Grumpy Old Man: Like talking to a Wall

We are going to have to come up with a solution that satisfies all comers to the Kotel.

Women on the Wall 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Women on the Wall 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
‘Hiya, Wall… There’s a woman three doors down talks to her microwave.Talking to a microwave! Wall, what’s the world coming to?” – Shirley Valentine
If you have no idea where the aforementioned quotation is from, you probably never saw the eponymous film or play from the 1980s about a middle- aged Liverpool housewife who finds her kitchen wall more conversationally engaging than she does her remote ingrate of a husband. I think of her when I think of Women of the Wall.
In case you just arrived to our shores, WoW (as it’s known to space-conscious headline writers) is a group of progressive Jewish women who mark the beginning of each Hebrew month by praying at the Western Wall. “[O] ur central mission,” their website says, “is to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.”
The Wall, or “Kotel” as it’s known in Hebrew, is administered by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, whose website says the stone edifice, “to which Jews everywhere turn in prayer, belongs to us all.” The foundation is run by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, a pleasant, dark-bearded man in ultra-Orthodox garb who writes a column on religion for The Jerusalem Post and is known as the rabbi of the Western Wall.
“Every Jew can pray at or near the Wall as long as he or she doesn’t hurt anyone else’s sensitivities,” Rabinowitz told me several years ago while I was researching a magazine story about the site. “It’s a very sensitive place.”
He also made it very clear who was in charge.
“I’m the authority at the Kotel,” he said, “and the rabbi of the Western Wall answers to the Prime Minister’s Office.”
As with almost all public matters pertaining to Jewish religion in Israel, this basically means that the Wall is under the control of the haredim, who get hot and bothered because WoW members pray in a decidedly non-Orthodox fashion. To show how much this riles them, they and their supporters have employed everything from hisses, whistling and overpowering sound systems to flying eggs, phlegm, chairs and occasional fisticuffs.
Similarly, the issue has given rise to a group calling itself Women for the Wall.
Its members and members of Women of the Wall are separated by far more than just a preposition. “[L]leave the Western Wall alone,” the website of Women for the Wall says, addressing WoW. “We want to come and pray peacefully, and you are disrupting the prayers of other women around you.”
This past Monday morning, with the beginning of the month of Kislev, the members of WoW prayed pretty much unchallenged – which is somewhat surprising since the group was marking 25 years since it all started on an autumn day in 1988, when participants at a Jerusalem conference of Jewish feminists were treated to a rowdy reception after going to the Wall to show their faith.
With such a round anniversary, you’d think the ultra-Orthodox world would be out in force to meet what WoW claims to have been 1,000 progressive women.
But according to press reports, only a few hundred schoolgirls showed up to mount a half-hearted resistance, for aside from some heckling and attempts to drown out its full-throated prayers with loudspeakers in the men’s section, the WoW service concluded without violence or arrests.
Maybe the end of daylight saving time a few days before had thrown off the ultra- Orthodox planning.
MANY PEOPLE who sympathize with WoW say the Western Wall should be a free and open site without the fetters of Judaism. After all, it is as iconic to the Jewish state and Jewish people as it is to the Jewish religion. What’s more, many say that centuries ago it was no more than a retaining wall for the Temple courtyard, somewhere a person might have hitched his donkey, much the way a present-day worshiper might park before going into a shul for the morning or evening minyan.
Yet they are missing the point, for first and foremost it represents solely what has been deemed the closest we can get to what is left of the Temples somewhere below the plaza on the Temple Mount. The people who went there prior to 1948 did so for purposes of Jewish prayer or religious pilgrimage, not because their ancestors lived there or because it was absolutely central to the Zionist endeavor (which, admittedly, took its name from one of the alternate appellations for Jerusalem, clearly owing to the city’s significance to the Jewish heritage).
It is just as possible that had the Western Wall, along with the Old City, not been cut off from the Jewish people for the first 19 years of Israel’s existence, it would not have the same nationalistic significance it does today. After all, prior to June 1967, Jerusalem was an Arab backwater, going to the top of the Arab world’s agenda only after it was lost.
It’s amazing what something becomes when you no longer can have it.
And let’s not forget David Rubinger’s iconic photo of young, wide-eyed paratroopers standing before the Wall shortly after they liberated it from the Jordanians. If you think about the fact that Israel’s stunning victory came just a few days after much of the country had sunk to the point where it was contemplating the very real possibility of its demise, it’s no wonder a site so central to the Jewish people – and now so very accessible – would become a prime pillar of the Jewish Zeitgeist.
Yes, the Western Wall is now central to Zionism, but its essence is still one of Judaism, no matter how much flag waving and patriotic fervor is poured into it on Jerusalem Day or Remembrance Day eve. Yet what many forget is that just like the most devout ultra-Orthodox Jews, even those who identify with the Conservative or Reform streams can also be devout Jews with as much of a need to stand before the Kotel, their hearts open in their own versions of prayer.
What WoW and its supporters have to realize, though, is that their way of praying is alien in sound and sight to others who have no less of a right to come seeking spirituality and, perhaps more important, comfort. You can holler all you want about the way women under Orthodoxy and ultra-Orthodoxy are seen and not heard (and under the severest forms apparently not even seen), but if a woman is happy with this, who are we to interfere? Besides, they were at the Wall first.
IT IS CLEAR that changes will have to be made, whether by adding a third section to the Wall for egalitarian prayer or perhaps by installing a sharing regime along the lines of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. This in no way indicates agreement or satisfaction by me or anybody else as to the way that site is currently shared, but if the arrangement can maintain a relative sense of quiet between Jews and Muslims, it’s possible that a similar deal can be made to work between Jews and Jews.
You can file the issue under religious freedom, women’s rights or even religion and state, but if a compromise cannot be found, we will continue talking at rather than to each other. And that would help as much as talking to a wall.