Fetishizing the Western Wall

06.14.13 8:30 PM ET

That I found myself disagreeing with the thrust of Bernard Avishai’s skeptical piece on Women of the Wall, published today in these pages, came as a surprise. Bernard is a terrific writer and thinker whom I greatly respect; typically, when reading his pieces, I find myself doing a lot of nodding. This time, however, I shook my head, even though I thoroughly agree with most of his basic points.

I agree, for instance, that the Western Wall “should never have been turned into Israel's Great Synagogue.” I agree that by fighting for the equal right to “proximity to holiness,” the Women of the Wall prayer group concedes to Orthodoxy the supreme value of that metric. And I agree that there is something fundamentally problematic about fighting for religious equality in the eyes of a democratic state, “without challenging the state's right to be an arbiter in those precincts.”

And yet, if you were to ask me whether I thought Women of the Wall’s struggle was misguided, whether I thought that struggle seemed like “pretty nearly a complete missing of the point,” my answer would be a resounding “no.” Let me explain why.

First off, it’s worth noting that although Women of the Wall is helmed primarily by non-Orthodox women—Anat Hoffman, the group’s leader, also heads up the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel—the group also includes many women who identify as Orthodox. In their minds, the “proximity to holiness” metric may indeed reign supreme; they likely wouldn’t view espousing that ideology as a “concession” to Orthodoxy, since (from their perspective) it forms an authentic part of their own worldview. Even though that metric doesn’t hold pride of place in my own worldview, I wouldn’t tell them to excise it from theirs.

But here’s the thing: even if you think it should be excised, even if you think that to struggle this way over the Western Wall is “to compete with Orthodoxy in the worship of idols” (Bernard’s words, with which I agree), even if you think that it amounts to “the fetishization of one set of stones” (the Forward’s words, with which I agree)—that doesn’t mean you should give up supporting these women’s efforts. 

If you’ll allow me an analogy from somewhat different quarters—consider the debate over gay marriage. Not very long ago, liberal media outlets—and the LGBTQ community itself—were rife with disagreement over whether gay marriage was something even worth fighting for. Why fight for the right to partake in what is essentially an outdated, patriarchal, crumbling institution that values monogamy at the expense of other aspects of human flourishing? So the argument went. And the answers came pouring in: Because. Because even if you think the institution of marriage is far from ideal, you have to recognize that many within the LGBTQ community still see value in it, and that they should have the right to partake in it if they so choose. Today, that line of thinking seems, by and large, to have won out.

It should win out here, too.

I remember that, when I was 17 and living in Jerusalem, I once interviewed Women of the Wall leader Bonna Haberman for an essay I was writing on feminism and Jewish law. She explained the goal of feminism in one simple word: flexibility. Women of the Wall, and feminists more broadly, thought women should have the right to as broad a range of options as possible, she said. I thought: who could argue with that?

I still think that. Although, personally, I’m no more keen on glorifying the Western Wall over and above other sites than I am on glorifying the institution of marriage over and above other relationship models, I support both Women of the Wall and gay marriage because I see them as being fundamentally about maximizing options, flexibility, liberty. Like Bernard, I’m no fan of fetishizing the Western Wall, but the fact is that it is now as powerful a symbol for many Jews as marriage is for many members of the general population. Such symbols should be freely accessible to all.

The desire to achieve that accessibility now—as an interim goal—is valid, even though Women of the Wall’s struggle for state-supported religious pluralism is not the same thing as a struggle for separation of religion and state—which, yes, should be the ultimate, long-term goal here. The two goals are different, but they’re not mutually exclusive; they can proceed in tandem, and we can—and should—support them both.