According to A midrash, “Every Jew who ever was, and ever will be born, stood together at Sinai when the mountain smoked and trembled and G-d revealed the law to them.” We assume that meant men, women and children. But not everyone sees it that way.
Soon we will celebrate Shavuot, the receiving of the Torah, and it remains an issue among certain members of the Jewish community as to whether or not everyone has access to a physical Torah. In 2014, a young girl wanted to have her bat mitzvah at the Kotel (The Western Wall)—well that is the women’s side. She would be the first! But they had to smuggle a Torah to the site for the service. No one is allowed to bring anything to the site, and one must borrow the Torah from the ones there; but they are all on the men’s side, where women are forbidden.
For 27 years, Women of the Wall (Neshot Hakotel), a multi-denominational feminist organization based in Israel, has fought for equal rights at the Western Wall. As stated on their website, the group wants “the right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.” It has been, and continues to be a struggle. The ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel believe that only men can wear prayer shawls and read from the Torah. And the Orthodox Rabbinate has legal monopoly over all religious services for Jews in Israel, including the management of the Western Wall, writes Noam Sheizaf in +972 Magazine.
When the “Women of the Wall” hold monthly prayer services for women on Rosh Hodesh, they observe gender segregation so that Orthodox members may fully participate. But their use of religious garb, singing and reading from a Torah, has upset some members of the Orthodox Jewish community and sparked protests and arrests. As a result, religious rabbis often try to prevent the women from conducting their prayers at the wall and in the past women have been arrested and detained overnight.
In May 2013, a judge ruled that a 2003 Israeli Supreme Court ruling prohibiting women from carrying a Torah, or wearing prayer shawls, had been misinterpreted, and that Women of the Wall prayer gatherings at the wall should not be deemed illegal. Now, almost three years later in January 2016, “the Israeli Cabinet approved a plan to designate a new space at the Kotel, that would be available for egalitarian prayer and which would not be controlled by the Rabbinate.” The deal establishes a mixed zone on the southern part of the Western Wall. There is an already existing platform for prayer, that will be expanded to touch the wall, and a shared gate will lead to all prayer areas. This zone will be managed by a non-Orthodox committee.
Nonetheless, the decision remains highly controversial. Currently, there is one prayer area at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, which is the holiest site for Jews. It’s divided into a larger section for men, and a smaller one for women, that is fenced off, away from the wall and controlled by Israel’s Orthodox chief rabbinate.
“Haredi political leaders decried the agreement, cast doubts over whether they would allow it to be implemented, and berated the non-Orthodox as ‘clowns’ who would never get recognition in Israel,” and have threatened to withdraw over the government’s plan writes Jeremy Sharon of the Jerusalem Post. But the plan has “faced opposition from other factions as well.
“While it was praised by the Reform and Conservative movements as a historic step,” Eetta Prince-Gibson wrote in Ha’artez, “some of the strongest objections to the plan have come from traditionally observant women. They fear that “once the new pluralistic area is open, it is likely that regulations prohibiting women from organizing prayer groups in the existing women’s section will be enacted once again.”
“The chief custodian of the Western Wall, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, has already said that, once the new egalitarian space is set up, women will no longer be allowed to wear prayer shawls and tefillin in the traditional segregated area,” adds Gibson.
Sharon points out yet another concern: “to achieve this, WOW had to give up on its hard-fought right to pray at the central Western Wall plaza…. The Orthodox establishment won the right to declare the central Western Wall plaza to be a site for Orthodox prayer only… once the egalitarian site is completed,” he adds, “WOW will no longer be able to pray as they have done once a month over the last 27 years.”
Nevertheless, Anat Hoffman, veteran leader of Women of the Wall, sees it as a victory. “Instead of dividing us up, the new section will be truly pluralistic,” she said, “where each of us can pray according to our beliefs and yet be together.”
So what is it? A pragmatic compromise?; an affront to traditionally orthodox women?; or a victory for the pluralistic Jewish community of women? We shall see!
Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.