Women finally have the official nod to pray with a tallis, read from a Torah scroll and do more or less as they wish in a new “egalitarian” section to be enlarged at the southern end of the Western Wall, Haaretz reported Monday.
The newspaper said that Prime Minister Netanyahu told Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, who formulated the proposal, to draw up a timetable for establishing an egalitarian section at the Western Wall, popularly known by the Hebrew term “Kotel.” Sharansky is to meet with Office of the Prime Minister director Tzvi Hauser and with National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror, who is orthodox, to move the proposal off the drawing boards.
The decision ostensibly undermines the authority of the orthodox Rabbinate at the Western Wall, where there is a men’s and women’s section but no permission for women to pray in a non-traditional way.
However, the “victory” of the “Women of the Wall”, led primarily by American immigrants belonging to the Reform movement, is not necessarily the opening shot to challenge orthodox Judaism as the authority in Israel.
Indeed, it may be the last shot as well as the first.
The Prime Minister reportedly was encouraged by the massive support from American Jews for the women’s demands at the Western Wall, the most popular religious site for Jews visiting Israel.
The sight of policemen arresting women for the crime of disturbing public order by wearing a tallis or trying to carry a Torah scroll to the Western Wall was too much for American Jews, offended by the apparent affront to the pluralistic understanding of “equality.”
Buoyed by massive coverage in the American media, led by The New York Times, the Diaspora shouted from the rooftops, although not from the women’s sections of synagogues. The shouting was no match for the austere face of the orthodox Rabbinate, which often does everything it can to distance Jews who don’t do as they say.
The Haaretz report that the adoption of the plan “would wrest exclusive control of prayer at the wall from the Orthodox” may be wishful thinking for the newspaper, known for its bitter opposition to anything that smacks of religious authority if it is by orthodox Jewry.
If the women think that the Sharansky plan sets the stage for the Reform movement to challenge the orthodox rabbinate, they may have to say a lot of prayers to fulfill their wishes.
As much as the American Jewish committee thinks it influences what happens in Israel, one important factor in Netanyahu’s decision is that most of the Israeli public could care less one way or the other about the issue.
Most Israelis are not orthodox but most also are steeped in tradition and Middle East culture. They consider many American customs a bit odd, if not weird. Westernization is fine at the malls, and if women want to pray like men, fine.
The right of women to wear a tallis and read from a Torah scroll in their own egalitarian space does not mean that Israelis won’t stay quiet if the Reform movement wages a war on the entire orthodox establishment.
As secular as Israelis appear to be to Americans, scantily or oddly-dressed women often are seen in Israel reciting Psalms while traveling on buses or waiting at the bus stop.
Secular Israelis have a common cause with non-Orthodox Americans on the issues of civil marriages and divorces, but they will not necessarily be in a hurry to support a direct challenge to the orthodox rabbinate, which is a crucial part of modern Israeli culture.
The fact is that the Women of the Wall’s “victory” confines them to a special area, away from the popular Western Wall area. True equality, in their view, would be able to pray exactly where everyone else prays.
In effect, they may have lost the war by winning the battle.