Six months ago, a few days before I left New Jersey for a sabbatical in Israel, I said goodbye to a beloved teacher and friend of mine, who is Orthodox. Having lived in Israel for an extended period, he had many helpful suggestions – and one plea. “Whatever you do, just promise me that you won’t go to the Kotel on Rosh Hodesh with Women of the Wall.” I was shocked. “Why in the world not?” I asked. “Because it’s provocative,” he explained. “No it isn’t,” I protested. “It’s davening. Throwing chairs is provocative.” We didn’t have time before my departure to get past these talking points. However, we know and respect one another well enough that we could disagree vehemently and still part lovingly. After all, we study rabbinic texts together, so debate and discussions are always “to be continued.”
As I write this, newly back in New Jersey and looking forward to seeing my friend, there has never been more controversy about Women of the Wall.
Various commitments prevented me from joining Women of the Wall on Rosh Hodesh during my sabbatical. Before I knew it, the month of Sivan had begun and there were no more new moons left in my stay. I was disappointed, but I looked forward to telling my friend how things had worked out. I could just imagine his smile and, likely, a crack about divine providence and human inefficiency. “The best-laid plans of mice and women”… or mahn tracht un gut lacht (human plans meet with divine humor).
On my penultimate Shabbat in Jerusalem, I went to Yedidya, a proto-egalitarian, modern Orthodox synagogue. The role of women is similar to what it was 40-60 years ago in the Conservative movement: women carry the Torah, deliver sermons, read from the Torah, and lead some of the prayers, but are not counted in the minyan or allowed to have aliyot. (One notable difference is that women rarely sat separately from men in Conservative congregations, but they still do so in virtually all modern Orthodox synagogues.)
In the crowd at Yedidya, I recognized my roommate of almost 30 years ago at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Cheryl Birkner Mack. We had lost touch, and I didn’t even know that she had made aliyah. After services we reconnected, and she invited me to daven with her and a group of women at the Wall.
It was a second chance, and I would not miss it! The davening was planned for a Wednesday morning — not Rosh Hodesh and not a Torah-reading day. This women’s davening group was called “Original Women of the Wall.” Cheryl promised me more information on it, and she filled me in, as promised.
The original charter of Women of the Wall was just six Hebrew words, which translate as: “to advance women’s prayer in the women’s section at the Kotel.” The group was relatively small; about 20 women turned out each month. All movements and nations of origin were represented, with Modern Orthodoxy and the United States predominating. The women would daven as a group. To hear them, you would have to be standing right next to them. Yet they were noticeable, because of the rare sight of group prayer on the women’s side and the fact that many of them wore tallit and tfillin.
Passersby at the Wall would make comments — often nasty ones. The women wearing prayer garb would be stared at, at best, insulted, most typically, or assaulted, at worst.
Women of the Wall has grown primarily in response to attacks. When fellow Jews spat or threw chairs at the women, or when the police arrested them, Sabras and Jews visiting from the Diaspora began to show up, in solidarity and in protest.
A watershed moment occurred on Rosh Hodesh Kislev 2009. The small group of women who attended Rosh Hodesh services month in and month out had an inspiring and peaceful experience. Their souls were directed on High, their sense of community was strong, the weather was beautiful, and everyone seemed to treat them like the benign presence they intended to be. At that time, women did not read Torah at the Wall. An Israeli-born medical student was about to lead the women out of Western Wall area to conduct the Torah service at Robinson’s Arch, the southwestern corner of the Temple mount area, where egalitarian services are held. Instead, she suggested on the spur of the moment: “Why don’t we read the Torah right here?” It had been such a wonderful morning, and she wanted to remain together in that special place. Everyone who attended Women of the Wall services regularly, including my friend Cheryl, had been appointed as a board member. After a two-minute “board meeting,” they decided unanimously to read the holiest Jewish book at the holiest Jewish site.
Almost immediately after they opened the Torah scroll, three men approached and questioned them. When it became clear that these men were contacting the police, the women, wanting to avoid further confrontation, rolled up the scroll and began to leave the Kotel. However, the medical student carrying the scroll was apprehended by the police on her way out. They detained her, together with the scroll she carried, for three hours of interrogation.
As a result, Women of the Wall garnered more press and support than ever before. The following month, a crowd of about 300 attended. From that point and on, Diaspora Jews traveling to Israel have come in large numbers to show their support. Over the years, at least five rabbis have been arrested, as well as many lay leaders. In some cases, they were arrested for wearing a prayer shawl (or, believe it or not, a “too brightly colored” prayer shawl). In other cases, they were arrested for carrying a Torah into the Kotel plaza or for reading from the Torah.
Likewise, many Israeli women who don’t usually daven at the Kotel — or daven with a women’s group — or, in some cases, daven with a minyan of any kind — have given of their time and risked detention. They do so not only because they find meaning in this prayer group and location, but because they fervently support the value that everyone should be welcome to gather in prayer at the Wall.
To my mind, it is a shanda (a public shame and embarrassment) that women who wish to read the Torah at the Western Wall have no more right to do so today than they did when this holy Jewish site was controlled by the Kingdom of Jordan.
For many years, the Women of the Wall refused any compromise that would trade away their right to pray in community at the main Western Wall site. The suggestion had long been floated to move the women’s prayer group to Robinson’s Arch, the southwestern corner mentioned above, which was already home to minyanim that the ultra-Orthodox do not approve. Women of the Wall argued that Robinson’s Arch never had the crowds or cache of the Western Wall. In the first century, stores were erected there, conveying a lesser degree of holiness. Foreign dignitaries have not been brought there. Pilgrims did not seek it out. The Women of the Wall characterized offers to pray there as akin to an invitation to “ride in the back of the bus.”
In October 2013, the Women of The Wall nevertheless decided to accept a compromise in which they would have a representative on the board of the Robinson’s Arch area and hold all their prayer services there. In exchange for leaving the Kotel plaza area, they could be assured of an end to harassment. Natan Sharansky, who helped broker the deal, also lobbied for Robinson’s Arch to be available for prayer and pilgrimage 24/7, as the Kotel is.
The liberal movements, which conduct egalitarian services at Robinson’s Arch already, were pleased. Many people — myself included – pointed to the significant archeological and spiritual significance of Robinson’s Arch. It is no “also ran.” The rocks gathered askew here are, archeologists tell us, exactly where they fell from the arch, during the destruction of the Temple 1,947 years ago. At Robinson’s Arch, you can find a directional sign to the Shofar Blower’s area, from which all of Jerusalem was summoned to prayer. It’s true that there were stores there; probably many travelers bought animals there to offer in sacrifice as part of the Temple rites. The massive arch, one of the largest of the ancient world, served a massive number of pilgrims.
For many of the founders of Women of the Wall, this compromise was unacceptable. Several modern Orthodox women, original members who had shown up for decades to the WOW Rosh Hodesh Services, would no longer be able to pray with the group, because there is no mechitzah at Robinson’s Arch. Some of the women who are comfortable with open seating objected to the compromise both because they didn’t want to exclude their Orthodox sisters and because they continue to regard the Plaza area as the true Kotel. They believe that the Wall belongs equally to all Jews and should be available for prayer and gatherings that reflect that full range of contemporary Jewish piety.
So… that is how I found myself at a Wednesday morning service sponsored by Original Women of the Wall, who have filed their own law suit with the Israeli Supreme Court. They assert that the directive issued by the rabbinic administrator of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation forbidding anyone from bringing a Torah scroll into the plaza is, in fact, discriminatory to women, since men have access to dozens of Torah scrolls stored on their side, and women have access to none. Many Original WOW members attend WOW services, as well as egalitarian services at Robinson’s Arch. At the same time, they have chosen to meet in the women’s area of the main Kotel plaza at a time that does not conflict with the Rosh Hodesh services of Women of the Wall. They assert that no one has the standing to trade away their right to pray at the Kotel plaza.
I like this group — and not just because I like and missed my old roommate. I appreciate that Original Women of the Wall are pursuing meetings and conversations with Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox leaders, as well as with the current board of Women of the Wall. I like the fact that they are neither discounting — nor competing against — the way anyone else prays. They simply show up and daven together as a group at the Kotel, as many of them have been doing for decades.
On the morning I prayed with them, one man interrupted his own davening to lean over the mechitzah and film us praying. One woman made some nasty comments. Several women gave us curious looks. In other words, it was a normal, relatively uneventful morning. We gathered a dozen chairs together in a semi-circle toward the rear of the plaza, a good distance away from the Kotel, and sang together in soft voices. Dr. Shulamit Magnus, who led the prayers, brought meaning and beauty to the morning service. The stones, in my hearing, at least, said “Amen.” Afterwards, we went out to breakfast, where I learned some of this history.
At breakfast, several of the women spoke passionately about inclusion, and regretfully about the Orthodox women who aren’t able to pray in a women’s group that meets at Robinson’s Arch. “It’s a serious dilemma,” I agreed. “But your davening isn’t inclusive, either.” One woman’s eyes widened in surprise, and she asked me what I meant. At a prayer service on the “women’s side” of the Kotel, men are obviously excluded, as are women who are uncomfortable praying with a mechitzah. The women around the table had been aware of this, of course, but some had not considered the restrictions and exclusions that stem from their mode of prayer. Women of the Wall no longer works for women who must, in good conscience, pray with a mechitzah. Original Women of the Wall does not work for women who must, in good conscience, pray without one.
It’s not easy to unite the Jews, but it is, nevertheless, our sacred task.
One way of inching toward unity would be for liberal Jews to provide dividers or ropes at Robinson’s arch and thus accommodate women’s davening groups that want to pray with a mechitzah at Robinson’s Arch. Men’s davening groups pray with dividers at the Western Wall – and at almost every synagogue in Israel, so their need is met. If liberal Jews can stretch our spiritual eruv and comfort zone to include people who daven differently than we do, it would be a wonderful stride toward peace and unity in our community – and a great example for the Orthodox and Haredi communities to follow.
We also have to address the role of Ministry of Religion in religious life in Israel. If the Western Wall were under control of the National Parks Department instead of the Office of the Rabbinate, it would, like the synagogue at Masada, be open to everyone. What does it say that the involvement of rabbinic officials increases the likelihood of exclusion, conflict, and even violence?
When I went off to the Kotel that Wednesday morning, I told my husband, “I should be back by 10, but if I get arrested, it will be later.” He answered, “You go, girl!” – affirming once again my excellent choice in a life partner. But it is wrong that possible assault or arrest by fellow Jews (or anyone) should be a consideration in praying at the Kotel.
We can do better. And sometimes we actually do.
My grandparents traveled to Israel in 1968 almost exactly one year after the Kotel came into Jewish hands. They stood at the Wall together and prayed; there was no mechitzah. The Wall, at that time, united Jews and inspired only gratitude, not controversy.
I have been to the Kotel on half a dozen Friday nights when young women from Birthright groups sang the Friday night prayers in full voice – and Shabbat peace prevailed. Calls and responses and hora dances among the women have occasionally eclipsed the excitement on the men’s side. And no one minded. In fact, it’s beautiful to see soldiers in their uniforms, mixing with tourists and civilian locals in all kinds of garbs, representing the glorious variety of Jewish communities and practices.
Daily, a variety of men’s minyanim overlap and adjust their voices and locations, to make sure that those praying together can hear one another. On the women’s side, which is about one third as large as the men’s, women often stand in line to touch and pray at the wall. It may be the only line in all of Israel where no one is hurried or jostled.
Cheryl told me about one Rosh Hodesh when Women of the Wall were praying at the Kotel, as usual. As usual, too, the mechitzah at the Western Wall, was imperfectly honored, with many husbands and wives talking over the partition, and some women standing on chairs, leaning over to witness the goings-on on the men’s side. Before the women’s service started, Cheryl noticed one woman, in particular, peering over the mechitza to see what appeared to be her son’s Bar Mitzvah service. It was clear from the mother’s repeated glances back at Woman of the Wall that she was anxious about hearing her son’s reading. Cheryl talked to the mother and asked her to signal the women when the boy began his aliyah to the Torah. At her signal, Women of the Wall lowered their voices to a whisper. Shortly afterward, the mother exited, together with the rest of her female family and friends. and she thanked the Women of the Wall profusely.
It may not be possible to achieve full inclusion or perfect pluralism, but we can all do better. Let’s imitate God who retracted the Self to make room for the Other. Let’s imitate Cheryl Birkner Mack and the Women of the Wall, who did the same on that Rosh Hodesh/Bar Mitzvah morning.
First, we have to be willing to see that there is another: another Jew who wants to daven in another way, which has its own claims to and in Torah.
Speaking of which, I shared this essay with my Orthodox friend before going to print. He pointed out that individual prayer by women is approved at any time at the Kotel. He felt that true “tzimtzum” (holy retraction) would require women to abstain from praying in groups there altogether. He also offered a challenge to the liberal Jewish community: come pray at Robinson’s Arch in large numbers. Develop a commitment to regular prayer on a par with that of the Orthodox community.
I look forward to continuing the conversation.
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