extinction and oblivion.  This conviction is articulated in our tradition in two doctrines:  The doctrine of the bodily resurrection of the dead, and the continuing existence after death, and through eternity, of the individual soul.  In the course of Jewish history both of these doctrines have been understood in varying ways.  For some of us these are literally true, while for others these are interpreted as metaphors….In sum, if God is truly God, if His power is the ultimate fact in the world, then His ability to touch us is not cut off by the grave.” (14)

Reform Judaism has generally denied that there is an afterlife.  The Pittsburgh Platform declared that the afterlife (i.e. Gan Eden and Gehenna) has no place in Judaism .  However, this and later statements also posited that the human soul is immortal.  How the soul can exist after the death of a body without any form of afterlife is not dealt with, as the Reform creed of immortality was usually held to be more symbolic than literal.  Rabbi Howard Jaffe writes that “Reform Judaism, while not taking any ‘official’ position on the matter, has for the most part ignored the question, and tended towards the belief that there is no such thing.”  In the past decade a small but growing number of Reform Jews have begun to suggest that Reform Jews re-embrace some traditional Jewish afterlife concepts.

Reconstructionist Judaism rejects the idea that there is an immortal soul.  For an excellent study and overview of the Jewish concept of immortality, the soul, and the afterlife, see Simcha Paull Raphael’s “Jewish Views of the Afterlife” (Jason Aronson Inc.)

Principles of faith after Maimonides

“Maimonides wrote this creed while still a young man.  He never referred to it in his later works.  Some believe that this is a clear sign that he changed his mind on this issue, and never intended them to be a binding set of principles.”(1) In practice, his 13 Principles did not gather universal acceptance.  However, a succinct poem based on them eventually made its way into the Siddur [Jewish prayerbook] where it still is sung from each day (Yigdal).

“The successors of Maimonides, from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century – Nachmanides , Abba Mari ben Moses, Simon ben Zemah, Duran, Albo, Isaac Arama, and Joseph Jaabez – reduced his thirteen articles to three: (a) Belief in God  (b) Creation (or revelation) and (c) providence/retribution.” (1)

“Others, like Crescas and David ben Samuel Estella, spoke of seven fundamental articles, laying stress on free-will.  On the other hand, David ben Yom-Tov ibn Bilia, in his “Yesodot ha- Maskil” (Fundamentals of the Thinking Man), adds to the thirteen of Maimonides thirteen of his own – a number which a contemporary of Albo also chose for his  fundamentals; while Yedaiah Penini, in the last chapter of his “Behinat ha-Dat,” enumerated no less than thirty-five cardinal principles.  In the fourteenth century Asher ben Yehiel of Toledo raised his voice against the Maimonidean Articles of Faith, declaring them to be only temporary, and suggested that another be added to recognize that the Exile is a punishment for the sins of Israel.  Isaac Abravanel, in his “Rosh Emunah,” took the same attitude towards Maimonides’ creed.  While defending Maimonides against Hasdai and Albo, he refused to accept dogmatic articles for Judaism, holding, with all the Kabalists, that the 613 commandments of the Law are all tantamount to Articles of Faith.” (1)


(1) “The Jewish Encyclopedia” New York: Funk and Wagnalls 1906-1910.  Entry on Maimonides’ Principles of Faith.
(2) “Apocrypha”, Encyclopedia Judaica, Keter Publishing
(3) Menachem Kellner, “Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought”, Oxford Univ. Press, 1986
(4) Marc B. Shapiro, “Maimonides Thirteen Principles: The Last Word in Jewish Theology?” The Torah U-Maddah Journal, Vol.4, 1993, Yeshiva University
(5) Aryeh Kaplan “Maimonides’ principles: The Fundamentals of Jewish Faith” in “The Aryeh Kaplan Anthology, Volume I”, Mesorah Publications, 1994
(6) “God, Torah, Israel: Traditionalism Without Fundamentalism”  Louis Jacobs, Hebrew Union College Press, Cincinnati, 1990
(7) Michael Samuels “The Lord is My Shepherd: The Theology of a Caring God”, Jason Aronson, 1996
(8) “The Reconstructionist” Mordecai Kaplan, Oct. 2, 1964, pp. 14-15
(9) “The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion”, Mordecai Kaplan, 1962, p.294
(10) “To Pray As a Jew” Hayim Halevy Donin, First quote, p.18, second quote, p.19,20.
(11) “Questions Jews Ask”, Mordecai Kaplan, 1956 p.103
(12) Ira Eisenstein, “Prayer as Passionate Reflection” Reconstructionism Today Vol.2(2) Winter 1994-95, p.9-10.
(13) Marcia Falk “Book of Blessings” Harper SanFrancisco, 1996.  Although Falk’s book was published in 1996, many of her non-God oriented blessings were written a few years before;  these were widely circulated in photocopy form in many Reconstructionist havurot.  Some of these new non-God oriented prayers are now in many new Reconstructionist praerybooks.  See her end notes for her explanation of why she feels Jews must remove the traditional concept of God from prayer, and replace it with self-oriented meditations.
(14) The Rabbinical Assembly  “Emet Ve-Emunah: Statements of principles of Conservative Judaism”, JTSA, New York, 1988
(15) Alvin J. Reines “Hylotheism: A theology of pure process” in “Jewish Theology and Process Thought” Edited by Sandra B. Lubarsky and David Ray Griffin, The State University of New York Press, NY 1996.

References———-Eugene Borowitz  “Reform Judaism Today”, Behrman House. (Originally published by UAHC Press, 1977)  An omnibus volume that discusses the evolution of Reform Judaism.  Covers the Reform vision of God, Torah, and Israel; what it means to be a Reform Jew today, and the place of Reform in the spectrum of Jewish rituals and practices.
Alfred J. Kolatch “This is the Torah”, Jonathan David Publishers, 1994
Moses Maimonides “The Guide for The Perplexed” Dover Publications, Inc.
W. Gunther Plaut “The Growth of Reform Judaism” World Union for Progressive Judaism, 1965.
Simcha Paull Raphael “Jewish Views of the Afterlife”, Jason Aronson Inc., 1994
“The Complete Artscroll Siddur – Nusach Ashkenaz” Ed. Rabbi Nosson Scherman, Second Edition, 1986 Mesorah Publications, Brooklyn, NY
Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme  “Finding God: Ten Jewish Responses”, Jason Aronson, Inc., 1993
“Platform on Reconstructionism” Published in the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot, Sept. 1986, pages D, E.

Copyright 2001, Robert D. Kaiser
While I maintain a copyright on this work, I encourage free distribution and reproduction of single copies of this paper.  This may only be done if I am given attribution as author, and that the distribution be done for free.  While I retain copyright on this document as a whole, and the original material therein, the copyright on all individual quotes within belongs to whoever originally wrote them, which I have attempted to denote as accurately as possible. Corrections are welcome.

The Imahot in rabbinic Judaism

“Who knows four? The Imahot in rabbinic Judaism.”
by Alvan Kaunfer “Judaism” Vol.44 (Winter ’95) p. 94-103

Ruth Rudin Imahot Matriarchs

Ruth Rudin, The Four Jewish Matriarchs

Many contemporary siddurim now include the imahot (Biblical matriarchs) in the first blessing of the Amidah, which has traditionally mentioned only the avit (Biblical patriarchs.) This article explores the little known extent and importance of the imahot in rabbinic literature. The author argues that adding the matriarchs into the liturgy is not a radical idea but is consistent with a long tradition that recognized and valued the concept of the imahot.


Recently there has been much interest in the Imahot (the Matriarchs) and their use in the liturgy. A number of contemporary editions of the siddur have included the imahot, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah, in the first blessing of the amidah, as well as in such prayers as the misheberakh which have traditionally mentioned only the avot–the Patriarchs. (1)

Justifications for such additions have been based on sensitivity to gender inclusiveness, as well as on historical precedents of liturgical flexibility, and on halakhic interpretations of the structure and requirements of the berakhah formula. (2)

However, there has been less attention given to an exploration of the concept of the imahot in traditional Jewish sources. Although there have been some attempts to look at classical midrashic images of various female personalities, those studies have been largely focused on individual characters rather than on “the Matriarchs” as a concept and rubric. (3)

This article will explore more fully the concept of the imahot in rabbinic literature, looking at how this concept was understood in classical sources, and how its submotifs developed within the context of rabbinic Judaism. I will also trace the concept beyond the rabbinic period and see how the imahot as a motif was employed in postrabbinic literature. I will suggest that inserting the imahot in the liturgy is not a radical idea, but is consistent with a long tradition that recognized and valued the concept of the imahot.


The rubric of “the fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” occurs numerous times in both Torah and in the subsequent books of the Bible in connection with God’s revelation and covenantal pronouncements. The first time that the phrase occurs with all three of the Patriarchs is at the revelation at the burning bush. In that short narrative, which introduces Moses to God’s plan to rescue the Israelite people, God is described three times as the “God of the father(s) Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”(4)

In Leviticus 26 it is the covenant with Jacob, with Isaac, and with Abraham that God will remember; however, neither the word imahot nor the set “Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah” ever appear in Tanakh. Imahot as a concept is absent in biblical literature. Both the Jewish Encyclopedia (1905) and the Encyclopedia Judaica (1972) have entries for “Patriarchs” but no corresponding entry for “Matriarchs.” The Matriarchs as a concept is treated only in passing in both articles, under the heading of the Patriarchs. Given the strong patriarchal emphasis of traditional Judaism, and given the hundreds of entries in rabbinic literature for the avot, and “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” this may not be surprising. (5) Yet, the motif of the imahot definitely exists both in classical Talmudic, and especially in midrashic sources which deal with the biblical narrative.

The number of occurrences of the term imahot and of the set Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah is not insignificant, appearing some 76 times as imahot, and 15 times naming the individual matriarchs. (6)

While a number of those occurrences are parallel versions of the same exegetical comments, the concept of “the imahot” was clearly a recognized motif in rabbinic literature. It would seem that at least to some rabbinic sages, the Matriarchs were deemed worthy of mention as founders of Judaism, along with their male counterparts. The motif of the imahot includes several major midrashic submotifs which, in turn, are transformed and transfigured in numerous permutations.

James Kugel has effectively demonstrated how midrashic motifs can travel through both time and biblical contexts as those motifs evolve. (7) Sometimes the motif is attached to one key exegesis which is then reapplied to other verses. Our concept enjoys a similar varied life as it is employed in a number of submotifs. These include the merit of the Matriarchs, the Matriarchs as prophets, the barren Matriarchs, the use of the Matriarchs as metaphors, and the six Matriarchs. Each of these is worth some discussion.


Zekhut Avot, the merit of the forefathers, is one of the basic ideas in rabbinic theology. Schechter explored the notion in his classic essay in Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology.(8) The forefathers’ faith serves as a reservoir of merit upon which the Jewish people may call to plead their case for mercy in God’s judgment of their individual and corporate deeds.

Schechter mentions, in passing, the parallel notion of zekhut imahot, the merit of the Matriarchs, but his exploration of the motif is minimal.(9) However, zekhut imahot is a valid rabbinic concept, appearing in several forms in numerous texts. The motif of zekhut imahot seems to focus on an exegesis of the word gevaot, “the hills,” in a number of biblical passages. The exegesis is clearly well known in rabbinic circles. Though it is difficult to ascertain which verse was the original locus for the exegesis, we might surmise, by its simple repetition throughout the literature, that it was connected with Numbers 23:9: “For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him” – “the top of the rocks” refers to the merit of the fathers, “from the hills” refers to the merit of the mothers. (10)

A similar exegesis connects the idea with the verse, “The voice of my beloved, behold he comes, leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills” (Song 2:8). “Leaping upon the mountains” means the merit of the Patriarchs, and “skipping upon the hills” means the merit of the Matriarchs.” (11)

The choice of “hills” as a metaphor for the Matriarchs would seem to be an apt one, reflecting the contours of the female body. That association, of the merit of the matriarchs with gevaot, “the hills,” leads to a fascinating use of the concept, applied to the story of the battle with Amalek. A Tannaitic Midrash cited in the Mekhilta states: ‘Tomorrow I will stand upon the top of the hill” (givah) (Ex. 16:19).

R. Eleazar of Modim says, (Moses said) Let us declare tomorrow a fast day and be ready, relying on the deeds of the ancestors. For ‘the top’ (rosh) refers to the deeds of the fathers; ‘the hill’ (ha-givah), refers to the deeds of the mothers…. ‘And Moses, Aaron and Hur went up to the Top of the Hill.’ (v. 10) This bears upon what we have already said above–to make mention of the deeds of the fathers and of the deeds of the mothers, as it is said: ‘For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him.’ (Num. 23:9). (12)

Moses, in this midrash, is calling upon the zekhut imahot as well as the zekhut avot in a prayerful supplication to God for aid in the imminent danger of the attack by Amalek. The liturgical context is intriguing especially given the more current uses of the imahot in the siddur. One wonders whether this midrash reflects actual rabbinic prayers for fast days which included both the avot and imahot, but which are now lost.

In any case, it is clear that rabbinic tradition included calling upon the merit of the Matriarchs to rescue the Jewish people in times of distress. What happens, however, when the reserve of merit runs out and the “credit” upon which the Jewish people have drawn begins to wane and falter? Leviticus Rabbah states: If you see that the merit of the Patriarchs is failing and the merit of the Matriarchs slipping away, go and occupy yourself with deeds of loving kindness. (“depend on God’s grace”–in a parallel version) (F3) Here the understanding seems to be that there are parallel and equivalent reserves of merit of the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs.

Although it must be said that the merit of the Patriarchs is the dominant concept in rabbinic literature, texts such as these indicate that an idea of zekhut imahot not only existed, but held a prominent and parallel status at least in some rabbinic circles. Not only was the merit of the Matriarchs a source for help in times of distress, but it was extended to more positive contexts. The Exodus from Egypt was viewed as a reward for the dedication of the Matriarchs. The Holy One … at length set them free from Egypt, but did so only as a reward for the conduct of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah; as a reward for Sarah’s taking Hagar and bringing her to Abraham’s couch; as a reward for Rebekah who, when asked, “Will you go with this man?” said, “I will go.” (Gen. 24:58) … as a reward for Rachel because she took Bilhah and brought her to Jacob’s couch; and as a reward for Leah because she took Zilpah and brought her to Jacob’s couch. (14)

This midrashic tradition, which is probably a later development, considers the earlier notion of zekhut imahot not only as a reserve of merit to be tapped in prayerful supplication, but also as the key factor in the saving of the Jewish people at the Exodus. This midrash reflects the broader midrashic motif that the righteousness of the Israelite women contributed to their liberation from bondage.( 15) The power of the concept is thus expanded to include historic significance: the imahot become the major factor in the redemption of the Jewish People. In another positive context, the notion of zekhut imahot is extended to the covenant between God and the Patriarchs.

On the verse in Leviticus 26:42, “I have remembered (et) my covenant with Jacob, and also (et) my covenant with Isaac, and also (et) my covenant with Abraham will I remember,” the Tannaitic midrash, Sifra, comments that “et” refers to God’s covenant with the Matriarchs. God not only made his covenant with the Patriarchs; he made it with their wives, the Matriarchs, as well. (16)


A second major rabbinic leitmotif concerning the Matriarchs is that they were prophets, along with the Patriarchs. (17) The archetype was Rebekah. After Jacob steals the blessing from Esau and Esau plots to kill his brother, the text in Genesis 27:42 comments that “the words of Esau were told (vayugad) to Rebekah.” Genesis Rabbah states in the name of R. Haggai quoting R. Isaac: “The Matriarchs were prophetesses, and Rebekah was among the Matriarchs.” (18)

It seems that the Rabbis based this tradition on the passive voice vayugad–Rebekah “was told,” and “by whom was she told? by none other than ruah hakodesh–The Holy Spirit.”(19) However, the Rabbis had ample textual support in the Torah itself for the fact that God revealed future events to Rebekah. God directly communicated with her in the oracular message: “Two nations are in your womb, and two separate peoples will issue from your body (Gen. 23:23).” On that verse there was a strong midrashic tradition that “an angel” or “the Word” spoke to Rebekah. (20)

That both the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs were considered prophets is also expressed in the exegesis of the verse from Psalms 105:15: “Touch not My anointed ones, and do not harm My prophets.” “My anointed ones” are interpreted to refer to the Patriarchs, while “My prophets” refer to the Matriarchs. This verse is used in conjunction with “It was told to Rebekah,” in the various transmissions of this tradition that both the Matriarchs and the Patriarchs had the status of prophets.(FN21)


One midrashic theme which recurs in a number of sources is the theme of “the barren Matriarchs” which may strike a discordant note to the modern reader. In Genesis Rabbah we read:

Why were the Matriarchs barren? R. Levi said in R. Shila’s
name and R. Helbo in R. Johanan’s name: Because The
Holy One, blessed be He, desires their prayers and their
supplications, as it is written, ‘O my dove, you are like the
clefts of the rock’ (Song 2:14). Why did I make you barren?
So that ‘I might see your countenance, that I might hear your
voice.'(FN22) It would seem that their lengthy state of
childlessness led the Patriarchs to pray to God more
frequently, and God longs to hear the prayers of the
Patriarchs. However, the idea that the Matriarchs’
barrenness provides opportunities only for their husbands to
approach God is not completely uniform in all of the
sources. In Song of Songs Rabbah(FN23) we find a similar
exegesis with a different ending: “Why did God keep the
Matriarchs barren so long? Because God wished to hear
their prayer.” In any case, as uncomfortable as this Midrash
may be to the modern reader, it was clearly meant to project
a positive quality in the Matriarchs, given the context of the
ancient rabbinic writers. The Matriarchs were responsible
for the desired prayers being offered to God.


The Matriarchs became symbols not only of merit, of prophecy, and of prayer; they also became metaphors of other concepts associated with the number four and with particularly female qualities.

In Pesikta De Rab Kahana, the “four species” taken on Sukkot are interpreted to symbolize aspects of the lives of the four Matriarchs: ‘The fruit of the tree hadar’ (Lev. 23:40). Hadar stands for our mother Sarah whom the Holy One gave a majestic bearing in her old age….

‘A branch of palm trees’ stands for our mother Rebekah: like the palm tree which bears both fruit and thorns, so Rebekah bore a righteous man and a wicked man. ‘And a tree whose boughs are leafy’ stands for our mother Leah: as the myrtle tree is rich in leaves, so Leah was rich in children.

‘And willows of the brook’ stand for our mother Rachel: as the willow in the lulav cluster wilts before the other three plants in the cluster do, so Rachel died before her sister did.(FN24) The fruitfulness of the four species may be an apt referent especially for females, indicating fertility. Similarly, in the exegesis of Abraham’s future blessing, the three times “great” mentioned is understood to refer to the three future Patriarchs, while the four occurrences of “blessing,” refer to the four future Matriarchs.(FN25) The implication is that we are to associate the Mothers metaphorically with the notion of “blessing,” which may be more relational and thus a more particularly female metaphor than “greatness.” In an exegesis of a verse in the Song of Deborah, “Above women in the tent shall [Yael] be blessed,” “women in the tent” is understood as referring to Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah.(FN26) These four women were the symbols of the “home,” as in the famous midrash in which Rebekah is envisioned as continuing Sarah’s quality of hospitality, as Rebekah enters to occupy Sarah’s “tent.”(FN27)


There is some disagreement as to how many Matriarchs there were. The assumption is that the Matriarchs includes only the four wives Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah. Yet, in some sources we find that Jacob’s concubines, Zilpah and Bilhah, are included as Matriarchs, making six: “And they brought their offering before the Lord, six covered wagons” (Num. 7:3) Six corresponding to the six Matriarchs–Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Zilpah, and Bilhah.(FN28) Other sources connect the number six with the six days of creation.(FN29)

It would seem that some rabbinic traditions recognize that Bilhah and Zilpah were also mothers of the Tribes of Israel and thus deserve the status of “Matriarchs.” In most instances, however, the number is limited to four; indeed, the Tractate Semahot declares that one may not call any “fathers,” “our father” except for the three Patriarchs; and not any “mothers,” our “mother” except for the four Matriarchs.(FN30) Similarly, the unit Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah appears several times, as in the text cited about their merit contributing to the Exodus from Egypt, and in the metaphoric applications mentioned above.


The Matriarchs are mentioned in a variety of liturgical works in medieval and early modern times. The most well known of these is the fifteenth century poem sung at the Seder, “Who Knows One?” in which the answer to “Who knows four?” is the four Matriarchs; yet, there are other medieval poems which mention the Matriarchs. In a less well known piyut for the eve of Rosh Hashanah attributed to Gershom ben Judah of the tenth century, the righteous deeds of our forefathers are invoked. But then the poet asks that God recall, “berit avot v’imahot v’ha-shevatim,” the covenant with the Patriarchs, Matriarchs, and tribes.(FN31) In another medieval piyut, recited in the Italian rite on Shabbat Ha-gadol, after asking Isaac who was bound on the altar to stand by God’s right, the four Matriarchs are asked to stand on God’s left to intercede for Israel.(FN32)

Perhaps one of the most intriguing later liturgical developments of the imahot theme comes in the Yiddish Tehinah literature. These prayers and devotions for Jewish women, so popular among Ashkenazic Jewry, employed ample use of the imahot in expressing the deepest hopes and prayers of the women who recited them. In a “Tehinah of Sore, Rivke, Rokhl, and Leye,” we hear heartfelt supplication: Answer us this month, through the merit of our Mother Sore, for whose sake You commanded and said: ‘Do not dare touch my anointed ones.’ … And may the merit of our mother Rivke, who caused our father Yankev to receive the blessings from his father Yitskhok, cause the blessings to be fulfilled soon through her children Yisroel. And may the merit of our faithful mother Rokhl, to whom You promised that through her merit her children Yisroel would be delivered from exile, cause the promises to be fulfilled…. And for the merit of our mother Leye … that through her merit You may illumine our eyes so that we may overcome darkness. (FN33)

Turning to the merit of the Matriarchs for help becomes very personalized in these prayers. For example, a woman whose own mother is named Leye prays: Because of the merits of our Matriarchs, Sore, Rivke, Rokhl, and Leye, and the merit of my dear mother Leye, who also pleads before God – praised be He – on my behalf, may my wanderings serve as an expiation for my sins. (FN34) The Matriarchs, in these Tehinahs, become tangibly accessible to the woman praying. The sense of complete identification with and closeness to the Matriarchs is striking in this form of very personalized prayer. Here it is clear that the merit of the Matriarchs becomes more than an obscure rabbinic concept. The imahot concept is transformed into a central Tehinah motif.


This brief survey of the concept of the imahot indicates that it is not an invention of the past decade to infuse prayers with more egalitarian language. On the contrary, the imahot is a concept central to the classical sources of rabbinic and postrabbinic literature. Granted, it existed in connection with the concept of the avot–the Patriarchs–but it was not merely a subset of that idea. In many sources as we have seen the concept of the imahot was a parallel and independent concept. The imahot had their own merit and their own source of divine prophecy, analogous to, but separate from that of the avot. Their merit was credited with bringing the exodus and they, too, were recipients of God’s covenant.

In addition, the metaphoric symbolism of the imahot was characteristically female: they were the guardians of the “tent” and home; they were the “blessing” promised to Abraham, and they were the “fruitfulness” represented by the four species. The sages who created and transmitted these traditions recognized the significant role that the mothers of Judaism played in preserving both faith and family. In their eyes, the Matriarchs were neither silent nor invisible. Rather, they were partners in the development of Judaism and thus worthy of recognition. This recognition of the Matriarchs is even more noteworthy given the patriarchal society in which the authors of these texts lived.

Moreover, it is significant that many of the sources refer to the imahot in prayerful and liturgical settings. From the early midrashic prayer of Moses, through the medieval piyutim and into the premodern Tehinahs, the merit of Matriarchs was invoked to come to the aid of the Jew in distress. It therefore seems quite in concert with this tradition to include the imahot in the opening berakhah of the Amidah.

After all, in the first berakhah of the amidah, we turn to God who “remembers the loving kindness of the avot.” As Moses “made mention of the deeds of the avot and the imahot,” as the paytanim asked God to “recall the covenant of the avot and imahot” and asked the imahot to stand at God’s right hand, and as the Tehinahs pleaded for God to answer “through the merit of Sore, Rivke, Rokhl, and Leye”; we, too, might direct our prayers to, “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah, who remembers the loving kindness of the avot and imahot.” Such an addition would not be so much an innovation as it would be a restoration of the concept to its use in former times.

ALVAN KAUNFER is the rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, Providence, Rhode Island. He has written about midrash and the teaching of midrash.

To the memory of Rabbi William G. Braude, teacher, colleague, and friend


1. See, for example, Kol Haneshamah (Reconstructionist), and the notes there on the Amidah; and On the Wings of Awe Mahzor (Hillel). The new Siddur Sim Shalom (Conservative) will contain the imahot in an alternative Amidah. Note that the Orthodox siddur, Rinat Yisrael (Sephardic), includes the imahot in the mi sheberakh for the sick. Also see Harry P. Solomon, “Including the Matriarchs: A proposal for Birkat ha-Mazon,” Reconstructionist, March, 1988, pp. 12-14.

2. Joel E. Rembaum, “Regarding the Inclusion of the Names of the Matriarchs in the First Blessing of the Amidah,” unpublished paper adopted by the Law Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly, March 21, 1990. 3. See, for example, Linda Kuzmack, “Aggadic Approaches to Biblical Women,” in The Jewish Woman: New Perspectives, Elizabeth Koltun, ed. (New York: Schocken, 1976). For a more serious midrashic character study of a biblical woman which could serve as a model for other character analyses, see, Devora Steinmetz, “A portrait of Miriam in Rabbinic Midrash,” Prooftexts 8 (1988), pp. 35-65. 4. Exodus 3:6, 15, 16.

5. The Davka CD-ROM locates over 900 entries for avot, and over 700 entries for the set “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

6. The Davka CD-ROM counts 76, excluding the general use of imahot as “mothers” in halakhic contexts. It is interesting to note that the four Matriarchs are named far fewer times, mostly in later midrashic collections.

7. James Kugel, In Potiphar’s House (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1990).

8. Solomon Schechter, “The Zachuth of the Fathers,” in Rabbinic Theology (New York: Schocken, 1909, 1961); see also, Ephraim Urbach, The Sages (Cambridge MA: Harvard Press, 1987), pp. 496-508.

9. Schechter, p. 172.

10. Bemidbar Rabbah 20, 19 and parallels listed in Vayikra Rabbah 36,6, Margulies, p. 852, note to line 6.

11. B. Rosh Hashanah 11a.

12. Mekhilta, Amalek 1, Lauterbach II, pp. 142-143; Horovitz-Rabin, p. 179. I have followed Lauterbach’s translation with minor changes. See Horovitz’s note to line 6 for parallels.

13. Vayikra Rabbah 36,6. See Margulies, p. 852. Note that this midrash quotes Isa. 54:10, again linking the Matriarchs with the word “gevaot.”

14. Tanna Debe Eliyahu, Friedmann, p.138; Braude, p. 340.

15. Shemot Rabbah 1, 12. See notes in A. Shinan, p. 54.

16. Sifra, Weiss, 112c; see also, Vayikra Rabbah 36,5, Margulies, p. 850.

17. Seder Olam, p.92 (see next note), and Gen. 20:7 where Abraham is called “navi.”

18. Bereshit Rabbah 67,9 and 72,6. See Theodor’s note on p. 765. See, also, Ratner’s note 25 to Seder Olam, p. 92, in which he quotes a number of parallel sources as well as suggests that the Seder Olam text should read, “How do we know that the Patriarchs [and Matriarchs] were called prophets?”

19. Midrash Tehillim 105,4, Buber, p. 450; Braude, p. 182. See, especially, Buber’s note 14.

20. See Theodor, p. 188 and J. Sota Chap. 7, and Theodor’s note to line 4 on p. 765.

21. See notes 18 and 19.

22. Bereshit Rabbah 45,14, Theodor, p. 450 and note; also Ginzberg, Legends, V, p. 231, n. 116. See B. Hullin 60b where God longs for the prayers of the righteous in general.

23. Shir HaShirim Rabbah 2,14.

24. Pesikta De Rab Kahana, Mandelbaum, p. 415; Braude, p. 422; Vayikra Rabbah 30, 10; Margulies, p. 708.

25. Bereshit Rabbah 39,11.

26. B. Nazir 23b. See Tosafot for the connection of “tent” with each. See also Bereshit Rabbah 48,15.

27. Bereshit Rabbah 60,16

28. Bemidbar Rabbah 12,17; Shir HaShirim Rabbah 6,4,2 and parallels.

29. Esther Rabbah 1,11; Shir HaShirim Rabbah 6,15.

30. Semahot 1, 12, quoted in B. Berakhot 16b.

31. Abraham Rosenfeld, The Authorized Selichot for the Whole Year (New York: Judaica Press, 1984), p.168.

32. “Kakh Gazru,” Mahzor Kol HaShanah Kefi Minhag Italiani (Livorno, 1856), p.91. My thanks to the JTS library for helping to locate this source based on Ginzberg, Legends VI, p. 7, n. 39.

33. Tracy Guren Klirs, The Merit of Our Mothers (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College, 1992), pp. 84-86, Transliteration of names follows that in the book. Note the use of Psalms 105:15 indicating that the author knew of the exegesis of the verse referring to the Matriarchs. For additional examples, see, Tehinah Rav Peninim (New York: Hebrew Publishing Co., 1916), pp. 176-183, where the merit of both Patriarchs and Matriarchs are invoked.

34. Ibid., p.12.

Yom Kippur Quick Guide

Kippur Quick Guide – Rabbi Haim Ovadia

Kippur Eve and Teshuva

• The guiding rule in observing Kippur is maintaining a balance between respecting the sanctity of the day and one’s physical health.
• According to Shulhan Arukh, the practice of doing Kapparot with chickens should be eliminated. (see appendix)
• We must ask for forgiveness and reconcile with those we have hurt. If applicable, payments should be made. A token apology will not suffice.
• Whether we repent for transgressions of laws between us and God, or between us and others, the steps of Teshuva should be followed: recognition of the wrongdoing, genuine repentance, a commitment to never repeat the act.
• The one being apologized to should be willing to forgive, but if the apology is not sincere it can be rejected, especially when dealing with a habitual offender. If you see a pattern of offenses and genuine apologies from the same person, it is better to keep a distance in the future, even after forgiving.
• Confession on Minha of Kippur Eve, as well as on Kippur itself, should be focused on things we are aware of and want to repent for. It is better to say your personal prayer than use the alphabetical lists printed in the Siddur, which should be viewed as a reminder what we might have done.
• It is recommended to eat the last meal an hour or two before the fast.

Prohibitions of Kippur

• Five actions are mentioned in Halakha as forbidden on Kippur, besides the laws of Shabbat which apply to Kippur as well:
Eating and drinking; Applying oils; Washing; Wearing leather shoes; Having marital relationships.
• Of the five, only eating and drinking are punishable, since they are the only ones with basis in the Torah. The rest are instituted by the rabbis and supported by biblical texts, and it is therefore easier to allow exceptions in observing them.


• Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the fast is not drinking, and quite often people push themselves to the limit and put their lives at risk. One example is that of R. Yisrael of Ruzhyn, who resisted the urge to drink on Kippur, even against his doctor’s advice, and passed away shortly afterwards at the age of 54. (1)
• R. Yaakov Haggiz (1620-1674) writes that it is possible that by biblical law one is not forbidden to drink water, since it is not nutritious. We can rely on his opinion for cases of need, as shall be explained below. (2)

Medical conditions

• If there are clear doctor’s orders, they should be followed. Attempting extreme piety and fasting against doctor’s orders is a transgression.
• Expectant and nursing mothers can sip water all day in small quantities (less than 3 fl. oz.) and in intervals of no less than five minutes.
• Pills taken on a regular basis can be taken with less than 3 fl. oz. of water. The same applies for those who need to take pills for severe headaches, including caffeine pills.
• If one feels the need to eat or drink because of physical conditions, water and food can be consumed in small quantities (less than 3 fl. oz. and 2 oz., respectively). It is recommended to use high-energy foods. They should be consumed in intervals of no less than five minutes.
• If one feels that following these rules will not suffice, and might cause him damage, he should eat and drink regularly until he is no longer at risk.
• Using mouthwash or brushing teeth is allowed on Kippur, and maybe even mandatory because of dignity and respect towards others.
• Fasting before bar or bat Mitzvah is just a custom and children should not be pushed beyond their limits, or made to feel guilty if they “broke” the fast.
• Parents and caregivers should practice great caution during Kippur, since the children or adults under their care might feel too proud or religiously committed to ask for food or water.

Other Prohibitions

• Washing is forbidden only when for pleasure, and permitted when it is for cleanliness. In antiquity only hands soiled with dirt or worse were considered unclean, but today, with our heightened hygiene awareness, one can wash hands regularly with soap when needed. (3)
• Washing the face is allowed for those who otherwise will not feel dignified or relaxed. (4)
• The prohibition of applying oils to the skin refers only to actions done for pleasure, and it is therefore allowed to use medicinal creams, lip balm, Vaseline, deodorants of all kinds, perfume, or eau de cologne.
• If one who has only leather shoes and cannot walk barefoot because of danger, or discomfort, he can wear these shoes.
• Similarly, if leather shoes are essential to provide protection from rain or snow, or for orthopedic needs, they may be used. (5)
• Abstinence is limited to intimate relationships, and does not include other forms of affection.

Kol Nidre

• The Kol Nidre ritual, at the opening of Yom Kippur services, is largely symbolic. Though the text suggests that it is an official court session, meant to annul unwanted vows, the truth is that it has no legal validity.

• Those who view Kol Nidre as a legal process, argue that since a court cannot convene at night, the text should be recited before sunset. This causes some synagogues to struggle with Kippur Eve schedule. This should not be a concern, since Kol Nidre has no legal significance.


• The prayers of Yom Kippur are peppered with many poems and supplications, many of which are difficult to understand even for Hebrew speakers, and others to which a modern reader might not easily relate. The time we spend in the synagogue on Kippur should be meaningful and purposeful, and we should avoid reciting prayers by rote or if we do not relate to them.

• The essential components of the prayers are Shema and Amidah, and one can choose to read only those parts in each prayer. Such was the custom of the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook, who would spend hours reciting those parts.

• The purpose of Yom Kippur is to prompt us to acknowledge our mistakes and repent. If this is achieved by tuning in to and following the poems and Selihot, that is wonderful, and if not, it is better to use the time in the synagogue or home for reflection and contemplation.

• We should use whatever means available and appropriate to reflect on mending our mistakes and cultivating an aspiration for spiritual growth.

• Rabbenu Yaakov ben HaRosh mentions several practices of additions to the prayer. He writes that most of the additions are optional, and that the prayer should not be stretched to the point where Shema or Musaf are not recited on time. (6)

• In general, the religious and lay leaders of the synagogue should bear in mind that on Yom Kippur they get a mixed crowd, with varied levels of expertise and interest in prayers. The common working assumption is “let us keep them here while we can”, but from experience I have learned that a shorter and more meaningful service is beneficial to all. Those who are not well-versed do not feel that they were sitting in the synagogue as extras for prolonged periods, while the more seasoned shul goers are not distracted by the conversations of those who are bored. Those interested in more poems and Selihot can remain in the synagogue and recite them after the official services have been concluded.

• One can read portions of the Tanakh, especially Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, and Micah. Many synagogues offer Yom Kippur readers, and one can also read the writings of the Mussar movement, Hassidic teachings, or general literature such as Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

• Most Orthodox communities are reluctant to translate prayers into the spoken language. However, the Tur and Shukhan Arukh [codes of Jewish law] both rule that one could recite the prayers in any language he chooses. Especially when reciting the very long prayers of Kippur, it would be advisable to use that ruling of the Shulhan Arukh, and not only translate prayers recited in Hebrew, but replace certain segments with the translation, to avoid redundancy and burdening the community. (7)

• If this is not possible, it is recommended that during the Selihot and the repetition of Mussaf, classes and prayer workshops will be offered to those who find it difficult to follow the prayers and remain focused.

Neila and Ending

• Birkat Kohanim of Neila should be said, preferably, before sunset. However, in most cases the sunset deadline is not met, and if it is, too much time is left until the fast is over, and as a result, the cantors drag the prayer and burden the community. It is better therefore to rely on the opinion of Rabenu Tam’s that night starts much later, and push Birkat Kohanim to about 20 minutes after sunset, thus making perfect time for the end of Tefila and Arvit.

• In some synagogues, there is a massive exodus right after the Shofar is blown. Many congregants, who stay for Arvit, get very frustrated with the noise and commotion, and of course it disrupts the Arvit prayer. It is therefore suggested to wait with the Shofar, start Arvit about 15 minutes before the fast is over, and then blow shofar at the simultaneous end of Arvit and the fast.

• If this is not possible, it is better to conduct Havdala immediately when the fast is over and let people break the fast. Then, when most people have left the synagogue, and those who stayed have quenched their thirst and satiated their hunger, they can pray with calmness and intention.

• There is a custom of starting to build the Sukkah immediately after Kippur, but it is of course not mandatory. It is a symbolic act which shows that we are eager to observe the Mitzvoth, but it should not put anyone in a predicament. The sukkah can be built before kippur, or, if one is too tired after the fast, it can be built later.

May we all have an easy and meaningful Kippur, one in which we will be able to reconcile, forgive, and propel ourselves to new spiritual heights.

Shana Tova VaHatima Tova
Rabbi Haim Ovadia

Maurycy Gottlieb Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur

Maurycy Gottlieb, 1878, Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur

Sukkot outreach at restaurants and pubs

Most Jewish people are not observing Sukkot (סֻכּוֹת) and Simchat Torah ( שִׂמְחַת תּוֹרָה). We could use innovative ideas to get the word about this holiday out. Here’s one possibility:

Sukkah in New Hampshire

Sukkot is one of the 3 Biblical pilgrimage festivals/harvest festivals /Shalosh Regalim (שלוש רגלים.)  This offers food connections. One of the observances is to say kiddush/קידוש over wine: this offers drink connections.

Perhaps a Sukkot event could be held at a restaurant on a main street, especially one with outdoor seating. One could set up an event there, and perhaps add poles and s’chach (סכך) to create a Sukkah-like area. In fact, with the restaurant’s Ok one may easily create a kosher sukkah – even if it only exists for the duration of one event.

This should be easy to set up, affordable – and will create a publicly visible area that might draw positive attention. Why should only Halloween and Xmas get all the holiday decorations? We have beauty in our own tradition.

– Robert

The Conservative Mahzor

The “Mahzor for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kipur” was published by the Rabbinical Assembly in 1972, with Rabbi Jules Harlow serving as Editor.

Harlow Mahzor

In the Amidah, the standard Conservative changes regarding sacrifices are made: It changes the phrase na’ase ve’nakriv (we will present and sacrifice) to asu ve’hikrivu (they presented and sacrificed).

The petition to accept the “fire offerings of Israel” is removed from all versions of the Amidah. Additional passages are inserted into the Musaf which reflect the reality of the State of Israel, and ask that God be merciful to all of the House of Israel who suffer. In the morning prayers, it offers a choice between a standard or abbreviated Pesukei Dezimra (verses of praise).

The Yom Kipur service has always featured a recollection of the sacrificial service (Seder Ha’Avodah)of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), which was carried out on Yom Kipur in the Temple in Jerusalem. The conventional text used by Orthodox Jews presents at least three problems for many modern congregants: (a) It is presented as a medieval liturgical poem (b) It does not present in a clear and simple way the themes and structure of the Service which it commemorates, and (C) it does not deal adequately with the problem of religious life without the Temple. To present the re-enactment of the Service of the Kohen Gadol it was thus decided to present, in Hebrew and English, an abridged adaptation of Mishnah Yoma, the rabbinic work which describes the duties of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kipur in a straightforward manner. The liturgical additions to the descriptions were retained.

How do we gain ritual atonement for sin today, in a world without the Temple? This is not a new question; the rabbis of the Talmud asked this question, and the Conservative machzor adds their insights to the text. It notes that we can only read of and imagine the splendor and glory of the Service of the Kohen Gadol in the Temple, and states “Blessed were those who shared the joy and delight of our people, blessed were those who saw the splendor of the Kohen Gadol at the Temple. They were cleansed and renewed through atonement in that service. We are diminished by its loss.” The Mahzor then continues with a passage from Avot D’Rabbi Nathan:

The Temple is destroyed. We never witnessed its glory. But Rabbi Joshua did. And when he looked at the Temple ruins one day, he burst into tears. ‘Alas for us! The place which atoned for the sins of all the people Israel lies in ruins!’ Then Rabbi Yohannan ben Zakkai spoke to him these words of comfort: ‘Be not grieved, my son. There is another way of gaining ritual atonement, even though the Temple is destroyed. We must now gain ritual atonement through deeds of loving-kindness.’

This section is followed by similar readings from rabbinic and prophetic literature, presenting examples of deeds of loving-kindness through which me must now gain atonement for sin. Another change is that the medieval poetic description of the Kohen Gadol is replaced by the description in the book of Ben Sira upon which the later descriptions were based.

Compared to most 18th century Ashkenazi Machzorim, there are fewer piyuttim (religious poems) in the Conservative Mahzor. The traditional martyrology (Eileh Ezkerah) which recalls the memory of rabbis martyred in talmudic times, has been adapted to include prose and poetry which form a liturgical response to the murder of Jews during the Holocaust.

Thf Mahzor offers an optional Torah reading (Lev. 19) for the minhah service on Yom Kipur. New readings, including poetry and prose of modern and contemporary writers, rabbis and scholars are incorporated into the services or presented in separate sections, arranged for responsive reading or for reflection and study. Ancient and medieval rabbinic sources not usually included in prayerbooks have been added.

Adapted from the writing of Rabbi Jules Harlow.

Don’t restrict victims from praying at the Kotel

For the past 30 years, Haredim have been attempting to turn the Kotel into an ultra-Orthodox synagogue. Despite Israeli court cases ruling against this, the Israeli government, the Chief Rabbinate, and even at time the Israeli police, have refused to follow court rulings. Haredim have effectively banned all tefila at the Kotel that does not match ultra-Orthodox standards.

Western Wall Plaza Jerusalem Israel Wikimedia

One of the groups opposing this is the Original Women of the Wall (תפילת נשים בכותל.) Also opposing this are various Modern Orthodox rabbis, as well as Masorti (Conservative) and Reform (Progressive) Jewish movements. None want an end to Orthodox groups praying as they choose their; they merely want the ability to pray according to their own custom, without intimidation, threats, and violence.

In recent years the Haredim have intensified their verbal, and sometimes physical attacks on Jews who pray there. Women who dare to wear a tallit and tefillin; women who read from the Torah; groups that have egalitarian minyanim.  In response, some groups have been pursuing a legal course to allow them to pray without interference – a conclusion that the Israeli courts have already agreed with.

Yet some non-Haredim have proposed a peculiar, indeed bizarrely harmful “solution” to the problem, including attorney Susan Weiss and Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo. Cardozo insists that we must “free the site of all synagogue services [or trappings]: no no minyanim, bar mitzvahs… Torah scrolls… mechitzot… make it a place… solely for individual prayer and meditation… as our ancestors treated it… where Jews can… pray [or not], and share what we have in common instead of focusing on what divides us.”

We strenuously disagree. That’s in fact surrendering to fundamentalist intimidation. Why ban most Jewish people in the world from being able to daven in a minyan there, just because certain Haredim are acting inappropriately? We never achieve justice by punishing the victims.

No one should say that our daughters must be forbidden from having their Bat Mitzvah there, just because certain individuals are angry or violent.

Robin Silver-Zwiren writes:

The idea of a mixed group administering the Kotel is great. If the Hareidi don’t agree to sit with women, Reform Jews or even Modern Orthodox Jews, then they are off.

I don’t agree that the Kotel should not be available for prayer. Eli haKohen once served while Chana prayed. Jesus even made his tri yearly pilgrimage to the site. We may not have the Temple Mount (yet) but the Kotel is as close as we can get.

If group prayer is forbidden then it is likely the Arab world will say that the Kotel is unimportant to us. The UN and the media will see that we don’t care much for what remains of our remaining Temple wall except to make it a national holy site. What comes next – no praying allowed at Kever Rachel? If we downgrade the importance of the Kotel as a fundamental prayer site, rather than just a historical monument, we lose our heritage.

The fact that even secular Jews want to visit Israel and the Kotel proves it has meaning. I have friends from Southern California who are Reform. It is not like the Israeli Reform synagogue that I attended last Shabbat where all men wore kipot and all those who read from the Torah, male or female, donned a Talit. My friend’s son is having his Bar Mitzvah in Israel over Succot because he chose this over the usual extravagant events his classmates will do. Mom and other female guests want to be a part of the simcha and Robinson’s Arch may end up to be their only option. However they would prefer to be at the Kotel where our ancestors stood thousands of years ago.

If only we could have a mixed faction in charge of the prayer services. Not the Haredi who disturb women’s services by “praying” even louder to drown out women’s voices, or those who come over to the women’s section to cause trouble. I personally believe the mechitza should remain but a mother should be able to hear and see her son chant from the Torah scroll. Just like I was able to do in our Orthodox synagogue when my son had his Bar Mitzvah and my daughters’ gave a dvar Torah when they celebrated their milestone. A raised platform so that women can see over the mechitza is not damning halacha. It is the men who look over at the women rather than facing the Wall who are desecrating the laws.