The latest twist in the saga over women’s prayer at the Western Wall has seen the Women of the Wall group abandoning its previous support for the Sharansky plan. Tasked with finding a compromise between women’s prayer activists and the (male) Orthodox rabbis who control the Kotel prayer area, Jewish Agency chief Natan Sharansky had proposed expanding and elevating the Robinson’s Arch area—which had already been operating as a smaller and limited-hours egalitarian prayer space since 2004—to make it flush with the Kotel plaza, including a joint entrance.
A recent and groundbreaking Jerusalem District court ruling stating that Women of the Wall can continue to pray as they see fit in the women’s section has led group leader Anat Hoffman to abandon the compromise. “We have three options: to reject Sharansky’s plan, to embrace Sharansky’s plan or to say that right now it is not relevant for Women of the Wall,” Hoffman said, adding that “it’s completely not relevant for us.”
Hoffman’s about-face has left me feeling stung. As a Jewish woman who enjoys leading prayers, chanting from the Torah, singing aloud, and whose custom it is to wear a tallit (prayer shawl), I have championed Women of the Wall’s struggle against the draconian laws governing the public space. I can certainly admit that my personal spiritual needs—when I next find myself at the Kotel—will have been protected by the recent court ruling. But to me there is a yawning gap between the protection of women’s rights to pray undisturbed in the women’s section, and the kind of egalitarian Judaism that deserves to be emboldened, particularly in Israel.
On our last family trip to the Kotel plaza in Jerusalem, my then 7-year-old daughter became perfectly steamed upon discovering that she and I would have to hive off to the (much smaller) women’s section while her dad and brother joined the men in the main portion of the Kotel. To my daughter, who thankfully had never learned about the kol isha (women’s voice) prohibition and who was unaware of the controversy surrounding the donning of a woman’s tallit, having our family be physically divided at what must have felt like a pivotal moment of Jewish-sightseeing-meets-spiritual-encounter clearly seemed inappropriate.
I recognize that any organizational head must conserve her group’s resources in accordance with the organization’s strategic mandate. But there is something unnerving about being so myopic that one loses sight of the fact that for many Jews, and for the majority of North American Jews in particular, the binaries of gender identity are something to be relaxed—not reified—in the context of worship. Not only are families like mine more comfortable with the experience of egalitarian worship, but what of the two gay dads who want to bring their daughter to the Kotel, or the two lesbian moms who want to pray alongside their son? Or the transgender Jew who may wish to not have to “choose a side” altogether?
As executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center (the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel), and in her role as chair of Women of the Wall, Hoffman knows about the sensitivity to egalitarian Judaism opportunities in Israel better than anyone.
Beyond allowing women to pray in an array of styles and traditions, the Robinson’s Arch compromise would have signaled the importance of a more fluid and ultimately much more unifying sense of klal yisrael—the message that to many Jews, Jewish practice and the direct and tactile experience of Jewish history is best done all together: man and woman, boy and girl, person and person. Women of the Wall’s about-face may well cost us that opportunity.