The news that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has asked Jewish Agency chairman
Natan Sharansky to look into the troubling issue of discrimination against
non-Orthodox Jewish prayer at the Western Wall is an encouraging, if long
overdue, step in an attempt to right a grievous wrong.
In what is now a
monthly ritual on rosh hodesh, police arrest female Jewish worshipers from
Israel and abroad who are associated with the Women of the Wall movement for the
crime of praying. Their infractions? Wearing “male” tallitot (prayer shawls), or
donning colorful “feminine” shawls over their shoulders in a manner similar to
tallitot, or even reciting one of the central prayers of the morning service –
the Shma – in a loud, feminine voice.
The police actions, on behalf of
the Western Wall Heritage Foundation that administers the Kotel area, stem from
an April 2003 High Court of Justice decision in which a panel of nine justices,
led by then-court president Aharon Barak, in a 5-4 ruling, upheld a law
stipulating that it is forbidden to conduct a religious ceremony “contrary to
accepted practice” at a holy site, or one that may “hurt the feelings of other
The judges interpreted the law to preclude women performing
religious practices at the Western Wall traditionally done by men in Orthodox
Jewish practice, such as reading from a Torah scroll, wearing tefillin or a
tallit, or blowing a shofar.
The issue is exacerbating the increasing
rift between the Israeli Orthodox establishment and Diaspora Jewry, particularly
with the millions of Jews affiliated with the Conservative and Reform movements
who claim that the Kotel is in the hands of a rigid Orthodox monopoly and see
the altercations there as signs that as Jews, they are not welcome at Judaism’s
In addition, when the world reads or sees reports coming
out of Israel focusing on women’s rights being curtailed, it only provides
fodder for our enemies to use in efforts to delegitimize us. Clearly, some
process must be put into place to prevent the “prayer-arrest-condemnation” cycle
from endlessly repeating itself.
The widely respected Sharansky seems to
be the right person to try to sort out the issue and arrive at a reasonable
compromise that will take into account the sensitivities of Orthodox Jewry while
at the same time enabling those who believe in religious pluralism and
gender-blind prayer to feel like the Kotel is their home, too.
fabled past as a Prisoner of Zion, he has experience serving as a unifying
bridge between all streams of Judaism and has proved his mettle helping to
soften the Israeli conversion bill that threatened to alienate many Diaspora
Jews because it included stringent, ultra-Orthodox definitions of who is a Jew
and who is eligible to immigrate to Israel.
“I imagine very easily a
situation where everybody will have their opportunity to express their
solidarity with Judaism and the Jewish people and the State of Israel in a way
he or she wants, without undermining the other,” Sharansky told The New York
Times last week, adding that he was planning to discuss this vision with the
There is some hope that somebody will be listening.
As reported in The Jerusalem Post on Thursday, two leading national-religious
rabbis – who admittedly fall on the liberal side of Orthodoxy – expressed
support for accommodating non-Orthodox prayer at the Wall. Rabbi Benny Lau from
the capital’s Beit Morasha showed that he gets it, when he said that the fact
that only Orthodox worshipers feel at home at the Western Wall is damaging to
the Jewish people and that the “sectoralization” of the site “distances other
Jews from their heritage.”
And Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, dean of the Hesder
Yeshiva in Petah Tikva, even suggested a creative solution – designated
different hours for Orthodox and non-Orthodox prayer. Sharansky will have to
consider that option as well as other ideas that are raised as he begins his
We hope that Netanyahu’s request for help from a legendary Jewish
figure is not just an empty gesture aimed at sweeping the issue aside without
any concrete results emerging. But instead, Sharansky should be empowered with
the power to recommend changes to the status quo that will insure that the Kotel
remains a site of transcendence and unity instead of controversy and division.