Missing Bonna Haberman’s voice: Women of the Wall and the separation bias in Israeli society

This week the Israeli cabinet approved the creation of a pluralist prayer plaza at the southern end of the Western Wall. The practical aspects of the new arrangements concern non-Orthodox Jewish denominations in and outside of Israel, and grant them state-backed access to the Wall. However, the decision was presented as responding to the plight of the Women of the Wall who have been praying at the Western Wall every month for almost three decades. Among the many voices raised in the wake of this decision, the voice of Bonna Devorah Haberman zt”l, one of the founders of Women of the Wall, who passed away less than a year ago, is painfully missing.

From Women of the Wall’s early beginning, Bonna was a driving force in the movement and its legal struggle. She was greatly encouraged by the court decision in 2013 by the Jerusalem Magistrates Court which granted temporal legal protection to the women in their monthly prayer at the Wall. At the same time, however, Bonna was strongly opposed to the Mandelblit agreement (which provided the framework for the current decision this past week). Bonna felt that the negotiators representing Women of the Wall were not chosen by a democratic process. For her, any agreement that prevents women from praying freely at any part of the wall compromises not only the dignity of all Jewish women, regardless of their denominational affinity.

Two years ago, on the occasion of the Fast of Esther, Bonna published a statement on her blog comparing the situation of the Women of the Wall to that of Esther: both were threatened by male authorities; both needed to take a risk and speak truth to power, not only for their own sake but for generations to come. Indeed, Bonna saw the ceding of the main Wall plaza, to the aggressive management of the ultra-Orthodox state-backed rabbi of the Western Wall, as a moral failure. In her statement, she described any support for such an agreement as endorsing “coercive enforcement of sectarian prohibitions; the repression of women, Jewish faith and its diverse forms; the exile of women who yearn to pray in our holistic, public and sacred space, and; the empowerment and reward of intolerant bullying with territorial hegemony.” For Bonna, the struggle of the Women of the Wall was part of a larger effort to hold the State of Israel accountable for its laws, and on a global scale, a struggle for justice.

I believe that Bonna might have reflected on the events of this week by noting that the Israeli government’s decision to build a separate plaza (a decision made mostly by men) is a symptom of one of the most pressing problems in Israeli society today: the desire to separate. Instead of accepting challenges and responding to them responsibly, we prefer to hide and separate: separate from the Palestinians, separate from the poor, separate from the Haredim, and separate from Reform Jews and Conservative Jews (the policy of internal Jewish religious separation did incidentally originate with Jewish Orthodoxy in Europe long before the establishment of Israel), and of course — separate from women.

I imagine Bonna would have argued that all those involved in the current agreement are benefitting politically from the struggle of the Women of the Wall — a group who desire not separation but rather celebratory inclusion of all Jewish women in prayer, regardless of their religious or political affiliations.

Bonna believed (as expressed as well in her writings) that just as the exodus from Egypt — the birth and liberation of a nation — was engendered by courageous acts of women, so also today women can and must be at the helm of social and religious change.

In contrast to a deeply offensive and distortive use of the Torah earlier this week by an ultra-Orthodox MP,[1] let us hope that, inspired by Onkelos, the ancient convert and rabbi who translated the Torah to Aramaic, and his rendering of Exodus (Shemot 14: 8), we will see women’s prayer in Israel conducted proudly and publicly.

[1] In response to that MP’s allusion to dogs, I can only refer readers to an opposing description of Jewish redemption, namely, that no dog should even move his tongue towards them. See Exodus 11:7.

About the Author
Ori Werdiger is a proud Jerusalemite. He is currently pursuing his PhD at the University of Chicago's Divinity School. He is writing his dissertation on the thought of the Algerian rabbi and leader of post-war French Jewry, Léon Askénazi (Manitou).
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