After police threw Anat Hoffman in jail, I joined Women of the Wall (WoW) for
monthly services. This decision did not stem from deep religious
I am not good at prayer; don’t want to be anywhere at seven in
the morning, and, most annoyingly, there’s no place to park at the Western Wall.
But I couldn’t accept the idea that the state was harnessing police power to
prevent women from wearing prayer shawls.
Though I have never worn a
prayer shawl myself, I wanted to support those who did. Israel, after all, is a
liberal democracy, no? For me, the answer to this question has great
significance. I want to know what values the Jewish state holds dear. Is it a
democracy dedicated to protecting personal liberties? Or is it a theocracy
intent on upholding the word of God? For me, the drama unfolding at the Wall is
about politics and the structure of government. For others, it carries different
meanings. For some, it’s about gender: Are women and men full partners in the
Jewish tradition? For still others, it’s about identity: Who is a Jew? Do Reform
and Conservative Jews count?
For all of us spinning significances at the Wall –
ultra-Orthodox and Reform, feminist and traditional – the resolution of that
drama carries great symbolic weight. Each of us wants to enlist state actors to
our side – the police, courts, Knesset, prime minister, rabbinate, and the
Jewish Agency, to name just a few.
To date, these actors seem
A few months ago, police were detaining female shawl-wearers;
last month they arrested ultra- Orthodox chair-throwers. For 24 years, the
Supreme Court placed ultra-Orthodox sensibilities before religious freedoms.
Recently, lower courts have reversed those priorities.
For a while, we
thought the rabbinate had authority over what happened at the Wall, and now it
appears to be the Jewish Agency.
Natan Sharansky, the head of that
agency, has just suggested splitting the baby into three (men, women and mixed
areas), arousing the ire of Israeli archeologists at the resulting untidiness
and inviting still another faction to enter the WoW mire.
Yet while all
this may appear to be an untamable morass, I suggest that a solution falls
neatly into place if the state simply sets its priorities
First, the state must recognize that it is a “secular”
This does not mean that it cannot be a Jewish state, it just
means that in the public sphere the people are governed by the rule of law and
not the rule of God. This suggests that any solution at the Wall must
acknowledge the fact that the Wall is, first and foremost, a national and
historic site, with religious significance to all Jews, whatever their
denomination. Right now it has been transformed into an exclusive haredi
shteible – an ultra- Orthodox synagogue in which the rabbi in charge is
constantly raising the divisional barrier and shrinking the women’s
Second, the state must pledge allegiance to human rights and
civil liberties and give those rights and liberties priority. This means that
any solution at the Wall must make it clear that women are equal to men, and
that all Israeli citizens are entitled to enjoy freedom of religion and freedom
Third, if the state decides to “accommodate sensibilities”
that infringe on the rule of law or civil liberties, such accommodation must be
kept to a minimum.
With those priorities in place, the following solution
unfolds: The Wall is to be returned to the People of Israel and the State of
Israel, enabling it to serve as a national and historic site open to the
The permanent divisional barrier is to be removed. No new
building is to be considered without consulting the archeologists.
persons are invited to visit or pray at the Wall in the manner that they see
fit, at any time, but without a divisional barrier.
Persons who want to
pray at the Wall in segregated services – whether those persons are
ultra-Orthodox or modern Orthodox members of WoW – are invited to use the
synagogue located in the enclosed area at the far end of the Wall. This
synagogue will be open all day long. Segregated services will also be allowed at
the open area of the Wall, and portable divisional barriers erected for that
purpose, between the hours of six and nine every morning, including the
During those hours, women will be asked to refrain from praying
with prayer shawls or phylacteries or from reading from the Torah, except on the
first day of every lunar month. On those days, women are invited to pray behind
the barrier as they like. Anyone disturbing those prayers will be
Restoring secular-national control, honoring the archeological
integrity of the wall, protecting personal liberties and accommodating cultural
sensibilities that violate those liberties only to a minimum degree – this, at
least for me, is the fairest solution of them all.
The author is the
founding director of the Center for Women’s Justice and co-author of Marriage
and Divorce in the Jewish State: Israel’s Civil War.