The Jewish people have been encountering walls for nearly as long as we have existed. These walls have ranged from physical barriers–the ghettoization of Jews throughout Europe comes to mind–to a broader feeling of separation and isolation from the outside world. And despite being walled in, fenced out, or generally forced onto the “other side” of any non-Jewish community, Jews have endured and prospered.
Most recently, the Jewish people re-acquired a wall of our own. The Western Wall, the last remaining fortification of the Second Temple, has been the source of much public controversy and political contention since it passed into Israeli hands in 1967. But over the past few years, a much more fragile barrier has spurred controversy from inside the Jewish community, dividing religious Jews on the topic of public prayer.
The Mechitzah at the Kotel splits the men and women into two sections, with the men’s section being notably larger. On the left side, men are allowed to lead tefillah, sing publicly, and pray with a tallit and tefillin by the kotel. On the women’s side, none of these things take place. A woman cannot read from a Sefer Torah, wear either Tallit or Tefillin, or participate loudly in Tefillah.
Women of the Wall, a multi-denominational women’s tefillah group, gathers together each Rosh Chodesh to pray at the Kotel, in protest of these imbalanced laws. Led by Anat Hoffman, they have brought multiple petitions and court cases before the Israeli government to protest women’s legal status and request that women be granted the right to pray according to their will on the women’s side.
In May 2000, the Israeli court recognized the right of the Women of the Wall to worship according to their practice in the Western Wall plaza. The women were jubilant. However, the state petitioned the court to reexamine their decision, which was effectively reversed in 2003 when Robinson’s Arch, a discrete section of the Southern Wall, was dedicated as a space for prayer services deemed non-Orthodox, including Women of the Wall. The court reversed their verdict in order “to minimize the harm felt by other worshippers by the form of prayer of the Women of the Wall and to prevent violent incidents between the two warring camps.”
What is preposterous to me about this logic is the underlying assumption that it is the responsibility of the women involved to stay silent so as not to antagonize others with their prayer. This court ruling places the burden of public comfort and security on the women, and therefore repeals women’s rights to public prayer for fear of what it might cause. This is in complete accordance with a “blame the victim” mentality.
Instead of assuaging the “harm felt by other worshippers” through any attempt to expand halachic practice, to ask those uncomfortable to separate from the women, or to allow for the two factions to rotate which prayer service is done at what time, so that each group has an opportunity to worship comfortably, the court chose to force the women to withdraw. Instead of providing police protection against ‘violent incidents’ against the women, the court chose to preempt this violence through reversing the decision to allow women to pray. The same police forces that might have dutifully protected praying women are instead arresting them for breaking the law and disturbing the public.
Many argue that Women of the Wall should be satisfied with an egalitarian prayer service at Robinson’s Arch. They claim that WOW’s dissatisfaction with this “compromise” points to their clearly political agenda and shows that they do not truly care about the religious component of the wall, as Robinson’s Arch theoretically has the same religious significance as the Western Wall.
But the Western Wall is significant not only for its historical location surrounding the Beit HaMikdash but also because of the number of Jews who have prayed there since the Temple’s destruction. Furthermore, as history has shown us, separate but equal is never truly equal. Simply giving the Women of the Wall a separate space and expecting them to be satisfied is not enough. In response to these critics, I would ask a simple question: if Robinson’s Arch has the same significance as the Kotel, why not allow the Women of the Wall to pray at the Western Wall, and ask ask those uncomfortable with their presence to pray at Robinson’s Arch?
The Kotel is currently under the jurisdiction of Ultra-Orthodox, the Haredim. They argue that the Kotel must be run in accordance with halacha, which means that women cannot wear tallitot, carry a sefer torah, or pray loudly. The religious significance of the Kotel sets it apart from any other location, they claim, and justifies the more traditional management.
However, Ultra-Orthodox Jews are not the only denomination for whom the Kotel is significant, and many Jews hold different understandings of Halacha. I personally identify as Orthodox, but I also wear a tallit and read from the Sefer Torah. Halacha should not be judged and enforced universally by one sect of Judaism. Doing so delegitimizes other views and creates an undesirable hierarchy of power within Israel.
The reason the issue of Women of the Wall is so complex stems from the disputed meaning of “comforts” and “rights”. It is unclear who is imposing on whom; a Haredi rabbi might argue that a woman singing imposes on his ability to observe the laws of Kol Isha, and disrupts his sacred prayer, while a Conservative woman could say that a non-egalitarian prayer service prevents her from fulfilling her basic rights as a citizen and praying with a Sefer Torah. The question of which is “halachically” valid is irrelevant – each will argue that his or her own standard is halachically and morally imperative. Why should we rule by the Haredi rabbi?
It is not our place to judge, from a religious perspective, each person’s expectations and comforts. We cannot make a decree based on the “religious legitimacy” of each party. So we must instead rule according to the principles governing public spaces; that people may worship as they please, as long as they are not physically harming somebody else, depriving someone else of his or her right to worship, or infringing on the safety of others.
I recognize that this plan is not ideal–this would still create an uncomfortable space for many Haredim, who do deserve a right to worship–but given the current situation, it is the best option we have. It is then the responsibility of each person to determine whether he or she is comfortable praying in this public space.
Many argue that the Kotel cannot just be treated as any other landmark. It holds an enormous historical and religious significance to the Jewish people, and should therefore be left to the auspices of the Haredim. To this my response is twofold. Firstly, the historical and religious significance conveyed by the Kotel exists just as much for less traditional Jews. The Kotel should indeed be treated as a religious location, but to limit “religious” to the Orthodox Right and Haredim delegitimizes other sects and represents only one version of what it means to be Jewish.
Secondly, we must move towards a more pluralistic structure not despite the Kotel’s religious significance, but precisely because of it. If the Kotel is our religious center, it should epitomize the values we try to create as a religious community, not just as a secular one. And I firmly believe that amongst those religious values are tolerance, women’s rights, and pluralism. We should try to promote these religious values by establishing the Kotel as a place governed by acceptance and equal opportunity. There is space for more than one voice at the Western Wall.
There are multiple solutions to this situation. We can allow for the Women of the Wall to pray at the Kotel during the time they request (currently only one hour each month), and allow the Haredim to control the Kotel during other times. We can establish a “trichitzah”, a mechitzah with three sections (men, women, and mixed) which allows for a number of different practices to occur. But most importantly, we can institute any solution that Women of the Wall and the Haredim agree on, together. Right now, dialogue is what is necessary.
If a Jewish man were to be arrested for wearing a Tallit or reading from the Sefer Torah in any other country, we would immediately see this as an act of anti-Semitism. A hue and cry would rise up against any government that prevented that man from conducting his prayer service. We would see that government’s actions as a barrier, a metaphorical wall constructed in an attempt to keep the Jews out and take away our rights. But if we truly want to break down the divisive barriers we face, we must start from the inside.
Ricki Heicklen is a junior at SAR High School.