The Short and Overcrowded History of Women at the Western Wall

Exclusion of women at the Kotel affects not only women seeking to pray with tallitot and tefillin, but every single woman who seeks to worship there, alongside the much larger men’s section.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

At the Western Wall, women are excluded and discriminated against. This exclusion is blatant, systematic and involves many more injustices than those being protested by the Women of the Wall, a pluralist organization that is fighting for women’s right to pray in the main plaza while wearing a tallit ‏(prayer shawl‏) and tefillin ‏(phylacteries‏), and to read aloud and collectively from a Torah scroll. Indeed, the discrimination affects every single woman who comes to the Kotel from anywhere in Israel or abroad, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In a manner that is both humiliating and even dangerous, women often have to force their way through the small plaza allotted to them if they want to enjoy the privilege of placing their hand on the holy stones or inserting a note between them.

If estimates are accurate that there are some 10 million worshipers at the Western Wall every year, it can be assumed that the prayer arrangements at the site cause distress to millions of women every year, without almost any objections being raised by the political echelon.

Women will not receive a larger space in which to worship, at the expense of the men’s prayer area, as long as the rabbi of the Kotel has anything to say about it. Indeed, a 2006 religious ruling by the current holder of that position, Shmuel Rabinowitz, which was barely noticed by the general public, determines that such a step is forbidden, for fear of “diminishing the sanctity” of the place allocated to men at the Wall. Rabinowitz says that the floor of the men’s section there is sacred and not a single square meter of it can be transferred to the women’s section.

First the facts: The women’s section is 12 meters wide, compared to the 48 meters for the men. So, one-fifth of the entire space in the plaza is allocated to 50 percent of the population. Until 2004, the women had an area of 18 meters in width − but then an earthwork ramp at the southern end of the plaza, leading to the Mugrabi Gate on the Temple Mount, collapsed, and six precious meters of the sacred wall were lost when a wooden bridge was built on the site.

On holidays − like Tuesday night, for example, when countless Jerusalemites are expected to flock to the Kotel at the conclusion of their respective tikkun leil Shavuot study sessions, Torah learning that can go on all night, even until dawn − tens of thousands of women are crushed between the Wall and the metal partition that separates them from the men, and are in fact in physical danger. And we still haven’t mentioned the humiliation many undergo at the hands of the so-called female modesty patrols, or the ongoing shortage of chairs and prayer books in the women’s section.

Nor have we mentioned the fact that unlike the men, who enjoy a spacious covered area ‏(under Wilson’s Arch‏), the women don’t have anywhere to seek protection from inclement weather.

For years, then, the prayer arrangements at the Wall have both discriminated against masses of women and undermined their religious freedom. For his part, Rabinowitz, who is besieged with requests and complaints related to these problems, is well aware of the situation. Staff in his office recently explained to Haaretz that the rabbi has a plan to expand the women’s section by 200 square meters, but it’s not clear when this will take place.

On the eve of her election to the Knesset, in January, MK Aliza Lavie ‏(Yesh Atid‏) − who now chairs the parliament’s committee on women − complained to Rabinowitz about the size of the women’s area. In a written response, the rabbi blamed various authorities whom he claimed opposed his plan to turn the existing Mugrabi bridge into a “suspended” one, so that women could stand beneath it and thus have additional space for prayer. He also claimed in his letter that he has an alternative plan, to “add a floor beneath the women’s section, in order to double its size.” That sounds like a farfetched idea, certainly in light of the political situation and the watchful eye of the Waqf ‏(Muslim religious trust‏) and the Muslim world.

Rabinowitz declared, furthermore, that women’s problems of worship at the Wall stem from a “historic mistake” − namely, the placement of the partition between their section and the men’s in its present location after the Six-Day War.

Why not, then, move that partition between the two sections in a manner that will at least reduce the huge difference between them, one might ask. There is a clear and authorized response to that. It is found in “She’elot V’Tshuvot Sha’arei Tzion” ‏(“Gates of Zion Questions and Answers”‏), a book based on halakha ‏(traditional Jewish law‏) that was written by Rabinowitz in 2006, dealing with laws concerning the Western Wall and other holy sites. In one section, the rabbi presents the following query: In light of the collapse of the Mughrabi bridge in 2004, and “the women’s demand to enlarge their prayer area temporarily” − as he puts it − is it permitted to change the location of the partition in the Western Wall plaza?

‘Soft and delicate’

The reply is nine pages long, and it is difficult to describe all its arguments here. Rabinowitz opens by citing the view of Jewish sources through the ages with respect to whether a women’s area of worship is “sacred.” (The idea of separating men and women originated in the Temple, and is described in the Bible.) Some of them reply in the negative, he writes, but most maintain that the women’s section in every synagogue is sacred, although less sacred than the men’s. He cites one halakhic arbiter ‏(Yosef Shaul Natanson, known as the Shoel Umeishiv, from the 19th century‏), who permitted construction of a kind of gallery directly above the men’s section in a synagogue to be used for women’s prayer, without reducing the floor space in the men’s area.

According to Rabinowitz, “his words pertain only to the synagogue space, but not to the floor per se, which would mean reducing sanctity through the direct use of part of the synagogue for a women’s section, which everyone agrees is less sacred.” According to Rabinowitz, it is forbidden to reduce the level of sanctity from strict to more lenient.

But is it permitted to move the partition for a short time, if necessary? The rabbi notes, in his book, that as opposed to what is usually claimed, the partition at the Western Wall is not a temporary one. “On the contrary, we want to reinforce the separation as much as possible at the upper level [of the plaza], too.” But that, he continues, “is for the period of the festivals only, when there is a great need to enlarge the women’s section, and after the festivals the partition will be restored to its previous location − this should be allowed.”

In order to find a justification for that, he once again cites a series of halakhic arbiters, who in this context say, ostensibly in contradiction to what was claimed previously, that transferring an area of worship from men to women does not necessarily constitute a “diminishment of sanctity.”

Rabinowitz once again relies on the responsa of Shoel Umeishiv, among other sources, which maintains that women should be encouraged to worship in the synagogue − for example, by providing heating for their section of the building in the winter for the sake of these “soft and delicate” worshipers. According to Rabinowitz, the Talmudic sages observed that it was thanks to righteous women that our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt, and therefore it is right and proper to give them a place to pray in the synagogue, and to keep an eye on their children, and so forth.

Rabinowitz sums up: “It is forbidden to move the partition permanently and to expand the floor space of the women’s section at the expense of the floor space of the men’s section, because that means diminishing the degree of sanctity of the place, from strict to lenient. However, for a brief period of time we should be lenient, and that is what we did at the Western Wall plaza, but we did not eliminate the permanent partition.”

The policy at the Western Wall has been to move the partition a few meters to the north, thus reducing the size of the men’s section, but only on Sukkot and Passover. On Shavuot, which takes place Tuesday night, tens of thousands of female worshiper will make do, as mentioned, with a 12-meter stretch of wall. This type of exclusion is of course not a problem the Women of the Wall are responsible for solving, and it is not possible to force them to express solidarity with their sisters, but anyone else who is involved in the battles at the Wall − for example, the media − must focus on this form of discrimination, too.

In the past year, representatives of the observant public, such as MK Lavie and Jerusalem City Council member Rachel Azaria, have tried to have the partition at the Western Wall moved permanently. So far they have failed. This battle, being waged by Orthodox women, has been drowned out in the uproar surrounding the public protest and the discourse on rights spearheaded by the Women of the Wall, some of whom are themselves Orthodox. The politicians and the media have a responsibility to ask the authorities for better responses than the one in Rabinowitz’s halakhic ruling. Even assuming that it is of value in the world of halakha, his response clearly diverges from the opinion of some of the halahkhic arbiters − and also of the attorney general, who last Wednesday published a series of guidelines prohibiting the exclusion of women from public spaces.

According to Rabbi Rabinowitz, there’s no need for confrontation. “On Shavuot, we intend to expand the women’s area significantly, by 200 square meters, and one has to remember that this is a slow process. I took over a Western Wall where the status quo was determined in 1968. I won’t violate halakha, but I do have solutions that will provide significant additions [in space] to women. I won’t expand on this – the site is sensitive and very explosive, and my responsibility is grave, but this is one of my central goals, to undertake a revolution in this area.”

Festive prayers at the Wall.Credit: Michal Fattal

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