Kotel Chaos Explained: Who Threw Whom Under the Bus, and Why

Editor’s Note: The fight for women’s prayer rights at the Western Wall, or Kotel, has been going on for so long and has so many twists and turns that we thought we’d ask one of the original activists to help our readers understand the saga.

“Things are not always what they seem.”—Pheadrus

There is so much truth in this ancient saying when applied to what is going on with the Robinson’s Arch-Kotel deal that it almost seems unfair to ask the words to bear the burden.

However closely you may be following this complex and quickly-changing story, don’t fault yourself if you don’t quite follow it.

The latest twist in the last few days? The about-face of the rabbinic administrator of the Kotel, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who was a principal negotiator of a compromise to create a separate egalitarian prayer area where men and women can pray.

Rabinowitz now says he opposes the plan, which has the backing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and in florid language, appealed to his ultra-Orthodox counterparts in the Knesset to scuttle it.

The Backstory: Women of the Wall Activists Accept a Compromise

Two and a half years ago, the current leadership of Women of the Wall (WOW) decided to abandon the whole purpose of the group, stated in its name.

Having previously rejected any alternate site, and the nearby archaeological site, called Robinson’s Arch, specifically, the group announced that it was prepared to leave the Kotel as part of a deal with the Reform and Conservative movements to expand the already-existing egalitarian prayer space at Robinson’s. WOW said its act was not a betrayal of the founding purpose of the group but fulfillment of it.

Full disclosure: I am a founder of Women of the Wall. I was at the first women’s service at the Kotel, in December, 1988. I read Torah that day, right up at the Wall, one of the highlights of my life. I have remained active in the cause ever since. I’ve been assaulted, tear-gassed, pelted with rocks, detained by the police for donning a talit. I am elevated as a woman and Jew every time I go there with other Jewish women, which is why I do it.

I oppose the decision to abandon the group’s founding purpose. I am a founder and leader of a growing segment of WOW fighting it. We call ourselves Original Women of the Wall (OWOW), or in Hebrew, tefillat nashim ba’kotel: women’s prayer at the Wall. We are Women of the Wall, not a splinter group. The other group retains the name, but in fact they are Women of Robinson’s Arch.

For two and a half years, the government of Israel, representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements and of WOW negotiated, not to innovate egalitarian prayer at Robinson’s — this has existed there for years, without incident — but to make the site an official, and publicly funded, Reform and Conservative space.

What would Women of the Wall get for their about-face? Two positions on the council that would run the Robinson’s Arch site: control, money, recognition. Anat Hoffman, who leads WOW, is a paid employee of the Reform movement; her office is in their building. Presumably, her employers are pleased.

All this has been proclaimed a historic victory for progressive Judaism and for tolerance and pluralism in Israel.

Did Women of the Wall Betray The Cause of Women’s Prayer?

Here’s why it isn’t.

The tradeoff for making Robinson’s an official site of Reform and Conservative prayer is to take the Kotel — not now a synagogue but officially, a “national holy site,” indeed, the national holy site of the Jewish people — and make it a synagogue under haredi (ultra-Orthodox) control.

This makes the rabbinic administrator of the site, Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Rabbi of the Kotel, with the power to decree what practices are tolerated there, as befits the rabbi of a synagogue (in his case, with lifetime appointment). He’s already announced that the first practice to go will be women’s group tefilla, with Torah reading and the option to don talit and tefillin.

The representatives of “progressive” Judaism have signed on to a deal that will bulldoze the legally recognized rights of Jewish women to full religious expression at the Kotel. A deal that will coerce Jewish women who wish to continue to pray at the Kotel to adopt haredi practice: be silent, atomized, not don talit or tefillin, or read Torah. To do any of this, they would be forced to go to Robinson’s, and, if they are Orthodox and wish to pray in a female-only space, to reserve portable mehitsas in advance, on specified days only, and erect pens around themselves in order to pray in accord with their religious beliefs.

If this deal goes through, the whole point of tefilla by Jewish women of diverse backgrounds and beliefs coming together in solidarity as women, giving Judaism female face and form and voice in Jewish sacred space, would be subsumed, effaced, in a different and, we are told, greater goal. What is Jewish women’s specificity, after all, but a temporary expedient, a throwback, in these enlightened times, when a site for egalitarian prayer — ok, not at, but pretty darn close, to the Kotel —is available? Feminism is fulfilled in egalitarianism, right? After all, the Jewish Problem was solved during the Enlightenment when Jews received citizenship and civic equality in European societies … right? This, from self-proclaimed feminists?

What’s the Big Game?

Okay, now for Rabinowitz.

Rabinowitz is haredi. He reviles all non-haredi Judaism, even the modern Orthodox kind. Why would he agree to official recognition and State funding of Reform and Conservative Judaism?

I don’t have the full answer, but surely, taking total control of the Kotel would have been a huge payoff. And ridding the place of us, who dare act as Jews when he has termed what we do as “blasphemy” and “desecration”; that is, the same acts which, when performed by men, are called “mitsva.”

Two and a half years of negotiation did not yield a deal. Then, suddenly, in January, 2016, it did. Why?

In November, 2015, I and other members of Original Women of the Wall filed suit before the Supreme Court of Israel to enforce the right of Jewish women to read Torah at the Kotel. Our case was brought by Dr. Susan Weiss of the Center for Women’s Justice, a trail blazer on behalf of women’s rights. We filed suit because, in 2010, Rabbi Rabinowitz wrote a directive (“nohal”), barring anyone from bringing in a torah scroll to the Kotel. Since there are over 160 of these in the men’s section, this would not appear to be a problem. Rabinowitz, however, will not let Jewish women have access to any of these.

There is an Israeli law barring discrimination in access to or use of public property, which, currently at least, the Kotel and the torah scrolls there are. Hence, our suit.

Rabinowitz’s nohal does not have a legal leg to stand on while our case is formidably strong. The proof of that is the “unholy” haste with which the negotiations over Robinson’s suddenly reached conclusion once we filed it.

Why would Rabinowitz backtrack now?

Well, maybe he has, and maybe he hasn’t.

Since the deal was announced and a group of about 100 Reform rabbis held a celebratory service at Robinson’s, with word out that Reform services there on the Sabbath will include musical instruments, Rabinowitz has gotten in a lot of trouble. Both Chief Rabbis have expressed opposition to the deal. Haredi members of Knesset have denounced it as the work of Satan.

Rabinowitz’s letter to the haredi Knesset members recounts with self-pity his years of lonely struggle against us. Now, he says, the ball is in your court. I have seen the light: This deal is a catastrophe; I renounce it. After that, more pressure built up to quash the deal. This morning brought news that Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party of Sefardi constituents and a partner in Netanyahu’s coalition, announced that it will bring down the government if it goes through. Not to be outdone, the head of the UTJ Ashkenazi haredi party has now said that his party would also not remain in a government that recognizes Reform and Conservative Judaism.

Our camp, on the other hand, scored a significant victory a few days ago in the cause of women’s prayer at the actual Kotel. The Court granted us an interim motion allowing us to bring in a Torah scroll during a short period it has given the State to respond substantively to our case. In principle, the Court has recognized our whole point.

Speaking of Netanyahu: Did he not foresee that his haredi partners would react this way?

Perhaps, indeed, he did. He struck a deal that gained him the good will of Reform and Conservative Jews in the U.S., but cannot be implemented, despite his best efforts, allowing his coalition to persevere.

Maybe Rabinowitz decided women’s prayer at the Kotel is the lesser of two evils. Maybe he will push for legislation from his haredi partners in the Knesset that will undo the Supreme Court rulings in our favor. The saga continues.

So, sisters, all you Vashtis and Esthers out there — that’s the deal — as of now.

Happy Purim.

Shulamit S. Magnus is Professor of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College. She is the author of four books and recipient of a National Jewish Book Award. She lives in Jerusalem and teaches at Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University.

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Kotel Chaos Explained: Who Threw Whom Under the Bus, and Why

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