Why Should We Give Up the Kotel?

July 14, 2016

By Norma Baumel Joseph

Editor's note: We recently ran a blog, "A Conversation with Anat Hoffman," that outlined her reasons for compromising with the Israeli government on women’s prayer at the Kotel. Today, we present another view from Norma Baumel Joseph on why she opposes the agreement to sign the deal on behalf of WOW and all women.

Normal JosephIn December 1988, Rivka Haut leaned over and suggested to me that we go, as a group of women, to the Kotel to daven — with Torah and tallit! Shockingly, we did it and thus began the struggle for a women's prayer place at the Kotel initially known as Women of the Wall (WOW).

We formed WOW with the goal of allowing women to be able to pray as a group at the Kotel itself with Torah, tallit and tefillin. Predictably, as soon as we formed, we faced lawsuits. But, we worked together from inside and outside Israel. We engaged lawyers and outlined our legal case for women's group prayer and after a long legal battle, in 2003, the Israeli Supreme Court concluded that we had a right to pray at the Kotel. The only question was whether the government could set up a different location. Since it never did, the effect of that decision was that we were allowed to pray as a group with Torah and tallit in the women’'s section of the Kotel.

That position was reconfirmed by the Sobel legal decision in 2013 that clarified that everything we are doing is in accordance with minhag hamakom (local custom) at the Kotel. The court explained the local custom was a pluralistic one that allowed different groups of Jews to worship in their own way at the Kotel without interference.

So what are the issues today?

Two separate disputes are at play; one concerning WOW and its acceptance of an alternate site, and the second relating to the general acceptance of Haredi control of the Kotel. These have caused a clash between some of the original members of WOW, now known as OWOW and the current WOW group let by Anat Hoffman, who is also executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the public and legal advocacy arm of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism affiliated with the Reform movement.

Hoffman is willing to move to the new site, Robinson's Arch, along with the Reform and Conservative movements. This places WOW in the midst of a controversial deal with the Netanyahu government to establish egalitarian prayer at this new location. Some of the founding members, myself included, do not want to accept this supposed compromise position. For us, the issue has always been women’s ability to pray as they wish to pray in the women's section at the Kotel, not some substitute location. This disparity led to a split between Hoffman, representing WOW and many of the original and founding members.

Hoffman has a different concept to which she is entitled. But we believe her position for Robinson's Arch will negate our legal rights to engage in prayer in the women’s section of the Kotel. She deserves, as all Jews do, to choose where and how to pray. But I believe she is not entitled to sign an agreement that disempowers me, and that will remove my group of women from the Kotel permanently.

I believe her position stems from a conflict of interest. She is part of the Reform movement and is their employee as executive director of IRAC. But her lay leadership of WOW in this compromise will deny my group and women like me. In effect, she is signing an agreement on behalf of all women that will allow the Kotel to become a Haredi Shul.

The second issue is that the Kotel is a national heritage site, not a Haredi shul even though it has been structured that way. It should belong to all Jews, to pray and sing and even dance like Miriam at the Reed Sea. Agreeing to move everyone to Robinson's Arch will establish a new reality; the Kotel will become officially an ultra-orthodox shul. The agreement will make it so by legal fiat. No matter our hard won legal rights. Why sell us out? Why give the heritage rights of all Jews to the ever-growing control of a select few? Why should the Haredim determine who and how and when of the Kotel? In a true heritage site, we belong there as much as anyone.

Currently, OWOW is waiting for the courts to respond to our application to the Israeli Supreme Court requesting that Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who is memuneh al hakotel, the rabbi appointed by the government to manage the Kotel, be required to allow us to use one of the many Torah scrolls kept for public use at the Kotel. They are there for the usage of the Jews. Why are women denied? Are they not Jews too? This rabbi has even refused to allow us to bring our own Torah. These concerns are now before the Supreme Court. Regrettably, rather than respond to our case, the government keeps asking for delays and the courts keep agreeing.

It is a sad moment when no one hears this small group of women, the original Women of the Wall. We were once part of WOW but were dislocated. Our membership, it seems, did not come with voting privileges. Hoffman was interviewed for a blog in this space recently giving her side of the decades long fight, but don’t you wonder about conflict of interest? No one questions why give up the Kotel? Why not demand it all? Why let the Haredim take everything they want? Who will stand up for women, for freedom of religion? The proposed compromise merely makes "divergent" Jews invisible by moving them away. It allows the established religious leadership to ignore "others" and proceed as though only their way is God’s way.

Where will women daven as women? Some will daven in mixed prayer groups. Great. But some want the Kotel. And some want women’s davening groups. Why not let women have their voice? Isn't that our feminism? Giving women of different opinions and needs their own voices and places. This compromise will end women’s voice in prayer with Torah and tallit at the Kotel forever. How can that be a happy day for women to dance and laugh?

Norma Baumel Joseph is professor of religion at Concordia University. She works on women, Judaism and, most recently, food studies. She has been conducting ongoing fieldwork with the Iraqi community in Montreal since the late 1990s. Besides numerous encyclopedia entries, anthology chapters, and journal articles, she has completed two documentaries. Norma is an associate of the Concordia Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies, Founder of the First Women’s Tefillah Group in Canada, founder of ICWOW, promoted the amendment to Canada’s divorce bill to help agunot and founder of the International Committee for Agunah Rights, chair of the national Canadian Jewish Archives, and founder and associate director of the Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies at Concordia University. She is a former HBI scholar-in-residence.