A Wall of Healing: How Splitting the Kotel Can Bring Us All Together

Being Jewish is not just about being Jewish my way. While I choose to pray only in spaces where there are no divisions based on gender, I know there are Jews for whom such a division is essential. And not just men.
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When people discover that I'm a rabbi, the next question is often, "What kind?"

I usually respond, "the Jewish kind."

Not everyone finds it funny. In frustration, they'll even argue. "You know what I mean!"

I do, in fact, know what they mean. They want me to identify with one of Judaism's denominations. But the honest truth is that I feel a connection to all of Judaism's movements.

I became a bar mitzvah in a Reform synagogue, and feel a great fidelity to its historic emphasis on social justice. I'm drawn to the Orthodox world's impassioned devotion to prayer and text study. Given the choice, I usually pray from a Reconstructionist siddur (prayerbook). And my partner and I belong to a wonderful Conservative synagogue.

It was my connection to all streams of Jewish belief and practice that led me to study at New York's Academy for Jewish Religion, a pluralistic seminary that trains rabbis and cantors to serve the entire Jewish people. I was blessed to learn with teachers and students from across the denominational spectrum. I was taught the theology and principles behind each stream of Jewish thought. Not because I would agree with every Jew, but because I am obliged by Torah: v'ahavta l'reiecha kamocha. Love your neighbor, love the Jew beside you, as yourself.

I thought of this teaching as I heard of the decision by the Women of the Wall Board of Directors to support the creation of a third section at the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. As many people are aware, the Kotel is administered by a Charedi (Ultra Orthodox) rabbi who is appointed by the President of Israel. In this capacity, the rabbi serves as the head of something called the "Western Wall Heritage Foundation," a Board of sixteen Ultra Orthodox men.

As a result, the Kotel Plaza is run like an Ultra Orthodox synagogue. Women and men are required to pray in different sections separated by a mechitza (partition). To further complicate matters, women are prohibited from chanting Torah from a scroll, even within the women's section. Until a recent court ruling, a woman was not allowed to wear a tallit (prayer shawl) in the women's section.

In spite of these ordinances, a group of women from all walks of Jewish life, known as Women of the Wall, has held a service in the women's section of the Kotel, every month, for the past twenty-five years.

We might imagine that more traditionally observant Jews would respect these women and their impassioned tefillot (prayers) despite their disagreement over their ritual practice, out of ahavat Yisrael, love of the Jewish people. In too many cases and at too many times, however, just the opposite has been true.

Shockingly, the prayers of these brave and devout women have been answered with harassment, verbal abuse, and worse. Women engaged in prayer have been attacked with thrown eggs, hurled chairs, and often faced arrest and police harassment due to their "provocative" behavior.

After 25 years of protesting this state-supported persecution, and with the strength of a court ruling behind them, the Women of the Wall Board has agreed to enter into negotiations with Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandleblit regarding the establishment of a third section of the Kotel. This third section will welcome mixed-gender worship alongside the sections set aside for single-gender prayer. Women of the Wall leaders, outcast for so long, will now take a seat at the table with government officials, the Conservative and Reform Movements, and others who are part of the negotiations regarding the establishment of this new prayers space. The new section promises to be similar in stature to the other two sections and accessible from the same entrance.

"We are not leaving the women's section right now and we reserve the right to pray freely at the public holy site," said Women of the Wall Chair Anat Hoffman. "However, we are prepared to be the catalyst and leaders of building a new, equal third section for all Jews to pray and celebrate at the Western Wall."

Personally, the last time I saw a mechitza was at a Hillel house, in a midwestern college town. I was in town to perform a wedding, and the only Jewish prayer space open that summer Shabbat morning was the Hillel's Orthodox minyan. I positioned myself at the back of the room, straddling the space between the men's and women's sections. While the people I davvened with that day were kind and welcoming, I was uncomfortable. Given the choice, I would not pray in a Jewish prayer space divided by gender.

And this is where my love -- our love -- for the Jewish people is really put to the test. Being Jewish is not just about being Jewish my way. While I choose to pray only in spaces where there are no divisions based on gender, I know there are Jews for whom such a division is essential. And not just men. There are Jewish women, too, who only feel comfortable praying in a gendered prayer space. That's why the Women of the Wall leadership is seeking a separate women's prayer space, within the proposed third section, so there is a separation between mixed-gender worship and women's worship.

Being a pluralist Jew means deeply loving Jews with whom one disagrees. I believe that it is the right of any Jewish woman to sing out in prayer, to wear a tallit, to chant aloud from a Torah scroll. But my conviction will do nothing to relieve the anguish of a Charedi woman who would no doubt feel as uncomfortable in the presence of such practice as I felt in that Hillel house. It would be a great heartache if a permanent resolution to this problem led to permanent pain and anguish among our Charedi sisters and brothers. One of the reasons that the proposed solution is a great one is that it allows the spectrum of ancient and modern Jewish tefilah to flourish.

At root, all parties involved want to see more Jews saying more tefillot with more kavvanah, with deeper intention. This solution may help to make that a reality. May these efforts lead to a deeper love for Israel, each other, and our Creator -- no matter what kind of Jews we are.

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