Modern changes suddenly are afoot at Jerusalem’s ancient Western Wall. Two developments this week signal greater access for Jews who seek to pray in their own way at the 2,000-year-old surviving outer retaining wall of the Second Temple, Judaism’s holiest site.
In a landmark decision, Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled Monday that women can hold group prayer services at the Wall, wear prayer shawls, read aloud from the Torah — and must be provided police protection.
The court decision constitutes a victory for the Women of The Wall, who have been fighting an 11-year legal — and sometimes physical — battle for safe access to the holy site.
The court gave the government six months to devise a plan for the women, who are Orthodox, Conservative and Reform but use Orthodox liturgy.
Left undecided is when and exactly where they can pray.
Meanwhile, in a separate development, the Israeli government announced a compromise with the Conservative movement permitting worshipers to hold egalitarian prayer services at the southern end of the wall, but at a separate section known as Robinson’s Arch. The government had offered the arch as an alternative to the Conservatives’ demand to hold mixed prayer services at the Wall.
Orthodox groups quickly denounced the developments, which were hailed by advocates of religious pluralism.
“We’ve come out of the Middle Ages, and we will soon hold the first bat mitzvah ceremony at the Kotel,” declared Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman about the court decision.
“This is the first time that a government of Israel has conducted negotiations with us and has agreed to the principle that the Conservative movement is a legitimate stream of Judaism,” Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of Masorti, Israel’s Conservative movement, said of the compromise.
Ironically, the Conservatives have accepted the arch location that women — and now the High Court — have rejected as an acceptable alternative. One Brooklyn-based women’s activist told The Jewish Week she was shocked that the Conservative leaders agreed to the site, saying it is rocky and unsafe. She said, too, that the area allows no physical access to the Western Wall stones and is unsuitable for group prayer.
Further, Rivka Haut, a director of the International Committee for the Women of the Wall, said Israeli archeologists told her they strongly oppose people using the space because it is the last untouched site from the Second Temple and they fear it being defaced.
“The [Israeli] Antiquities Department made it clear it is adamantly opposed to any prayer there,” she said. I don’t understand how they can have a prayer group there.”
Haut, however, hailed the Women of the Wall court decision as a boon for women’s right to pray. “At the heart of this struggle is truly a desire for woman to be accepted as equally spiritual beings,” she said.
The three-judge panel wrote that the women “have the right to pray according to their custom in the Western Wall Plaza.” The judges also rejected the government’s long-standing argument that violence would erupt from those opposing a group of women praying together on the women’s side of the Wall prayer area.
Orthodox opponents — right wing and moderate — blasted the court decision. Some vowed to fight back by pushing for a law that would only allow certain kinds of prayer at the Wall.
The decision “turns the holiest place to the Jewish people into a place where none of us will be able to pray because it will be the site of the worst kind of sacrilege,” said United Torah Judaism Party official Moshe Gafni.
Avi Shafran, spokesman for the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, accused the High Court judges of meddling in religious matters that should be decided by the chief rabbinate. He said the ruling would victimize Orthodox men who are prohibited from hearing a women’s singing voice.
Even Rabbi Michael Melchior, the moderate minister of diaspora affairs, criticized the decision and warned it could lead to a “terrible and violent dispute.”
But Blu Greenberg, president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, called the decision “not only a legal victory but a watershed decision in Jewish life and history, and also a landmark event in the unfolding of Israeli realpolitik regarding state and religion.
“Now comes the hard task of altering reality without fracturing the community,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Conservative movement compromise sheds light on a philosophical split with the Reform movement over the battle for equal right in Israel.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, leader of the Reform movement in the United States, strongly rejected the deal.
“In the language of the civil rights movement, praying at Robinson’s Arch is the equivalent of praying ‘in the back of the bus,’ ” he said.
Rabbi Yoffie said the solution was for Israel to divide the Western Wall and to designate a section for egalitarian prayer by the non-Orthodox.
Sephardic Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron supported the compromise. “Any agreement which brings about a decline in tension between worshipers at the site and which leads to preservation of respect and holiness for the site is welcome,” he said.
Under the agreement, Conservative Jews can say morning prayers once a week, during Tisha b’Av and on other holidays. Schedules must be approved in advance and space is limited to 100 worshipers. The government promised to provide a Torah scroll, prayerbooks, a mobile ark and storage space.
Reform leader Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch said the agreement does not resolve the real issue of equal access for all Jews. But several American Conservative leaders defended the compromise.
“I think our compromise is a decent approach to try and resolve a highly emotionally charged issue in a good way,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, head of the Rabbinical Assembly. “We’re willing to say we’ll take an incremental approach to achieve equality.”
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said the deal does not mean the branch has abandoned its goal for full access.
“This is not over,” he said.