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.
But separating the sexes has long ago become the practice at the Kotel. There is now a mechitza there. This is how the holiest site in Israel is treated now. I suppose that it is better that way since during busy times like Birchat Kohanim (blessing of the priests) on Yomim Tovim (holidays) – it can be pretty crowded and having men and women squeeze together at the Kotel is not the best way to pray. But in my view it is not Halachicly necessary to separate the sexes for purposes of prayer at the Kotel.
And yet, in theory I oppose an egalitarian minyan at the Kotel. Not because there is anything wrong with men and women davening in the same place. But because it makes a religious ritual out of it. To put the stamp of religion on the practices which take place in egalitarian minyanim that are against Halacha (e.g. including women in the count for a Minyan) cannot be anything that a Halachic Jew can agree with. To do so at Judaism’s holiest site just adds insult to injury. Also, giving heterodoxy any kind of imprimatur by the government lends legitimacy to them which I certainly do not support.
That said I am also a seeker of peace. Opening up Robison’s Arch for egalitarian purposes will help solve the growing conflict between Orthodox Jews and Heterodox Jews. I would therefore not physically protest Israel’s secular government for establishing it. Egalitarian minyanim at Robinson’s Arch would not disrupt the people who choose to worship in traditional non egalitarian ways at the main Kotel plaza. Each group would have their own separate but equal access to Judaism’s holiest site.
What about standing up for my beliefs? I empathize somewhat with Rabbi Avi Shafran’s take. And like him I still oppose what they do and will continue to say so (as I just have). At the same time public protests at the site would only generate more enmity and I oppose that (not that R’ Avi has suggested that it should be publicly protested). That is not good for anyone. I will instead leave it for moshiach’s times to sort it all out. Until then I think it is to the benefit of all to try and have peace among ourselves and not fight unwinnable internal wars.
WoW would hopefully also take advantage of this new site for their own purposes… and Shalom Al Yisrael… we can have peace in our time (at least among ourselves – at least on this issue). Unfortunately there are other problems unrelated to interdenominational differences that may scuttle the deal anyway. Like opposition from the Waqf — the Muslim body that controls the Temple Mount. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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