The Kotel, the western retaining wall of the Temple in Jerusalem, has symbolized the symbolic heart of the Jewish people for two thousand years. It has been a unifying vision, the magnet that drew the iron in each one of us.
When it was retaken by Israeli soldiers in June 1967, and Jews once again were able to draw near to it, it represented both victory and hope, although some people, here and in Israel, complained about the “bicycle racks” that separated men from women almost as soon as the area was cleared and the Western Wall was opened to the public. Still, the Wall was a symbol of Jewish unity and pride.
Recently, however, the Kotel has come to symbolize division.
It is organized as an open-air Orthodox shul, with a full-fledged mechitzah now dividing women from men; the women’s section, always smaller than the men’s, has shrunk over the last few years. Women are not allowed to pray in minyanim, to pray out loud, to wear tallitot and t’fillin, or do the many other rituals that traditionally have been reserved for – or, put in other words, required of – men.
The question of women’s prayer at the Kotel has become tremendously urgent for liberal diaspora Jews, although it does not rank high on the priority list for Israelis, who often tend to say that the shul they don’t go to is Orthodox. Every month, women from an organization called Women of the Wall meet for Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the month, to pray together. The group is made up of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox women; recently the police at the Kotel, who take their orders, at least de facto, from the Kotel’s rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz, have taken women into custody nearly every month.
As the liberal diaspora reaction to the monthly disruption at the Kotel grew, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commissioned Natan Sharansky, the eminent former Russian refusenik, public servant, politician, and public intellectual, to come up with a solution. Sharansky is now the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Sharansky did as asked.
Recently, he suggested a compromise that would take Robinson’s Arch, the southern part of the wall that is now used for egalitarian prayer, remake and rename it to be a more integral part of the Kotel, and make it more accessible at all times to liberal groups. It would remain separated from the main part of the Kotel by the Mugrabi Bridge – which provides a path up to the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock – but the plaza would be reconfigured to allow access to all three sections – men’s, women’s, and mixed.
Netanyahu agreed to the plan, as did Rabinowitz; most of the Women of the Wall are guardedly optimistic, as well. (It presents a problem for the Orthodox Women of the Wall members, though; they do not want egalitarian space. Instead, they want the freedom to have women’s prayer groups, which might not be allowed in the women’s section.)
In this country, most reaction has been favorable.
The Rabbinical Council of America, which represents Orthodox rabbis, put out a statement commending Sharansky’s work.
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood is the president of the RCA.
“We have watched with pain as the Kotel has become a flashpoint for controversy,” he said.
“We applaud the efforts of Natan Sharansky, working in cooperation with Rabbi Rabinowitz and others, to come up with a workable compromise that will enable those who have enjoyed the traditional services at the Kotel to maintain their traditional sanctity and dignity and will enable those who desire alternatives to have a place for that as well.”
He feels that the fact that the Israeli government came up with a compromise solution, despite the issue’s perceived lack of relevance to Israelis, “is an indication of the great value that the State of Israel is placing on the diaspora relationship.”
Judy Heicklen of Teaneck is the president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist, which supports the compromise. “We think the Kotel belongs to all Jews and that his plan helps advance that,” she wrote in an email. We think that everyone chooses his own path to prayer.”
Rabbi Elyse Frishman, leader of the Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, which is Reform, was arrested at the Kotel in December. She thinks that the compromise is a very good thing.
“It’s wonderful that our voices have been heard,” she said. “I think it reflects a shift in understanding of the public Jew. For too long, when people say Jew, they envision an Orthodox Jew. Now they are starting to realize that Jew is a very broad term, and how Jews observe extends across a spectrum. To be an observant Jew is no longer synonymous with being an Orthodox Jew. How wonderful it is that that we’re being taken seriously.
“And it is wonderful that this has interdenominational support. That is huge for us.
“Wonderful in Hebrew is more like awe-filled. It is yirah, a reverence for God. I think that this decision reflects that. While this is clearly a compromise, not an ideal solution, it is a worthwhile compromise. I support it.”
Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner leads the Conservative Temple Emanu-El of Closter, and feels a deep connection to Israel. “I think this is a great compromise for the Jewish world,” he said. “Israel is the homeland of all the Jewish people, and its holy sites are holy to all of its people. This is now a place for us all to express our connection to God in the way that we feel most comfortable.
“I celebrate this compromise – as do most of the pluralistic Jews.”
Rabbi Adina Lewittes of Closter, who heads Shaar Communities, sees a broader message in the compromise.
“In the developments around making compromises in Israel – on the Kotel, and with some of the sea changes resulting from the election results, with a new wave of Knesset members – we see new blood and fresh perspectives being brought to bear on some of the most difficult issues in Israel’s internal life.
“I always go back to Martin Buber, who said that until you make peace with yourself you won’t be able to make peace with anyone else. So I look at the developments with hopeful eyes and a hopeful heart. It might seem pie in the sky, it might seen naÃ¯ve, but there’s a kernel of truth in having to be who we are before we can expect to achieve that wholeness with others.”