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Posted in: Women of the Wall

Published on Feb 28, 1998 by Phyllis Chesler

Published by Hadassah Magazine

Give Harmony A Chance

There is a shining example of Jewish religious pluralism in action: the multi- denominational Women of the Wall (WOW—women who first prayed with a Torah in a non-minyan prayer group in the women's section of the Kotel behind a mehitza in 1988).

In an inspired and compassionate compromise WOW has included Jewish women of every major denomination who are willing to pray in a way that allows all Jewish women to participate. Israeli and North American Orthodox women have made a brave religious alliance with non-Orthodox women; they have lived with criticism that they are associating with "reformiot," "feminists," "Godless politicals." The non-Orthodox women, rabbis included, have not wanted to leave Orthodox women out of such an important step in Jewish history and so have continued to pray with women only. But the point is, compromise is about sacrifice. And love of Klal Yisrael.

In the beginning, haredi women in the women's section alerted their men. They menaced, cursed WOW women, made it difficult to pray. Yet over time this changed. In the last few years, when WOW women read from the scrolls of Ruth and Esther, an increasing number of haredi women bend their heads to listen, move closer, smile.

In 1989 W0W—set upon repeatedly and violently by haredim for praying at the Kotel—and the North American International Committee both turned to the Israeli Supreme Court. In 1994 the High Court sent WOW to a el-spinning Knesset commission; in 1996, the commission recommended that WOW pray outside the Old City walls in a rubble-strewn part of Arab East-Jerusalem. WOW returned to court and the issue was recently sent to the Ne'eman Commission, which will make recommendations that WOW can either accept or reject.

During all this time, WOW has been prohibited from praying with a Torah at the Kotel on penalty of a fine and jail. From one point of view, WOW's lawsuit is a struggle for separate but equal religious rights at the Kotel. Some also think the suit is about whether women are Jews-with the rights of Jews—or not. Since 1990, a grassroots WOW has officiated at Bnot mitzva, aufrufs, on Rosh Hodesh and other holidays at the Kotel and have prayed afterward with a Torah at an adjacent site.

I grew up in an Orthodox Borough Park family. To this day my mother has a hard time understanding that a non-Orthodox Jew can also be a religious Jew. She is not alone. People forget that until a century ago religious Judaism was synonymous with Orthodox Judaism.

Due to the absolute hegemony that the Orthodox rabbinate wields in Israel, most Israelis have not had a free choice of denominations, nor the option of leading truly secular Jewish fives. Orthodox rabbis reign supreme in matters of birth, marriage, conversion and death. Many Israelis have chosen a hard-hearted agnosticism in response to such a forced choice.

In North America, women have become rabbis. Gender-free prayer books with neutral God-language are widely used. Women and men pray together, women receive aliyot, read from the Torah, work as cantors. On what grounds can the rabbis in Israel deny them the right to bring their religious customs into the Jewish state?

We are at a crossroads. For the first time, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews-women and men who make up the majority of the Jewish population in North America-are asserting that religiously they can no longer be treated as second-class Jews in Israel. In Israel, many who have little feeling for the differences of Orthodox versus non-Orthodox are opting for civil weddings in Cyprus simply to escape what they see as a corrupt religious establishment. Members of these movements in the United States have a great stake in the Jewish state, and their rabbis want to be of religious service to Israel's non-Orthodox.

Orthodox theory and practice can be creative and flexible; in the United States there have been recent changes that benefit Orthodox women and men. Two prominent New York congregations (Lincoln Square and Hebrew Institute of Riverdale) have hired a female rabbinic intern. Orthodox women have founded prayer-group networks and, more recently, held conferences on feminism and Orthodoxy. Orthodox grass roots activists have sensitized some rabbinic courts to the plight of Orthodox agunot (women unable to obtain Jewish divorce documents), and some have begun to factor domestic violence into their decisions. However, these changes have caused many Orthodox both in America and Israel to feel that Judaism as they have known it is threatened.


To my sorrow the interdenominational fighting has intensified. The struggle to define who is a Jew, who is entitled to pray at the Kotel, whose interpretation of the Torah is most valid, women's equality in Judaism may be as wrenching and necessary a struggle as leaving a shtetl to go drain swamps in Palestine once was.

I understand that North American views of religious pluralism are not shared by the ultra-Orthodox or by many secular Israelis. That's because they've never been offered a religious choice. Enter the Israeli Conservative and Reform rabbis and the grassroots Renewalists who, moving together, are awakening spiritual longings among some Israelis. But such congregations go begging for government support or police protection against vandalism. Last year, when Conservative Rabbi Andy Sacks led his congregation at prayer at the back of the Kotel plaza they were pushed, cursed, shoved, dispersed and soiled with excrement by haredim; some worshipers likened it to a pogrom.

There are many examples of extremist Israeli Orthodox intolerance and harassment. The recent insistence that women sit at. the back of the state-run Egged bus in some neighborhoods is one. Another is the pending legislation to convert public space-both at the Kotel and in various neighborhoods-into an Orthodox synagogue. There is threatened legislative confrontations on the issue of conversion.

Still, I remain optimistic. At their best, Jews have always interpreted halakha to serve just, compassionate ends. A variety of Torah interpretations has led to wide and unpredictable Torah-based views on the continuing Israeli presence on the West Bank, settlement expansion, army obligations, agunot and the religious role of women.

Orthodox interpretations of halakha can be amazing, diverse. Rabbenu Gershom Me'or HaGolah (960-1028) banned polygamy among Jews, despite the fact that polygamy existed in the Torah. In our day, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein's responsum, written by his grandson in his grandfather's name, deemed women-only prayer groups permissible. Many Orthodox rabbis have opposed Feinstein on this; some, including Avi Weiss, have been supportive.

Jews everywhere might consider WOW's creative compromises, endurance and sacrifices, without which qualities we are doomed to self-righteous rigidities. If not now, when? If not for ourselves, for whom else?

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