Monday, April 15, 2013

Women of the Wall Update

Last Thursday was Rosh Chodesh Iyar, and once again the Women of the Wall and their supporters met at the Western Wall in Jerusalem to celebrate this Jewish holiday through prayer and song. Once again, women were arrested for the crime of wearing tallitot (prayer shawls). This time the story was apparently newsworthy enough to be reported by
the BBC News website
the Guardian online
the Sydney Morning Herald (via the Washington Post) and other august publications available via your Google searches.

A few hours earlier the chair of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky, as per his appointment by Prime Minister Netanyahu, announced his plan to resolve the situation. He has suggested that the Western Wall plaza should be extended and divided into three equal places of worship, i.e., for men, for women and for egalitarian services. The mixed services would be held at Robinson's Arch. Strangely enough, that is the area currently used by the women for Torah reading and yet they are still campaigning for the opportunity to be treated equally. Sharansky has suggested that the site will be upgraded. Is this enough for it to count as a legitimate offer?

I worry that this offer is a smokescreen. If it is not treated seriously, then the WoTW could be accused of intransigence. In any case, what kind of offer is one which suggests it is a bold new step but in fact is offering something that already exists?

On the other hand, what if this is really a step on the path to a viable compromise? There are many Progressive Jews who do not consider the Western Wall to be a holy site. If Robinson's Arch is placed beyond the control of the Orthodox Rabbinate, might it become a focal point for non-Orthodox Jews to join together in prayer? In the Jewish Journal, Shmuel Rosner writes:

"There comes a time in any successful movement for change or reform for cashing in, and it is often a time of crisis. Getting so close to achieving a goal, one has to struggle with two challenges:  the temptation to overreach - and pass on a deal that might be the best realistic one - and the difficulty of having to accept the less glorious (and more mundane) missions of a reformed reality." (the rest of the article is here.)

In the past few months, I have heard many Jews say that the issue of prayer at the Western Wall is not a priority for them. While the question of religious pluralism in the Jewish homeland is vital and current, they would rather focus on issues such as segregation of women on buses, or the radio stations that bleep out the voices of women (including female members of the Knesset). On the one hand I think I can see their point. On the other, I cannot stay silent when women are being arrested for wearing tallitot, something which I am able to do in this country any time I wish. As for Mr Sharansky's plan - I remember being part of protests and vigils with the Women's Campaign for Soviet Jewry as we fought for his release. Many of the Women of the Wall were part of that campaign or are daughters of such activists. I think he really should be able to do a little bit better for them!

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