Preserving the power of the Wall
by Jonathan Rosenblum
May 9, 2003
Women of the Wall (WoW) have been media darlings ever since they first burst on the scene in 1988. So it is no surprise that the Fourth Estate were in high dudgeon recently when an expanded panel of the Israeli Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against WoW’s petition demanding the right to read from the sefer Torah and wear tallitot at the Western Wall (Kotel).
Eetta Prince-Gibson, for instance, began her extensive coverage in the Jerusalem Post, "The Women of the Wall didn’t have a prayer this week when the High Court of Justice ruled against their being allowed to sing God’s praises alongside the men." She went on to pronounce the Court’s decision "filled with legal holes" and to quote at length from WoW’s attorney Frances Raday.
The Court’s emphasis on the "threat to public order" posed by WoW’s ceremonies is admittedly troubling. Rights should not be limited by the reaction of others to their assertion.
The majority of the justices, however, were likely thinking about the implications of their decision for future petitions by the Temple Mount Faithful as much as about that of the Women of the Wall. The Court is determined to prevent Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, where it would likely trigger widespread rioting, and did not wish to provide the Temple Mount Faithful with a useful precedent.
There were, however, other strong legal grounds for rejecting WoW’s petition. Under British Mandatory Law, the courts were explicitly denied jurisdiction to determine the forms of prayer at holy sites. That authority was reserved for the executive and legislative branches. Under the applicable Israeli statute, prayer at "Holy Sites" is to be in accord with the "custom of the place."
In a long line of cases dating back to 1969, many of them involving the Temple Mount Faithful, the Israeli Supreme Court has reaffirmed the applicability of the principle that the judiciary has no jurisdiction to determine the proper forms of prayer at holy sites, and that the matter should be left in the hands of the religious authorities charged by the government with responsibility for the various sites. The judicial role is limited to assuring equality of access to holy sites, not to enforcing a right to conduct any religious services one might desire.
This line of cases is solidly rooted in public policy. The Court has no special competence to establish appropriate forms of religious ceremonies, and no interest in being dragged into an endless series of intra and inter religious disputes.
THESE CONSIDERATIONS apply with particular force to the Kotel. The Kotel links us to our past in a way that no other symbol does. Standing before its huge stones one feels part of a continuous chain extending over millennia.
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.
But 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. Opening up the Kotel to every type of religious ceremony can only lead to its the Balkanization. The most important symbol of Jewish unity — to which every Jew directs his prayer no matter where he is in the world — would be transformed into a place of confrontation and a symbol of Jewish division.
At least one Women of the Wall supporter, Leah Shakdiel, explicitly acknowledges that a ruling in favor of WoW would transform the Kotel 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." Nearly fifteen years ago, I asked one of the WoW leaders whether she would consider a Jews for J. prayer service at the Kotel illegitimate. She could not answer.
At holy sites throughout the world, visitors show respect for the traditions of the place. Billy Graham, for instance, would not think of conducting a revival meeting in St. Peter’s Square, nor would anyone demand the right to enter a mosque wearing shoes.
Yet the services advocated by WoW would be profoundly offensive to the vast majority of women who pray regularly at the Kotel – to the 75-200 who gather there by sunrise throughout the year, to the hundreds more who can be found there between Minchah and Maariv (particularly in the summer), and to all those who fill up the entire area in front of the Kotel after the end of Shabbat. (For an articulate, English-language explication of the views of Kolot HaKotel, a women’s group advocating the preservation of the traditional forms of prayer at the Kotel, see the Voices of the Wall video at www.jewishmediaresources.org ).
Some years ago, Hillel Halkin, writing in the Forward, challenged WoW to show sensitivity to the feelings of their fellow women. "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?" he asked. "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?"
Giving offense, and the attention it attracts, however, is much of WoW’s point. The value of the Kotel is not so much its religious significance as its utility as a place to make a political statement. Not by accident did WoW have its genesis as part of the First International Jewish Feminism Conference, and the group’s first appearance at the Kotel was accompanied by a carefully orchestrated media circus.
Reform leader and one of WoW’s leading spokeswomen, Anat Hoffman explicitly links WoW efforts to political feminism. "The Kotel is a public space, and women in Israel struggle to take their place in public space. Not just at the Kotel – in government, in the Knesset, in public policy, everywhere," she says.
For the Reform and Conservative members of the group, the Kotel has no particular religious significance. They view the Temple service that took place on the mount above as part of a pagan sacrificial cult. An official statement of the Reform movement warns adherents against viewing "the Western Wall as possessing any sanctity." The Kotel’s sole advantage is as a venue to make a public statement about what WoW members consider to be the proper forms of prayer.
According to WoW, women’s voices have been silenced at the Kotel. But the hundreds of women who pray there daily don’t feel that way. They do not doubt that when they pour out their hearts and tears in quiet devotion, just like the Biblical Channah, whose prayer is the model for all Jewish prayer, that they are heard.
If being heard, means a photo-op in the New York Times, then WoW has been denied. But if it means being heard by the One Above, even the most softly whispered prayer will be heard.
The Court was right to preserve the Kotel as the most powerful symbol of Jewish unity and as place for every Jew to connect to God and the Jewish people in prayer.
Related Topics: Israeli Supreme Court, Pluralism
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