Marking The Fourth Decade Of Women’s Tefilla At The Kotel


Friday, March 8, 2019 is International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate women’s achievements, raise awareness against bias and take action for equality. The impact of many of JOFA’s initiatives reach across geographic lines. These include increasing women’s participation in Jewish text study, synagogue-based rituals, and advocating for communal leadership roles. This year, JOFA is marking International Women’s Day with a blog series on women’s tefillah (prayer) efforts at the kotel. These organized efforts were initiated over 30 years ago by American Jewish women (many of whom later became founders of JOFA) who were visiting Israel in order to benefit Jewish women from around the world. We hope you will take a few moments to read reflections from Original Women of the Wall/Tfillat Nashim BaKotel as well as Women of the Wall/Nashot HaKotel.

Thirty-one years ago, in December, 1988, I was among a group of some seventy Jewish women who went to the Kotel to pray together and read Torah there. I read Torah, right up against the stones. The experience was one of the highlights of my life.

We went at the initiative of Rivka Haut, z”l, and Norma Joseph, among JOFA’s founders. Rivka’s vision was for a diverse group of women to pray together in that site of sacred Jewish memory, connection, and hope. The context was the First International Conference of Jewish Feminists, then meeting in Jerusalem, attended by over a thousand women from all over the globe. The Jewish world was then rocked by an upsurge of divisiveness and mutual recrimination about “who is a Jew;” really a power struggle over who is a rabbi. Sin’at hinnam was rampant. Rivka wanted Jewish women to model something very different: Jewish solidarity, mutual respect and accommodation, davka, in prayer. And that is exactly what we did. It was an inexpressibly precious, holy moment of ahavat hinnam, whose essence stays with us, all these decades later.

After the Conference, Bonna Haberman, z”l, of Jerusalem, asked a very good question: why did it take a woman from Brooklyn to suggest women’s group prayer at the Kotel, when the Kotel “is in our back yard?” Bonna resolved to continue the practice, and with this, Women of the Wall was born.

The history of what came next—appalling violence that exposed raw misogyny on the ground and in the religious and politicalestablishments; legal actions that extended over decades; utter resolve by the women to continue to pray there together—is detailed in the book by Phyllis Chesler and Rivka Haut, eds., Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site.

It was an inexpressibly precious, holy moment, of ahavat hinnam, whose essence stays with us, all these decades later.

Throughout the decades of struggle, the founding goals of the group remained: women’s group prayer, at the Kotel. Time and again, we rejected any alternate site: the hope of the authorities from the beginning (and to this day), was to remove us from that place, to protect, as they claim, the “feelings of the worshippers,” as if that is not who we are. To remove women from Jewish sacred space because the sight and sound of Judaism in female form and voice and face, with tashmishei kodesh, is intolerable to some, as much as it empowers and invigorates us and is a profound tikkun to Judaism itself.

For over twenty-five years, we remained united in this vision and practice. Some of us, now organized in a group called “Original Women of the Wall/tefillat nashim bakotel,” remain committed to those goals. We continue to reject any alternate site. We remain independent and autonomous, including and accommodating the religious practice of women from all streams of Judaism, but affiliated with and bound to no movement but our own. We reject any argument that would subsume women’s tefilla at the Kotel in any other struggle, much less use our historic legal victories and achievement in presence at the Kotel to advance any other cause. We have “split from” nothing; we continue what all this was about from the beginning.

Many do not know that Jewish women have won every legal round on this issue. The Supreme Court of Israel ruled in 2003 that (of course), all we do is legal. A District Court ruled in 2013 that, because of our stalwart commitment, women’s group tefilla at the Kotel had become a “minhag hamakom,” a “custom of the place.” Our group (OWOW, for short), prays regularly at the Kotel; on Torah reading days, with a sefer torah, to no incident. Ample photographic and video proof is on our Facebook page, which we encourage you to visit and “like.”

Recently, OWOW won another legal victory. The rabbinical administrator of the Kotel had instructed a private security company and the security guards normally stationed at the checkpoints to the Kotel to conduct body searches on women they suspected of bringing sacred “contraband” – talitot; tefillin; a sefer torah, even a tikkun—to the Kotel. He did this in contravention of a Supreme Court ruling we had obtained that only the standard, security searches conducted on all were to be conducted on us, or any Jewish women. We sued him, the State, and the private security company, for damages for violation of our right to privacy, and we won. The Judge in the case suggested a settlement, which the State of Israel accepted on behalf of all the defendants. The State, in short, ceded our case and did not even allow the rabbinical administrator of the Kotel to protest.

In this negotiation, women’s rights to group prayer at the Kotel was the currency.

This administrator continues to withhold access to Jewish women to any of the scores of Torah scrolls kept at the Kotel, and he tries to prevent us from bringing any in. Four and a half years ago, members of our group, myself included, filed a suit against this violation before the Supreme Court of Israel, which is still pending. We are proud to say that Kolech, JOFA’s sister organization in Israel, is a co-plaintiff with us in that suit.

In the meantime, the Women of the Wall organization had agreed to join the Reform and Conservative movements in negotiating with the government of Israel for a deal that would give those movements State recognition and funding at Robinson’s Arch, a world-class archaeological site on the southern end of the Western Wall. As anyone who has engaged in negotiations knows, in any negotiation, one has to bring “currency” to the table; something to trade in exchange for whatever one hopes to gain. In this negotiation, women’s rights to group prayer at the Kotel was the currency.

OWOW, composed of every founder of women’s group prayer at the Kotel but one; that is: Rivka Haut, z”l, Bonna Haberman, z”l, Norma Joseph, Susan Aranoff, Phyllis Chesler, me—rejected this divergence from and betrayal of the very founding purpose of the group, and we have continued in our way.

There is a great deal of confusing, partial, and misleading information about the Kotel deal. While most know that the haredi establishment threatened Netanyahu’s government with dissolution if he implemented it, after years of negotiation and finally, an agreement, very few have asked why the haredi establishment, in its entirety, agreed to the deal in the first place. This is a question that really should be asked.  

After all, the deal would have awarded Robinson’s Arch (RA) officially to the Reform and Conservative movements as an egalitarian prayer site. Although RA has served as such for decades, the deal would have changed the status of the place officially and awarded the progressive religious movements  State funding for its operation. Effectively, this would have given them the official recognition they have long sought, and against which the haredi establishment has fought tooth and nail.

Indeed, to that establishment, very much including the haredi rabbinical administrator of the Kotel, a chief party to the deal negotiations,  these movements are “works of Satan.” Why, then, would this establishment ever have agreed to the deal?

This is when and why we in OWOW organized: In order to preserve, protect, and promote the rights that Jewish women have won in decades of struggle, and which we exercise regularly.

The answer is: because, in exchange for changing the status of Robinson’s Arch, making it a synagogue under progressive Jewish auspices, the status of the Kotel was also to change. Its status as “atar le’umi kadosh”— “national holy site” of the Jewish people, would be lost.  Instead, it would become a synagogue under official haredi control.

All know that the haredi establishment has appropriated the Kotel, turning it by stages into a haredi shrine. But that status is not official.  That is what the deal would have accomplished, and why the haredi establishment agreed to it, before pressure from their street made them renege.

This part of the deal was kept from public awareness, both in Israel and the Diaspora. But it is not the only far-from-progressive part of the deal carefully kept from such awareness.

Under the deal, women’s group prayer at the Kotel would have been made a criminal offense, punishable by seven years’ imprisonment and heavy fines.

This is when and why we in OWOW organized:  in order to preserve, protect, and promote the rights which Jewish women have won in decades of struggle, and which we exercise regularly. This is why we filed the Supreme Court case I outlined, above.

Enforcing Jewish women’s rights at the Kotel has very broad implications. It means reining in the ongoing encroachments and abuse of the haredi establishment there, and by clear implication, elsewhere, as well. This is a major reason why our lawyer, Dr. Susan Weiss, of the Center for Women’s Justice, as well as other prominent constitutional jurists, such as Professor Frances Raday, see profound significance in our sefer torah case.

OWOW does not oppose respect for and recognition of non-Orthodox variants of Judaism. On the contrary; we want to see all Jews, including secular Jews, respected and supported for their customs and commitments, and for freedom of conscience and practice to enjoy resolute State protection. Exactly what we insist for ourselves.

The Kotel deal, however,  was—and, most importantly, is—not the way to go.

The deal would have taken sacred Jewish space, sacred to all Jews, and denominationalized it, turning it into a version of the Holy Sepulcher, at which competing Christian sects vie for every inch of space while delegitimizing one another. As the Talmud asks: misham raaya? Should this be our model?

The Kotel is and must remain the “national holy site” of the Jewish people, of us all, secular and any kind of religious, alike. More than this: it must be restored to this status on the ground. Haredi establishment encroachment and appropriation of the site continues apace, repelling many Jews, secular and religious alike, from the place. This is a national tragedy that should not be allowed to continue, much less one that should be reified, as the Kotel deal would do.

We say, as we have since 1988: we are Jewish women, who pray together at the Kotel. Period.

This site once evoked fervent emotions in all Jews. Secular as well as religious soldiers sacrificed limb and life to restore it to Jewish hands in 1967, so that all would have free and dignified access, denied to Jews for nearly two millennia. It was a preeminent national unifier.

That site still has the power to serve this sacred function. But not if it remains under haredi establishment control, administered as a haredi shrine, with other Jews– except for our group, the only one to have successfully established non-haredi practice there– suffered only on haredi terms. And certainly not if it is formally awarded to the haredi establishment, vastly expanding its power and funding in its never-ending quest to establish a theocracy in Israel, whose tentacles would reach deeply into the Diaspora, as well, deciding the legitimacy of rabbis there to decide questions of conversion, marriage, divorce, as it has already attempted to do.

Jewish women’s right to full religious expression at the Kotel is not negotiable. It is not tradeable. It is not a way stone on the path to any other, ostensibly higher goal, as egalitarianism is asserted by some to be.  Feminism and egalitarianism are not synonymous; and however we may support and participate in egalitarianism, religious or otherwise, it does not replace feminism. We reject any supercessionist, teleological argument about women’s religious expression or rights.

On this last point, I would encourage JOFA’s readers to listen to the 2018 webinar which JOFA conducted with me and Cheryl Birkner Mack of OWOW at whose conclusion I elaborate this point.

We say, as we have since 1988: we are Jewish women, who pray together at the Kotel. Period.

We do ask: what does the Women of the Wall organization strive for now? While it was agitating for adoption of the Kotel deal, it said that it would remain at the Kotel until and unless the deal was implemented. What is its position now? Does it see its presence at the Kotel as contingent, a bargaining chip to press for the deal to be revived and implemented? Or does it uphold the founding purpose of the group: diverse Jewish women’s group prayer, in that place?

Shulamit S. Magnus is Professor Emerita of Jewish Studies
and History at Oberlin College and currently teaches in Hebrew
University-Rothberg School, in Jerusalem, where she resides. She 
specializes in Jewish modernity, questions of identity, the history of Jewish 
women, and the workings of gender in  Jewish societies from antiquity to the present. She is the author of four scholarly books and scores of articles and is winner of the National Jewish Book Award and a Hadassah-Brandeis Translation Award for her work on Pauline Wengeroff’s Memoirs of a Grandmother.  She is a founding member of Women of the Wall and a core member of Original Women of the Wall (OWOW). She was a plaintiff in the first Supreme Court case about Jewish women’s right to full religious expression at the Kotel, and is a plaintiff in a current Supreme Court case, brought by members of OWOW, to require enforcement of all such rights, including Jewish women’s access to and free use of Torah scrolls kept at the Kotel.

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