Respect at the Western Wall

Old fault lines – between the Diaspora and Israel, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, feminists and traditionalists – that separate the members of the tribe have been revealed.

September 9, 2013 22:55
3 minute read.
MK Nissan Smolanski and Housing Minister Uri Ariel inaugurate the building of housing units.

Jerusalem Western Wall, Dome of the Rock 521. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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At least since Korach challenged Moses’s leadership, Jews have been exceptionally adept at miscommunication, infighting and a general non-fluency in basic civility. The controversy surrounding the Women of the Wall’s demand to pray at the Western Wall is one of the latest incidents of intra-Jewish conflict. Unfortunately, the tension has reached a new peak as Jews in Israel and abroad prepare for Yom Kippur – the day of atonement.

Old fault lines – between the Diaspora and Israel, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, feminists and traditionalists – that separate the members of the tribe have been revealed during the fight over whether or not women have the right to wear tallitot and tefillin, and to read from the Torah or blow the shofar in the women’s section of the Kotel courtyard.

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On one side of the conflict are the men and women from Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist backgrounds who make up the multi-denominational Women of the Wall coalition. On occasion, some of the group’s members have purposely attempted to provoke religious zealots, knowing that doing so would help publicize their cause.

On the extreme opposite side of the conflict are Orthodox Jews of various stripes – both male and female – who see Women of the Wall’s egalitarian prayer services as sacrilegious and a desecration of the Western Wall, the most visible and accessible vestige of the holiest site in the world for Jews. Some violent extremists have hurled metal chairs, eggs, stones and profanities at the group.

At the end of August, matters got even more complicated after the government, in response to the struggle, announced that a concourse capable of holding about 300 people had been built just south of the Western Wall in the Robinson’s Arch archeological park.

This was a substantial victory for Women of the Wall. It ended a major injustice perpetrated by consecutive Israeli governments against non-Orthodox steams of Judaism since the Kotel came under Israeli control in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War. Thanks in part to the fact that for the first time, there is no ultra-Orthodox political party in the government, non-Orthodox streams of Judaism will be allowed 24/7 access to a site adjacent to the Western Wall where mixedgender prayer can be conducted. The state even agreed to provide prayer books and other religious objects.

Until now, access to Robinson’s Arch was limited to certain hours and worshipers were often forced to pay an entrance fee. In addition, the state did not provide prayer books and other basic amenities, as was the case at the Western Wall.


However, while the Masorti (Conservative) Movement responded positively to the plan presented by Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett, who also holds the Religious Services portfolio, Women of the Wall rejected it.

The group’s head, Anat Hoffman, and others worry that this “temporary” solution will inevitably morph into a permanent arrangement, and that Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky’s proposal – for an egalitarian prayer section equal in size and status to the Orthodox section, accessed from a joint plaza – will be dropped because of Orthodox opposition.

A Masorti Movement spokesman, reacting to Hoffman’s comments, expressed frustration with the way Women of the Wall were “dominating the discourse.” In contrast, Shmarya Rosenberg claimed on his blog Failed Messiah that the Reform Movement, Women of the Wall and Orthodox feminists are angry with the Conservative movement for “selling out” by reacting favorably to Bennett’s plan.

In short, there is a lot of infighting going on.

In Jewish tradition, the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are dedicated to introspection and making a personal accounting for one’s deeds – particularly deeds related to treatment of our fellow Jews. Indeed, expiation on Yom Kippur is conditional upon the Jew first rectifying or attempting to rectify the damage caused to fellow Jews by one’s deeds or words.

Women of the Wall, the Conservative Movement, the Orthodox establishment and other sides in the controversy all have legitimate claims. And they have every right to fight for what they believe in. However, all sides should learn from the mistakes of past internal Jewish conflicts and restore civility to the debate.

After all, Sharansky has already proposed a Solomonic solution, which in the long run would meet the needs of nearly everyone. Implementation of Sharansky’s plan might take time. Meanwhile, as we prepare for Yom Kippur, special care should be taken to strive, as much as possible, for mutual respect, if not mutual agreement.

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