Women of the Wall, Breaking Down Walls

Here in Canada, I can bring my tallit to an Orthodox shul with no fear of arrest. If only Israeli women were so lucky.

On a recent Shabbat morning, I found myself at an Orthodox synagogue here in Ottawa, attending a celebration hosted by friends. As is my custom when I attend our own Conservative shul, I brought along my tallit (prayer shawl). “I hope you don’t get arrested,” my 8-year old daughter whispered as we entered the gender-divided sanctuary. Don’t worry, I told her, that only happens in Israel.

My sardonic reply was an exaggeration, of course: Not of the humiliating treatment that the Jerusalem police meted out to Anat Hoffman when she was arrested at the Kotel for chanting the Shema last month, but an admitted geographical exaggeration. Throughout Israel, more and more Jews are finding a spiritual home in the egalitarian movements represented by Reform and Conservative (Masorti) Judaism. And many Jews -- the “hilonim,” or seculars, as they are known, are just as happy never to chant any prayers at all.

But there remains a debate – even among progressive Jews – over the Kotel. Is the principle of gender equality at the Wall a touchstone for all issues of civil and human rights in Israel? Or is it a distraction from more pressing problems surrounding the rights of women?

I spoke with Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, who in 1983, became the first female rabbi in Canada. She is now the founder of City Shul, a Reform congregation in downtown Toronto. For Rabbi Goldstein, the issue of women’s rights at the Kotel cuts to the bone. The criminalization of women’s ritual practice there outrages her. When Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, chief rabbi at the Kotel, called recently for every Jew to have his Bar Mitzvah at the Wall, it was a stinging reminder that half of her own congregants and, by extension, half of all Jews – are being excluded.

But not every progressive Jew sees the issue of women at the Kotel the same way.

Rabbi Miri Gold of Kibbutz Gezer made headlines last spring when she won a landmark ruling to become the first non-Orthodox rabbi to be entitled to state funding. (She still has yet to see a shekel of the monies promised her, however.) Rabbi Gold tells me, “I would never suggest taking the issue of women at the Kotel off the agenda. I sign petitions. I’m supportive and sympathetic But where do I put my energy? I personally don’t go to the Wall to pray. It’s not where I find a spiritual place.”

Rabbi Maya Leibovich, a pulpit rabbi in Mevaseret Zion in Jerusalem and chairwoman of MARAM, the Israeli Council of Progressive Rabbis, says that MARAM is currently appealing to the government to try to get a third, egalitarian space designated at the Kotel. (The adjacent Robinson’s Arch has already been set aside for this purpose, but many progressive Jews reject the symbolism of this compromise.)

Still, the issue of the Kotel is not foremost on MARAM’s agenda, Leibovich tells me.

She adds, “I feel disgust when I take guests from abroad to the Kotel. Even security is completely gender-separate.” She adds, “To be sanctifying stones is not part of what the Reform movement is all about.”

Others are much more directly critical of Women of the Wall’s campaign.

Rabbi Edward Goldfarb, a rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, says, “There are bigger fish to fry than Anat Hoffman wearing a tallit at the Kotel.” He adds, “They should be marching in the trenches on the issue of agunah [women whose husbands refuse to grant them a get, or Jewish ritual divorce].”

As a progressive Jew, I admit that, in the case of the Kotel, the debate over whether to strive to make change with one’s voice or whether to vote with one’s feet both fires my imagination and gives me pause.

My personal experiences at the Wall are a pendulum of memory and forgetting.

As a 10-year-old visiting Israel for the first time the same year that Rabbi Goldstein was becoming my country’s first female rabbi, I stood solemnly at the Wall, a blue cloth draped piously over my head. But I have little memory of visiting the Kotel when I spent three years living in Israel in my 20s. Once I returned with my own kids years later, the mood was dampened when my daughter, then 7, was incensed at experiencing the gender segregation first-hand. And now, I admit, I’m just as content to avoid the place altogether, preferring the political and artistic dynamism and relative openness of Tel Aviv.

Still I can’t help feeling a burst of envy for Anat Hoffman and her colleagues, who are working tirelessly for the integrity of the site so central to the contemporary Jewish imagination, a place whose walls have absorbed so much Jewish prayer and hope for centuries. So committed are these women to restoring Israel’s public spaces to places where any citizen can practice her religion free from arrest, that they continue to cry out for equality even as the site has become so drenched in a spirit of exclusion that I can’t help but wonder if the stones are still listening.

Michal Fattal