In a compliment so massive it may seem like a curse, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has deputized the legendary refusenik Natan Sharansky to resolve the tensions regarding women praying at the Western Wall. As an iconic figure who embodies Jewish unity, Sharansky has the necessary credibility. But all involved will have to accept creative compromises, rather than fomenting more tension at Judaism’s holiest site.
The conflict about whether women can hold public prayer sessions at this ancient site, with women singing loudly, and donning tallit, kippah, and t’fillin, dates back to the Enlightenment. The Reform and Conservative movements started in the nineteenth century to modernize Judaism; movements of Orthodoxy and ultra-Orthodoxy then emerged as counter-reactions. Orthodox Jews saw themselves as guarding Judaism’s integrity, hence their label. But their hostility to change was itself modern.
The reformers, therefore, should acknowledge that those opposing women’s public prayer are expressing Judaism’s original position and believe they are following God’s law. Simultaneously, the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox should acknowledge that these reformers are not fly-by-night troublemakers. These serious Jews represent the majority of world Jewry. Equal rights for men and women is a core value for most modern Jews, this writer included.
I know it is fashionable to say “as the father of two daughters,” I am sensitive to this. But, “as the father of two sons” too, I am equally sensitive. I want my sons to respect women as equals, just as I want my daughters to feel empowered, accepted, respected.
I do not believe that the gender differentiation in traditional Judaism is always demeaning – but I understand why some women feel disrespected. Orthodox women should feel respected in their more separated world, and egalitarian women should feel respected in their more integrated world – women’s empowerment should allow women to find ways that work for them.
Given the seriousness of both positions, it is unfortunate that much of the clash frequently descends into farce. Do the Israeli police have nothing better to do than to arrest women for wearing prayer shawls at Judaism’s holiest shrine? How can a police force fighting terrorism, that takes years to decide whether corrupt politicians are guilty, have time to detain good, patriotic, women for the crimes of premeditated praying, criminal shawl wearing, unauthorized phylactering, and other infringements?
Moreover, the Israeli Supreme Court’s decision importing America’s “fighting words” doctrine, curtailing the women’s freedom of religion at the Wall to avoid a violent reaction, unfairly gives violence a veto. Menacing bullies are criminals; their potential victims deserve police protection, not threats of arrest.
The Court was justified in protecting the Wall’s tradition. The Wall has not been an Orthodox synagogue for millennia, but has respected Orthodox sensibilities for decades.
I would like to join the growing chorus of moderates who propose expanding the notion of what the Kotel is, to include the area now called Robinson’s Arch, which we should always call the Southwestern Wall, while rechristening, er, naming, the Western Wall Plaza, the Northwestern Wall.
Overlooking our distaste for paganism which makes no wall holy, both the Southwestern and Northwestern parts of the Wall are equally holy, equally part of the Temple’s retaining wall. I prefer the Southwestern Wall today. The big open Western Wall Plaza feels sterile; I love the historic feel of the rubble surrounding the Southwestern Wall, with some massive stones perched on one corner, as if frozen in mid-drop. They evoke the destruction of the Temple and the power of Jews’ return.
I am always moved when I scan the stones to find The Isaiah Stone, with its carved Hebrew inscription from Isaiah 66:14: "And when ye see this your heart shall rejoice and your bones shall flourish like an herb.”
The Israeli government should take over the Southwestern Wall, and guarantee access 24/7, providing guards, lighting, handicapped access, prayer books – and prayer shawls! The government should ignore one “Women of the Wall” attorney who said “There are a lot of stones next to the wall in that area, which would need to be removed to allow for access.” The stones must remain as much as possible; that spot’s unique character must be preserved – and celebrated.
Imagine if we started having national ceremonies there -- not just the beautiful egalitarian Birthright prayers I have led there, and not just my daughter’s fabulous Bat Mitzvah there. Imagine if we started selling postcards of that place, delivering notes there – another borderline pagan custom. In short, let’s keep the Northwestern Wall as an Orthodox synagogue while making the Southwestern Wall an alluring, romantic, historic, egalitarian synagogue.
Two pictures hanging in our living room illustrate the Western Wall compromise we need. One, taken before 1948, shows women praying at the Wall. If we could pray together then, we should find a way now. The second picture is from my oldest daughter’s bat mitzvah. Wrapped in a tallit, holding a Torah, she is beaming. The beauty of the place enhances the beauty of her smile. She is standing, where she read Torah, in front of one of the Southwestern Wall’s stones frozen in midfall. Following her Thursday preview, on Shabbat, she read the entire weekly portion – with men and women seating separately during the service – offending some of my more egalitarian, supposedly open-minded, friends. At her bat mitzvah, my daughter felt empowered, respected, accepted – setting a high standard for her brothers and sister.
In 1929, Muslim-Jewish clashes over control of the Wall culminated in the Hebron massacre. I trust that Natan Sharansky –with goodwill on both sides -- can make today’s Western Wall crisis a moment for healing, for reconciliation, for reason, not for Jew against Jew conflict at our holiest site. With a renewed, accessible, glorified, romanticized Southwestern wall, we will generate many more smiles like my daughter’s. We will evoke the mixed prayer of the pre-1948 era. And we will fulfill the prophecy of The Isaiah Stone, because when we see the Wall, as a new symbol of Jewish unity, civility, reason, and compromise, our hearts shall indeed rejoice. Our bones – and our State -- shall flourish like an herb, maybe even a flower!
Gil Troy is Professor of History, McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Fellow in Jerusalem. His latest book is Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism.