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Power, faith and social change

The ultra-Orthodox are fighting for control of the Kotel as their power in the wider national arena continues to fade

I was enjoying the walk toward the Kotel on a recent Friday morning, the early morning air felt great and I was truly looking forward to participating in the Women of the Wall (WOW) prayer service for Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the Hebrew month. This was the first such prayer service since Jerusalem District court Judge Moshe Sobel ruled that the women are not violating the “custom of the place” (minhag ha-makom) when they don prayer shawls and read from Torah scrolls in the women’s section of the Kotel Plaza. A High Court decision had protected the principle of local custom at holy sites, but Judge Sobel ruled that the State had been misinterpreting this decision since the local custom at the Kotel was not defined by strictly orthodox norms, thus the years-long policy of arresting the women for wearing prayer shawls at the Kotel was unwarranted.

As I approached, I was puzzled to see large buses lined up near the Jaffa Gate, releasing streams of religious girls dressed in dark blue skirts and light blue shirts – the standard uniform of the ultra-orthodox seminary girls. They seemed to be in a tremendous rush as they talked and giggled in typical young teenage-girl fashion. Everything became clear as I emerged from the Kotel security check. The Plaza was a virtual sea of people, predominantly ultra-orthodox men and thousands of the seminary girls. This space had become a vital arena for the clash of values, the duel between tradition and progress in Judaism, between self-styled defenders of the faith and crusaders for change.

There was a starker, but no less real, aspect to the presence of the legions of ultra-orthodox, who had responded to the call by Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman to flood the Kotel Plaza. The ultra-orthodox were struggling to maintain their dominance of the space. It is an existential contest to maintain power and control, both religious and political. It is a battle for the soul of Judaism and for the state-sanctioned authority to act in the name of Judaism in Israel. Rabbi Shteinman’s call was a brilliant move, and in fact a legitimate form of public protest and political demonstration. It is unfortunate and totally unacceptable that violence erupted.

The Kotel and the surrounding public space have been placed under the auspices of the ultra-orthodox, with Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz as the official Rabbi of the Western Wall, by the State of Israel. In similar fashion, ultra-orthodox rabbis have been appointed strategically, with state salaries, in towns and holy spaces around the country. The Kotel especially shows the religious and physical dominance of the ultra-orthodox. The Women of the Wall have campaigned to “liberate the Kotel.” This effort has been multi-faceted, but in general well-directed. There is no reason why the Kotel should be treated as a large shtiebel which does not allow all Jews freedom of expression to pray according to their personal preferences and beliefs.

Just two days before the Rosh Hodesh gathering last Friday, women activists achieved another victory when Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein determined that the exclusion of women in public spaces and events (hadarat nashim) is a criminal offense. This ruling was another blow for the dominance of public religious spaces by ultra-orthodox customs, and another reason for the massive turnout at the Kotel.

Suddenly, with Weinstein’s ruling, the Women of the Wall, who have been active for over two decades, seized a central role (whether or not they wanted it) in yet another religious dispute being played out in the public arena. Last year they had joined more than twenty other organizations in a coalition established and coordinated by Shatil, an initiative of the New Israel Fund, in order to bring the problem of women’s exclusion into full public scrutiny and in a detailed report submitted to all the Knesset Members, Ministers and the Attorney General, presented a range of recommended regulatory changes that would eliminate the exclusion and segregation of women. Many of the recommendations were included in Weinstein’s ruling last week. Now the Women of the Wall could use the broader gender exclusion issues to highlight their particular struggle. By the same token, advocates against gender exclusion benefited from the court victory of the Women of the Wall. But the struggle is not just for women: it is a struggle for religious freedom, freedom of expression, and maintaining Israel as a liberal Jewish democracy.

The ultra-Orthodox lost significant political ground in the January elections. For the first time in 10 years, their parties are not part of the governing coalition. They can feel power slipping through their tallit fringes (and along with power, considerable money for their communities). Religious monopoly over the public space of the Kotel may not be directly equivalent to reducing their government subsidies for education that does not include sufficient secular core subjects (and it is Rav Shteinman who defiantly declared against the teaching of secular studies in the ultra-Orthodox education system). It is also not on a par with the “sharing of the burden” debate (about army service), which became a central issue in the elections. But their effort to maintain control over the Kotel is consistent with their conviction that their form of prayer is the only correct form of prayer and a woman in a tallit is an abomination, and therefore an offense to holiness. It is part of their effort not to yield power and to maintain their way of life and conception of sanctity.

Many of the seminary girls watched the WOW group intently. Some were probably thinking “how awful,” some probably thought it was a freakish anomaly, but I am certain that at least a few young girls were intrigued by what they saw, so foreign and yet familiar. After all, the Women of the Wall were chanting the same prayers that they themselves say every morning. Last Friday, the seminary girls may have been exposed to notions of pluralism that they had never before witnessed, or perhaps even thought of. Who knows – perhaps a spark was ignited in some of them, the realization that women can play a more active role in Jewish life than they had ever dreamed.

The recent victories for religious freedom are not the end of the struggle, however. There may yet be legal appeals or political maneuvering. But the fight against religious extremism, the push to legitimize alternative expressions of Judaism and the determined efforts to advance feminist values within Israeli society have most certainly received an important energy-boost reinvigorating belief in the ability of people to make change. A particularly stirring moment for me last Friday was when Anat Hoffman, chairperson of the Women of the Wall, led the group in the blessing She’hechiyanu, ve’kiyamanu ve’higianu l’zman ha’ze: “Who has given us life and sustained us and brought us to this moment.”

About the Author
Naomi Schacter is Director of International Relations in the National Library of Israel. The views expressed herein reflect her personal opinions.