A Proposal for Women at The Wall

In his unfinished memoir Yitzchok Leibush Peretz relates an event from his father’s misnagdish (non-Hasidic) synagogue in Zamość.  A man of Hasidic background passing through town needed to fulfill his obligation to recite kaddish.  As a Hasid, he was accustomed to the Sephardi liturgy, which includes four Aramaic words in this prayer not employed in the Ashkenazi rite.  When he pronounced these words, the beadle ran over and smacked him across the face in mid prayer.  This horrific event left a deep impression on the young Peretz, who would go on to devote much of his life to collecting and documenting the rich folklore of Polish Jews in all their varieties and to composing accounts of their everyday life.  If ever a Jewish thinker and artist embodied a deep love of fellow Jews and Jewish life, certainly Peretz was one.  Many of his stories and non-fiction writings engage tensions between Hasidic and non-Hasidic Jews (see his most famous story If Not Higher and the equally enchanting Between Two Mountains as examples).  Divisiveness and animosity between Jews pained him deeply.

While it is impossible to justify the beadle’s assault, the Hasid was also in the wrong.  For while Judaism stresses the importance of hospitality (hakhnasat orhim) it also emphasizes our responsibility to respect local custom (k’vod minhag hamakom).  In this instance, the Hasid should have abided by the synagogue’s custom.  Omitting the four words included in the Sephardi kaddish would not have rendered his obligation unfulfilled.  Was he seeking conflict, arrogantly imposing his own custom, or did he simply pronounce these words out of habit?  If one of the first two, he was ethically remiss.  If the latter, he made an honest mistake but should have been more conscious of respecting the community that was enabling him to fulfill his obligation.  In any case, he too was at fault.

The parallel between Peretz’s story and the current situation at The Kotel is imperfect.  For while both cases stage a conflict between ethics of inclusion on one hand and of respect for local custom on the other, Peretz’s story occurred in a private context.  The Kotel, on the other hand, is a public space.  It is supported and maintained and secured through tax revenues.  No one need obtain an invitation or pay admission in order to visit.  Yet The Kotel is also a very unique public space with particular symbolic status.  It should not be treated as equivalent to the pedestrian mall on Ben Yehuda.  Still, while operated as something like an Orthodox synagogue, The Kotel is also not the same as Peretz’s father’s synagogue, which was maintained directly by community members.  Acknowledging the complexities of The Kotel’s unique public status is key to its harmonious operation as a sacred space.

While some think that too much is made of The Kotel, there is no mistaking its privileged place in the contemporary Jewish religious and national imagination.  This stretch of the herodian retaining wall that encompasses Temple Mount was not distinguished in antiquity.  In fact, the first record that some part of the western wall was differentiated from any other dates to somewhere around the 10th-11th centuries CE.  That is practically last week in Jewish historiography.  Its importance in recent centuries does not emanate from any particular function it ever held before then.  It is not even the stretch of wall most proximate to where we believe the kodesh hakodeshim once stood.  Instead, it likely acquired its current status due to its accessibility from the Jewish Quarter through the Moroccan Quarter that once occupied the area of the plaza, the expanse where I, like many others who served in particular combat units, was sworn into the IDF.  For many Jews committed to a theology organized around an incorporeal Deity, a God that is not and possesses no physical body, the idea that this or that place is more proximate to the Divine Presence is problematic by definition.  And this perspective pre-dates medieval rationalist theologians such as Maimonides.  For does not David assure us that “near is Hashem to all who call upon him” (Ps. 145:18) no matter where they stand?  Does he not demonstrate that one can call upon God even “from out of the depths” (Ps. 130:1)?  Isaiah states emphatically that “the earth is full with His Glory” (6:6).  In light of these biblical texts that play such central roles in our liturgy, worship at The Kotel often seems to approach worship of The Kotel in disturbing ways.

And yet, The Kotel has significance because it has been imbued with significance over time, not by Divine fiat but by human practice.  This particular stretch of wall is where generations have come to pour out their hearts.  It is this stretch of the wall that was turned into a donkey route by the Mufti in 1929 as an act of disrespect and derision, unlike some previous Muslim authorities who acknowledged and respected the significance of The Kotel to Jews.  When 300 Jewish youths raised Zionist flags there on Tisha B’Av in response, the Mufti used this as a pretext to incite riots against Jewish communities, culminating in the massacre of the Jewish community in Hevron.  A generation later in 1967, in one of the most iconic moments in recent Jewish history, paratroopers came to this specific location to mark their victory and celebrate renewed Jewish access to the site.  Since then, if not before, the symbolic significance of The Kotel touches many non-religious Jews very deeply as well.

God needs no Kotel to hear us, yet The Kotel inspires a particular awe that infuses our prayers with heightened kavanah, a fervor and an experience that proves simply impossible in any other place.  As such, it seems deeply problematic to tell any group of Jews they should go find a different spot, which is just as good.  I do not believe any Jew or community of Jews should be excluded from The Kotel.  For one of the things I appreciate about this particular stretch of wall is how it has bound us together in recent centuries and the resulting unique symbolic charge.  Though it is a small area, we should be able administer it to ensure that all Jews can pray there according to their customs.  It should be a place where we welcome one another in and respect one another’s customs.  And the overriding principle that guides our behavior should be that of kaf zekhut, the benefit of the doubt.  We should strive to think the best of one another and of one another’s intentions and motivations.  And we should model the differences between our customs for one another, and recognize how others differ, with appreciation and respect.  Only then will we be able to strike an appropriate balance between hakhnasat orhim (hospitality) and k’vod minhag hamakom (respect for local custom).  We must all see ourselves as both visitors and owners and accord one another this dual capacity.  We all have a responsibility to welcome one another and we all have a responsibility to respect one another.

The Kotel has long been a site of kiruv, of Jewish outreach to the less or differently religious.  When I was younger, this irked me.  Why could I not come and pray and depart without being bothered by those who were so certain that their way was more correct and more fulfilling?  As pleasant as they could be, I saw those who approached me as condescending and patronizing and elitist and judgmental.  I understand now that kiruv, even when done in ways that annoy me, is essentially well intentioned.  And I am grateful that men at The Kotel provide opportunities for other men to engage in ritual experiences that are both ancient and new to them.  I now assume they want to share something they find vital and enriching and understand that they see my potential participation as enabling that of others.  And I credit them for this.  It is not inherently wrong to believe that your custom offers something that others do no and to hope that it influences that of others as long as it is done in a way that does not keep others from practicing their own.  I think this should be the guiding attitude towards Women of the Wall as well.  I think they should be perceived through the lens of kaf zekhut as trying to benefit the spiritual engagements of others, though I think it wrong to approach other women with tefillin as many men do with other men.  And I have no knowledge that they have ever done so.

The two rallying cries of the major constituencies in the current conflict at the Kotel are ahdus (unity) and pluralism, i.e. inclusion.  Inclusion and unity should not be opposed to one another, but should facilitate one another.  Unity does not require uniformity, just as pluralism and inclusiveness does not necessitate division and conflict.  So I would like to advance the following proposal as a program for the next 6 roshei hodeshim (new moon festivals) and these suggestions are guided by an attempt to balance hakhnasat orhim and k’vod minhag hamakom through rigorous engagement of one another according to kaf zekhut:

  1. Women of the Wall should be able to pray as they see fit, in a quorum with a Torah reading and with any Jewish ritual accoutrement that they find meaningful.  They should do this at the back of ezrat hanashim, as they generally do.  This should not be taken to connote that their custom is inferior, but as an expression of respect for the customs of others.  However, as individuals, they should be able to approach The Kotel itself wearing accoutrement that other women do not.  Indeed, they should be respected and welcomed.
  2. The Rav of The Kotel should be encouraged to play an instrumental role in dissuading verbal abuse and physical violence.  Despite their best efforts, Women for the Wall cannot be expected to successfully rein in the minority of men who have been acting violently.  Furthermore, Haredi Rabbis who have made strong statements against physical and verbal abuse should be present and/or send students to intervene.  Men who are opposed to hearing the voices of Jewish women in prayer should be informed in advance, through the media, so that they can coordinate around these 1-2 hours out of every month.  They may plan to use the interior of the synagogue built into the tunnel, which is as far as possible from ezrat hanashim.  I recognize that this is an inconvenience for some.  But it is for a brief period out of every month.
  3. Women for the Wall should be able to hear the Rosh Hodesh Torah reading as delivered in a men’s minyan at the front of the mehitzah.
  4. As one of the things that has most antagonized opponents of Women of the Wall is the media circus that accompanies them, they should support an injunction that will keep the press at an agreed distance from the area of prayer.  Representatives of both Women of the Wall and Women for the Wall may address them in a designated area before and/or after davening if they choose.  This way, all will be able to express their perspectives and no one engaged in worship will be disturbed.
  5. As a reminder of the capacity of Torah to unify Jews, and of the fact that we share much more than that in which we differ, I think it would be beautiful if representatives from both Women of the Wall and Women for the Wall would prepare brief limudim (text study sessions) on subjects of interest to both groups.  These may involve topics such as hilkhot eretz yisrael (laws pertaining to Jewish life in the Land of Israel), ethics, narrative material from biblical and/or rabbinic writings about exemplary women, Hassidic and mystical spirituality, differing perspectives regarding the nature of kedushat har habayit (the sanctity of Temple Mount), theological perspectives on the essence of God, etc.  There is plenty to choose from.  We are blessed to live in a time when Jewish women’s education is perhaps stronger than it ever has been across denominations and communities.  I do not doubt that knowledgeable and gifted teachers participate in both Women of the Wall and Women for the Wall.  Members of both organizations should feel comfortable joining in any limud.  To ensure this, the teacher in each group should be accompanied by a knowledgeable representative from the other so that if something in the material or its presentation seems at odds with the norms of their constituency’s beliefs, they may point this out as a different perspective and explain why.

We just celebrated the gift of Torah at Sinai.  Here, in a place associated with King Solomon, the place where he first built a Temple on a Mount, we should strive to express Torah as he envisioned: “her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are paths of peace” (Proverbs 3:17).

About the Author
Ori Weisberg is a writer, editor, and translater. He holds a Ph.D. in Renaissance English Literature from the University of Michigan and has taught at Michigan State University in English and Jewish Studies, was a Golda Meir Post-Doctoral Fellow and served as Guest Lecturer at The Hebrew University, as well as at The Kibbutzim College and Bar Ilan University. Dr. Weisberg is also the composer of "Hashoshanim," a world-beat setting of the entire text of Shir Hashirim in an 18-song song cycle. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and three implausibly attractive children.
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