Who Has the Right to Pray at the Western Wall?

Tensions have mounted in Jerusalem, and the current lines are drawn between a growing and relatively impoverished Haredi community and a largely Anglo and comfortable liberal community. Both see the Wall as a sacred pilgrimage and prayer site.
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After I posted an article on Facebook about Anat Hoffman, the Israeli woman arrested last week for praying in a tallit at the Western Wall, a friend and colleague, who happens to be an Orthodox rabbi, messaged me on Google chat to ask why I was bothered by the incident. He argued that she knew that she was violating a court order and she nonetheless decided to barge into an "Orthodox synagogue." His core question to me was this: If someone trespassed into a liberal synagogue and did something labeled by the people there as offensive, wouldn't you want to have the trespasser arrested?

Hearing his perspective raised new questions. Why should Jews like me, who are not actively seeking to rebuild the Third Temple, care so much about the Wall? Why not just recognize the Wall as an Orthodox synagogue? To whom does the Wall belong?

Before Jews were expelled from the Old City in 1948, the Western Wall was a sacred site of Jewish pilgrimage. In defiance of a British ban on public prayer at the site, Jews blasted the shofar at the foot of the wall. When Israeli forces entered the Old City during the 1967 war, the Wall became a potent symbol of return and reconnection to this shrine for Israelis and for Jews worldwide. My parents stood in at the Wall in '67, something that they never imagined that they would be able to do. As a teenager, I stood at the Wall and prayed for the Jewish people with a purity and conviction that I will hold with me for the rest of my life.

In recent decades, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims (particularly young people on Taglit-Birthright Israel) have made their first visits. At the same time, the various ramps and security barriers have been added, the area in the men's section expanded and the women's section shrunk, yeshivot have placed large signs on the back of the plaza, and the Wall's state-appointed guardian, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich, has taken an oppositional stance to women's prayer groups that wish to read Torah or wear tallit at the Wall. Tensions have mounted in Jerusalem, and the current lines are drawn between a growing and relatively impoverished Haredi community and a largely Anglo and comfortable liberal community. Both see the Wall as a sacred pilgrimage and prayer site.

One of the chief differences between these communities is the way that they view gender in Israeli society. The following headlines illustrate the growing culture clash:
  • Women are told to ride in the back of the bus on select routes
  • Ultra-Orthodox men spit on Modern Orthodox girls in Bet Shemesh
  • Female soldier is called a prostitute when she refuses to move to the back of a public bus
  • Hilary Clinton's face is erased from a group photo of world leaders in the newspaper
Haredi leaders might point out another set of headlines:
  • Government support for large families has been reduced
  • Funds for haredi schools have been blocked due to policy disputes
  • Growing pressure on ultra-Orthodox men to serve alongside secular Israelis in the nation's military
The arrest last week at the Wall cannot be properly understood outside of the context of this culture clash. Modern Jerusalem, built by the late Mayor Teddy Kollek into a vibrant and multicultural city, has become more deeply divided as the Haredi population has grown to more than 20 percent of the city.

So, should those of us who hope for a Jewish state that allows for a diversity of Jewish religious practices give up on the idea of creating a shared space at the Western Wall? If so, are we willing to see the day when all public spaces with rich Jewish history where people gather to pray, Masada, for example, are classified as "Orthodox synagogues"?

Two years ago, Dan Meridor, Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, the man who signed the original law banning religious observances that are not "in accordance" with the current rabbinic authorities, called for the Wall to be recognized as a national Jewish shrine instead of a synagogue. Establishing the site as a shrine would require a government effort to bring together representatives of the various Jewish streams in Israel and to create new guidelines regarding the use of the plaza and clear directives to enforce these new policies. These policies would protect the rights of those Orthodox who wish to pray at the Wall in the current fashion and ensure that other Jewish groups, both Modern Orthodox and Liberal, have the ability to pray in their custom. With such an effort, women would be able to read Torah and to wear tallit and to raise their voices in prayer without fear.

Can a society respect various religious minorities and uphold religious freedom in such a large public space? My answer to the questions posed by my Orthodox colleague is that the Wall is big enough for both those who desire distinct gendered roles in prayer and those who are more egalitarian. The responsibility of the State of Israel at this hour is to preserve religious freedom for both the segment of the Orthodox world that desires to worship at the Western Wall in the current fashion and for the millions of other Jews -- Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and "just Jewish" -- who seek to approach the Wall in prayer.

May the outcry over the arrest of Anat Hoffman help awaken Israel's political and religious leaders to the need for a new vision of freedom and coexistence within Jerusalem's walls.

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