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The Sharansky Option

Public protests of the expansion of the Robinson's Arch area for egalitarian prayer would only generate more enmity.
Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky.

Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky.
Photo Credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90

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Natan Sharansky has come up with a plan that he feels is a workable compromise between Charedim and heterodox movements. It will enable people to attend egalitarian prayer services (where men and women have equal stature in all ritual aspects of a Minyan) at the Kotel (the Western Wall), Israel’s holiest accessible site. I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu supports it.

There has been a lot of controversy at the Kotel in recent times where some women have tried to buck traditional practices at the Kotel by holding unusual services there. The Women of the Wall (WoW) have tried to have a monthly women’s prayer service there that includes such traditional male modalities as wearing a talit, and reading the Torah.

This has disturbed the Haredi world since it is such a wide departure from tradition – which has always dictated practices at the Kotel. They complained to the government. The government responded with new rules about a woman wearing a talit that has resulted in multiple arrests every Rosh Hodesh (new month of the Jewish calendar) when WOW tires to hold its services at the main plaza. It happened again a few days ago.

I have in the past argued against this group because I felt that they were more about demanding women’s religious rights than they were about serving God in ways they choose to do so. There was no rule against their having any type of service they choose at a different location along the Kotel called “Robinson’s Arch.” But they have chosen to do their service at the main Kotel Plaza and thereby upset the traditional worshipers there who feel that at best they are a distraction.

That these women are sincere in their devotion to God is somewhat undermined by their insistence that they use an area used by traditionalists who have always done their prayer services quietly and individually without drawing any attention to themselves.

The argument by WoW and their supporters is that people should have the right to pray anywhere they choose along the main Kotel Plaza and they insist on doing so to make a point of that.

I have come around to the view that these women should be left alone. As long as they are not disruptive – who cares if they are wearing a talit… or reading from the Torah?! At the same time if conflict can be avoided – it should be. If WoW could be given a place that is both free and similar in size to the main Kotel Plaza, I think they should take it and avoid any future conflict.

Sharansky’s proposal addresses another women’s issue – egalitarian minyan. This is not WoW. There are no men in their group. Technically I suppose there are no Halachic issues with WoW – other than breaking traditional non-Halachic taboos.

But feminism has given rise to egalitarianism in heterodox movements. In order to preserve the peace and accommodate both Haredim and those who seek egalitarian minyanim – he has proposed that Robinson’s Arch (which is out of view from the main Kotel plaza) be expanded so that its space equal that of the main Kotel Plaza… and that there be free access to it in the future. This would in essence be the actual realization of separate but equal rights for heterodox movements.

Just to be clear about mixed setting for prayer at the Kotel… I don’t think this is an issue. The only place where there is a requirement to separate the sexes via a mechitza (partition) is where there is Kedushat Beit HaKnesset. That means that only in a synagogue does a woman’s presence interfere with the minyan. Outside of a synagogue, women may be present… as is the case at weddings or banquets in hotels where there are ad hoc minyanim for Mincha and Maariv all the time. Women are present and in view of the men. They are not separated by any partition.

The question about whether the Kotel serves as a Shul has been answered by history. Archival photos show that in pre-state days going back to the 19th century – men and women were not separated when they came to pray at the Kotel. I do not therefore believe that the Kotel area can be classified as having Kedushat Beit HaKnesset.

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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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6 Responses to “The Sharansky Option”

  1. Thank you for coming to the wise realization that since Women of the Wall is a women's only halachik prayer group, and not bothering anyone, we should just be left alone in our corner of the women's section at the Kotel.

  2. I cannot believe that in this day and age Women are considered a" Diistraction" to men when both of them ara praying. I remember when in an Orthodox Synagogue, in Alexandria Egypt, the women and girls and I were only permitted to pray in the "poulallier, upstairs," or "Chicken coupe." For heavens sake, is this this not the 21st century?

  3. How about women's rights to pray where they want to? You really think God cares where they pray? Those stupid ancien laws are man-made by a male-dominated Fundamentalist religion that has lost touch with the current times.

  4. How about women's rights to pray where they want to? You really think God cares where they pray? Those stupid ancien laws are man-made by a male-dominated Fundamentalist religion that has lost touch with the current times.

  5. Nmcva Mata says:

    wow, will you go also against a decision of Ha Mashiah? just for the sake of wooow…?

  6. Daniel Shapiro says:

    Clearly Liliane, you are old enough to know better, or should. "stupid ancien(t) laws are man-made by a male-dominated Fundamentalist religion that has lost touch with the current times." Well Liliane, your statement proved the point that this is all about your happiness not the holiness of prayer. Your statement further announces to all that you have no respect for Judaism, and that explains your lack of respect for those who do adhere to it's laws and customs. With your clear contempt for our ancient religion that has survived thru all the wars, pogroms, holocausts, etc. BECAUSE of our adherence to the laws and customs of not anything man made, but TORAH given to us by Hashem. Prayer is not about your comfort or happiness, it is about Hashem. To address your second post… yes, thankfully, even in this day and age women are a distraction to men. Hopefully beautiful people of the opposite sex will always be a distraction. It is truly one of the benefits and wonders (and sometimes curses), of being healthy human beings.

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