According to fast-breaking developments first reported this week by the Jewish Daily Forward and subsequently amplified in the New York Times, a compromise may be in the works that would allow women to lead services, carry Sifrei Torah (Torah Scrolls), and wear Tallitot (prayer shawls) at an expanded Western Wall Plaza in front of what many consider Judaism’s holiest site in Jerusalem. Men and women would be able to pray together. Reform, often referred to as “Liberal” outside the United States and Canada, and Conservative, known as Masorti in Israel and elsewhere, Jews and their rabbis and cantors would now be afforded the possibility of conducting their own liturgies, without disturbance.
In contrast, the current reality is that none of the above is allowed. The Orthodox establishment sets all the rules, sometimes seemingly with the enforcement authority of others. As a matter of fact, as recently as this past Wednesday, five Israeli women were arrested for the “crime” of brazenly wearing prayer shawls during their Rosh Hodesh (First of the Jewish Month) service at the Kotel (the Western Wall). Their alleged offense was not abiding by the rules of the rabbi in charge of the Wall who forbade women from wearing the traditional prayer garb of men. Parenthetically, these women were later released when a judge ruled that their conduct did not create “a public disturbance,” a supposed contributing ground for arraignment alongside the murky minhag ha’makom (local custom) justification of the Kotel rabbi.
So, what’s going on? What made it possible for egalitarianism to trump male domination (if in fact it has) in the proposed compromise? Does the new development mean that these women, who are part of a group known as “Women of the Wall,” will not be arrested the next time around? And what of the Orthodox rabbi who rules the roost at the Wall? Will he accept this news without protest?
The catch of the compromise is that the area referred to in the compromise solution is not the current Western Wall Plaza with its center piece Kotel, but rather a proposed expansion of the plaza around the corner at the southern edge, known as Robinson’s Arch. The latter is currently poorly lit, unpaved, and much less accessible than the main Wall area. The ground level is not the same as that of the existing Plaza, nor is the ease of walking within it, because of the proliferation of exposed archeological digs. Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the “chief negotiator” in this matter, advanced the idea of expanding the Plaza such that it will encompass Robinson’s Arch. There will be single security access for everyone, who can then proceed to one Wall or the other. The ground levels will be equalized, and the dirt at Robinson’s Arch would be paved with the same stone as the rest of the area. Lighting, as well as storage of prayer-related materials, would be comparable in both areas. Finally, there would be 24-hour-a-day access, as at the Kotel.
Sharansky is seeking to win support for his idea during a yet-to-be-completed United States tour. But when all is said and done, is it reasonable for religious moderates and liberals to gravitate to such a solution?
On one hand, it would be a major breakthrough — an unforeseen move forward in a country in which the ultra-Orthodox are given disproportionate governmental subsidies for synagogues and programs. And indeed, in the State of Israel, only “certified” Orthodox rabbis are considered “official” Jewish clergy.
However, it is important to consider the understandable concern of anyone who adopts the notion central to the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Brown vs. the Board of Education desegregation decision that proclaimed that anything separate is inherently unequal. We would be well-served to anticipate the argument that the “actual” Kotel is the more authentic site. After all, it was there that Israelis of all stripes gathered after the 1967 Six Day War to celebrate the triumphant return of the most sacred space to its “original owners.” A reflective person might wonder whether the compromise makes it less likely that one day, consideration might be given to sharing the Kotel itself, and perhaps scheduling different modalities of worship at different times. And what will happen during the proposed two years of construction of the expanded plaza?
To be continued in a future article….a lot may happen between now and then.