Keep Dreaming: Up against the Wall

The new area at the Kotel designated for freedom of religious expression raises a tough question for those who would continue the struggle to exercise their court-sanctioned right to pray in the women’s section in a manner that so offends their co-religionists.

Women of the Wall prayers at Western Wall370 (photo credit: Hadas Parush)
Women of the Wall prayers at Western Wall370
(photo credit: Hadas Parush)
The Western Wall and I have a long-standing relationship.
I can still recall the mystery of my first caress of its stones back in 1970. I hadn’t yet discovered Abraham Joshua Heschel, but when I did a year later, I found in his eloquent ode, Israel: An Echo of Eternity, an articulation of the transcendental moment I had experienced.
Heschel had landed in post-Six Day War Israel with a problem. Judaism was a religion of time, not space, he had long taught. In the Shabbat, he observed that the biblical record of creation depicts the physical world as being “good,” while it is the seventh day, which Heschel referred to as “a palace of time,” that is sanctified with holiness.
What, then, of the enormous limestone blocks of the Kotel? Unable to ignore their powerful physicality, he reconciled their tangible import with his underlying philosophy by suggesting that it is not the stones themselves that are innately important, but rather their facility to move us to recall hallowed moments. Problem solved.
Fast forward to Tishrei 1991. A late Friday afternoon.
I take my children to experience the Shechina (God’s presence) descending upon the Western Wall. They are full of anticipation. But my daughters, then eight and 11, though garbed in their Shabbat dresses, shoulders covered, are halted by a squadron of women who turn them back gruffly because their prepubescent arms are bare. Clutching the slips of paper on which they had inscribed their prayers they retreat, tears streaming down their cheeks and dreams dissolving in tight, sweaty fists. “Abba,” said the older, “when I first saw the Wall I felt so proud.
But then those women made me feel terrible, like I was in another country and it didn’t belong to me. I don’t ever want to come back here.”
It would be several more years until we did.
Tisha Be’av, 1997. Among the throngs of Jerusalem’s mourners we are sitting solemnly on the stones off to the side of the Kotel plaza, listening to the recitation of Lamentations with dozens of other Masorti worshipers. Oblivious to the lesson of the day regarding the caustic power of baseless hatred that brought about the destruction of the Temple we are grieving over, ultra-Orthodox bystanders begin their heckling. Suddenly, the police move in, dispersing us with excessive force.
We had come neither to protest nor provoke, merely to feel at one with our people, yet once again we found ourselves excluded.
It would take another few years and many more such incidents until a solution to the problem was proposed that we could accept. An area was cleared for us under Robinson’s Arch at the southern end of the Western Wall that has since come to be known as the Kotel Masorti.
There we have been praying undisturbed since August 2004 and, truth be told, I find the atmosphere far more inspiring than that of the main plaza. The massive ruins scattered about, lying where they fell almost 2,000 years ago, serve as an inescapable reminder of why we are here in the first place. And I find the relative isolation of the site, and the accompanying tranquility, far more conducive to prayer and introspection than the perpetual commotion 100 meters away.
Still, I understand those who have rejected this compromise either because of the more “primitive” conditions under which we have had to pray, the limited access we have had to the site due to its doubling as an archeological park, or a sense of being excluded from the “real” Wall and the implicit delegitimization of non-Orthodox practice that suggests.
Consequently, I have been a staunch (though silent) supporter of the Women of the Wall over the years. The Jewish state I want to live in is one that recognizes the right of any Jew to pray in accordance with his or her beliefs, especially in a public space of such momentous significance developed and maintained with public funds.
I have also been an advocate of Women of the Wall’s mission “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.” Accordingly, I am discomforted by the possibility that from this point on our paths may diverge.
On Wednesday evening, I took up Religious Services, Jerusalem and the Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennett’s invitation to visit the area alongside the Western Wall that has recently been developed at the initiative of Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky as an area for prayer conducted outside the parameters of traditional Orthodox norms. I was impressed. Though still only an interim solution, the expanse has been aesthetically constructed. It is easily accessible 24 hours a day. The setting is exquisite, incorporating evocative remnants of the Second Temple period. It allows for direct (albeit limited) contact with the stones of the Wall itself. It has the capacity to accommodate far more than the numbers that can reasonably be expected to make use of it. And, given that it was developed with taxpayers’ money and has the blessings of the government of Israel and the Jewish Agency, a dynamic partnership of Jews from around the world, it provides the “social and legal recognition” that Women of the Wall has been seeking.
What it doesn’t do is allow the Women of the Wall, or anyone else who might wish to pray contrary to accepted Orthodox custom, to impose their practice upon others. That raises a tough question for those who would continue the struggle to exercise their court-sanctioned right to pray alongside the established Kotel in a manner that offends their co-religionists – if indeed the fight until now really has been about access, legitimacy and freedom of religious expression.
As a steadfast proponent of religious pluralism in this country, I feel compelled to demand for others that which I demand for myself – the right to pray as one chooses, without being bothered.
Against this background, then, I offer my unsolicited advice for the Women of the Wall. Celebrate your victory. Accept the thanks of those such as myself for your steadfast dedication that has resulted in the wonderful new area where my children and I can pray as we please. Join forces with others in the struggle for religious freedom in the many spheres that could so benefit from your energies and passion. And call upon your supporters in the Diaspora, for whom you have become a cause célèbre, to join this collective effort to transform Israeli society.
Urge them to support Sharansky as he continues to actualize his plan for the site, and to explore the possibilities inherent in Bennett’s Rosh Hashana call to Jews around the world “to open a new page in the Israeli-Diaspora relationship” and “join me as we work to settle our differences… and move forward as a single and unified people.” His observations that “the majority of the Jewish people in the Diaspora are not Orthodox,” and that “the Western Wall belongs to all the Jews in the world, not to one denomination” are not to be taken for granted, nor his stated determination to ensure that all of them will feel comfortable here. Several months ago, I would not have believed that Minister Bennett’s “Jewish home” could ever become one that I would be prepared to step foot in. Today, while I know we will continue to disagree vehemently over the perimeters of the plot on which that home is to be built, I nevertheless appreciate the overtures he is making to open its doors.
Eternal optimist that I am, I choose to keep dreaming that we currently have an unprecedented opportunity to substantively change the Jewish tenor of this country, both because of the constellation of the governing coalition and the number of open-minded ministers and MKs for whom Judaism is a fundamental tenet of both their self-identity and their public agenda. But it won’t happen without ongoing and broad-based public pressure.
Women of the Wall: You have done wonders to ensure that all of us have a path on which we can make our way up against the Wall. Now free it to do what Heschel knew it could. Let’s not waste any more time idling there, when there is so much yet to do elsewhere. ■
The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization, a member of the Jewish Agency executive, and a past chairman of the Masorti Movement in Israel. The opinions expressed herein are his own.
A collection of his articles can be found at