Whose Wall Is It?

It is 2:00am in Manhattan and this is a restless night, my mind preoccupied by the civil inequality continually experienced at the Western Wall in Israel.  This past Monday, for instance, a group of women gathered, donned prayer shawls, and prayed together.  Ten of them were arrested.  As it happens, it is illegal for women to don prayer shawls and pray out loud, in unison, at the Western Wall; that is a right afforded only to men.

Before you question the Israeli government’s policy, realize this: In a country where politics and religion are inextricably linked, it would prove nearly impossible for any sitting government to be completely immune to pressure from the extreme religious right (the group undoubtedly responsible for this piece of legislation).

To be sure, significant reform is badly needed vis-a-vis the role and influence of religion in government; but, with specific regard to the Western Wall, the true underpinning of the issue, as I see it, is:

To whom does the Western Wall belong?  After all, isn’t that an Israeli flag erected in the center of the plaza? Does not the Israeli flag represent all its citizens?

When the wall was liberated, men, women, and children danced, together, in jubilation.

When did the Wall become the exclusive property of the (ultra-Orthodox) Rabbinate?  Why has it been turned into a synagogue structure with “in-house ritual policies” associated exclusively with the ultra-Orthodox movement?  It seems as though every year, ever-so gradually, the extreme religious right has seized greater control of the Western Wall’s operations.  The ‘pinnacle’ was reached a decade ago when it convinced political legislators to create and enforce a law banning public group prayer by women.

I respect the autonomy of every synagogue to interpret Jewish law as it desires.  What is beautiful about Judaism is that, on the same street, you could find an ultra-Orthodox synagogue that restricts women from wearing prayer shawls and a liberal synagogue with a female rabbi.  I support the diversity inherent in our religion, and every synagogue community has the right to nurture its own interpretation of Jewish law.

But, I pose the question: Is the Western Wall a synagogue (much less, that of one specific sect)?  Or, is the Wall a national heritage site, sacred to all Jews, where moments of spirituality and prayer readily occur?

This is the core issue and I hope that Yair Lapid and Natan Sharansky can make significant strides to bring forth a just change.

About the Author
Ari Isenberg was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City and currently serves as rabbi of Shaar Shalom Congregation in Halifax, Canada.