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.

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.

Rabinowitz is torn in two directions. On the one hand, he is a state employee falling under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office, which backs the Sharansky plan. On the other hand, he is a Haredi rabbi who represents Orthodox interests at the Wall — and the Haredi community firmly opposes the plan.

Hamodia, the Jerusalem-based newspaper that reflects the views of leading rabbis, recently editorialized angrily: “The Kotel isn’t ours to give away. The place of the Temple was chosen by God, and the Shechinah [divine presence] has never departed from the Kotel.” Rabinowitz faces criticism, too, from ultra-Orthodox Jews in America, where Der Yid, the Yiddish-language newspaper of the Satmar Hasidim, has chastised him for not battling the plan.

Despite these complexities, Sharansky remains optimistic. He said that a long-term solution to the lengthy conflict over the Wall is within sight. In the same May 7 Knesset meeting that Rabinowitz attended, Sharansky said that if the various parties involved continue the “dialogue” they have started, the detailed plan could be drawn up within 10 months. His spokesman, Benjamin Rutland, told the Forward that the next stage is a “timeline for implementation,” which Sharansky will prepare for review by the relevant parties “within a few weeks.”

But Rabinowitz is expected to fight hard against the clause of the plan that calls for the new prayer section to share an entrance plaza with the existing section — a provision that Sharansky views as important for giving the new section prestige.

And Women of the Wall is emphatic that its support for the plan remains conditional at best. “We want to see how much of the whale actually swims to shore,” Hoffman said.

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com


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