Women of the Wall are true heroes of Jewish life, but I want more than they are demanding.
I support them and applaud them, to be sure. They are principled, persistent, and politically astute. And for more than 20 years, they have been gathering at the women’s section of the Wall, asserting their right to pray out loud, wear tallitot, and read from the Torah as part of their davenning. The demands they make, it should be noted, are completely consistent with what is permitted by halakhah, even though their group includes women from Jewish movements across the religious spectrum.
And I understand their desire to function within the boundaries of traditional Jewish law. This decision allows them to involve Orthodox women and thus to remain one of the very few multi-denominational religious groups in the Jewish world.
Nonetheless, for me, what they are asking for is not enough. They want to change the rules by which women pray in the women’s section; what I want is for men and women to pray at the Wall together. After all, in my religious community, that is how we pray, and mixed-gender prayer is the religious practice—reflecting deep religious conviction—of millions of Jews in the Diaspora and many in Israel. Just as Orthodox Jews want to pray at the Western Wall according to their firmly held religious beliefs and customs, I want to do the same.
My proposal, which I have been advocating for many years, is that there is ample room to divide the Wall into three areas: one for men to pray according to Orthodox custom; one for women to pray according to Orthodox custom; and one for non-Orthodox prayer and secular and civil ceremonies of various kinds. (And this does not mean putting non-Orthodox prayer at Robinson’s Arch, an archaeological site at a distance from the Wall that is not seen by most Jews as being part of the Wall at all.)
Opposition to a fair division of the worship space at the Wall along these lines comes from those who claim to be defending “Jewish unity.” Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall, has recently opposed any change in worship practice at the Wall because such changes, he says, “emphasize the differences among us,” whereas current arrangements leave us “all united as Jews.”
But this is a bogus argument. Reform and Conservative Jews learned long ago that “Jewish unity” in the religious realm is what you invoke when your real message is that the Orthodox way is the only way to do things.
There are times, of course, when doing things the Orthodox way for the sake of communal unity is appropriate and necessary, but some very clear criteria apply. For example, it is right to maintain a high standard of kashrut in the Israeli army. Without such a standard, many Israelis would be unable to serve in the Israel Defense Forces at all. Furthermore, a commitment to kashrut in the IDF does not impose an unreasonable burden on those who do not normally observe the dietary laws, whether out of principle or indifference. In the same way, it makes sense for dinners and other events that involve the entire Jewish community to be kosher, whether in Israel or the Diaspora.
But at the Wall, making room for mixed prayer and Progressive worship does not prevent anyone else from davenning according to their normal practice. And just as eating kosher does not unduly burden someone who doesn’t normally do so, so too praying in a space adjacent to Progressive worship does not unduly burden someone who prays according to Orthodox practice. We should assume, of course, that reasonable standards of dress and decorum will be maintained by all concerned.
My conclusion: Let us honor the Women of the Wall, but aspire to and strive for a true pluralism at Israel’s holiest site. And let’s recognize that for a diverse people with multiple religious styles and customs, to welcome and respect all Jewish groups who come to pray there is the best way to unify the Jewish people.