Wall fight is to return Judaism to Israel

The JC Essay

By Laura Janner-Klausner, May 31, 2013
Members of Women of the Wall pray at the Western Wall to mark the first day of the month of Sivan (Photo: Flash 90)

Members of Women of the Wall pray at the Western Wall to mark the first day of the month of Sivan (Photo: Flash 90)

The debate about Women of the Wall, the cross-denominational group that has campaigned for a quarter-of-a-century for the right of women to pray together and read from the Torah at the Kotel, has been heating up of late. But the real significance of the campaign is neither about women nor about the wall.

When one considers the Kotel itself, what is important is not only the stones, but the contents of the spaces between them. The real message lies in the slips of paper tucked into the gaps, packed with prayers of longing and desire. Similarly, when it comes to Women of the Wall, look at the tiny preposition, the "of" tucked between the words. This "of" is the crucial sign that this debate is really about belonging and exclusion, who is permitted and who is banned. Who is "of" and who is "not of". Permitted activities at the Kotel should be seen as a barometer of freedom of religious expression.

The level of attention that the Women of the Wall campaign has attracted is perhaps rooted in the fact that the Kotel has absorbed a vast amount of our spiritual and psychological projection of belonging to our own Jewish community. Even the term "Wailing Wall," used in reference to the Kotel for so many years, seems to capture the emotionally heightened layers of Jewish hope that act as spiritual grouting between the large and beautiful Herodian stones. This projection of a symbol of belonging - belonging in space and time, in the arc of history - affects men just as much as it does women.

In 1988, the Israeli government transferred day-to-day supervision of the Kotel to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, a government-controlled, Charedi-influenced not-for-profit organisation. The agreement has since been extended to the end of 2015. The foundation head was given authority to define the "custom of the place", the Minhag HaMakom for the Kotel. A consequence has been the limiting of religious practices, such as men and women praying together on the Kotel plaza, women reading from a Torah scroll, and women equally having the right to wear prayer clothes. The stifling of women praying aloud at the Kotel is justified through disproportionate extension of the idea of kol ishah, "a woman's voice", the view of one talmudic rabbi, who called a woman's voice, erva, meaning "nakedness".

The monthly Women of the Wall services often attract physical and verbal antagonism, particularly from Charedi Jews but, until recently, none of those attacking the women was ever arrested. Now, however, the situation at the Kotel is changing. Last month, following an escalation of tension in which police detained women for wearing talitot and for saying the Shema aloud, the Jerusalem District Court provided a new interpretation of Minhag HaMakom that allows women to pray at the Kotel in a manner they see fit - to sing aloud, to wear a talit if they so choose, and to read Torah together.

The irony of Israel being one of few places where Jews are prevented from praying freely cannot escape our attention

Instead of the police detaining and arresting women for "disturbing the peace", there has been a complete about-turn. Now, those who physically attack women at prayer are being arrested. This is the right way. The Women of the Wall need physical protection - only a few weeks ago, an estimated 10,000 protesters were bussed into the Kotel area to demonstrate against them and intimidate them into stopping praying.

Rabbi Alexandra Wright, senior rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, was at the Kotel for the last Rosh Chodesh. As she detailed in a recent sermon, she witnessed the protesters "making crude signs, spitting… throwing stones, jeering, whistling, cat-calling, throwing rubbish and chairs, water and rocks towards the place where the Women of the Wall had gathered… It was terrifying. I have never felt such hatred, such fanaticism or seen such crude and uncontrolled behaviour as I witnessed that morning… At the same time, something had taken place: the monopoly of the religious far-right was destabilised that morning and I felt I was witnessing Israel take its first steps towards pluralism and equality."

As we approach Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, the spiritual leader of the Shas political party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, threatens to bring 100,000 protesters with him to the Kotel. It is to be hoped that this will not lead to a repeat or escalation of last month's violent outbursts.

The irony of Israel being one of few places in the world where Jews are prevented from praying freely cannot escape our attention. But there are encouraging changes on the horizon. Natan Sharansky, chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel, was asked by Benjamin Netanyahu to seek a solution for the tension. He has proposed raising the area of the Wall around the Robinson's Arch to enable an equally sized space at the Kotel for egalitarian prayer.

I was part of a group of cross-denominational British rabbis who met him last month and he stressed then that his proposals were motivated by a desire to increase the "of" - the level of belonging. He asked rhetorically: "How can people feel the state acts legitimately if the state is delegitimising their religious life?"

Sharansky - who served in the past as minister for the diaspora - pointed to the change in the climate of opinion in Israel. He maintains that in this climate lies an opportunity to ensure the feeling and reality of belonging of all Jews to the Jewish people.

Sharansky's work has been taken up in the Knesset. The chair of the Knesset's committee on the status of women (Aliza Lavi of Yesh Atid) has presented a bill promoting equally dividing - in terms of physical space - the Western Wall plaza. The men's section is currently three times bigger than the women's area and includes a covered space, something that is denied to women. She points out that altering this "is the beginning of a systematic, comprehensive and inevitable change in religious services in Israel… in order to return Judaism to the Israelis".

To echo Sharansky, the expansion of opportunities for prayer at the Kotel will not only return Judaism to Israelis, it will return Israel to the wider Jewish world, where there are many different expressions of devoutness. As British Jews, we tend to be good at this - our minhag is one where boundaries between denominations are permeable. In mainstream Anglo-Jewry we believe in decency towards other denominations - supporting other people's right to attend the "shul that I don't go to" or, in this case, "the section of the Kotel that I don't pray at".

We are witnessing a transformational moment in Jewish history. There is far more to this than just a controversy over a group of Orthodox and Reform women praying at the Kotel. What is at stake is the very nature of the Jewish people - the understanding of who is "of" and who is not "of". The ripples are spreading into the whole question of religious freedom in Israel and the future of Jewishness in the Jewish state. The very nature of Jewishness is under debate.

Away from the Kotel, questions are being asked about the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate (now mostly Charedi) and its monopoly over status issues and religious functions such as marriage, divorce, burial and conversion. The additional layers in this religious wall are the increasing attempts to impose gender segregation in the public sphere - whether it is the illegal practice of making women sit at the back of buses, or the banning of women's participation in official ceremonies and the erasure of female images in advertising.

A few years ago, these issues were not on the agenda in Israel. Now we are almost at the point of thinking they are normal. Perhaps we have become numb. It is time for us to be shocked again from the outset.

This month, the Israeli attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, asked the government to implement the Justice Ministry's proposals to criminalise gender discrimination and forbid gender separation at state ceremonies, health clinics, walking routes and public transportation.

It is indicative of a wider struggle for the future of Judaism, in Israel and the diaspora, between the exponentially growing Charedi minority and the non-Charedi community. In Israel, this struggle has been emphasised by the success of Yesh Atid, which flourished at the last election not least because of the strong opposition to the lack of Charedi conscription to the army and the deeply unbalanced burden of tax payments and the heavy reliance on state benefits. The Israeli government is now moving towards ending exemptions from the army for yeshiva students and overhauling the curriculum in Charedi schools.

In the summer of 1967, when taken by our parents to the Kotel following the Six-Day War. I remember my mother saying the Shema aloud with me. If I were standing at the Kotel today, I would find a quiet spot, and gently say, "May it be your will, our God and God of our ancestors, to bring the Jewish people together in freedom and equality so that, whatever our religious background, we are included in the possibilities and vitality of the most recent manifestation of Your covenant - the state of Israel." I just hope those around me would say "Amen".

Laura Janner-Klausner is rabbi to the Movement for Reform Judaism

Last updated: 10:45am, May 31 2013