In the Jerusalem Post recently, you offered your vision of the Western Wall as a place of inclusiveness,
a sort of time-sharing arrangement of sacred space in which Orthodox and egalitarian prayer could rotate at the Wall. And you cited the painful experience of the Women of the Wall — a group of religious women from across the denominational spectrum and in which you participate — whose monthly attempts to pray together at the Wall have been met by violence and verbal abuse.
I share your vision. As the state founded by Zionism, the ideology of Jewish peoplehood, Israel must not cede Judaism to any one denomination’s control. The ongoing monopoly of Orthodox prayer at the Wall is a painful symbol of Zionism’s failure so far to fulfill its promise of inclusive peoplehood.
The question is how to bring change. For over two decades, the Women of the Wall’s monthly prayer gatherings have resulted only in violence against women, frustration and bitterness, and disgrace to Judaism and the state of Israel — a true desecration of God’s name. The responsibility for that belongs to those who attack Jewish women whose only crime is trying to pray together.
Still, after all these years of thwarted effort, the time has come for Women of the Wall to reconsider its approach. The Orthodox monopoly at the Wall will not be undone by frontal challenge. Religious change doesn’t happen by using the confrontational techniques of political change but by drawing on inner spiritual resources.
In addition to the pain of the specific individuals arrested is the pain of an entire sector of the Jewish people who feel that their voices are being silenced while praying to God at a sacred place in Jerusalem that should belong to the entire Jewish people.
But they are not at all frustrated or bitter. While I have been critical of Women of the Wall in the past, because I believe we have many more important issues to confront, Women of the Wall has captured the minds and souls of Jews worldwide because it symbolizes the sacred desire of the entire Jewish people to be equally at home in the Jewish state. They are only growing stronger and deepening their spiritual power, love of God and desire to strengthen Israel and the Jewish people.
Had our Zionist ancestors become passive in the fulfillment of their spiritual desires, because other Jews rejected their approach of direct political confrontation to redeem this sacred land, the existential consequences would have been even more catestrophic.
You and I have both invested enormous energy in trying to help more Jews from around the world reconnect with this Jewish state and this sacred land. But Jewish women — and perhaps liberal Jews in general — cannot possibly feel fully at home here if they are denied the powerful ritual experiences permitted for Orthodox Jews. So it is no wonder that many Jews, both women and men, do not feel that they can call Israel their homeland. It is precisely because of the lack of equal access to sacred sites such as the Western Wall that many feel alienated from this place.
Nothing truly spiritually great can be achieved in this country if it means relinquishing authority and resources to a single group of men. Much of the great progress made in Israel in the areas of civil rights, of social justice, and of religious pluralism has occurred only because of the tireless and heroic battles of groups of visionary Zionist lovers of Judaism. Women of the Wall is no different.
Could you really feel spiritually at home in this sacred place if only some Jews continue to have religious freedom and spiritual fulfillment? I believe that your spiritual fulfillment also depends on ending every chilul hashem and transforming this place into a place of kiddush hashem — the sanctification of God’s name? As for me, I will continue to work — on every level — to ensure that all Jews are allowed the same spiritual fulfillment you rightfully seek for yourself.
The Israeli government has set aside the area of the Wall around Robinson’s Arch for non-Orthodox prayer. It has recently announced plans to renovate the area. This seems to me an unprecedented opportunity to change the status quo. Why not declare victory? The Women of the Wall, along with the non-Orthodox denominations, should plan on turning the Robinson’s Arch area into a place of active, ongoing, profound prayer.
There is no chance whatsoever that the area that is now considered the “main” Kotel will be shared in any fashion with non-Orthodox prayer. But Robinson’s Arch is no less “the Kotel” than the area controlled by the Orthodox.
The return to the Kotel itself has come to represent for the Jewish People worldwide the ultimate symbol of coming home, both physically and spiritually. Just as few Jews would ever want to relinquish Jerusalem, few liberal Jews are willing to relinquish the full spiritual expression of who they are as Jews at the Kotel.
No matter how beautiful Robinson’s Arch is, no matter how powerful our prayer there, the Women of the Wall will likely still seek equal access to the “main” Kotel, and contest the sole Orthodox control of that which should belong to all Jews. It is not about political victory, it is about dvekut, about the capacity to cling to God in the fullest sense of who we are.
Our shared goal is the creation of an Israeli public space that accommodates all parts of the Jewish people. Our argument then, is: How to we reach our goal? You and I both know that there is no chance that the Orthodox will cede hegemony over their part of the Wall. The state of Israel is making space at another part of the Wall for egalitarian prayer. Who is to say that “their” part of the Wall is more important, more sacred? The choice facing the Women of the Wall, then, is this: to continue a futile campaign that will cause more frustration and bitterness, or create an alternative space of deep prayer.
I too wish that there were no need to divide the Kotel into separate spaces for Orthodox and egalitarian prayer, that the Kotel could be a symbol of our wholeness, rather than of our fragmentation. But we have returned from exile shattered — and a wise people knows how to manage its divisions, rather than attempt to force an artificial wholeness which would result in even greater shattering.
Creating a dignified place at the Wall for women’s prayer is part of restoring the presence of the Shechina to Israel. That place, I believe, will be restored by celebrating the evolution of Judaism at that part of the Wall that has been set aside — sanctified — for egalitarian prayer.
Note: Read the complete, unedited version of this debate on The Jewish Week’s website, thejewishweek.com.
Yossi Klein Halevi is an iEngage Fellow at Shalom Hartman Institute, a contributor to major publications in North America and Israel, and the author of several books. Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi is a Research Fellow at Shalom Hartman Institute and director of the Institute’s Christian Leadership Initiative.