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.