A tectonic shift

Women of the Wall invites Israeli society to dream of a new reality at the Western Wall.

Women of the wall. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Women of the wall.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
MY GRANDDAUGHTER Dafna is two years old. When she celebrates her bat mitzva 10 years from now, I want to promise her that if she wants, and if her mom and dad want, she will be able to choose to hold her coming-of-age ceremony at the Western Wall and that she will be able to wrap herself in a tallit, to read from the Torah, to lay tefillin, and to pray with her grandmother.
I want to be sure that no “modesty squad” will pounce on her, and no one will scold or frighten her. I will stand by her side and hold her hand, and together we will recite “… who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this moment.”
The government’s historic decision in late January to create a plaza where men and women of all streams of Judaism can freely pray at the Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem makes this dream possible. Under the plan, a designated space for non-Orthodox worship will be constructed at the southern end of the wall. It will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Women will be able to lay tefillin and wear prayer shawls, and bar and bat mitzva ceremonies will be permitted. At the insistence of our multidenominational group, Women of the Wall, it will also include a space for women-only prayer.
The idea of women-only prayer at the Western Wall was not born in Jerusalem.
I, a native of this city, could not have come up with this idea. If I had, it would have been nipped in the bud before it developed. The decades-long struggle of Women of the Wall was inspired by women from abroad and reached us like a diaspore – the part of a plant that helps carry seeds in the wind to a new location.
The diaspore of Women of the Wall was a group of women who came to Israel in early December 1988 to participate in the first international Jewish feminist conference in Israel. The late Rivka Haut, an Orthodox woman from New York and the founder of the Women’s Tefillah (Prayer) Network in the US, led the participants in prayer at the Western Wall, carrying a Torah scroll.
After the conference was over, we founded a group in Jerusalem to continue the kind of prayer we had learned from our overseas sisters at the Wall. The capacity to imagine a new reality at the Western Wall is the greatest gift that Women of the Wall has given the Israeli public. Like the Babylonian Talmud (born in Babylon), Zionism (born in Switzerland) and Shimon Peres (born in Poland), the origins of this custom lie in Diaspora Jewry; and like them, it has had a profound impact on Judaism and on Israel.
The government’s decision regarding the third, pluralistic prayer space at the Wall demonstrates that after 27 years of struggle, the plant has not only grown roots and blossomed, but has changed the religious landscape and climate in Israel.
Women of the Wall invites Israeli society to dream of a new reality at the Wall.
Fifty years of Orthodox monopoly, controlling even the smallest action at this holy site, has programmed the public into accepting religious coercion, brute power and discrimination. Many Israeli men and women stopped believing that the site could offer a positive experience consistent with their Jewish values.
The achievement of Women of the Wall revives these lost dreams, and soon every man and woman will be offered an accessible Western Wall: a site that reaches out its hand to give rather than to take; that welcomes everyone without dictating what people should say or how they should worship; without deciding whose voice is to be heard and whose will be silenced.
AS IS to be expected after an earthquake, the Western Wall revolution was followed by aftershocks and the release of negative, destructive energy. In Israel, tectonic plates meet at the Dead Sea (the lowest point on the planet).
The fault line runs under the Western Wall, both literally and conceptually.
As the conceptual tectonic plates were moved by the government decision, we Women of the Wall found ourselves at the epicenter of an earthquake.
Some of the reactions dragged public discourse down to record new lows.
Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush announced that women who come to the Wall to pray together should be “thrown to the dogs.” Yariv Levin, the Minister of Tourism, bashed Reform Jews from the United States, calling them part of “a dying world.”
A cluster of interest groups emerged loudly objecting to the government decision, among them Israeli archaeologists and the Muslim waqf.
These groups’ concerns are genuine and natural consequences of change.
These aftershocks, however, will be a test of Israel’s democracy. Will our social structures crash under this negative energy or will the government uphold its commitment to implement the plan? The success of our struggle is a sweet reminder that Israel is a democracy where a small, steadfast group can spark a revolution. Just as diamonds are formed by great pressure over time, so Women of the Wall crystallized and became a tough, strong, stable and precious rock.
This rock could be a paragon of inspiration and hope to all those in Israel who struggle for equality, tolerance, pluralism and social justice. Diamonds can cut through anything.
The secret of Women of the Wall’s power lies in its ability to create alliances and dismantle divisions. The group is composed of women from all streams of Judaism – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and others. The women succeeded in working together toward a common objective. Many men also joined the struggle, expressing a deep commitment to equal rights for women.
Women of the Wall reached out across the ocean and built a broad coalition which encompasses millions of Jewish people around the world. This coalition influenced the government – after years of negotiations – to adopt a plan that embodies both tradition and innovation.
According to the draft: “It is balanced and it acknowledges and reflects complexity.
It entails listening and it brings hope that the Western Wall will no longer serve as the arena for disputes and will once again enjoy the unifying character that befits its standing. Let us hope that this may also promote internal peace among us.”
We no longer have to say that “the day will come”; the momentous day has arrived. The government woke up – and now we truly begin a new path to being, as our national anthem hopes for, “a free people in our Land.”
Anat Hoffman is Chair of Women of the Wall and Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel.