Mending Wall

Jewish Light Editorial

“(T)he Kotel is not an ultra-Orthodox synagogue. It’s a national heritage site which is very holy to all of us.”

— Lesley Sachs, executive director, Women of the Wall

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Israel is being bombarded with allegations of discrimination from within and beyond.

From the outside, most of the international focus remains on specious claims that Israel has become an apartheid state, by virtue of its supposed subjugation of Arabs and Palestinians. While real problems exist, words matter, and the terminology is both errant and offensive, given the democratic structure of the state and the open religious and ethnic cultures that permeate the nation, unlike those of any of its neighbors.

The recent decision by 15 leaders of Christian churches in the United States to urge Congress to reconsider military aid to Israel due to alleged human rights violations evidences how ugly and wrongheaded the public discourse has become. These supposed moral stalwarts pejoratively chose to broadside both Israel and the American Jewish population, without a word of warning to the organized Jewish community, after years of ongoing interfaith dialogue. Shame on them.

There’s only so much control Israeli and Diaspora Jews have in attempting to stop the rhetorical bleeding caused by such existential words and conduct. We must continue to fiercely advocate and speak out against those who would apply different standards to Israel than to any other nation, and who do so without understanding and dialogue among all parties.

There’s much more we should be able to accomplish, however, to promote and enhance understanding and respect among Jews, and in Israel, much of that responsibility starts with finding common cause on matters central to Jewish faith.

Praying at the Western Wall is one of those matters. Many who consider the Wall to be an Orthodox synagogue contend that loud, disrespectful voices are trampling on centuries of religious practice.

Besides, they point out, there are opportunities for women’s prayer in the area alongside the men’s side (though that area is about a quarter of the length of its neighbor). In addition there’s opportunity for prayer with more relaxed standards at Robinson’s Arch along the southwestern facing of the Wall, and many Conservative and Reform Jews have availed themselves of that area for services and worship.

This viewpoint is at odds with those who consider Robinson’s Arch deficient, both because of its archaeological site designation and because it casts a “separate but equal” connotation on prayer of the non-Orthodox. Plus, the restrictions even on the so-called “women’s side” next to the men’s prayer area at the Western Wall, limiting women in both what they can wear (no tallit) and what they can say (no outloud chanting or Torah reading), are considered inappropriately restrictive by many women.

Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman’s recent arrest came as she was reciting the Shema aloud, a violation of regulations. As reported in Haaretz, the 58-year-old Hoffman said, “I was arrested, I was strip-searched, hand-cuffed and leg-cuffed and I had to sleep on the floor. My wrists are bruised from being dragged on the floor.”

Over 2,000 women met at Hadassah’s Centennial Convention this week (some of whom witnessed the recent arrests), and there they voted to reaffirm their support for freedom of worship for women at the Western Wall.  Other Jewish leaders expressed displeasure at the recent events; Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman said in a statement, “Such treatment (of Hoffman) does not serve the religious authorities, law enforcement or Israeli society.”

There’s no question the police should have lent a defter touch to the situation, of course, but the broader question, framed by the essential nature of the Western Wall to Jewish religious belief, is: Whose Kotel is it?

To buy into the traditionalists’ view one must accept the Kotel as an Orthodox synagogue, meant to be administered strictly in adherence with historic interpretation. That’s where the analysis would end if everyone believed other parts of the Wall provided a comparable religious experience or if segregating wasn’t itself perceived as creating a second-class experience, something we’re all too familiar with in this country.

Failure of Jewish authorities to reach a broad and effective consensus on how to treat prayer at the Kotel is not only a religious issue, but a national one. As Israel is being denounced in unfair and discriminatory ways around the world, Jews have an opportunity to come together to address this most basic and crucial element of Jewish theology.

A collaborative result would provide a unifying rallying point, not to mention a teachable moment, in how we deal with our Jewish brothers and sisters. By doing so, we would offer each other the respect that is so painfully absent beyond Israel’s borders.