Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

Lighting lights: an open letter

Twenty-five years ago, a dream was ignited, of Jewish women from all walks of Jewish life, belief, affiliation, or lack thereof, coming together to pray and read Torah at the Western Wall. That dream endures. With Channukah upon us I, who was among the original group who went to the Wall and read Torah there, and all those who support this, re-dedicate ourselves to that vision.

Some have veered to other causes, merging and blurring what this one is about, which is: women, and the Wall – the one Jews have sanctified with their hopes, prayers, tears for 2,000 years; group prayer (tefillah), with Torah reading, and the option of talit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries). In short: W-2, t4. That is what we are for.

Here is why – and why we believe our goals merit your support.

Jewish women should have the possibility of full religious expression at the kotel, as Jewish men have enjoyed since it returned to Jewish hands in 1967. Women who pray as described above should not have to truncate that expression at the kotel because we are women. Being Jewish and being female are mutually fulfilling identities. One is not a disability that limits and diminishes the other. We want to feel whole when we pray – especially when we pray – and certainly, at that place. We no more wish ourselves split, divided, bifurcated, as women and as Jews, then does anyone wish a dividing wall again in Jerusalem itself.

The kotel, the Western Wall, is not a synagogue of any persuasion, much less one under haredi custom. No segment of Jewry can claim the kotel as its preserve, suffering other Jews there on its terms or not at all. The State of Israel must not allow, much less support, such domination.

The mikdash (Second Temple), we are taught, was destroyed because of wanton hatred among Jews. It is fitting, urgent, there in particular, to model inclusion, mutual respect, and accommodation among Jews, not a totalitarian practice that silences and banishes what it deems intolerable. The historic Sobel Court ruling of April, 2013, states that the “custom of the place” (minhag hamakom) at the kotel is an evolving reality, and explicitly includes our practice in the customs there, among the many innovations since the Wall returned to Jewish hands in 1967.

These are our goals. But our cause demands more than our own accommodation. It demands a revisioning of the kotel as a place of ingathering for all Jews, where the experience of tikkun (reparation) for the destroyed mikdash is enacted through the reverse of the behaviors that caused its destruction: tikkun not just spoken in words but enacted through the difficult but sublimely holy work of loving and accepting one another, even while we maintain our distinctions and differences –indeed, especially, our differences.

The original Women of the Wall, remaining true to the founding goals of the group, are independent and unaffiliated, though we welcome the unconditioned support of all who wish to join with us. We model the religious, pluralist inclusion we seek to see enacted more broadly, having developed a prayer custom that is inclusive of Jewish women from Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and no –label Judaism. This religious pluralism is one of our proudest accomplishments. It shows that it can be done, when wholeness, not control and domination, is the goal.

For many Orthodox women, we are the only option for full, participatory, group prayer, certainly, the only such option at the Wall. For others, who have egalitarian options, a women’s prayer group fulfills profound needs, as anyone who has seen much less participated in the joyous services at the Wall, has witnessed. However egalitarian some variants of Judaism may now be or aim to become, all our classical texts proclaim women’s Otherness on every page. We embody the female face and voice of Judaism. Women with egalitarian options need women-centered ones, too. For all our differences and diversity, in this, our needs as Jewish women converge. We meet those needs with and for one another, in solidarity and affirmation.

Our place – and the place of all Jews – is at the kotel. Read Yossi Klein Halevi’s new book and experience or, for those who were around in 1967, re-experience the sheer wonder and miracle of its return to Jewish hands – and the horrific price in lives and limb Israel paid to get it back– because its place in Jewish history and Jewish memory is unparalleled.

Other places may, in time, become sanctified, if Jews make it so. But this can and will never be achieved by fiat, because of political machinations, ambitions, and ego. It is wrong for Jews to cede this place of such ultimate historical meaning to such a scheme. The supposed peace it would buy would be a false one, achieved by enshrining the very forces that enforce and seek further religious domination, not only in places we all deem holy but in the streets, the buses, and all public space.

The scheme to appropriate the term – “the kotel,”, “the Wall” – which Jews have spoken with such reverence, and bestow it on the Robinson’s Arch archaeological site, is disingenuous and driven by political considerations. This issue is not about architecture or archaeology (if it were, yes, as all know, the stones are from the same, monumental, ancient structure), but about history and memory. Political considerations cannot change that. No one should sell – or buy – shoddy goods.

Reform and Conservative Jews need to ask their leadership why it has accepted Robinson’s Arch at the cost of leaving the kotel under its current administration – where Jewish women have been detained for donning a talit (as I was); where we are not allowed to bring our own Torah scroll but, like all Jewish women, are denied use of any of the dozens there; where Reform and Conservative Jews are coerced into certain practices and out of others, or denied access.

This part of the Sharansky Plan – that the kotel will not just be left under haredi administration but that that control will be made official and permanent, which it is currently not – we don’t hear about. Such a machination may suit future coalition jockeying, in which haredi power is already being courted. Indeed, we believe this is much of what motivates this Plan, being “spun” as supposed recognition of non-Orthodox variants in Israel – if those variants assume the monumental costs of the alterations at Robinson’s that would be needed. How does a gussied up back of the bus bought and paid for by the claimants give equal recognition to other variants of Judaism? What bill of sale is this?

The cause that we, the original Women of the Wall support, is good and holy for Jewish women. But it is good and holy for the Jewish people as a whole, and for the State of Israel. False compromises based on distortions and political ploys that would further empower forces in Israeli and Jewish life that endanger the very civil character of the State of Israel, are no solution.

The kotel and all public places in Israel must be administered in accord with the principles enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which assures all citizens, specifically including women, equality. Only such a policy brings the Jews of the Diaspora, too, under the wings of an inclusive, rational Israeli civic policy and supports the true unity we all seek and dearly need – unity based not on domination but on inclusion and mutual accommodation. Ultimately, only this guarantees the rights and liberties of all Jews, haredim included.

Even if the Sharansky Plan were truly to offer equal recognition of non-Orthodox expressions, Reform and Conservative Jews must ask themselves if they feel right gaining denominational rights at the expense of Israeli civil society as a whole, and if it is truly even in their denominational interests to strengthen haredi political power by giving the haredi establishment official, permanent control of the great holy site of the Jewish people.

The smoke and mirror campaign to sell Robinson’s Arch must be exposed for what it is and all Jews keep their eyes on the light of a vision that holds such promise for us all. The struggle for a solution of shlemut – true wholeness – at the kotel, one that is good for all the Jewish people and for Israel, may take another 25 years – a spit in the sea of time for great struggles. We are an ancient and a new people; we cannot know, nor shrink from, the duration this struggle may require. Many signal legal victories have already been achieved; we must not be lured off course now.  Rather, we must face the paths before us with clear heads and peripheral, not tunnel, vision, and tread wisely.

Let us consider this as we light those beautiful lights, and may they light our path.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus Professor Emerita of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College. She is the author of four published books and numerous articles on Jewish modernity and the history of Jewish women, and winner of a National Jewish Book award and other prizes. Her new book is the first history of agunot and iggun from medieval times to the present, across the Jewish map. It also presents analysis and critique of current policy on Jewish marital capitivity and proposals to end this abuse. Entitled, "Thinking Outside the Chains About Jewish Marital Captivity," it is forthcoming from NYU Press. She is a founder of women's group prayer at the Kotel and first-named plaintiff on a case before the Supreme Court of Israel asking enforcement of Jewish women's already-recognized right to read Torah at the Kotel. Her opinions have been published in the Forward, Tablet, EJewish Philanthropy, Moment, the Times of Israel, and the Jerusalem Post.
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