Women and the Western Wall: The Big GA Showdown

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It seems it took the arrival in Jerusalem of the organized American Jewish community – which brings its landmark General Assembly to Israel only once every five years – for opposing forces in the Women of the Wall controversy to sit in the same room.

In a GA panel entitled “The Wall at the Heart of Israel: How It Connects and Divides a Nation,” Women of the Wall (WOW) Chairman Anat Hoffman shared space with Ronit Peskin, a young, ultra-Orthodox woman who earlier this year founded a group called Women for the Wall, which has put itself forward as the voice of traditional women opposed to WOW’s struggle for space at the Western Wall.

The panel also featured Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who was tasked with spearheading a compromise solution by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and MK Aliza Lavie, a member of the Yesh Atid party who has lent her support to WOW’s fight for the right to pray as a group at the Western Wall.

Although the panel marked the first time that Hoffman and Peskin had sat at the same table and aired their views – fitting for a conference that subtitled itself as “The Global Jewish Shuk: a Marketplace of Dialogue and Debate” – the two had far from an understanding. Rather, the exchange promised an ongoing atmosphere of acrimony among the progressive and ultra-traditional forces at war over Judaism’s holiest site.

“This is the actually the first time that Women of the Wall has sat down with Women for the Wall, so we could call this a session of family therapy,” Peskin said in an attempt at humor. But her sisters in WOW were terribly wrong, she said. “Women of the Wall is driving a wedge between the Jewish world and Israel… they are fanning the flames of disunity. We created Women for the Wall for regular, female wall-goers. who feel their rights are being trampled on. In most situations, a small group could not impose their view on the majority,” said Peskin.

She accused the government of bending over backwards to accommodate a group she painted as small, radical, and offensive to religious people.

“Even Anat Hoffman recently admitted that WOW is here to change women in the Orthodox world,” she said, her voice shaking. “Anat Hoffman, if you went to the Vatican, I’m sure you would respect the rules there, so why can’t you respect the rules at the kotel?”

Hoffman, for her part, took the high road in response, though in a slightly patronizing tone. “I’m rooting for you, Ronit. It’s time for you to sit in the Knesset, it’s time women sat in Agudat Yisrael,” she said, referring to one branch of the ultra-Orthodox political party known as United Torah Judaism, which has never had a female candidate on their list for the Knesset.

Hoffman spoke more to the issue that stands at the heart of the WOW controversy today. The government recently unveiled a large wooden-floored plaza near the Western Wall – not touching it but overlooking it – and offered it up for the use of WOW, as well as the Reform and Conservative movements, which have found themselves unable to have prayer gatherings or ceremonies such as bar mitzvahs at the Western Wall, instead holding them, for a fee and during limited hours at the nearby Robinson’s Arch.

Hoffman initially dismissed the platform as “sunbathing deck,” but has come around to the idea of accepting it as part of a compromise plan being offered by the government. But she said at the panel that the group would not move to hold prayer services there until an actual agreement is reached, and has presented a list of 26 conditions she is asking to be met first.

About 25 women in WOW’s core group of activists, however, disagree with Hoffman’s move to accept the plan, accusing her of forfeiting Judaism’s holiest site to Haredi control.

“Now we are facing the biggest challenge,” Hoffman explained. “We are changing our strategy. We believe the time has come to capitalize on what we have and, yes, compromise. We can’t ask everyone else to change,” she explained, “and not be willing to change ourselves.

“It is sad to see our sisters say 'we will not compromise; we will hold on to the women’s section, come hell or high water,” she added. She said the group had made its own siddur – prayer book – but the editor was one of the women who had left WOW, rather than follow Hoffman’s path to compromise.

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky said there would be no arrests of WOW activists at next month’s Rosh Hodesh prayer gathering, even if the women brought in an actual Torah to read from during the controversial monthly prayer gathering.

“I can promise you, there will be no arrests,” Sharansky said, in response to a question from Hallel Silverman, a teenage activist in the movement who was arrested at the WOW prayer gathering in February, along with her mother, Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman, because they were wore tallitot, or prayer shawls. The elder Silverman is the sister of American Jewish comedienne Sarah Silverman, a fact which helped to catapult the issue to international prominence.

Sharansky, who has been spearheading efforts to reach a compromise between the Women of the Wall and the government, said it was a “strange idea” in the first place for a Supreme Court to have ruled in 2003 that women could be arrested for wearing the prayer shawls.

The group has taken up the custom of reading from a printed Bible – and not a Torah scroll, which is hand-scribed and treated with a much greater level of reverence than its published book version – to avoid challenging an 2010 administrative procedure that bars women from bringing an actual Torah into the women’s section of the wall.

Several activists in the movement say that now that they’ve won the battle to wear tallitot and tefillin (phylacteries) without fear of arrest, they should push their prayer-protest a little further at the Rosh Hodesh gathering for the new month of Tevet – which falls in early December, during Chanukah – by bringing an actual Torah into the prayer plaza, as they have done in the past.

Women wear tallitot and tefillin as they pray at the Western Wall.Credit: Tali Mayer

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