Jewish Journal


The Kotel Exchange- Part 2: Is the Western Wall Compromise an Opportunity?

by Shmuel Rosner

May 2, 2013 | 7:50 am

Women of the Wall Praying, photo by Reuters

Bonna Devora Haberman is one of the co-founders of Women of the Wall. Since receiving her Phd in Ethics and Education from the University of London, Dr. Haberman has published widely and taught at the Hebrew University, at the Harvard University Divinity School and at Brandeis University where she founded and directed the "Mistabra Institute for Jewish Textual Activism" – addressing difficult texts and social problems using performance arts.

This is the second part of a discussion about Natan Sharansky's recent Western Wall proposal (here's a link to Part 1; you can find more info about the issue herehere and here).


Dear Dr. Haberman,

Thank you for your detailed response. For all those who aren't yet familiar with WOW and its activities this will surely be of great value. I noticed though, that your specific response to the points I made was much briefer than your general description of the goals and actions of WOW. I hope we can change this a little bit this time, as the issue at hand is quite a pressing one on which decisions have to be made.

You asked at the end of your remarks if I was "convinced" by the points you made. The answer is that on the larger WOW issue I didn’t need much convincing, and on the specifics I was convinced that your reading of the situation will not make it easier to find a solution for it.

Let me focus on the court decision from last week, on which I already wrote that it's both a blessing - giving the government some food for thought - but also a possible obstacle - as it might make some of the parties in this dispute less likely to compromise. If what you say here represents the views of WOW, I'm afraid to say that the court decision will indeed be an obstacle and I’d like to urge you to reconsider your reading of its significance. As you may know, I support the compromise plan proposed by Natan Sharansky, and clearly, what you wrote in your response seems to suggest that you have no intention of accepting it and giving us all a chance for a better future at the Western Wall (just to be clear: I support the plan but am not yet convinced that the government is serious about implementing it).

The court made an important declarative statement, but reading too much into it would be a mistake. Since there's a compromise plan on the table, for you to reject it and adopt a confrontational approach is understandably tempting but also risky. If the compromise plan collapses because of WOW’s rejectionist approach, you might lose the most precious advantage you have over the Orthodox establishment: the sympathy of Israelis. If it collapses, you might end up having to fight for another twenty years before such an opportunity for compromise presents itself. 

Don't you see these risks? Don't you understand that the Israeli public might not be a sympathetic to a group that won't take yes for an answer?





Ok, Shmuel, let's talk about how we can best inform the decisions that need to be made.

One of the recurring concepts in the conversation is compromise. Compromise entails two main elements: reciprocity and change.

Bearing in mind that we have not seen the proposal formally presented, let's start the discussion with reciprocity. Comparing the relevant purposes of the parties, we'll use neutral pronouns, X and Y-

Can we really equate the basic human desire and right to pray with an alleged right to prevent another person from praying? The men and women who oppose Women of the Wall currently pray at the Kotel freely according to their conscience, without interference. How can you reasonably term the approach of Women of the Wall "confrontational" and "rejectionist?" Though Women of the Wall have been systematically humiliated, threatened and bullied, we continue to fully respect and uphold every prayer; we do not confront, oppose, abuse, or reject anyone. What would be reciprocal in this X/Y case?

Now onto change-

According to the Jerusalem Post, in a statement last Thursday, Shmuel Rabinowitz vowed to fight against "the slightest deviation" from customary practice at the Western Wall. Any change, he threatens, "will face strong opposition and bring about a civil war."

Funding schools that desist from teaching the obligatory core curriculum including math, social and civic studies, we have raised an ultra-Orthodox generation broadly lacking understanding and commitment to the fundaments of Israeli civil democracy. This policy has handicapped the process of Torah interpretation developing with the Zionist revolution in Jewish life.

The January 2013 Israeli election reflects a shifting consensus. Our government is currently preparing to better socialize and recruit ultra-Orthodox communities to share the burdens of security and sustenance. Along with this initiative must come initiation into respect for difference, and pursuit of peaceful means to engage dispute. The Oral Torah documents argument, respects and preserves dissenting opinions, and upholds the dignity of every person.

Similarly to socializing toward equality in national service, the State of Israel must also educate the ultra-Orthodox community toward women's full equality, participation and leadership in society. This is also the commitment of Israel as a signatory to the international Treaty CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Women of the Wall blazes trails toward fulfilling these core commitments of the State of Israel on sacred ground.

Exiling women's prayer in order to uphold those who seek to prevent the prayers of Women of the Wall is not change. De facto, Sharansky's proposal seems to entrench opposition to women's prayer, and consolidates and perpetuates ultra-Orthodox control at the Kotel. This point is explicit in Rabinowitz's remarks where he not only appropriates the Western Wall as a "synagogue"- a view that has no grounds in Israeli law or practice- but considers whether he and his cohort might opt to extend the reach of their opposition southward to Robinson's Arch-

We must, along with the Chief Rabbinate and other great rabbis, examine if we should oppose the proposal referring to Robinson's Arch, which is not part of the Western Wall synagogue (my emphasis).

Rabinowitz's comments contradict Sharansky's proposal to consider Robinson's Arch part of the Western Wall; in mind and matter, it is separate from, and not part of the synagogue. Nonetheless, Robinson's Arch is already a prayer area with restricted availability for mixed egalitarian groups. In this area, there is no consideration for women's autonomous prayer – one of the central purposes of Women of the Wall, and the main reason why we belong in the women's section at the Kotel plaza. In short, there is no real change in Sharansky's proposal, except for taxes wasted on a refurbished entrance to two completely separate areas.

Based on this analysis, Women of the Wall will not "end up having to fight for another twenty years before such opportunity for compromise presents itself." The opportunity to pray at Robinson's Arch was present before Sharansky's proposal, and due to the right of egalitarian groups to have a respectful place to pray together, it ought to be present from now on, with or without Sharansky's proposed renovations. Women of the Wall have not persevered with our vision of creating the sacred opportunity for women to celebrate full public prayer at the Kotel in order to be banished from it.

You suggest that accepting Sharansky's proposal "gives us all a chance for a better future at the Western Wall." On this point we could not disagree more. Segregating empowered women from public sacred space and excluding our prayers does not hold any promise of a “better future”. We have begun to see that Israelis are growing less sympathetic to compromising with ultra-Orthodox coercion. Making women “disappear” from our public spaces and positions, and from power, is not a matter to compromise about; it is degrading, oppressive, unacceptable, and illegal. Erasure of women from public visibility, denial of women's autonomy in marriage and divorce, gender-separation barriers, rear-seating on public and private buses are some examples. Furthering the disappearance policy at the Kotel, as Sharansky proposes, is the risk – not only to the Jewish character of our sacred places, but to the quality of our civil society. The Kotel with women's active, visible public prayer and leadership is inextricable from an Israel with women's active, visible public participation and leadership. This is clearly the Israeli public interest and the direction for a better future at the Kotel and beyond.

As you say, the court did indeed make "an important declarative statement." The Jerusalem District Court declared the following,

1.    State policy and actions against Women of the Wall have been based on a mistaken interpretation of the Supreme Court ruling. In 2003, the Supreme Court ordered the State to prepare a fitting and respectable prayer area at the Robinson's Arch site for Women of the Wall within 12 months. With that condition unfulfilled, the State is required to protect the women's prayers as petitioned, in the women's section at the Western Wall.

2.    The State has no legal grounds or justification to threaten, harass, detain and arrest women who pray together with tallit, tefillin and read from a Torah scroll– these are not (criminal) offenses, nor do they threaten public order.

3.    The statute enacted by the State in response to our original Supreme Court petition of 1989- the so called "Women of the Wall statute" that prohibits prayer rituals that do not adhere to the custom of the place, and offend the sensitivities of worshippers concerning the place – can not be interpreted according to haredi or other partisan interests to exclude or prohibit the prayers of Women of the Wall.

Shmuel, this clear legal verdict adds to the evidence that the situation at the Kotel is not about compromise between opposing religious sensitivities. Women of the Wall do not oppose anyone. On the contrary, we invite the Jewish People to experience diverse and joyous Jewish life, at the exquisitely simple and imposing remnant of our sacred place.

Let me close this current exchange by thanking you for engaging with me in this makhloket (dispute). I believe that it is for the sake of heaven. By airing our different views, we achieve better mutual understanding, trust, and respect; perhaps we even influence one another. Similarly at the Wall, by praying in each other's presence in our different ways, with our different voices, we have the possibility to fear less, to care for one another more, and to grow together the precious Jewish tradition that brought us home.

With blessings,

Bonna Devora Haberman

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