The wall between us: Egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall

A personal view on a controversial subject.

Jamie Halper raises the Torah with Women of the Wall on July 24, 2017. (photo credit: KAYLA STEINBERG)
Jamie Halper raises the Torah with Women of the Wall on July 24, 2017.
(photo credit: KAYLA STEINBERG)
I COULD clearly feel the well-worn leather straps of my tefillin slide between my fingers as I wrapped them seven auspicious times around my arm. I knew that the deep black straps of this Jewish ritual object showed their age in small spidery cracks as they stretched across my skin, but on this day, they were nothing more than a blur through my tears. I never let the drops fall past my eyelashes, but over the course of the hour that I prayed in tefillin at the Western Wall in Jerusalem with the feminist prayer group Women of the Wall, I could never quite get them to stop welling up.
I have wrapped tefillin every time I’ve said the Jewish morning prayers for the past four years, and I have been to the Western Wall before, first with my family, and a few years later with my youth group. I have even worn my tallit, a religious prayer shawl, at the Western Wall before. But wearing tefillin in that place, and praying aloud there with more than a hundred women, was something entirely new.
Conservative and Reform Judaism, the religious movements that make up the vast majority of American Jewry, and the Masorti movement, their progressive counterpart around the world, have allowed women to wrap tefillin and wear a tallit for years. Though these movements are not without flaws in their treatment of women in Jewish practices, they have made significant progress toward religious egalitarianism over the past few decades. In many religious communities across Israel, and particularly at the Western Wall, however, women are expected to abide by Orthodox customs that restrict the degree of their participation in these, among other, rituals. The Western Wall is also divided into separate, unequally sized women’s and men’s prayer spaces, according to Orthodox tradition.
Historical efforts
In the 1980s, Women of the Wall held their first prayer services at the Western Wall. In 1997, the year I was born, progressive Jewish movements from inside Israel and in the Diaspora began their struggle for an egalitarian prayer space by gathering to celebrate Shavuot on the upper Western Wall plaza. As they prayed, the Masorti and Conservative worshipers were attacked by ultra-Orthodox Jews. Since then, the movements have fought to establish an egalitarian prayer space at the site, one where men and women can pray together, and where women are free to participate in Jewish ritual practices to the same extent as any man.
In subsequent years, the movement faced more attacks and worked to set up an egalitarian prayer space at an area called “Robinson’s Arch,” which lies along the same retaining wall of the Temple Mount as the main Western Wall plaza, but further to the south past the Mughrabi Bridge leading to the Mount. In 2000, the Conservative movement signed an agreement with the Israeli government to allow a weekly prayer service, a policy that was revised and expanded until 2006. In 2010, after years of growing demand, the movement entered new negotiations with the government to establish a more permanent space.
In 2013, following Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky’s proposal for platforms to be built allowing for a permanent egalitarian space at the Robinson’s Arch location, the construction began. In January 2016, after months of negotiations and deliberations, a 45-page compromise was reached to finally realize the goal of an enduring space for Conservative, Masorti, and Reform prayer.
Then, this past June, on the very day I attended a Women of the Wall service for the first time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reneged on his promise to honor the compromise, and indefinitely stalled efforts to make progressive changes.
A morning of barely controllable tears of joy turned into an afternoon of tearful anger and sadness. Despite numerous compromises and years of fighting, the desires of progressive Jews, and specifically Jewish women, were once again trampled under by concessions to ultra-Orthodox government leaders seeking to dictate the entirety of Jewish practice. The initial Robinson’s Arch platforms still exist today, but in a state of limbo, making both them, and the religious observance that occurs on them, seemingly less legitimate.
The root cause
For religiously progressive Diaspora Jews, this conflict centers on inclusivity and finding a place for all to practice according to their religious traditions at the holy site. For the ultra-Orthodox, this exemplifies their struggle to maintain an observant status quo in an ever-changing world. In attempting to reconcile these perspectives, it becomes clear that the conflict is rooted in the discrepancies between two vastly different conceptions of what consists of a thriving Jewish community.
During Women of the Wall’s service on Rosh Hodesh Av in July, speakers were set up in the men’s section of the wall to play their prayer-leader’s chanting over our voices on the women’s side. This conscious decision, which must have been made by administrators of the site, considering the security regulations that would prevent anyone from bringing such technology into the space, is indicative of the concerted efforts to prevent anything besides the Orthodox norm. Similarly, the Women of the Wall’s decision to continue despite the obvious backlash from the Rabbinate, and the protesters who ceaselessly yell and whistle at us as we pray, shows that there is little willingness to accommodate non-Orthodox desires.
The idea that Judaism can only thrive in a pluralistic and varied environment is one that, for many Diaspora Jews, seems obvious. For years, Jewish communities in the United States and around the world have, in most cases, been able to coexist and even collaborate in strengthening their communities. They seek to provide Jewish experiences that are fulfilling and meaningful for those of all backgrounds, something that a singular understanding of Judaism cannot achieve.
In Israel, however, there is a sharp divide between highly observant Judaism and the largely secular majority of the Jewish population. The progressive movements in the middle have not grown to the same size as their counterparts in the United States, and are thus unable to have the same kind of moderating influence on the religious conversations in the country. As a result, the two sides of this conflict are not even having the same conversation, making it nearly impossible to work productively toward a solution. Only when they find common ground, which from the perspective of progressive Judaism would be an embrace of pluralism, will anything real be achieved beyond tense government votes and Supreme Court orders forcing one side or the other’s hand.
Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of Women of the Wall and a founder of the group, says that while women’s ability to have full Jewish experiences is their primary goal – including officially recognized bat mitzvas at the Western Wall – a wider culture of pluralism is also key to their prayer space negotiations.
“All the variety and pluralism of the Jewish world, somehow, has not crossed the ocean,” Hoffman says when comparing the Israeli situation with that of the US and other Diaspora communities. “Israel is innovative in so many fields. We have so much wonderful innovation in literature, music, agriculture and technology... but when it comes to religion, we’re bankrupt. And that was the whole idea of a Jewish state, wasn’t it? To have a place where we could be a free people and explore our Judaism and explore the values of Judaism.”
Moving forward
For Women of the Wall, their hope currently lies in a petition scheduled to go before the Israeli Supreme Court at the end of August. It requires the government to implement the negotiated agreement. Despite potential for a favorable ruling, however, both the Israeli government and the Chief Rabbinate have submitted, or are in the process of submitting, statements to bolster their claims against an egalitarian prayer space. There are also two bills currently before the Knesset to make the Western Wall into an Orthodox synagogue, thereby making it illegal for Women of the Wall to pray as they do today.
Hoffman says that even if these rulings were to pass, Women of the Wall would continue to pray aloud proudly, and they would climb over each other to have the privilege of being arrested for this cause to which they are entirely devoted. Her true hope is, however, that eventually there can be a cultural change that ends with a satisfactory outcome for both sides, but prioritizes a pluralistic community.
Eventually something will have to give. This continued state of contention will only further divide a Jewish community that is already separated by countries, cultures and customs. Perfect Jewish unity is not to be expected – it is absurd, after all, to expect any two Jews to agree completely on anything, much less to expect whole movements to concur. This conversation is purely a manifestation of the most fundamental Jewish question of our time – what are our values as a religion? Will a steadfast adherence to tradition – no matter how exclusive it might be – prevail, or will a more open and malleable culture become accepted, even at the risk of departing somewhat from a longstanding conception of what it means to practice Judaism? It is my sincere hope that both sides can find common ground with an acknowledgement that, despite our many differences, in the end we are all Jews.
When I first put on my tefillin at the Western Wall that morning, I thought that no experience could be more fulfilling. It was only when I was invited, at the climactic conclusion of the Torah service, to raise the Torah (hagba), I realized that the tefillin alone were not what was causing my deeply emotional experience.
It was, in fact, that I was doing this with a community, a community that cares so much that it risks arrest to sneak a Torah scroll into the women’s section to fulfill its Jewish obligations, that made this moment so powerful. As I held the Torah in the air for all, including the protesting individuals on both the men’s and women’s side of the partition, to see, it was not just me, but all these women before and after me holding up a beacon of a more inclusive and vibrant Judaism as a sign that no matter what, we will continue.
The writer is a sophomore at Harvard University and spent the summer living and working in Israel.