A room of one’s own–at the Kotel

lily and torahNext time I go to Israel, I want to read Torah at the Kotel. I want to lead davening, or prayer, the way I do at New City Jewish Center. I want to don tefillin the way I did at The Bayit in Riverdale, without any of that group of Orthodox women batting an eye.

I want to do what I normally do as a Jew who tries to observe her tradition within her contemporary understanding of it. So when I next stand at the Kotel, I want it to move me. I don’t want it to feel like a historical site. I want it to feel like a part of my living breathing Judaism, one that stretches back into the ancient past when those stones where hewn and extends well into the future, beyond where my eyes and imagination can wander.

And now, maybe I will have that chance. In late January, the Israeli government agreed to create an upgraded, egalitarian prayer space. In this space, men and women can worship together, something they currently cannot do at the Western Wall. The haredi authorities who dictate what is permissible in religious life in Israel and control the site may not have voted for it officially, but that it happened at all was a concession nonetheless.

And yet no sooner had the terms been struck, that the backlash began. Critics decried the joy of various movements–Reform, Conservative and women’s–as misguided. Egalitarian worship of Jews who did not wish to pray in separate sex conditions, may now have a section of its own. But for many this was seen as capitulating to the ultra-Orthodox, banishing egalitarian worship to some part of the Kotel that is not “real,” and not the part people picture when they dream of standing in its presence.

Nonetheless, the agreement is historic, and one I couldn’t have imagined even a few years ago: that a section of the Kotel, to the right of the existing prayer area, will be renovated for women and men who wish to worship together, with women able to lead prayers and read from the Torah. The section, known as Robinson’s Arch, currently small and somewhat hidden, has been available for egalitarian worship, but will now be expanded.

On the downside: The proposed area, at nearly 10,000 square feet, is less than half the size of the existing prayer space where men and women pray separately. It is also very much separate from the other two spaces, and only 31 feet of the actual wall is exposed to worshippers.

The compromise also includes the plaza space at the back, which is often used for Israel Defense Force swearing-in and other public ceremonies. That section will no longer fall under haredi rule. So no longer will women pledging themselves to serve the state be humiliated by not being allowed sing Hatikvah aloud when they do so.

Is the solution ideal. No. Does it seem egalitarian when the new section seems smaller and hidden? Not by a long shot. Is it the best we’re going to get for now? Do I really need to answer that?

Many have pointed out that this was a cause of the diaspora Jews and of Women of the Wall, the advocacy group that has been leading services since 1998 in the Kotel women’s section. They have fought the good fight for 27 years, as they have gathered to daven and, more lately, read Torah each Rosh Hodesh. They have been interrupted and heckled. They have had stones, bottles and dirty diapers thrown at them. More than 20 years ago, my friend Elyse put a photo of haredi men throwing chairs over the mechitza, the wall that separates the men’s from the women’s sections at the wall on her refrigerator. She asked, “Why when Palestinians throw rocks at Jews is it an act of terror, and when Jewish men throw chairs at Jewish women it is not?”

There wasn’t an answer that made sense then, and there isn’t one now. So perhaps, this separate section is the best response Israel can manage. The cause was not one that resonated with Israeli women in the same way it does their diaspora sisters (one could argue that secular Israeli women may simply see Judaism as it is practiced under haredi auspices as simply not for them). But as Women of the Wall, led by Anat Hoffman, kept up the pressure, the government agreed to take a harder look. In 2012, Natan Sharansky, chairman for the Jewish Agency, headed the effort that yielded the current compromise.

Perhaps the section is, as critics say, simply too much out of sight, out of mind. I’ve also heard the concern that, since this area is not the place people think of as the Kotel, no one but the most dedicated egalitarian worshippers will head there.

But since everyone will have to enter in one place and then separate into three corridors to go to their respective destinations–men, women and egal, maybe we will all simply see Jewish worship in its variety heading to a place that occupies an outsize place in the collective Jewish imagination. Maybe young Jewish women of all sorts will be exposed on their walk to the women’s corridor to an idea that might not have ever occurred to them before (maybe that’s what authorities fear).

My own jury is still out, and may be until I see this new space with my own eyes and daven there in my own way. This is only one piece in ongoing acceptance of progressive Jewish practice in Israel. When marriages, conversions and other lifecycle events can be dealt with outside the iron rule of the haredi–that will be true progress.

My one concern for now is that Orthodox women who wish to read from a Torah or lead davening for women have been overlooked. I’m not sure where this deal leaves then, since they won’t be able to do this in this new space accommodating men and women, and the haredi authorities have clearly shown their disdain for women who worship in this way in the main women’s section. They make up a small sliver of Jewish practice, but they exist nonetheless, have been part of the push for a solution, and deserve as much as anyone a place to pray at the Kotel.

Last year, my daughter, Lily, was in a very progressive mechina, or pre-army, study program in Tel Aviv. On her last Rosh Chodesh in Israel she convinced participants in the program to put their values where their mouths were and travel to Jerusalem to pray with Women of the Wall at the Kotel. The photo she texted me, beaming, holding the Torah, says it all. “Next time” had arrived.




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