Some attention has been given recently to a debate between two Shalom Hartman Institute scholars over the question of the Women of the Wall. The issue at hand – as defined by Debra Nussbaum Cohen of the Forward – is "whether Women of the Wall should accept being required to pray at Robinson’s Arch or continue to push for equal access at the Kotel proper". It is a complicated issue in the debate in which one often finds more populism than sober discussion and more opinions than recognition of facts (the two debaters were not guilty of any of these sins, but those commenting on and pondering their positions often did).
Generally speaking, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi is outraged by the fact that women can't pray at the Kotel. She's right to be outraged. But her consequent conclusion doesn't necessarily withstand the scrutiny of the sober observer. Beit-Halachmi wants the "battle for equal access to one of our most sacred sites" to continue. She seems puzzled by the repeated arrest of women at the Kotel – she's right to be puzzled, but some cautionary explanation is due: The police, by arresting those women, merely abide by a decision of Israel's Supreme Court. The court long ago decided that women of the wall, and anyone else that is interested in an "alternative" prayer – that is, the type of prayer that isn't endorsed by Israel's Orthodox rabbinate – would be subjected to praying at an area called Robinson's Arch. Beit-Halachmi is not unreasonable to equate such arrangement to a "separate but equal" policy (except that it's not yet equal – some more arrangements would have to be made before it is). She writes: "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".
Yossi Klein Halevi comes to the same issue from a totally different viewpoint. She wants justice and rights – he wants to find a realistic solution to a situation that only leads to "frustration and bitterness". He looks at the Kotel wars and see trouble for the Israel-Diaspora relations, and to relations between people within Israel, he sees a landmine that should be dismantled. Klein Halevi uses the language of spirituality ("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") but is acting like what Israelis call a "Mapainic" - after the Mapai Party, known for its ideologically flexible pragmatism. In other words, Beit-Halachmi and Klein-Halevi only seemingly speak the same language while in fact they speak about different issues: she's speaking the language of principles, he's speaking the language of realism.
Why is she right?
Because she's right. Women should be allowed to pray at the Kotel. They should be able to wear a tallit at the Kotel. Egalitarian minyans should be allowed at the Kotel. The control of the ultra-Orthodox over the Kotel is an outrage.
Why is he right?
Because being right doesn't mean one can win. Not long ago the issue of the Kotel was raised at an event I attended as a panelist at the Institute on American-Jewish Relations (American Jewish University). My answer was thus: put yourself in the place of Jerusalem's chief of police and you'll suddenly see why arresting a woman at the Kotel is almost a no-brainer. It's arresting this one woman, getting some bad press, mostly in the U.S., where people care about this issue, and move on; or – risking demonstrations by thousands, or hundreds of thousands of Haredim, marching in the streets, blocking traffic, tying up police resources for hours or days. What would you do? What would you choose, when even the law is on the side of arresting the woman?
The way forward:
The way I see it, Women of the Wall and their supporters have four options from which to choose. Not one of them is quite the one they'd want – to be able to organize the Kotel the way they (and I) see fit. And each option has advantages and disadvantages.
1. Give Up
The women can decide that it's not worth it. They lost, they disband, they go home. They can wear a tallit someplace else, they can pray someplace else, they can have egalitarian minyans someplace else. If the Kotel is now the real estate of the Orthodox, maybe leaving it for them would be the right choice.
Why do it:
A. Time is not unlimited, better save it for battles one can win.
B. Bickering over the Kotel doesn't better relations between Israelis or relations between Israelis and Jews around the world – maybe giving up on it would be the noble thing to do for this thorny distraction to go away.
Why not do it:
A. Because there's no other place like the Kotel.
B. Because even if WoW have to surrender, they still have better options than total surrender.
2. Keep the Current Course
The woman can decide that this battle is one in which not one inch of retreat can be tolerated. They can keep going, keep being arrested, keep voicing their frustrations, keep denouncing Israel's government for not being able to tame Haredi control of the Kotel. In short: they can ignore Klein-Halevi's advice and take Beit-Halachmi's advice.
Why do it:
A. Because it's right.
B. Because WoW like the fight – and benefit from it (in fundraising and PR) – more than they like praying.
Why not do it:
A. Because you can't match Haredi doggedness and power and numbers – in other words: you can't find the thousands with which to make the chief of police's dilemma look like a real dilemma.
B. Because there is a better option than fighting if what they really want is to pray. It's called Robinson's Arch.
3. Make Your Own Kotel
You don't have to call it Robinson's Arch. Call it the Kotel. Take the part of the wall you can get and this will be your Kotel. Make it lively and welcoming, make it better than the "other" Kotel, make it cool and fashionable, make people want to go there, make it a place that is no less important and busy and symbolic to Jews around the world.
Why do it:
A. Building things for oneself is much better than destroying things for others.
B. The current Kotel is really not the most welcoming or the most pleasant place – so you'd be doing us all a favor.
Why not do it:
A. Because as much as you might try, the second Kotel will always be the lesser site.
B. Because you really can't: you don't have the numbers, you don't have the necessary devotion, you don't trust those theoretically supporting you to make the effort and attend, you're afraid this will be an empty and sad alternative to a vibrant Orthodox Kotel.
4. Try a New War Strategy
Klein-Halevi might be wrong – there might be a way to win this fight. That is, if WoW can goad their powerful American Jewish friends into action. The Israeli government will only do something about the Kotel if the price for not doing it were to become too high – exactly the way it buried the Rotem conversion bill when the price became too high. When relations with American Jewry seemed under real threat and the prime minister (Israel-Diaspora landmine detonator in chief, as I once called him) took action to rid of the problem.
Now, the solving the Kotel issue is more complicated than burying legislation. But Diaspora Jewry can make it very hard for the government not to pay attention to the WoW grievances. Many ideas come to mind, and I will not list them all here, but just imagine what would happen if Birthright trips ceased visiting the Kotel until the problem were solved. Do you think the Israeli establishment would be able to ignore such protestation? I don't.
Why do it:
A. It might work – it might force Israel into changing its Kotel policy.
B. It would give Diaspora Jewry a stake in an Israeli endeavor that is not about "war and peace" (in which most Israelis don't think Diaspora dissent is appropriate) but rather about a markedly "Jewish" issue.
Why not do it:
A. Yossi warns of a battle that will bring about "a true chilul hashem, a desecration of God’s name". Such strategy has the potential to be the igniter of such outcome. It will make the Kotel a battleground.
B. Because you don't change societal realities by force - be it the force of the courts or the outside pressures of Diaspora Jewry. Changing Israel's approach to Judaism will only come gradually and through the power of persuasion.
The bottom line:
My choice would be a combination of options 3 and 4. Take the "other" Kotel and with the assistance of Diaspora Jewry make it the better place to go to. And yes, you can make a statement by deciding to send Birthright groups to the other Kotel, or by channeling more funds to the "other" Kotel, or by insisting on holding events attended by the heads of Diaspora Jewry at the "other" Kotel (the next GA is in Jerusalem!). But make it an exciting project of building something for all Jews rather, than choosing to stick with the bickering over the "Orthodox Kotel". Use force for one purpose only: to make sure that the government of Israel doesn't suddenly cave under pressure of the Orthodox and attempt to spoil your project for fear that "your" Kotel is going to be better than "theirs".
That would be my choice. My fear, though, is that the choice of WoW and their allies would be 2, for the reason specified in "why not do it – B".