No Holds Barred: Divided at the Wall

It was largely the American Jewish community that would form the brunt of the backlash, with leading Jewish-American organizations swiftly condemning the move.

The Western Wall in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The Western Wall in Jerusalem
In January 2016 the government and the rabbi of the Kotel (Western Wall) agreed to legally cordon off a section of the Wall for egalitarian prayer services – a sort of miniature Kotel that would entail official government management and funding. Last week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet passed a motion formally freezing all plans for the site until further notice.
Before we explore the reaction to this move a few critical facts should be established. Firstly, women as individuals can pray as they wish at the regular section of the Western Wall. If they prefer to wear a prayer shawl and tefillin, no one prevents them from doing so. All they are not allowed to do is read from a Torah scroll. Secondly, they can read from a Torah scroll by the Southern side of the Western Wall, where any and all prayer services have been permitted for nearly 20 years. All the cabinet freeze means for egalitarian Jews is that for the time being the Southern Wall won’t be officially cordoned off for their exclusive use.
There were certainly some Israelis who shunned the move, but not all that many. Protests in the wake of the decision drew only a few hundred participants.
In Israel, a country that has more politically-driven demonstrations than any other on earth, that isn’t much. To put it into perspective, 2,000 Israelis recently protested the kidnapping of Yemeni children nearly 70 years ago, with another 7,000 Israelis taking to a Tel Aviv square in 2015 to protest a gas deal. A year before that, over 300,000 protesters gathered in the streets in Israel to decry Israel’s draft plan, and three years before that 450,000 took to the streets to push for improvements in social justice. So a few hundred people holding placards outside the prime minister’s home doesn’t indicate any exceptional outrage. At least, not in Israel.
And, it’s also fairly easy to understand why. Israelis have proven remarkably indifferent to the Reform and Conservative movements, with less than 3% and 2% of Israelis identifying themselves with these movements, respectively. Moreover, the chairman of the Union of Synagogues and Communities in Israel, Eliezer Sheffer, has reported that there are over 10,500 synagogues in the State of Israel. Of that number, only about 40 identify with Reform Judaism – less than 0.4%.
Thus, it was largely the American Jewish community that would form the brunt of the backlash, with leading Jewish-American organizations swiftly condemning the move.
In an op-ed published in The New York Times, Lesley Sachs, the executive director of Women of the Wall, took a harsher approach. Resorting to unfortunate Orthodox-bashing tropes, Sachs described efforts of the Western Wall Foundation to provide shawls to immodestly dressed women as “medieval.” Guards, she went on to claim, forced women to pray silently lest they send the men into a “sexual frenzy.”
Most surprising, however, was the decision by real estate tycoon Isaac Fisher, himself a leading fundraiser in the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and member of the board of AIPAC, to freeze his philanthropic activities for the Jewish state unless the government reversed its decisions.
But Israel is a sovereign democracy and its decisions must reflect the will of its citizens rather than that of foreign Jewish donors. As for Lesley Sachs’ claims of the “medieval” practice of “enforcing” modest-dress, women are offered scarves at the Kotel but cannot be forced to take them. If the mere suggestion seems intrusive, one should consider that there are plenty of memorials throughout the United States that enforce a dress code, such as wearing shoes. They do so not to oppress but to accord respect to hallowed ground. If that level of respect can be demanded at a memorial going back just a hundred years, the holiest site of the Jewish nation should be granted similar latitude.
With regard to Sachs’ claims that female singing is not allowed, any visit to the Western Wall on any Friday night this summer will bear witness to hundreds of Jewish women singing and dancing to their heart’s content.
When my son and I visited the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, we had to take off our shoes and rinse our hands regardless of what our own religious beliefs were because that was the custom the local orthodoxy upheld. No modernist interpretations of Islam, however popular, would expect to exert its customs in the mosque, either. The same can be said of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem – Protestant services cannot be held there, though it is considered a holy site to Protestants as well. The Western Wall should not be faulted, in a similar vein, for preserving the customs of those who administer it – namely, Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate.
I have seen some ultra-Orthodox Jews behave disgracefully at the Kotel, including toward my own family this past Shavuot when I was teaching a Torah class in middle of the night to approximately 60 young men and women gathered in a circle. My children were pushed by extremists who were offended by even the idea of men and women merely sitting together in the very back of the Kotel Plaza. These fundamentalists disgraced themselves. But they are no more representative of Judaism than Sachs’ tirade against the State of Israel is representative of egalitarian Jews.
The lesson, as always in the Middle East, is that the real danger to peace is not from people of good will but from extremists and fundamentalists who only know how to disagree with their opponents by demonizing them.
The author, “America’s rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the international bestselling author of 30 books including his most recent The Israel Warrior. Follow him on Twitter @ RabbiShmuley.