According to the proposal, the section of the Kosel to the right of the present ezras noshim will be enlarged and revamped into a second prayer area with no restrictions to mixed gender and non-traditional religious practices. To emphasize the “equality” of both areas, people coming to either of them will pass through the same entrance. Implementation of the plan may begin within as little as one month.
Rav Chaim Kanievski opposed the idea. “Chalilah vechas to make any changes in the Kosel,” he said. “The Kosel Hama’aravi is a holy place. We must do all we possibly can to leave the situation as it is without any change.”
He mentioned that his father-in-law, Rav Yosef Sholom Elyashiv had also opposed any alterations and used to say, “One must take action so that they do not make changes even as minor as the kotz of ayud.”
The rov of the Kosel, Rav Shmuel Rabinowitz, said that while he would prefer everyone to behave according to halachah, “under the current circumstances, when the desire is that the Kosel not be a place for demonstrations and disputes, I will not object to the proposal.”
He assured the Yated that absolutely no changes will be made to the present area of the Kosel itself.
“That which exists today, the Kosel as we know it, will undergo no change,” he said. “In this place there will be no tolerance of anything that opposes halachah or opposes the minhag hamokom. The Reform already use a place at Robinson Arch in the archeological garden next to the Kosel. All that Sharansky suggests is that instead of the thirty meters they use at present, a few more meters be added.”
“Meanwhile,” he said, “we must remember that there is an archeological site at the place, there is the fact that Jordan [which has partial jurisdiction over Har Habayis] might object to the plan, and there are building permits that need to be procured; a number of preventive factors.”
“So it will take a long time to get the job done?”
“If it gets done at all!”
“I want the Kosel to continue uniting the Jewish people as it has in the past in accordance to the minhagei hamakom and without deflecting from halachah,” he added. “However, we must discuss with the gedolei Yisroel and the Chief Rabbinate whether it is worth making a war against the proposal regarding Robinson’s Arch, which is not part of the Kosel shul, if this solution is acceptable to all, keeps controversy away from the Kosel plaza, and stops the continuation of provocation and sin’as chinam.”
UMBRELLA WITH A MESSAGE
“As Women of the Wall,” the feminist group declares on its website, “our central mission is to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.”
Dozens of WOW women came to the Kosel on Rosh Chodesh last week. Indeed, the WOW board of directors had voted to aggravate the battle by having a Torah reading at the Kosel as well. Until now, they did this at the Robinson Arch.
“All plans and major changes will take time and resources to be completed,” they argued. “Until then, it is crucial to end the arrest and detainment of all women in acts of prayer at the Western Wall. There is no solution that will unify the Jewish people so long as women can be arrested for wearing prayer shawls and reading from the Torah at the Western Wall, a public holy site in Israel.”
WOW’s Rosh Chodesh prayer created an uproar. As usual, religious worshippers yelled protests. Police arrested five of the women including its director Lesley Sachs. Two Meretz MKs with the group put on prayer shawls but couldn’t be touched due to parliamentary immunity. The arrested women were soon released with no temporary ban from the Kosel as has been done in the past.
Jerusalem Magistrate Court Judge Sharon Bavli-Larry justified this by noting that it was not they who incited the clashes on Thursday morning but a chareidi woman.
“Indeed, it is correct that Women of Wall worshipers are seen in the footage approaching another worshipper,” she wrote, “but I cannot ignore the fact that the other worshipper is standing purposely with her back to them holding an umbrella upon which is written a slogan against Women of the Wall. Under these circumstances, it is not the Women of the Wall who started the provocation.”
Yated contacted the “other worshipper,” Miriam S., to hear her version of the story.
“What happened there is absurd,” she said. “At least fifty to seventy Reform women arrived to provocate, some immodestly dressed, some wearing tefillin, and some not praying at all but merely coming to make their shameful protest and cause a chillul Hashem. I had an umbrella with slogans attached, since posters are not allowed at the Kosel. My intent was to protest for the sake of kovod Shomayim. They claimed I caused a provocation by turning my back on them. If there are five rows of people, isn’t it obvious that the front rows face away from the ones behind? I didn’t intend to turn my back to them.
“My slogans were pesukim from the Tanach,” she added. “They didn’t mention anything about Reform Jews or their organization. One said, For His sake with love, another said, Who asked this of you to trample in My courts, and a third stated, What have you to do with the house of our G-d? If a person felt these rebukes didn’t apply to him he wouldn’t be bothered. If they have complaints, let them complain to the Ribono Shel Olam.”
“So what the judge said was a joke?”
Rav Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rav of the Kosel, called on the public to “condemn and remove from their midst” the group whose whole purpose was “to fan the flames of hatred and divisiveness among Jews.” He added that since the group “came to the Kosel despite Sharansky’s compromise,” this “shows that their entire purpose is to sow dissent and to hurt the feelings of other Jews, while further dividing the Jewish nation and turning the Kosel into a battlefield.”
“We must all condemn this activity and uproot it from among us,” he concluded. “We must find the things that we have in common, not concentrate on those that divide us.”
A PROVOCATIVE MOVEMENT
The campaign for women to praywith male paraphernalia at the Kosel began December 1, 1988, when the First International Jewish Feminist Conference (a movement founded abroad by Anglos from the United States, Canada, and England) was being held in Yerushalayim. During the conference, about 70 women traveled to the Kosel in two busses and gathered in the ezras noshim of the Kosel to conduct a prayer service as they saw fit,singing loudly, wearing taleisim, and reading from a Sefer Torah. Pandemonium broke out when regular worshippers noticed what was going on. Women screamed and men yelled protests from their side of the mechitzah.
A group of Israeli women present there decided to repeat the ruckus every Rosh Chodesh.
This led to the Women of the Wall organizationled by Anat Hoffman, who also serves as Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel. In earlier times Hoffman sat on the Yerushalayim City Council for fourteen years, battling whatever right-wing and religious suggestions the city came up with.
Vice-Chairman of WOW, Batya Kallus, is also Israel Advisor to the Fohs Foundation, a private American foundation that funds organizations advancing shared society and equality between Arab and Jewish citizens in Israel. Other members of the board include Bonnie Riva Ras, assistant director of communications for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and Tammy Gottlieb who was raised and educated in a Conservative home. Tragically, the WOW board and membership also include liberal shomrei mitzvos, enabling WOW to claim it represents all streams of Judaism.
The bedrock principle of Women of the Wall is to deny the fact that the Kosel is a shul run in accordance with halachah. Since its early days, WOW has been associated with chaos and disarray. In 1989, a year after the organization’s founding, a prayer meeting on Taanis Esther sparked a riot of such intensity that police used tear gas to disperse the angry crowd. Incensed by the public resistance, the very next day, four Women of the Wall petitioned the High Court of Justice (Hoffman vs. Western Wall Commissioner) to back their cause.
Meanwhile, rule (2) of the Regulations on Preservation of Jewish Holy Sites was emended to “prohibit any religious ceremony at a holy place that is not in accordance with the custom of the holy site and which offends the sensitivities of the worshipers at the place.” From then on, if Women of the Wall tried to claim that there was halachic license for their activities, the court could argue that their behavior contradicted normative behavior at the Kosel and offended other worshippers.
The President of the Court dismissed WOW’s petition, but called on the parties to reach an agreement that would uphold the petitioners “free access to the Western Wall and minimize harming the sensitivities of fellow worshippers.” In light of the ruling, Israel established a committee to find a solution. When the committee’s deadline passed, WOW filed a second petition, claiming that all the organization wanted was permission to worship at the Kosel for one hour, once a month on Rosh Chodesh, excluding Rosh Hashanah. Several committees later, the Neeman Committee concluded in 1998 that WOW’s activities at the wall could not be sanctioned due, among other things, to the police’s position that such activities would cause “severe unrest and disorder, based on past experience and in light of estimations based on the present situation.”
Instead, the committee suggested that the prayers be held to the left of the Kosel’s ezras nashim in the area known as Robinson’s arch, which is no less a part of the Western Wall than the traditional Kosel itself. WOW rejected the idea, insisting on the right to pray at the Kosel proper. A year later, the State submitted to the court an affidavit of Yerushalayim Chief of Police Yair Yitzchaki stating that WOW was provoking violence at the Kosel with its confrontational prayer meetings.
In 2003, the High Court ruled that although the WOW had a legal right to pray at the Kosel, it should nevertheless “minimize the offense caused to other observant people during the times the Women of the Wall pray and in this way also prevent serious incidents during altercations between the different camps.” The court deemed praying at Robinson’s Arch as satisfying the organization’s demand to pray “next to the Western Wall” so long as the area was renovated and made fit for prayer within 12 months.
In fulfillment of the court order, the renovated site was inaugurated in August 2004 and has since hosted prayer meetings of Reform and Conservative groups to the extent that it is known as Hakotel Hamesorati — the Conservative Wall. WOW continued its provocations at the Kosel but made a compromise. Its members continued praying with taleisim at the Kosel on Rosh Chodesh, but adjourned to the Robinson Arch to read from a Torah scroll.
In 2009, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation lost patience with the illegal WOW prayer meetings and demanded that the police put a stop them. This led to a number of arrests followed by swift releases in subsequent months and years. Most severe of these incidents was in July 2010 when Chairwoman Anat Hoffman was arrested for carrying a Torah scroll at the Kosel, interrogated for five hours, and banned from the Kosel for 30 days. Due to the active police involvement the organization’s activities, it began attracting unwelcome international interest. Synagogues, organizations, and individuals who probably never heard of Rosh Chodesh in their lives began holding solidarity Rosh Chodesh services and delivering special lectures.
As arrests increased and international pressure built up, Prime Minister Netanyahu asked Sharansky to examine the issue and come up with a solution. An indication of the world attention directed to the problem was that Sharansky received 10,000 emails from Jews outside Israel within two days. He admitted to finding the situation confusing.
“When I listen to the very partial presentation, I am fully with them – when I listen to the other side, I have to accept that they also have a logical claim,” he said. “We do have to find a solution in which nobody will feel discriminated against, and at the same time we don’t see the pictures every day of hundreds of people fighting in the most ugly way.
“Is it easy? No,” he continued. “But we Jews chose to be not-easy people, and to live in a not-easy place, and to practice not-easy religion.”
He emphasized that “The Kotel must continue to be a symbol of unity for all Jews in the world and not a symbol of strife and discord.”
On Rosh Chodesh Adar this year, WOW held their biggest provocation yet. Hundreds came to their service including several paratroopers who liberated the Kosel in 1967. Police arrested ten participants for wearing prayer shawls and held them for over three hours of questioning. On Rosh Chodesh Nissan two women Knesset members joined the group and hundreds participated in solidarity rallies overseas including a 400 strong protest at Union Square, New York, and others in Washington DC, Southern California, San Francisco, Massachusetts, and a number of college campuses.
All this was followed by the Sharansky proposal last week which recommends: “A plaza would be constructed so it is equal in size and height as the northern prayer area. This will allow all people to touch the Kotel. Finally, there should be a single entrance to the entire Kotel plaza. All comers will then be able to choose the area where they will pray.”
Sharansky estimates that the project’s construction will take up to two years to construct at the cost of 100 to 200 million shekels. Also, the Jordanians and Muslim Waqf who control Har Habayis and challenge Jewish claims to the Western Wall are unlikely to willingly accept major changes to the area bordering on the wall. In 2004 when snow damaged the Mughrabi Bridge leading to Har Habayis, there were worldwide Muslim protests when Israel tried to repair the damage. Many are concerned that if this happens, WOW will demand that the present Kosel plaza be divided to provide a permanent place for their style of worship.