Separating state and religion at the Western Wall

Though I have never worn a prayer shawl myself, I wanted to support those who did.

June 4, 2013 21:26
4 minute read.
WoW April 11 arrests

WoW April 11 arrests 390. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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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 fervor.

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 confused.

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 straight.

First, the state must recognize that it is a “secular” democracy.

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 section.

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 of conscience.

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 public.

The permanent divisional barrier is to be removed. No new building is to be considered without consulting the archeologists.

All 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 Sabbath.

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 arrested.

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.

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