|Women's Section at Kotel - Photo by Silversteinb|
So it is often difficult to understand in these modern times, how the change of a single date could, with one chosen action, get someone arrested.
|Photo by Michal Patelle|
|Photo courtesy of Women of the Wall|
|Photo by Michal Patelle|
And rabbinical and legal limitations are not the only obstacles they face when they turn up. There are threats, condemnations and outward attacks from their critics.
There are attempted burnings of their materials by enraged bystanders (as occurred last week). And most recently, there are restrictions to their ability to perform Kaddish in public, one of the most sacred prayers of Judaism (although according to Cheryl Birkner Mack, a spokesperson for the group, it is not their custom to say the prayer at the Kotel at this time).
|"Riot" - Photo courtesy of Women of the Wall|
Majority rule? In Jerusalem, or in Israel as a whole?
Affiliation and religious practice have always been difficult issues to quantify in Israel, particularly since Conservative and Reform Jews are generally not counted as such in Israeli census, and because of the historic debate over the appropriateness of taking an accurate census of the Jewish people. So there is a fair amount of variation in results depending on whose figures you use.
But according to a 2009 survey (page 30) published by the Israel Democracy Institute, only 7 percent of those surveyed throughout Israel identified themselves as Haredi (up from 5 percent in 1999). The number who claimed to be Orthodox were barely more than twice that – 15 percent (11 percent in 1991). Jews who defined themselves as “traditional” numbered more than twice the Orthodox (32 percent/33 respectively). For the purpose of the IDI survey, the religious affiliations of those who maintained “traditional” customs were not defined.
|Photo by Naamanus|
Haredi affiliation is substantially greater inside Jerusalem than in Israel as a whole. According to the City of Jerusalem’s 2009 figure, 21.3 percent, or 165,000 of the total municipal population (772,982) identified themselves as Haredi, while 497,036 identified themselves as Jewish in general. The city points out in footnote that the accepted statistic that is generally applied to Haredi residents within the city of Jerusalem is 30 percent.
But try as they might, statistics often don’t tell the whole story about a people, and this is certainly the case when it comes to Israel’s complex understanding of minhag. So what about history? Can Jerusalem’s significant Jewish history help define what should be considered local custom?
Several writers have posed this question, including Bonna Devora Haberman, one of the group's organizers following its start in 1988. Tradition at the Kotel, Dr. Haberman says in her book, Israeli Feminism Liberating Judaism, isn’t as much a custom of place, than a coexistence of conventions:
|Photo by Leif Knutsen|
The website and nonprofit group, Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue) echoes this statement in its introductory description, The History of Jewish Diversity.
“Today, Israel is one of the most racially, ethnically, and nationally diverse countries in the world, with immigrants from over 70 countries.” The author goes further to point out that “the story of the Jewish people is filled with interracial and intercultural mixing.”
|Photo courtesy of Israel Defense Forces|
So how can there be one definitive minhag at Israel’s holiest prayer site?
Haberman notes that “Until Israeli sovereignty, there had been no separation between men and women at the Western Wall.” She goes on to explain the events that unfolded in 1968, a year after the Kotel had been reclaimed by Israeli forces, that brought about the changes to minhag at the Western Wall.
|Photo by Saga Olsén|
So how can there be a minhag that supposedly defines historical practice at the Kotel?
|Art work by Ephraim Moses Lilian|
|Photo by Beggs|
But realistically, it will likely take many years before such a concession could become part of the minhag hamakom at the Kotel. And while the “new” women’s section that has been proposed with the help of Natan Sharansky may offer an option, one must ask whether this idea - which will take years to implement - is a compromise for both sides or a palliative measure that excuses one from recognizing the rights and human needs of another.
As Daniel Atwood, a writer for Yeshiva University’s publication The Commentator expressed in his March 10, 2013 editorial, “Ironically, it is baseless hatred of other Jews that the Gemara faults as being the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple,” which the writer points out once stood footsteps from the portion of the Kotel that remains today. “Hopefully a solution will come about that recognizes the diversity of Jews who pray at the Kotel,” and, he points out, without making those who are more conservative in their beliefs feel uneasy in their place of worship.
“Hopefully each side will be willing to accept such a compromise.”
Update: On April 25, 2013 the courts ruled in favor of the Women of the Wall's right to pray at the Kotel, by supporting the Magistrate's Court decision of Judge Sharon Lary-Bavly that the five women who were arrested on April 11, 2013 for praying out loud and for wearing prayer shawls should not have been detained, and that they had not disturbed public order. Judge Moshe Sobel, who had reviewed the case in response to a police appeal, also found that:
- the earlier recommendation that the Women of the Wall pray at the Robinson's Arch did not mean they could not pray in the women's section of the Kotel;
- their choice to pray in the women's section does not imply they have committed a criminal act;
- they are not violating a law concerning "minhag hamakom (local customs). "(Legal) proceedings of Women of the Wall establish that the “local custom” is to be interpreted with National and pluralistic implications, not necessarily Orthodox Jewish customs (per Women of the Wall press release);
- if they were to be found disturbing public order it doesn't mean they endangered public peace.
Please see next week's posting (May 5) for follow-up information on the Women of the Wall.