Thursday, April 18, 2013

Women of the Wall and Diversity at the Kotel

Women's Section at Kotel - Photo by Silversteinb

For many Jews in the Western Hemisphere, the beginning of a new month on the Hebrew calendar occurs with little fanfare. We may learn of its passage at synagogue as we’re participating in Jewish prayers, or we may notice the incidental change of date at the top of our favorite Jewish newspaper. But for many North American Jews, the celebratory beginning of the Hebrew month has little effect on their daily rituals of work, family life, or how they spend our coveted hours of rest.

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
But every 30 days or so, at the beginning of the new moon, a group of women gather at the center of Jerusalem where Jewish faith and culture have intersected for thousands of years, and acknowledge the beginning of the new Hebrew month. As they arrive at their spot at the Kotel, the Western Wall, they pull out their sidurim, don their tallisim and with a little luck and a whole lot of guts, unveil their Torah scroll.
Photo courtesy of Women of the Wall

Their efforts to celebrate the beginning of the month with songs and prayers are usually concluded with arrests for contravening the stated minhag hamakom (the local customs determined to be relevant to davening at Kotel). It doesn’t matter that they are not within the bounds of an Orthodox synagogue and that they are not attempting to address an Orthodox congregation.

Photo by Michal Patelle
The right of these "Women of the Wall" to gather and to worship united as Jews at the Kotel is not allowed if it goes against minhag, which in short, does not include the practice of women being heard or visibly participating in Jewish prayer.

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
What lies at the center of all this controversy is not really an Israeli law, or a part of Jewish halacha, but the complex and confusing definition of customary traditions, of minhag hamokom. What makes up this concept of order, and how do we define it, particularly when it relates to a public landmark? What parameters, statistics, or historical relevance does one use for figuring out what is local custom?

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
The greatest percentage came from those who claimed to be secular. A whopping 46/43 percent identified themselves as secular but “not anti-religious.” The smallest group said that they were secular and “anti-religious” (6/3).

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 practices at the Western Wall reflect the diversity of Israeli society; there is no liturgy common to all Jews, no fixed protocol. At any moment on the men’s side of the partition at the Western Wall, there are coexisting assemblies of prayer communities, each following its particular customs.”

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
It did not herald a complete separation of men and women at the Wall until much later. I remember standing amid both men and women near the center of the wall during several visits in 1974. Some of those around me had came to daven. Others had come to photograph. Many others had come to touch the wall, and still others to add their written prayers to the Kotel. While there was a mechitza that cordoned off a small part of the wall (which during one visit was in the center, between two open areas, not at the north end), there were no stringent prohibitions against men and women gathering together, and no restrictions against women being at the Kotel while men were davening.

So how can there be a minhag that supposedly defines historical practice at the Kotel?

Art work by Ephraim Moses Lilian
Compromise and the acceptance of cultural diversity have always been a part of Jewish ethos. The Talmud exemplifies this attitude, as does the Shulchan; their treatises on Jewish customs are the product of thousands of years of debate and discussion amongst scholars living in distinct communities. Many times the end product resulted in compromise between diverse perspectives; other times the outcome was the inevitable recognition that there is more than one way to address an issue (as the Shulchan Aruch demonstrates with its acceptance of both Ashkenazi and Sephardi customs).

The very fact that minhag and halacha can coexist in Jewish thought and practice suggests that diversity has a place in Jewish tradition, as does compromise.

Photo by Beggs
A ten minute walk from the Kotel takes one to another historic landmark, where the passage of time seems just as irrelevant to the traditions and customs of the day. But here, the preservation of spiritual traditions isn’t defined by a single culture, but by a egalitarian consensus between five distinct Christian denominations that has been in effect for more than a thousand years. At least three different Easter services are held at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as each denomination takes their rightful turn at the altar to conduct their Palm Sunday service. The use of Jerusalem’s holiest Christian landmark is a shared compromise with a finely balanced timetable that allows all denominations to observe their holiest day in their own way.

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.
The police's appeal to have the five women restricted in their access to the Kotel or a possible exile to the Robinson's Arch was therefore rejected by the courts.
Please see next week's posting (May 5) for follow-up information on the Women of the Wall. 


  1. Anat Hoffman was one of my teachers during the Beutel Fellowship when I was in Israel in 2008. Extraordinary woman. Another, Nicky Maor, an Australian woman who made aliyah many years ago, is part of the IRAC legal team who are fighting for women's right to equal access at the Kotel among other issues of equity and equality for ALL Jews in Israel. It is terrible to realise that we can have so much harmful divisiveness within our community when what we need so badly is to pull together.

    Great post Jan.

  2. Thank you for such an insightful post.

    One small note re: "What lies at the center of all this controversy is not really an Israeli law, or a part of Jewish halacha, but the complex and confusing definition of customary traditions, of minhag hamokom."

    Israeli law actually is part of the controversy -- along with political, religious and social issues.

    See WOW's website for details on the current laws specifically applicable to their cause, including "The Protection of Holy Places Law."

    Joel Katz
    Religion and State in Israel