Women and Orthodox Waver Over Plan for Egalitarian Prayer at Western Wall

Kotel Compromise In Trouble as Support Frays on Both Sides

Women’s Wall: American Jewish women pray during a bat mitzvah ceremony in Jerusalem’s Old City. The fight over prayer at the nearby Western Wall is far from over as both sides are backing away from a compromise put forward by Jewish Agency chief Natan Sharansky.
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Women’s Wall: American Jewish women pray during a bat mitzvah ceremony in Jerusalem’s Old City. The fight over prayer at the nearby Western Wall is far from over as both sides are backing away from a compromise put forward by Jewish Agency chief Natan Sharansky.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published May 10, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
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Two of the prime players who have been locked in struggle over how Jews should be allowed to pray at the Western Wall have a complicated relationship with the recent grand compromise that Jewish Agency leader Natan Sharansky has offered to solve their dispute.

Both Anat Hoffman, whose group, Women of the Wall, seeks to hold female prayer services at the Wall, complete with prayer shawls and tefillin, and the Wall’s resident Orthodox rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz, who opposes the group, initially embraced Sharansky’s proposal, much to the surprise of many observers.

Soon after, however, both individuals backed away from their respective endorsements. Their reversals seemingly left Sharansky’s proposal hanging out to dry.

But now it seems both parties are back on board — with the emphasis, perhaps, on the word “now.”

In a recent appearance before the Knesset, Rabinowitz told lawmakers that he accepts Sharansky’s proposal. And in a May 7 interview with the Forward, Hoffman stated that she is “absolutely for the Sharansky process.”

That leaves Sharansky free to face the gauntlet of challenges his proposal will face from other quarters, ranging from the government to the Waqf, the Arab foundation that controls an area near the Wall that his compromise will affect. But Sharanksy’s success, or lack thereof, in facing those challenges may, in turn, alter the stances of Hoffman, Rabinowitz and their respective supporters yet again.

“Until we know what it will look like, we’re not signing on the dotted line,” Hoffman said, sending up an early warning sign.

The shifting positions of each side stems in part from the fact that Sharansky’s compromise proposal, unveiled publicly first in the Forward on April 9, gives each of them something they want while undermining their respective principles. The compromise also heightens latent divisions within the respective camps to which each side is tied.

Sharansky proposes to greatly expand Robinson’s Arch, an alternative prayer site directly adjacent to the Wall, and to offer this site, which is also part of the Wall’s expanse, to worshippers who cannot accept traditional Orthodoxy’s strictures; in particular, its insistence on separate worship areas for men and women and its ban on organized prayer services led by and for women alone.

The large American non-Orthodox denominations that have long supported Women of the Wall have eagerly embraced this proposal. They see in it a high-profile opening to boost the status in Israel of their own gender-egalitarian approaches to prayer, which most Israeli Jews have never seen.


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