/ articles for review

Women of the Wall and the Urgent Questions of our Time

By preventing women from praying there and confiscating their prayer shawls, the Israeli government is risking the alienation of thousands of otherwise very committed Jews to the State of Israel
Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi s a Jewish institutional leader, author, and sought-after public speaker. Currently, Rachel serves Ohavay Zion Synagogue and is a senior scholar of the Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood. Most recently she served as Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought and Ethics at Hebrew Union College (HUC) and led a four-campus team to achieve strategic goals. Prior to her national role at HUC, Rachel served as Vice President of the Shalom Hartman

Israel is the most significant question facing the Jewish People today. Jewish leaders, in order to respond to the challenges that Israel poses to Jewish Peoplehood, will need to respond to three basic questions. But answering these three questions – as we shall see – has been particularly challenging, because it is not clear what kind of covenant – if any – still binds us together as a People.
In an address in 1956 on Yom Ha’atzmaut – (Israel Independence Day, in an essay later called "Kol Dodi Dofek – "The Voice of My Beloved is Knocking") Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik – the Rav -taught about two kinds of covenant: a Covenant of Fate Brit Goral, and a Covenant of Destiny, Brit Yeud. For the Rav, the sense of a Covenant of Fate is based on the experience of our shared suffering, and this shared memory generates shared responses and the behaviors of mutual responsibility.
A Covenant of Destiny, Brit Yiud, on the other hand, wrote the Rav, is one which emerges anew because of the rebirth of the State of Israel. Israel is an opportunity for the Jewish people to become actively engaged in shaping our future, rather than only responding to our past. Because of the State of Israel we can now respond to the call of the future collectively and actively with a new consensus about our shared sacred purpose.
But, if we are honest, we must admit that today Soloveitchik’s notion of a dual covenant -while inspiring – is at best [only] an aspiration. In fact, one might argue that while Israel unifies the Jewish community in times of crisis, on an ongoing basis its complex realities often confuse, distance and divide world Jewry.
No single aspect of the Jewish reality today challenges Jewish peoplehood and the possibility of a Covenant of Destiny more than the realities of the State of Israel.
We must realize that the answers to three big questions will determine the future of Jewish Peoplehood and a potential Covenant of Destiny. The answers to these three questions – for the Jewish people as a whole – may ultimately be equally as important for our covenant of destiny as when and how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved.
The three big questions are:
Can Jewish women play an equal role in Jewish life – including in the religious public sphere – in Israel? Events of the last several years have indicated that this is indeed still a question – in the Jewish-democratic State. Can women be sent to the back of the bus, forced to create secondary spaces and institutions, and made absent from the Public Sphere? Indeed for Israel and for Judaism – as Hilary Clinton said about the role and rights of Women in the world as a whole – "This is the unfinished (Jewish) business of the 21st century."
Is non-Orthodox Judaism legitimate in Israel? Can the Jewish egalitarian movements (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and Secular Jewish and all other non-Orthodox groups) have equal representation, equal access, and equal resources in Israel? Or will they continue to be second-class Jewish citizens receiving fewer resources and their rabbis’ conversions and marriages not recognized by an establishment that recognizes only one form of Jewish identity and practice even as other government agencies recognize and support our work?
Do you matter? Do the realities and Jewish identity and practice of Jews throughout the Diaspora matter when answering the first two questions in Israel? Should North American Jews continue to focus on Israel as the homeland of the entire Jewish people, even when the Judaism of more than a million of these Jews is rejected – if not completely misunderstood – thus allowing a minority of ultra-Orthodox to continue to control many aspects of Jewish Israeli political life? And conversely, should the lived realities of Israelis and the sensitivities of its various populations matter to world Jewry? To what extent?
But, as David Hartman so aptly put it in A Heart of Many Rooms: "Israel is too important to leave [just] to the Israelis."
The complexities of all three of these questions are powerfully clear in the case of Women of the Wall. Women of the Wall is a group of Jewish women – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Renewal, non-denominational – who have been gathering every Rosh Hodesh – the first of every Hebrew month – for 26 years – in order to pray and read Torah and celebrate together at the main Kotel. But the arrests and detentions of these women and the confiscation of their tallitot (prayer shawls) by the Israeli police [in accordance with the legal restrictions and the instructions of the Rabbi of the Kotel] have gained increasing attention throughout the Jewish world and in the general media as well. While a court decision gave them and egalitarian Jewish groups the right to pray in a separate area, near Robinson’s Arch in the Davidson Archeological garden, these women – and now thousands and thousands of supporters – are still seeking the right to pray at the main Kotel, to wear tallitot and read from the Torah, there, just as men do. They want equal access to one of the most sacred sites for the Jewish people. They want to pray and celebrate there, just as men do. For two hours, once a month.
Over the last 25 years I have participated in their powerful prayer services, but I have also been a public critic of their tactics and the attention that their efforts have received – don’t we have bigger problems? Don’t we have so many more urgent priorities as Israelis, as women and as Jews?
But my position has changed. While I continue to work on many other pressing concerns I have come to understand that the debate regarding Women of the Wall is today one way that the Jewish people are asking the three core questions of time, three questions of ethics and leadership. I now better understand why this originally very small group of women has gained so many supporters throughout the world: Because the Kotel, the "Wailing Wall," is not another issue of Israel struggling between being Jewish and democratic. The Kotel is about Jewish Peoplehood. It pulls at the hearts and minds and souls of Jews over time and space.
The liberation of the Kotel in 1967 symbolized finally coming home to Jerusalem as a free people. Jewish women want to be fully free and at home too. The Kotel symbolizes for World Jewry the collective identification with Jerusalem of Jews throughout the world. It does not and cannot belong to the Orthodox alone, because it belongs to the Jewish people. The paratroopers of 1967 liberated it – as they are still declaring publicly – for the whole Jewish people, not just for the Orthodox.
So to prevent women from praying there, and by confiscating their prayer shawls, the Israeli government is risking the alienation of thousands of otherwise very committed Jews to the State of Israel. Shame on all of us if we let that happen.
In a newspaper interview some time ago, when asked about Women of the Wall, I suggested a time-share solution. I was, I thought being somewhat silly, I even said to the interviewer that Women of the Wall should have the Kotel on Monday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings and the Orthodox men could have it all the rest of the time. Of course I was kidding, but the interviewer printed it, and upon reiterating it and discussing it with very senior rabbinic and government authorities and lay leaders and philanthropists, I and many others have come so see some kind of time-sharing as a real possibility, because more equitable and sustainable solutions must be considered.
When asked about Women of the Wall, Natan Sharansky, the head of the Jewish Agency, asked: "It is easy? Not. But we Jews chose to be a not-easy people and to live in a not-easy place, and to do a not-easy religion." And who knows better than Sharansky about the power of Jewish peoplehood?
We know that the situation in Israel isn’t easy. But it’s more than just "not-easy." The situation is not tenable. Many Diaspora Jews cannot possibly feel fully at home there if they are denied the powerful ritual experiences and collective resources given to other (i.e., Orthodox) Jews. So – should the status quo continue in many areas, it should not surprise us if even more Jews, both women and men, feel even more distanced and disconnect from Jerusalem, and do not feel that they can call Israel their homeland.
The denial of women, and for that matter liberal Jews – equal access and equal resources – will only further distance them from Israel because that lack of access symbolizes the extent to which they are rejected for the very spiritual yearnings that bring them to Israel in the first place.
In the 1980s, David Hartman, z"l, wrote: "Making the State of Israel the spiritual possession of one segment of the Jewish people undermines the most important instrument for building Jewish collective consciousness today." (A Heart of Many Rooms)
Despite the challenges, Israel, with her daily trials and triumphs, is surely – potentially – one of the biggest sources for building Jewish peoplehood and therefore a sense of a shared destiny. But in its often crumbling complexity, it might also ultimately serve to be a source of ongoing divisiveness and the breakdown of Jewish peoplehood. Thus each dilemma is an opportunity for leaders to engage toward new possibilities…toward a new covenant.
If more leaders are braver, more concerned with Jewish peoplehood and less with personal political power, then they will be more likely to find – even among the legitimate debates – shared values regarding the issues of the day. Such courage will represent the possibility of the Covenant of Destiny of the Jewish people – one in which all Jews can fully embrace shared purposes and shared sacred spaces.
The people who will succeed or fail to answer these questions and make Jewish peoplehood relevant in the future are Jewish leaders like you.
The knowledge, relationships, resources, and leadership capital to respond to these questions exist among us; their collective power can be harnessed to ensure positive responses to all three questions and in this way ensure the renewal of a covenant of destiny – a Brit Yeud – in our time.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

Join our email list for more Hartman ideas

Join our email list


The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics