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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But Women of the Wall itself has never sought egalitarian prayer. Its members want to pray together exclusively as women, and they want to do it at the site that Judaism has historically recognized as the last sacred remnant of the ancient wall of the Holy Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.

“If we go to the bottom of this, these are two completely different battles,” observed Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, who is one of Israel’s leading experts on women’s issues. “Although Women of the Wall did join forces with the Reform and Conservative movements, they were generally careful not to present their battle as for religious pluralism but against women’s exclusion.”

Halperin-Kaddari, who heads Bar-Ilan University’s Ruth and Emanuel Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women, stressed, “The Reform and Conservative movements [have] a different point of departure” from Women of the Wall.

That point of divergence, papered over until recently, was suddenly underlined April 25 — two weeks after Hoffman embraced Sharansky’s compromise — when a Jerusalem district court ruling changed everything for Women of the Wall. The ruling, in a case filed much earlier by Women of the Wall, decreed that the Protection of Holy Place Law, which compels visitors to the Wall to pray according to the “local custom,” doesn’t necessarily mean they must pray according to Orthodox custom. If enforced, the ruling will mean an end to the police detentions that Women of the Wall’s members have faced regularly for attempting to pray at the holy site.

This may render moot Women of the Wall’s need for Sharansky’s compromise. Speaking four days after the ruling came down, Hoffman clearly understood this implication.

“Our victory in court means that our place [at the Western Wall] is safe,” Hoffman told the news service JTA. “[It] allows Women of the Wall to pray how we always wished — with women of all denominations in the women’s section, with our prayer shawls and Torah and shofar.”

In an apparent shift from her previous embrace of Sharansky’s proposal, Hoffman now pronounced his compromise “not relevant to our needs.”

Asked to explain these comments and her subsequent re-embrace of the Sharansky compromise, Hoffman told the Forward that her meaning was “more nuanced” than reported. What she meant, Hoffman said, was that the compromise was “not relevant to Women of the Wall’s needs right now.” But the process under way is valuable, she said, and the outcome could or could not be positive. She insisted that this remains her position. “I have a bird in the hand, and you are asking me about a bird in the tree?” she asked, referring to Sharansky’s proposal.

In the opposing camp, Rabinowitz — as rabbi of the Wall — has appeared to vacillate depending on his audience. He initially said that he “could live with” the plan, but on April 25, Rabinowitz suggested that opposition to it remained an option. “We must, along with the Chief Rabbinate and other great rabbis, examine if we should oppose the proposal,” he told a group of American rabbis during a visit to the United States. But by the time a Knesset meeting was held, on May 7, he was, broadly speaking, back on board.


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