“In the sanctuary, everyone exclaims ‘kavod.’” Psalm 29:9
Border police and metal barriers have encircled Women of the Wall (WoW) during recent Rosh Chodesh gatherings. Some ultra-Orthodox men and women congregate alongside — not to pray, but to blow whistles, shout insults, and carry placards (acts that contravene statutes governing holy sites, which forbid protests and demonstrations). Many onlookers are curious, and they take photos, even videos; some debate with our male supporters. Within the enclosure, we celebrate each new month. We name new babies and dance with b’not mitzvah on our shoulders. Israeli women bless and chant the Torah for the first time. Many shades of Jewish women join in spirited prayers. Among thousands of young seminary women bused in at their rabbis’ behest to fill the plaza and prevent our entry, some gawk at our tefillin and tallitot. Some are aroused by the subversive possibility of women’s autonomous public prayer. We have even had the honor of welcoming a few ultra-Orthodox young women into our feminist circle. One such woman, buttoned to the neck and stockinged to the toe stood by me intoning our foremothers’ names in her quiet petitions. There is a vital generation of Israelis who are committed to Women of the Wall, and a growing base of Israeli support. A recent poll indicates, “48 percent of Israeli Jews back the Women of the Wall.”
Women of the Wall catalyzes engagement in healthy democracy. We query the role of religion in civil society and its form in sacred space, the limits of freedom and coercion, and propose ethical practices for Judaism. This controversy is on the current Israeli agenda. “Women of the Wall” has become an everyday phrase in homes and on the street, at schools, on campus, in youth groups, on TV and radio. Groups convene in the Knesset to discuss and consult about the challenges and opportunities that Women of the Wall presents to Israel. Israeli Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni defies Minister of Religious Services Naftali Bennett’s proposal to amend the law to exclude women’s prayer with tallit, tefillin, and Torah from the status quo at the Kotel.
Much has been made of Judge Moshe Sobel’s April 2013 Jerusalem District Court decision. Upholding the lawfulness of WOW’s practice as part of the diverse customs at the Kotel, it is a bold ruling that focuses conversation on religious pluralism and clarifies main points in our legal process:
1) State policy and actions against Women of the Wall have been based on a mistaken interpretation of the Israeli Supreme Court ruling. In 2003, the Supreme Court ordered the state to prepare a respectable prayer area at the Robinson’s Arch site for Women of the Wall within 12 months. With that condition unfulfilled, the state is required to protect the women’s prayers as petitioned, in the women’s section at the Western Wall.
2) The state has no legal grounds or justification to threaten, harass, detain, or arrest women who pray together with tallit, tefillin and who read from a Torah scroll. These are not (criminal) offenses, nor do they threaten public order.
3) The statute enacted by the state in response to our original Supreme Court petition of 1989 cannot be interpreted according to Haredi or other partisan interests to exclude or prohibit the prayers of Women of the Wall.
Prompted by outrage at detentions and arrests of Women of the Wall for praying with tallitot, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Natan Sharansky, chair of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, to negotiate a compromise. Sharansky’s plan proposes to exile Women of the Wall from the core sacred site where Jews gather for prayer to the Robinson’s Arch archeological site, an existing egalitarian area separated from the main Kotel plaza by the ramp to the Mughrabi Gate on the Temple Mount. In addition to consolidating opposition to women’s prayer at the Kotel, this plan would further legitimize the ultra-Orthodox agenda that erases women from public visibility and silences women’s voices, denies women’s autonomy in marriage and divorce, and enforces gender separation and rear seating on public and private buses. Capitulating to this approach at the Kotel would degrade our sacred places and the quality of our civil society. The Kotel with women’s active, visible public prayer and leadership is inextricable from an Israel with women’s active, visible public participation and leadership.
The Israeli founder of Women of the Wall, I also work with Palestinians in creative collaboration. There are parallels between these initiatives. We might not succeed to convince the other to agree with us, but we can learn to live together with dignity and mutual concern. In his response to our original petition, Justice Shlomo Levine of the Israeli Supreme Court emphasized the responsibility of state officials to create an ambiance conducive to balancing opposing interests in order to maximize the fulfillment of freedom without excessive harm to people’s sensitivities. Our state can choose policies that lead toward accommodation, honor difference, and promote respect among women and men, among many shades of Jewish practice, and among Israelis and Palestinians.
Women of the Wall invokes a uniquely diverse Jewish expression at the exquisitely simple remnant of our ancient Temple. Our festive prayers, song, and dancing contribute toward a fuller understanding of who is a Jew and what is Israel. Women wrapped in tallitot of many colors, adorned with tefillin, reading from the Torah scroll — these are now more familiar images of who a Jew can be: a responsible member and leader of her people. An Israel that includes, honors, and embraces fully women’s and men’s participation — this is a now a more familiar vision of what Israel can become.
1 The poll was conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University in May 2013.email print