Open letter to the GA: Wall not black and white

Dear Delegates to the GA of the Jewish Federations of North America,

I welcome you to Jerusalem for meaningful and productive meetings here.

Among many important topics on the GA agenda is Women of the Wall and the unfolding discussions about jurisdiction over the Kotel and its environs. The current conversation has tremendous implications not only for our 25 year initiative, for the progressive Jewish movements in Israel and abroad, but for the State of Israel and for our civil society. As the Israeli founder who envisioned and convened the women’s prayer initiative Women of the Wall in 1988 and many-year coordinator of its efforts, I herein contribute views not to be represented in the discussion scheduled for Monday afternoon.

BDH w tallit

Our original petition to the Supreme Court in 1989 appealed to the Court on behalf of all Jewish women. We called upon the State to protect women’s prayer in the women’s section of the kotel plaza—aloud, with tallitot, and reading from a Torah scroll. We sought to enable women to fulfill religious practices acknowledged by halacha, known and accepted among world Jewry by all but an extreme minority. We welcome whomsoever would like to avail herself of these rights, enshrined in the Israeli Declaration of Independence – freedom of discrimination on the basis of sex, freedom of religious conscience and practice, and access to our holy sites.

We never sought to enforce the fulfillment of these civil and religious rights on any person; we invite those who freely choose to participate in women’s prayers at the public sacred space, a potent symbol of the homecoming of the diverse Jewish People

Further, we respect the prayers of all who come to the place, and seek merely that those present during our prayers behave reciprocally – with dignity and honor to women and men who seek to pray at a place that is significant to all of us, each according to her and his custom.

Over 25 years, we have exercised the instruments of democracy—the courts, media, Knesset, and continue to contribute to the betterment of Israeli society. In spite of degrading and sometimes violent treatment by protestors, and even by officials of the State, we have struggled amidst humiliation and succeeded to maintain our steadfast, joyous prayer that has captured imagination and inspired world Jewry.

You arrive in Jerusalem as we reach a crucial cross-roads. Our choices now must be borne with awareness of the complexities and our responsibilities to the Jewish State and Jewish People.

The founders of Women of the Wall who hold steadfast to our commitment that the Kotel be a place that not only tolerates but welcomes the diverse religious practices of Jewish women are not an opposition, but the position of Women of the Wall. We created the organization in order to enable rights; we have no mandate to cede women’s rights to prayer at the place that is sacred to all Jews.

haredi kid blowing whistleThe Kotel plaza must not become an ultra-Orthodox synagogue where women who seek to fulfill our religious commitments in our Jewish homeland, reading from the Torah and megilla, wearing tallit and tefillin will be as welcome as to a beit knesset in Meah Sha’arim–-prevented entry, humiliated.

I rejoice in Reform, Conservative and all egalitarian Jews finding a place and recognition in Israeli public space. I support and celebrate this achievement—in large part an outcome of the perseverance of Women of the Wall.

Reciprocally, we call on you as important representatives of Jewish concerns, and on world Jewry to embrace our collaborative obligations to the State of Israel as a place free from gender discrimination, upholding civil conduct in all our public spaces, especially our sacred ones, and respect for the dignity of diverse forms of women’s prayer in the women’s section at the Kotel.

The Supreme Court and the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court Sobel decision of April 2013 affirm the prayer practices of Women of the Wall as part of minhag hamakom-custom of the place within the women’s section at the Kotel. The Torah scroll must be permitted to women in the women’s section—it is a humiliation to the State and world Jewry to deny Jews access to a Torah scroll.

The State has demonstrated its capability to protect our prayer—1000 women celebrated Rosh Hodesh Kislev last Monday, with tallitot, tefillin, and there was no violence. Indeed, our prayers occasion unprecedented civil engagement among a wide range of Israeli Jews who do not ordinarily interact.

3-way conversation

Let us not acquiesce to ultra-Orthodox threats, intimidation, and political jockeying particularly now when Israelis are working to uphold the obligations of Israeli civil society for all our citizens – including national service and contributing to our economy.

Amitai w: haredi kids

We invite you to take part in and support the historic project of Women of the Wall to achieve a great vision for the Jewish People – diverse and inspiring public prayer in the women’s section at the Kotel.

taliitot overhead

All photographs from Rosh Hodesh Kislev, Shmuel Browns © 2013


About the Author
The late Bonna Devora Haberman is author of 'Israeli Feminism Liberating Judaism: Blood and Ink' and 'ReReading Israel: The Spirit of the Matter,' National Jewish Book Award finalist. Dr. Haberman taught at Harvard, Brandeis and Hebrew universities. In Jerusalem, she initiated Women of the Wall, a 25 year strong movement for women's full participation and leadership of public religious practice. -- Dr. Haberman died on June 16, 2015.
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