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The Women of the Wall

February 1, 2013 1:44 am 7 comments

Western Wall. Photo: Wayne McLean.

Despite the elections, the little turf wars of Israeli society continue to add to the tensions of daily life. Here’s a story about another political campaign over the right of some women to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in a manner of their choosing.

Of course, this is not an issue over the right to pray. Jewish men and women have been praying at the Western Wall for thousands of years. Israel won control of the Old City back in 1967. Then for the first time it came under Israeli control. The realities of Israeli religious life have inevitably affected decisions about how the area around the Wall is managed. Since the Orthodox rabbinate, for better or for worse (in my opinion the latter), dictates state religious policy, anything that offends their religious sensibilities can be blocked. That is the reality. Women who go to pray at the Wall are segregated. I the past it might have been voluntary. Now it is obligatory. There are arguments both in favor and against, but that is the current state of affairs arrived at through legitimate political bargaining, however much one may object to the process.

Reform Judaism, which emerged in Germany in the nineteenth century, does not accept Orthodoxy and is offended by much of it. But since the majority of Israelis are descended from communities with no Reform tradition, that majority is seemingly happy for Orthodoxy to be the default position. In the Diaspora, of course, it is different. Nevertheless, losing ground in the USA, Reform and Conservative movements are rallying behind women campaigning to pray at the Wall in their manner and ritual. In fact, they have been given space near Robinson’s Arch to do so. But that is not enough. They want to queer the establishment pitch.

Anat Hoffman, of the Israel Religious Action Center of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, has repeatedly tried to pray in an overt display in the main section of the Wall, that offends, however irrationally (and I stress I personally have absolutely no objection whatsoever ). She has been regularly arrested and thwarted. A groundswell of support in Conservative and Reform communities is turning her stand into a cause celebre. I believe she is misguided however noble her intentions.

My argument against much of reformist Judaism is not its desire to create an alternative to conservative tradition. I welcome that. Variety is the spice of life. But I completely disagree with their efforts to interfere with or undermine one style in order to build something else. This is why I do not support the movement of Women of the Wall. They may pray, of course, in any manner they wish. But why at the expense of other forms?

I am an egalitarian. I believe that in matters of personal status and the law, men and women should be treated equally. And where Judaism does not do so, it needs either to accept the Law of the Land or to examine its own systemic limitations. However, in matters of religious ritual, it is up to religions and denominations to apply their own traditions, and anyone who objects is welcome to go elsewhere. At the same time, I am delighted that there are variations and differences in customs, styles, and degrees. Let each one have the freedom to grow or shrink, to attract or repel, so long as there is indeed choice. But choice does not mean making everything the same. If anyone, Jew or non-Jew, male or female, wishes to pray in his or her own way, there are plenty of places to go to in Jerusalem. At this moment the Wall is not one of them.

If one were to object to the bureaucratic stranglehold of the rabbinate in Israel, I for one would agree wholeheartedly. I despise religious parties and government-supported religious coercion. It is to this point that I believe women like Anat Hoffman should be directing their revolutionary zeal, not in trying to undermine a long tradition of Orthodox prayer at a specific site, whether one approves of it or not.

The rabbinate in Israel has been home to corruption, nepotism, incompetence, sexual abuse, financial dishonesty, insensitivity, monopoly, and turning thousands of Israelis against religion instead of welcoming them to it. Orthodox organizations of rabbis, such as the Tzohar movement, have been trying to present an alternative. If one wants to see change, then support them. The political system in Israel is such that until such time as there is the political will to change (amongst the secular, no less) nothing will. Token protests will continue to be futile.

The protests in Tel Aviv last summer against the massive inequalities and abuses of Israeli life highlighted the real issues. If Anat is concerned about the spiritual wellbeing of Israel, that is the sort of campaign to which her supporters should be directing their reforming zeal. In the meantime, she can have her services in a location close to the Wall but slightly to the left. Let those who support her join her there and when they outnumber the Orthodox they will carry the day.

I am glad there are women’s services and attempts to develop a female spirituality as an alternative to a traditional male form of service. The old way works well for me in some of its variations, not all by any means. But I recognize it does not for others. I would like to see more choice, more variety of religious experience rather than less. To try to force male systems of worship to change is not the way. To create new ones is. And if they succeed in getting more Jews to pray, I will be overjoyed.


  • Jeremy:
    I find it amazing that you have started to censor comments posted.

    My comment was not posted – I wonder was it too hard for you to handle?

    Please let your readers know why you exercise censorship

    • Dont know what the heck you are talking about. I dont control or censor anything here. Its all run by the Algemeiner staff. I just send in my pieces.

  • RACHEL BABY…SO SORRYI didnt have time to read your comment because the new issue of spiderman just came out and I find it more honest more to the ‘original author and creator” then my glancing over your comment with glaring deceit.Is deceit the right term for your representing a sickness in all segmants of your broken unity of our TORAH ONE NATION? YEAH IT WILL DO FOR NOW.
    Well back to spiderman maybe I’ll plant some eggplants in my garden. They say plants have feelings and thats the cause of my garden not flourishing as before because I used your comment to protect the garden bed from weeds.
    This comment will probably not hit this colume but I have to try….rachel you have shown me why I will not get married again.Later I will tell you about the latest release of mickey mouse comics.Isnt it amazing that I started to read your comments and immediatly thought of Disney Land?

  • The Kotel is a sacred place, but is not private, and as a public place, should be available, in all its length, for every Jew that wants to pray, touch, see, feel, incorpotare this remnant of our ancestors. Nobody is mentioning the left extense room, covered, air conditioned, holding several mini-Batei Kneset of different origins, that are only available to males, that can sit there and do whatever they want. The available Kotel length is much longer than the outdoor one, and 4 times the one left to the women, which have to pray in a very narrow part, below the bridge letting muslims go to the dome. Why is the Religious Affair Department of the Interior Ministry not using their time to take over the real place of the Temple from the muslim authority and spends time making arrest Jewish women instead? Are they afraid to deal with the real opponent? If the males have the covered place which is huge, let the Jewish women have all the outdoor Kotel for themselves, and do whatever they seem fit to a Holy place. And if you can build also a covered, air condiitoned, well illuminated place for them, as should be fair to do, please rush and do it, for respect to your mothers, sisters, daughters and our foremothers Sarah, Rivkah, Leah and Rachel, for Deborah, and all the women that make Judaism continue. It is not the men who continue Judaism, there are the female Jewish mothers.

    • Yes I agree. I am sorry they have turned into a huge Shtiebel. The Kotel has become a market place, a site for religious hucksters and politicians and the best solution would be to ban public services and simply leave it as a place for personal meditation and prayer as it originally was.

  • Rachel Cohen Yeshurun

    I am an active member of Women of the Wall so I would like to present some facts about our group. We are a pluralistic women’s prayer group. We are Orthodox, Conservative, Renewal, Reconstructionist, Reform and Unaffiliated-with-any-stream women who wish to meet for a joyous and meaningful prayer at the Western Wall each Rosh Hodesh. We are not an egalitarian group. We are a women’s prayer group, and we wish to pray in the women’s section at the Kotel. The mehitza does not bother us (well, perhaps it bothers some of us at a personal level – but not as a group). We pray a traditional (loosely Modern Orthodox) Shaharit prayer. Some of us who are used to doing so, wear tallitot. Some of us would put our tefillin on too if we only could do so without getting arrested. We would like to read the regular Rosh Hodesh Torah portion after Hallel at the Kotel too. That is all – we just want to have a WOMEN’S TEFILLAH at the kotel. It is not ‘an overt display’ any more than the men’s tefilla 2 meters to the left of us on the other side of the mehitza is an ‘overt display’. The argument about our group ‘offending’ others is so old and tired. Only people who choose to be offended are offended. I could choose to be offended by many of the groups at the Kotel. There are loud, very very loud groups of men there at the Kotel. There are haredi men and women wearing ‘offensive’ clothing at the Kotel (I feel very uncomfortable seeing someone in heavy black clothing at the height of summmer). But tolerance is about allowing others to be different from you – anywhere and everywhere and all the time. Including at the Kotel on Rosh Hodesh.

    • Thank you very much for that.

      One solution would be to divide up the area into completely different sections and then like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre ( or the Muslim zones up by the Mosques) everyone could compete and have an on going bun fight.
      I am afraid such splits and tensions are inevitable if not endemic in all organized religions where males seem preoccuppied with prtoecting their power bases.

      The only other solution is to either de ‘consecrate’ the wall and ban acts of worship or just avoid zones of conflict altogether. People could pray or meditate as individuals but not worship in groups. Indeed some Rebbes agree with this position.

      But as I said, frankly I think there are more pressing issues.

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