How did the Western Wall prayer saga start and how is it likely to end?

For almost 30 years, Women of the Wall and others have been fighting to pray at the Kotel the way they want.

Members of Women of the Wall at a prayer service at the Kotel in 2013 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Members of Women of the Wall at a prayer service at the Kotel in 2013
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
On an inauspicious chilly morning almost 28 years ago in Jerusalem, a group of some 70 women made their way down to the Western Wall to do something unprecedented; pray together in a prayer service of women with the Torah at those hallowed stones where the hearts and prayers of all Jews are directed.
Although at the time, and for a long time afterwards, this group of women was small in number and lacked political power, the reverberations of that event on December 1, 1988 would shake the consensus at the Western Wall forever.
The idea for staging a women’s prayer service at the site came from Rivka Haut, an educator and activist in the US against divorce refusal, who was participating in the first International Jewish Feminist Conference in Jerusalem in December 1988 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Mount Scopus.
The gathering brought together a veritable who’s who of leading Jewish feminist figures from the US and Israel, including Bella Abzug, a former congresswoman in the US House of Representatives; feminist activist and academic Norma Joseph; Letty Cottin Pogrebin, founding editor of Ms. magazine; author and academic Phyllis Chesler and many others.
Haut, who was Orthodox, had spoken to Joseph, also Orthodox, about the idea of praying as a group of women at the Western Wall, and at a small side meeting at the conference brought together women who said they were interested in the idea.
Among the women who went to that meeting were academic and author Bonna Devora Haberman, activist Anat Hoffman, who was soon to become a member of the Jerusalem Municipal Council, and academic Shulamit Magnus, who would go on to take leading roles in what became the Women of the Wall movement.
Magnus recalls that during that meeting in the Hyatt Hotel, the idea to pray together at the Wall was not intended as any form of political statement or theater, but rather as an expression of religious devotion by religious women.
Hoffman concurred.
“The idea was very simple, it was to allow women to pray out loud, read Torah and put on a tallit [prayer shawl] at the women’s section of the Western Wall,” she says.
Magnus, who was brought up Orthodox, had recently organized a women’s prayer group in the US, because of her frustration with the role of Orthodox women in daily religious life.
“I don’t want to sit and watch someone else do Judaism, I want to do it,” she says, an attitude that made the idea of praying at the Western Wall so appealing.
“We were religious women, and the idea of doing this was incredibly exciting,” says Magnus.
Despite the anticipation, Magnus says that the group “was not unaware” that their prayer service could create friction with the Orthodox worshipers at the Western Wall, but that such concerns did not dissuade them from their goal.
The group also discussed how the prayer service would be conducted.
Haut said that she wanted the service to be conducted in accordance with an Orthodox perspective of Halacha (Jewish law) so that everyone could participate. The majority of the women were not Orthodox but respected the sensibilities of those who were, and so this proposal was accepted.
Some 70 women in all made their way to the Western Wall that morning, most from the Hyatt Hotel, although some – “the leftists,” according to Hoffman – came from the American Colony Hotel because they objected to staying in the Hyatt since they claimed that part of the city was over the Green Line.
It was a cold morning. Magnus says the women were shivering due to the crisp, frosty Jerusalem air, but as they filed off the bus at 7 a.m. into the Western Wall plaza with their Torah scroll in hand no one really took any notice.
Since it was Hanukka, there was a need to recite the Hallel service and read from Torah.
According to Hoffman, the group had barely begun singing the various psalms of Hallel when the trouble began.
“We started hearing cries of ‘bitches’ and ‘Nazis’ and ‘Reformers go home to America,’” says Hoffman, while one particularly incensed protester threw their prayer books on the ground.
Magnus says that she does not think those men realized the significance of the women’s prayer group, but that their reaction was more visceral: “It wasn’t about Halacha, we weren’t doing anything against Halacha, it was about pure misogyny and pure patriarchy.”
Despite the protests, the group finished their prayer service safely and left, accompanied by police to protect them, singing “like our feet were off the ground, we were so happy,” says Magnus.
“We were positively euphoric afterwards,” she says. “We went in solidarity with one another, as Jewish women. Because we decided that those [ideological] differences did not matter, we all got something we never would have gotten if we had stood on those ideological lines, trying to ‘win.’ “That is what allowed us to go to the Kotel that day and yes, did we sense it was historic? You bet.”
MK Moshe Gafni and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)MK Moshe Gafni and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A GREAT deal of time has passed since then. Much ink has been spilled, legal suits filed, delayed, rejected, accepted and upheld. Demonstrations have been staged, violence has broken out, women at prayer have been arrested, as have some demonstrators, government commissions convened and Supreme Court decisions handed down.
Of particular note was the government proposal in 1997 that Women of the Wall pray at the Robinson’s Arch area at the southern end of the Western Wall within the archeological park next to the famous Herodian street unearthed there.
This proposal was formally recommended by the Neeman Commission in 1998, and although the Women of the Wall rejected it outright, eventually the Conservative movement signed an agreement with the government allowing Conservative prayer services to be conducted at the site.
This agreement went into effect in 2000, and a small prayer platform built there for this purpose has served as a place for Conservative and Reform prayer at the Western Wall ever since.
Women of the Wall never relocated their prayer service to this spot, but did concede the necessity to read from the Torah at the site for many years.
Although there was always an undercurrent of ill feeling towards Women of the Wall services at the Western Wall from Orthodox worshipers, tensions remained low for several years.
But At a service for the new month in November 2009, one participant in the WOW service was arrested for wearing a tallit.
Such arrests became increasingly regular in the coming years, with more and more women being arrested by the police for “offending the religious sensibilities of others” at the site, a regulation introduced soon after WOW began their monthly services back in 1989.
Hoffman herself was detained on two occasions in 2010.
The frequency of arrests increased during 2011 and 2012 and the tensions became increasingly severe, with Hoffman arrested yet again in October 2012, detained for 12 hours and even handcuffed.
By this stage, Jews in North America had begun to take note of this increasingly acrimonious and bitter struggle, with Reform and Conservative Jews strongly supporting the rights of Women of the Wall. An association steadily grew between the rights WOW were claiming and the feelings of progressive Jews that they were not welcome to pray according to their own customs and principles at this holiest of places for the Jewish people.
These feelings were matched by Reform and Masorti (Conservative) Jews in Israel, who gave strong backing to Women of the Wall, and who shared their feelings of alienation from the main Western Wall plaza, arguing that it had been turned from a national site of critical importance to the Jewish people into “an Orthodox synagogue.”
In light of this growing clamor, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approached Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, to find a solution.
The agreement and the split
In pride of place in Sharansky’s office in the Jewish Agency headquarters is an enormous picture of the Western Wall and plaza behind his desk, an indication of the importance he ascribes to the site and his long efforts, reaching back some 14 years, he says, to bring peace to this embattled holy place.
The large portrait of fellow Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, one of Sharansky’s personal heroes, hanging on the adjacent wall, as well as DVDs on chess strategy, a game of which he is an accomplished player, perhaps provide further insight into Sharansky’s mindset.
Sharansky relates that Netanyahu called him up and told him that he could not bear the images flashing around the world of Jews insulting one another at the symbolic heart of the Jewish people.
Crucially, the prime minister saw the close contacts of the Jewish Agency with the leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in the US as a key asset in helping bring about a resolution, and asked Sharansky to consult these leaders about the possibility of reaching a compromise.
Sharansky says that including the progressive Jewish movements in his consultations was critical because of how Reform and Conservative Jews increasingly saw the struggle over the Western Wall as their struggle.
“From my point of view, it became clear that the negotiations weren’t about the rights of a small group of people,” says Sharansky, an indirect reference to the Women of the Wall.
“There is a huge community of Jews in the world, probably the majority of Diaspora Jews, who have to feel that when we say Israel is their home, it means that it is a home for them and their community and their prayer – including at the most important place for this, at the Western Wall.”
Sharansky began consultations, including with Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, administrator of the Western Wall, to begin formulating a plan, and presented his far-reaching proposals in April 2013.
The central principles of his proposal were to convert the Robinson’s Arch prayer area from an archeological site to a government-recognized holy place for egalitarian prayer, with a shared entrance to the entire complex, and a suggestion to raise the height of the new prayer space to that of the main Western Wall plaza.
These principles would later that year form the working basis for the government committee led by then cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit, although the idea of raising the height of the Robinson’s Arch area was dropped.
A woman tries to snatch a prayer book from a member of WOW in 1989 by the Kotel (photo credit: BARBARA GINGOLD. COURTESY OF SHULAMIT MAGNUS)A woman tries to snatch a prayer book from a member of WOW in 1989 by the Kotel (photo credit: BARBARA GINGOLD. COURTESY OF SHULAMIT MAGNUS)
WOMEN OF the Wall had long resisted all efforts to move their prayer services to the Robinson’s Arch site, claiming that it did not have the national and religious significance of the central Western Wall plaza.
Hoffman frequently referred to it as “the back of the bus,” in reference to the civil rights movement in the American South with which she frequently compared Women of the Wall’s struggle.
However, following an intense debate among WOW’s board of directors, the body voted 9 to 2 in favor of entering into negotiations with the government on the basis of the Sharansky and Mandelblit proposals.
The group did however issue a long list of conditions that they said were critical for their agreement to relinquish their rights at the central Western Wall plaza and pray at Robinson’s Arch instead.
Although this decision to compromise won praise from some quarters, it created an irrevocable split within the movement, as numerous WOW founders, including Haut, Haberman, Magnus, Joseph and Chesler, all came out against the decision, eventually leading to the formation of a separate group called Original Women of the Wall that continues its work today.
“Anat was subverting and betraying the fundamental goals of the movement,” says Magnus fiercely.
“It was about women and about the Western Wall and Anat was subsuming the needs of Jewish women under the needs of the Reform and Conservative movements for egalitarian prayer at another site,” she fumes.
Magnus argues that the 2003 Supreme Court decision, backed up by a landmark ruling in 2013 by the Jerusalem District Court decision, had strongly anchored women’s rights to pray as a group at the Western Wall, and to wear tallit and tefillin at the site.
“We don’t need to go to Robinson’s Arch, so on what grounds can you say that this is advancing Jewish women by giving up the rights we won? There is no explanation on feminist grounds or even political grounds,” she says.
Hoffman, however, saw it differently.
She saw the creation of a coalition with the progressive movements for the creation of a government recognized space for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, where Women of the Wall could continue their women-only services, with a shared entrance for one and all, as important enough to give up their right to pray at the site where it had all started.
“One of our biggest achievements is that we were the catalyst for the creation of this coalition, of all the streams, of the Federations and of so much of Diaspora Jewry for a better reality at the Western Wall,” says Hoffman.
“A political struggle is defined by the breadth of the coalition it can make, and our coalition is immense.”
DESPITE THE schism, negotiations began in late 2013 with Mandelblit meeting with WOW officials, leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements both in the US and Israel, and with Rabinowitz representing the religious establishment.
Rabinowitz never sat with Women of the Wall representatives or negotiated with them directly, requiring Mandelblit to mediate between the two sides. But the rabbi was in touch with “all the haredi political leaders,” as Sharansky put it, who themselves were in touch with Mandelblit.
Meanwhile, Rabinowitz was in touch with the two most senior haredi rabbis in the country and their advisers, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman and Rabbi Haim Kanievsky.
Rabinowitz declined to confirm this to The Jerusalem Post, although Sharansky noted specifically that Rabinowitz had told him he had been in touch with those two figures.
Sharansky also noted that Rabinowitz had been in touch with “all the important players in the political game” within the haredi parties, although he declined to name them specifically, but which included Health Minister and Agudat Yisrael chairman Ya’acov Litzman, Degel Hatorah chairman Moshe Gafni, and Interior Minister and Shas chairman Arye Deri.
The negotiations lasted two and a half years, and finally came to fruition on January 31, 2016, when the cabinet approved a government order in a vote of 15 to 5 to adopt the plan drawn up by Mandelblit and his team.
Crucially for Women of the Wall and the Reform and Conservative Movements, it included a joint entrance to the entire site; formal government recognition of the Robinson’s Arch area as a place for pluralist prayer with a governing committee comprising representatives of the progressive Jewish denominations; and a huge upgrade to the site to make it fitting as a national holy site and place of worship.
At the same time, it formally designated the current prayer area at the central Western Wall plaza for Orthodox prayer alone, revoking the right of Women of the Wall to pray there.
‘We are conducting a war with the Reform’
Although the haredi parties had initially indicated they would abstain in the cabinet vote, it was eventually decided that they would vote against the plan although there was no decision to thwart it.
Deri, Litzman, and Religious Services Minister David Azoulay of Shas all voted against the decision, along with Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel of Bayit Yehudi and Absorption Minister Ze’ev Elkin of Likud.
Despite the initial excitement and praise for the agreement, all was not well on the haredi side.
The raucous online haredi press was especially critical, while several senior rabbis came out strongly against it, most prominently Chief Rabbi David Lau and Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Shlomo Amar.
In late February, the Council of the Chief Rabbinate at the urging of Lau, issued a fierce condemnation of the agreement and of the Reform and Conservative Movements, and demanded the government freeze implementation of the agreement until it had an opportunity to make its own proposals.
These developments backed the haredi political leadership into a corner.
Assailed by the haredi media and the uncompromising position of Lau and others, Litzman, Gafni and Deri began backtracking on the agreement.
In early March the haredi leaders met with the prime minister and threatened to topple Netanyahu’s government if the plan was not put on ice.
Gafni and Litzman both declined requests from the Post to be interviewed for this article.
Gafni did, however, speak to the Post about the Western Wall agreement and the subsequent decision by the haredi parties to oppose it at the Degel Hatorah convention earlier this year. He pointed out then that the late, revered haredi leaders Rabbi Shalom Yosef Elyashiv and Rabbi Shmuel Wosner in the mid 2000s had explicitly rejected any plan involving a joint entrance to an area that included a site for non-Orthodox prayer.
“We are conducting a war with the Reform, a war that will go on for generations,” said the MK.
“The world could turn upside down, but we will not enter together. In everything we do we distance ourselves from them. We don’t want to be together with them for anything. We don’t want this partnership.”
Gafni also stated, “I will do everything possible and make every effort to ensure that secular people will not go there.”
He refused, however, to answer questions as to why the haredi parties had failed to oppose the agreement before it was brought to a vote in January and whether or not Rabinowitz had informed them of the details of the agreement.
“I am not going to answer these questions; I’ve spoken too much today already,” he said raising his voice.
Sharansky insists that although the haredi politicians were unhappy with the deal, “there were enough signals and clarifications not only to Rabinowitz but to Mandelblit that they would live with it.”
He also says it was impossible to imagine that the haredi leadership was unaware of the formal government recognition afforded to the pluralist prayer area, or of the fact that there would be Reform and Conservative representatives on it, two other major objections of the haredi side, since these details had been established more than half a year before the agreement was brought to the cabinet.
Although the exact arrangements for the joint entrance were agreed upon only shortly before the plan was finalized, Sharansky says that the ministers had the plan for a month before the government vote.
‘A terrible message’
Whether the haredi U-turn was due to practical or ideological objections, or more plausibly the damage to the credibility of the haredi political leadership in the face of the onslaught they faced from their own public, implementation of the agreement was brought to a crashing halt.
Netanyahu appointed his bureau chief David Sharan to make bridging proposals between the two sides, but Sharan essentially achieved nothing and has since left his post. To quote one well-placed source, “the deal is now totally dead.”
The results of this failure to implement the agreement are giving grounds for concern to many of the actors involved.
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement and a figure who was closely involved in negotiating the agreement, says that this failure has generated a great deal of anger among North American Jewry.
“It was the government that initiated an effort to create one Wall for one people. We engaged in nearly three years of negotiation to achieve that. We made tremendous concessions in order to achieve this goal, and now it’s not being implemented,” the rabbi says.
“This sends a terrible message to our movement around the world, and is but one of several similar messages, she continues, in reference to the recent approval of the so-called “mikva law” which bars the Reform and Masorti movements in Israel from using public mikvas for conversion ceremonies.
“We are seeing the government legislate against the non-Orthodox denominations for the first time, and if you legislate against the Judaism shared by the majority of world Jewry, then the government seems to be saying that they don’t see us as legitimately Jewish,” says Schonfeld.
Jerry Silverman, the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Jewish Federations of North America, says that deep frustration has set in amongst North American Jewry over the failure to implement the agreement.
Silverman argues that the issue is now widely discussed in all Jewish communities by lay congregation members as well as the community leadership, and that in particular he worries about the impact the discussion over the Western Wall, along with other issues, will have on young Jewish adults. “As they begin having those discussions, young adults are really asking the question ‘is the Jewish state for all Jewish people and is it welcoming to all Jewish people’ and I do worry about that.”
Shmuel Rosner, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute think tank and expert in Israel-Diaspora relations, says that the Western Wall agreement and its impact have been blown out of proportion, and describes it as a marginal issue.
“Israel and Diaspora Jews have lived for many years without a new arrangement at the Western Wall and can do so in the future as well; it is not a life-and-death issue.”
Rosner argues that implementation or otherwise of the agreement will not have a huge impact on very many people’s lives, and asserts that the number of people who go to the current Western Wall prayer area and are offended is not great.
“The implementation of this agreement will not increase the ability of Reform and Conservative Judaism to make inroads in Israel, it won’t generally speaking, change Jewish-Israeli culture, and at best will be a small symbolic victory,” he claims.
Rosner argues that most Israelis see the issue as “a marginal, insignificant, distraction from more serious issues,” and that even Israelis who do support the agreement do not put it high on their list of priorities.
He also points out that in the several demonstrations held by the progressive Jewish denominations since implementation stalled, they have been able to muster no more than 300 or 400 protesters to such events.
Rosner also casts doubt on whether the grand new egalitarian space will be adequately filled throughout the year by adherents of the movements that have lobbied so hard for its creation.
But he does acknowledge that, in the long term, a failure to implement the agreement will be detrimental to Israel’s relationship with its brethren across the seas.
“It won’t destroy Israel-Diaspora relations in one day, but it will be another step in the erosion of the intensity in which Diaspora Jews can relate to Israel, and it will take the wind out of the sails of Jews who do want to be engaged in Israel, and see it as a second home,” says Rosner.
Orthodox men hurl a chair at Women of the Wall on Rosh Hodesh Adar II, 1989 (photo credit: BARBARA GINGOLD. COURTESY OF SHULAMIT MAGNUS)Orthodox men hurl a chair at Women of the Wall on Rosh Hodesh Adar II, 1989 (photo credit: BARBARA GINGOLD. COURTESY OF SHULAMIT MAGNUS)
So what is the likely outcome of the Western Wall saga at this stage? One possibility is that the government will go ahead with upgrading the Robinson’s Arch site to something similar to what was outlined in the agreement approved by the cabinet, but without creating the joint entrance to the Western Wall complex that is so critical to WOW and the progressive movements and such anathema to the haredi parties.
The state indicated that this might be the route it takes in a response issued in July to a petition filed by the Center for Women’s Justice on behalf of the Original Women of the Wall.
In its response, the state declared that it “intends to immediately begin undertaking the required work to modifying the prayer section at Robinson’s Arch including any required archeological excavations,” adding that this work would take approximately a year to complete.
Sharansky agrees that an effort by the government to implement the physical requirements of the agreement, apart from the shared entrance, is the most likely outcome at this stage.
He said that such a step would be a positive development, on condition that the rights of Women of the Wall to pray in the women’s section of the central Western Wall prayer remain intact, and the area not be turned over to Orthodox prayer alone, until the full implementation of the cabinet decision.
“Maybe this is the right direction, to start partial implementation, implement what is possible, and continue the status quo, but this shouldn’t be the permanent solution,” says Sharansky, adding that he believes this is the direction Netanyahu is leaning toward.
Women of the Wall, along with the Reform and Conservative movements insist that such an outcome is not an option.
Silverman insists that the plan remains very much alive and that the prime minister remains committed to it, based on meetings he held in the last two weeks.
But he says that what he describes as “staged implementation,” not partial, now looks like being the way “to begin to get facts on the ground to move forward,” adding however that this would require a timeline for implementation of the entire agreement. Silverman says this may even begin as soon as after the coming holiday season.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform Movement in Israel, has said that a petition to the High Court of Justice is being prepared demanding the division of the central Western Wall prayer area into three sections, to include an area for egalitarian prayer.
If implementation of the cabinet decision is not begun within the next three months, this petition will be filed in the High Court of Justice, he says.
Meanwhile, High Court justices earlier this week gave a strong indication that they may intervene in light of the government’s failure to implement the resolution.
SHARANSKY EXPRESSES concern with the ongoing paralysis and increasingly rancorous sentiment.
In particular, he points to what he believes are the two most serious challenges to the Jewish people at the moment, “demonization and assimilation”: demonization of the Jewish state and assimilation of the Jewish people in the Diaspora.
“My concern is that the message half a million young Jews on campus are getting is not to be involved with anything to do with Israel,” he says.
“I’m worried they’ll think ‘well, we always had doubts as to whether Israel is a place for us, and here Israel is saying for us and our community that it’s not really our place.’ This is how the distancing between World Jewry and Israel will happen.”
Most importantly, Sharansky argues that the Western Wall is not only a place of prayer but also a national symbol for the entire people.
“The Western Wall is about connection to God, to the historic Temple and the Jewish religion, but no less, it is also a national symbol.
“That is why we need to make sure there’s space for everyone there, so that everyone can feel comfortable and be able to come and choose where they feel comfortable to express their solidarity and connection to God and the Jewish people next to this wall.”