The egalitarian prayer area that will never (shouldn’t) be built

Frankly, this was neither a victory for pluralism nor a solution that most of us will live long enough to see, at least in my opinion.

Women of the Wall at the Kotel (photo credit: screenshot)
Women of the Wall at the Kotel
(photo credit: screenshot)
Sunday this week Israel’s cabinet voted to upgrade an egalitarian prayer space at the south end of the Western Wall (i.e. the Robinson’s Arch area) and to anchor the arrangement in law. The Women of the Wall (WoW) group, which has been battling for the right to pray at the Wall for years, along with the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel and the US all hailed the decision as a breakthrough in their struggle for recognition in Israel and their campaign to present an alternative to Orthodoxy in the country.
Frankly, this was neither a victory for pluralism nor a solution that most of us will live long enough to see, at least in my opinion.
I understand and support the desire of women and non-Orthodox Jews to have a place to pray at Judaism’s holiest site, next to a historic retaining wall where the Temple once stood. I also applaud the years-long struggle of WoW and their allied NGOs who fought valiantly for their legitimate rights to be able to pray there. But the solution, to move non-Orthodox groups to a point at a significant distance south of what people think of as “The Kotel” as it is known in Hebrew, is hardly a victory.
A victory would have been to convince the government and the Orthodox-dominated religious establishment in Israel to create three sections at the plaza in front of the wall, one for men, one for women and a third for egalitarian prayer reflecting the various aspects of Jewish life that exist in the 21st century. After all, under what authority does the Orthodox establishment arrogate unto itself the right to decide how anyone should pray? And if it bothers the men and women who pray in separate sections to see other forms of prayer, then don’t look. Or, in the extreme, a separation barrier of sufficient height could be put in place perpendicular to the wall so that those who are bothered by the sight of women donning tefillin, for example, would simply not see them. Why banish those groups to a different location altogether? As for the actual renovation that is proposed under the new law, my guess is that anyone over the age of 60 will never live to see it. Witness what has already surfaced just in the past few days.
• Respected Israeli archaeologists are claiming that the proposed construction will cause irreparable damage to the site next to Robinson’s Arch and, as such, as prepared to go to court to prevent the proposed alterations.
• The Palestinian Authority is claiming that the proposed renovations will be a violation of the status quo as it changes the physical layout of the Temple Mount and its environs. Of course the fact that the Wakf, which has responsibility for the Temple Mount area, has for years excavated under the Aksa mosque with gay abandon was not, in their eyes, changing the status quo. It is only when we do something that they object.
• The haredi (ultra-Orthodox) faction in the government along with parts of the national religious leadership voted against the decision. As such, while they will not bring down the government as a result, one can be sure there will be vocal and physical demonstrations once the plan begins to be implemented.
• Agudath Israel of America immediately came out with a statement that the approval of an egalitarian section of the Western Wall “profanes” the holy site.
“Designating an area at the Kotel Ma’aravi [Western Wall] for feminist and mixed-gender prayer not only profanes the holy site, it creates yet a further lamentable rift between Jews,” according to a statement released Monday.
• And not be outdone, MK Moshe Gafni, a haredi Orthodox lawmaker who chairs the Knesset’s powerful Finance Committee, said he would not recognize the decision and, eager to underscore his disgust with the decision, called Reform Jews “a group of clowns who stab the holy Torah.”
Given all of this my guess is that we are in for a long and less than pleasant battle on an number of fronts that make it unlikely that we will see this new area completed anytime soon. The government’s estimate that it will be ready in a year is incredibly optimistic given the history of failures to meet deadlines under much less volatile conditions. Witness Ben Gurion Airport 2000, whose terminal finally opened in 2003; the Jerusalem light rail line whose construction was started in 2003 and was slated to take three years but did not become operational until 2010; the fast train between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem whose construction was started in 2001 and, if we are lucky, will finally open in 2018, but more than likely in 2020; or the Tel Aviv light rail/subway system whose plans were first drawn in 2000, but whose excavation work did not start until 2009 and which is expected to become operational only in 2021.
A division of the plaza in front of the Western Wall into three parts could be operational next week and solve the problem fully if only the parties to the controversy who are blocking that solution would learn their history. A hundred years ago, as pictures show, there was no separation between men and women and the site was no less holy then that it is now.
Abraham Isaac Kook said, “The second temple was destroyed because of causeless hatred. Perhaps the third will be rebuilt because of causeless love.” Perhaps we should listen to him.
The author has been a resident of Jerusalem for 32 years, is a former national president of the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel and President of Atid EDI Ltd., a Jerusalem-based