How Sad the Western Wall Has Fallen Hostage to the ultra-Orthodox Autocracy Over Jewish Life in Israel

Treating Women of the Wall like suspected criminals is no way for a Jewish democracy to operate.

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Imagine this scene: Women, young and old, detained as they make their way through security lines and metal detectors at Israel’s holiest site. Why, you wonder? Are they carrying guns, knives or other dangerous weapons? No. Well, not exactly. But last Friday, December 14, 2012, as they came to celebrate the new Hebrew month of Tevet with Women of the Wall, four women were searched because of a new decree: women are no longer allowed to enter the Western Wall plaza with certain religious objects deemed by the Orthodox authorities as only fitting for men.

The women carried in their purses and backpacks, around their shoulders and buried under their coats tallitot (prayer shawls) and tefillin (phylacteries). They were told they could only enter the plaza if they deposited this “contraband” with the security officers. This new decree, issued in time for Friday’s gathering, is an escalation of the previous “rules” which restricted women’s prayer significantly at the Kotel. Now, women are not allowed to even have these objects in the public plaza of the Western Wall, which is not even a prayer site per se.

The escalation has been going on for years now. As far back as 1999 these women - whose desire is to pray in equal standing with men at the Western Wall - have faced increasing harassment and even violence when gathering to lead morning prayers in celebration of the new Hebrew month. From diapers filled with feces, to hateful speech and now to continuing arrests by the police  this gathering has become the battleground for a larger issue in Israel: religious freedom in the democratic state. Who, we ask, is the arbiter of the Judaism practiced in Israel? Who does the Kotel belong to?

Theodor Herzl once stated, “We are organizing Jewry for its coming destiny.” Herzl’s statement, made before the establishment of Israel, is even more relevant today. For though we have dreamed of the sovereign state, Israel’s population still struggles to have daily operations, politics and religious life be a destiny for ALL of her citizens. There is still much work to be done so all of us are able to practice Judaism as we wish in our Jewish homeland. The status quo agreement that David Ben Gurion negotiated has done us all a disservice, allowing Israeli society to function without freedom, equality or accessibility to all. The Chief Rabbinate owns daily religious life in Israel and, as such, has marginalized not only secular Israelis but Conservative and Reform Jews – both in Israel and the Diaspora.

The Women of the Wall, through their gathering and advocacy efforts, are trying to right one very small wrong perpetrated by the ultra-Orthodox hegemony in Israel. This wrong is just one of many. We have an obligation to ensure Israel is a country for all her citizens where a pluralistic Judaism reigns. Wonder what that would look like? Start by looking at a the American Heritage Dictionary’s definition of pluralism:

“The condition of being multiple or plural. A condition in which numerous distinct ethnic, religious, or cultural groups are present and tolerated within a society. The belief that such a condition is desirable or socially beneficial.”

Today, different denominations of Judaism express their Jewish identity in starkly distinctive ways and we should have an Israel that celebrates, not squelches, this diversity. Unfortunately, we continue to abdicate responsibility for Jewish life in Israel to a body of men (yes, there is the gender issue here as well) who see it fit to be not only the leaders of religion in their shuls, yeshivot and communities, but also at our weddings, in our schools and in our public holy sites. Simply put, the Kotel, a holy site to all of us, has been held hostage, along with the rest of religious life in Israel, by the ultra-Orthodox who exclude so many from practicing their brand of Judaism.

The Torah teaches in one of its most famous lines, “Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them: Ye shall be holy; for I the LORD your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). The Torah here reminds each of us in stark terms that our holiness is communal: all of us and each of us can access godliness in the world. We are all holy without exception, kol adat b’nai yisrael, the entire congregation of Israel. where all Jews do not have the right to religious freedom. How sad that Israel’s government and rabbinic authority can’t live up to the Torah’s standard of a pluralistic holiness so as to create a society where all Jews have access to the holiest places and holiest experiences.

Elianna Yolkut is a Conservative Rabbi teaching Torah and celebrating Judaism in New York City. You can reach her at

Anat Hoffman, leader of the Women of the Wall, is arrested at the Western Wall for for holding a Torah scroll in violation of a court ruling on prayer at Judaism's holiest site in July 2010.Credit: Michal Fattal