When the Forward reported Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky’s proposal with regard to Women of the Wall yesterday, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. The proposal seemed, at first glance, most accurately described by a Failed Messiah headline that summed it up as “same old, same old.” Sure, the Western Wall plaza would be expanded to allow for the creation of a permanent egalitarian prayer section, which would be open around the clock. But it would be over by Robinson’s Arch—not quite in front of the Western Wall. Since Robinson’s Arch was already the area previously designated for these women’s monthly gatherings—and since I’d prayed there with them before, and was very much aware of how separate that area can feel from the Wall itself—I was less than impressed by the compromise. To be honest, I’m still not fully satisfied by it. But I’ve come to realize that there are five big things the proposal’s got going for it.
1. While this solution is ideal for nobody, it seems to be livable for everybody.The Orthodox rabbi who oversees the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, told the press that although it doesn’t match his worldview, he “can live with this solution.” Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall, likewise explained that, “It’s not everything we were hoping for, but we will compromise.” Finding a solution that can satisfy both a very traditional Orthodox rabbi and a very progressive feminist Reform leader is no small feat—especially in Israel, where inter-denominational dynamics are beyond tense.
2. This exercise in compromise could serve as a model for dealing with Israeli inter-denominational politics more broadly.“Compromise is a sign of maturity and understanding what’s at stake here,” Hoffman said when explaining why she decided to support Sharansky’s plan. She’s right, of course, and by being willing to make comprises, she and her Orthodox interlocutors are modeling an approach that will hopefully become emblematic of how Israel handles inter-denominational disputes.Note that as recently as December 2012, it was Hoffman’s stated mission not just to achieve a change in management at the Wall, but “to dismantle the Western Wall Heritage Foundation” helmed by Rabinowitz. If Sharansky’s plan is implemented, that foundation won’t be dismantled; it will continue to run the men’s and women’s sections, while the egalitarian section will be governed by others, probably the Jewish Agency and non-Orthodox denominations. Hoffman knows this and has apparently made her peace with it. And, when you think about it, it makes good liberal sense: the Orthodox have a right to govern their sections according to their norms, just as the non-Orthodox have a right to govern theirs. The problem isn’t the existence of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, but its current hegemony. Sharansky’s solution would dismantle that, making room—quite literally—for other denominations to engage with Jewish ritual as they see fit.
This equitable approach, which aims not to eradicate Orthodox power wholesale but to give it its proper place along with the other denominations, seems to be gaining ground in Israel these days. It’s what MK Ruth Calderon advocated in her now-famous inaugural Knesset speech, and it’s what will hopefully become the model by which many of Israel’s inter-denominational disputes are resolved.
3. This solution would represent a huge step forward for religious pluralism in Israel—a step that stands to have broader legal implications.
Given that the state of Israel currently exhibits an institutionalized—that is, legally enshrined—preference for Orthodox Judaism, the decision to empower non-Orthodox denominations at the Wall could actually serve as a legal precedent. As the Forward noted, it’s “not yet clear whether current Israeli law allows for a religious area, such as the proposed egalitarian section, to be governed by non-Orthodox denominations.” If the Israeli government musters the political will to make Sharansky’s plan a reality, it will be helping to dislodge the country’s institutionalized preference for Orthodoxy and helping the cause of religious pluralism writ large.
4. This solution is a coup for American Jews, whose sustained pressure catalyzed Netanyahu’s decision to task Sharansky with creating it.
American Jews are often doubtful about how much power they actually have to effect change in Israel. But the struggle over Women of the Wall shows that American public opinion really does matter, at least in this sphere. What’s especially noteworthy is that the groundswell of support Women of the Wall have received from U.S. Jews—on display at last month’s solidarity prayer meeting in New York City—has been mostly a grassroots thing, not a top-down thing. That’s empowering: American Jews may be disaffected with their politicians’ ability to shepherd Israel toward peace, but today, they’re sure not disaffected with their own ability to shepherd it toward Jewish religious pluralism.
5. Creating a third prayer area that is not segregated by gender comes with distinct advantages.
Women of the Wall initially indicated that they would refuse to be shunted off to the side—that is, to Robinson’s Arch—since, as Hoffman has said, “Women of the Wall are not going to be banished to a separate space, because we don’t think separate is equal.” Their ideal would have been being able to pray—wearing prayer shawls, reading from the Torah, and singing out loud—with their feet firmly planted in the women’s section. But given the level of Orthodox resistance to this goal (not just from men, but from women, too), it seems the time is not yet ripe for that. And that may not actually be a bad thing: after all, there are real advantages to having a third prayer section, one where worshippers are not gender-segregated.
Consider, for example, the perspectives of many transgender Jews and of Jews who do not subscribe to the gender binary. For somebody who identifies as neither “he” nor “she,” or as both, a tripartite division of the Wall may well come as a blessing, since it creates a safe space to pray regardless of gender expression. We’d also do well to remember that praying in an egalitarian setting is just as important to many feminist men as it is to feminist women; these men will also benefit from a tripartite division, since it’ll allow them, too, to pray in the manner they find most just, fulfilling, and uplifting.
Finally, going to pray at Judaism’s holiest site and not having gender be the great divide that sends half of us scurrying to the left and half of us scurrying to the right will make for a very powerful experience. It will say as much about how we think about gender as how we think about Judaism. Even if that experience takes place a few feet away from the Western Wall proper, it may be an experience well worth having.