Women of the Wall’s Crossover

The vision of women’s full, autonomous, public prayer at the kotel is larger than any and all of us. In December 1988, I conceived a dream of women’s joyous participation in the in-gathering of the Jewish People at the site sanctified by our longing and prayers for thousands of years. Having convened and sustained the initial years of prayers and efforts of Women of the Wall, I am compelled to respond to the choice by the current Board of the organization. The Board is adopting the Mandelblit-Sharansky plan to allot the entire existing kotel prayer area to exclusive ultra-Orthodox control, and to remove Women of the Wall to the Robinson’s Arch egalitarian prayer site.

photo by Shmuel Browns
photo by Shmuel Browns


The WoW website states succinctly the purpose for which we founded the organization,

Women of the Wall is a non-profit organization with a defined and focused goal: To achieve the legal and social right for women to conduct a full prayer service, out loud in the women’s section of the Kotel with tallit, tefillin, sefer torah, shofar.

In complete contradiction of this goal, last week, the current Chair of Women of the Wall ceded the kotel to exclusive ultra-Orthodox hegemony,

I think it’s absolutely fine that the state gives the Kotel rabbi [sic] absolute authority over the Haredi space. Anat Hoffman, Haaretz, 13.10,2013.

It is not tenable for us to allow the kotel to become a haredi space with an ultra-Orthodox official who unilaterally decides for the entire Jewish People what practice is acceptable. Not today, nor tomorrow.

I endorse the WoW press release from Aug 25, 2013:

Women of the Wall rejects the Mandelblit plan which dangerously circumvents the pluralist Sobel District Court decision. We are at a crossroads for religious freedom and freedom of expression in Israel. Today this effects Women of the Wall but tomorrow it will effect every Israeli and Jew around the world. . . . Mandelblit and Bennet have given in to the threats and violence of the haredi extremist minority in Israel and this is a dangerous precedent for our democracy.

The Board’s new decision indeed threatens to create “a dangerous precedent for our democracy” and for the Jewish character of Israel.

In recent months, WoW has adopted the custom of reading from a printed chumash at the kotel. This practice infringes the dignity of women’s public prayer and betrays one of the most basic principles of WoW, reading from a sacred Torah scroll.

WoW and world Jewry need not acquiesce to but challenge the standing administrative procedure of 2010 barring women access to a Torah scroll in the women’s section. The administrator’s policy contradicts halakha and offends the sensibilities of the vast majority of Jewry who hold women to be fully qualified to fulfill the sacred obligations of prayer. The Jerusalem District Court Sobel ruling unequivocally upholds the legality of our custom (group tefilla; Torah reading from a scroll; talit; tefillin), and its accordance with minhag hamakom at the kotel.

Whereas the WoW Board’s decision rewards intolerance, divisiveness, and intimidation, Israelis recently elected a government to enable the haredi population to share the responsibilities of Israeli citizenship. WoW can harness this momentum to support the fulfillment of WoW’s goals.

This position is extremely difficult to fulfill. The humiliations and sacrilege that WoW suffers monthly deter and hurt us deeply. The ugly faces of hatred, the insults, and demeaning behavior of many who oppose our prayers is painful and disillusioning. Extreme beliefs and attitudes are the root of these violations of the letter and spirit of Judaism that teaches respect for all of God’s creatures and love of Israel. Our women’s celebratory public prayer does not cause or provoke the vile expressions of hatred. Not only does closed-mindedness, misogyny, and fanaticism exist, but it is growing here and throughout the world. I exhort us to persevere to stave off this trend, to hold fast to the pursuit of peaceful, dignified, and joyous prayer in the women’s section at the kotel.


In the 1994 Supreme Court verdict, Justice Levine charges State officials to balance opposing interests – to maximize protection of the rights to prayer while minimizing offense to people’s sensitivities at the holy site. Custom, Levine states, changes with time. There must be pluralism and tolerance of the views and practices of others. The 2003 Supreme Court decision and the recent Sobel ruling explicitly uphold this position.

Article 5 of the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), to which Israel is a signatory states:

State Parties shall take all appropriate measures (a) To modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.

The State is obligated to educate the public and implement the values of inclusive civil society. We must all insist that the State respond decisively and work to prevent intimidation and violence at the sacred site.

Rather than capitulating to threats and pressure from interest groups to embrace territorial exclusivity and yielding to the domination of one extreme faction, WoW and our supporters can and must continue to inspire world Jewry toward vibrant, mutually respectful religious pluralism of Jewish customs and practices enacted in each others’ presence.

Precisely because WoW is dealing with complex political machinations, powers and interests, WoW must not compromise our basic principles. I strongly contend that the choice to abandon the kotel in exclusively haredi hands does not represent the main constituency of WoW and our supporters. Let us not cede the rights of all Jewish women to pray according to our conscience in the place that is sacred to world Jewry.

I invite supporters of Women of the Wall throughout the world to express your views about the choice to stick with or leave our vision – please click on the following link to write your views: “Referendum: Women at the Kotel“.

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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