The Israeli Supreme Court has agreed to rehear arguments before an expanded panel on its previous decision granting Women of the Wall (WoW) the right to pray at the Western Wall while wearing tefillin and tallitot and to read from the Torah.
In America, where the Women of the Wall have long been media darlings - journalists frequently outnumber participants at their monthly gatherings - many will ask: What possible reason could there be for reconsidering the initial decision of a three-judge panel? To answer requires an understanding of the Wall's status as the most enduring symbol of Jewish life.
The Wall is the last remnant of the Temple first built nearly 3,000 years ago. It links us to our past in a way no other symbol does. Standing before its huge stones one feels part of a continuous chain extending over millennia. The Wall cannot become a showplace for all that is avant-garde in Jewish liturgy - feminist or otherwise - without vitiating its power as a symbol of Jewish continuity.
All nations recognize the need to protect national symbols and the traditions that surround them. The most lapsed Italian Catholic would be outraged were Billy Graham to conduct a revival meeting in St. Peter's Square. WoW's prayer services are a no less dramatic break than such a revival meeting at the Vatican.
At least one Women of the Wall supporter, Leah Shakdiel, explicitly acknowledges that the Supreme Court's decision would transform the Wall from a Jewish national symbol to a place where, in her words, "different people dynamically evolve various forms of worship so that Jew and also Muslims and Christians can pray together to God."
By defining the women's prayer group as "according to tradition" in the language of the governing statute, the Supreme Court drained the word "tradition" of any meaning. Egalitarian minyanim, and even Jews for Jesus, pray according to "traditions" at least as long-standing as WoW, and would have equally valid legal claims. (Significantly, one WoW leader refused to say that a Jews for Jesus prayer service at the Wall would be illegitimate in response to a question I posed to her.)
If upheld, the Supreme Court's decision can only lead to the Balkanization of the Kotel. The most important symbol of Jewish unity — to which every Jew directs his prayer no matter where he is in the world — will be transformed into a place of confrontation and into a symbol of Jewish division.
Today Jews of all types approach the Wall throughout the day - some to pour out their hearts; others to see whether they will be affected in unexpected ways. No one ever suggests to them that this is not their place as well. The stories are legion of those for whom the experience of standing before those ancient stones reconnected them profoundly to their Judaism.
A few years ago, Hillel Halkin, Israel's leading translator and himself not Orthodox, sharply criticized the impulse to turn the Kotel into a battleground, asking, "Were they to come to the Wall without prayer shawls as a simple gesture of respect for the traditions of the place, against what sacred principles of their faith would they be sinning? Are there no places to practice Jewish feminism in the world, in Israel, or even in Jerusalem that they must do it at the one site where it infuriates large numbers of Orthodox Jews?"
His question takes on even greater force when one realizes that for many members of WoW the Wall has no particular sanctity. Neither the Reform nor Conservative movements pray for a reinstitution of the Temple service, which they view as a pagan sacrificial cult.
An official statement of the Reform movement reads: "One should not consider the Western Wall as possessing any sanctity. ... The Western Wall does not represent Jewish cleaving to God, nor the experience of prayer nor Jewish thought for our times." Why then turn the Wall into an arena of conflict?
Voices of the Kotel, a grassroots women's organization dedicated to preserving traditional forms of prayer at the Wall, will be filing an amicus brief prior to the upcoming rehearing. Members of the group represent a broad cross-section of Orthodox and traditional women, not to mention the overwhelming majority of women who pray regularly at the Wall.
When these women hear Women of the Wall spokesperson Anat Hoffman proclaim that women have been "silenced" at the Wall, their voices unheard, they wonder: Have the tears shed by countless Jewish women at the Wall for the last 2,000 years been unnoted? Are the prayers of the 150 women at the Wall for dawn services every morning unheard, or of the hundreds who fill the women's section every minchah-ma'ariv and on Saturday night, or of those who wend their way to the Wall in the small hours of the morning?
Whether one's prayers are "heard" depends in large part on the intended audience. If being heard means a photo-op in the New York Times, then all those who pour out their hearts in private supplication are unheard. But if it means communicating with the One Above, even the most softly whispered prayer will be heard.