One Wall for One People?
One wall for one Jewish people.
That is progress. And that is what Natan Sharansky said when he made a proposal to create a new prayer plaza at the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s most holy and iconic sites.
It is one of the most important religious compromises made for the Jewish People.
To make this breakthrough both sides gave a little. In the case of the Western Wall, the holiest remnant of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the stakes were high both for the incumbent ultra-Orthodox administration of the Wall and for those who strongly advocated for making part of the existing prayer space one where men and women could pray freely, including reading Torah and wearing Tallitot and Tefillin, together.
With the new political coalition in place in the Knesset, the Prime Minister of Israel, Bibi Netanyahu, tasked Natan Sharansky, the famous former Soviet dissident, former member of the Knesset, and now head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, to work out a compromise among the parties.
Each month for some time an organization of which I spoke recently “Women of the Wall” have been praying on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the Hebrew month, at the Wall. In violation of the laws of worship at the wall, many of these women were regularly arrested and released.
Last time I spoke to you about them Rabbi Susan Silverman and her daughter, Hallel, along with another friend of mine, Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin, were arrested at the same time that Sharansky was meeting with colleagues of the Jewish Federation’s Rabbinic Council in Israel.
So in three month’s time, let me describe to you the compromise position that Sharansky has developed and how it is already moving forward.
First the issues:
--the plaza at the Wall is considered an Orthodox synagogue and is regulated by the rabbi of the wall with separation between men and women as is customary in Orthodox synagogues
--the women's section at the Wall is smaller than the men’s
--at the present time there is no spot for non-Orthodox worship at the Wall
--the Women of the Wall have been using the monthly services on Rosh Chodesh as a way to create change
--at the last two Rosh Chodesh there were new members of the Knesset there with no arrests
This issue of non-Orthodox worship is particularly compelling for those of us in the Diaspora.
Many of us when we first arrive in Israel are taken from the airport directly to the Wall so that we can pray. It is an important symbol to Jews worldwide--and thus it is important for Israel to respect that symbolic importance to the Jewish people outside of Israel.
The Sharansky compromise does not involve splitting the existing Western Wall plaza. What it does propose is developing the area on the other side of the bridge to the Temple Mount, in an archeological park adjacent to Robinson’s Arch.
This is toward the south side of the existing wall where people would ascend to the ancient Temple. Right now it is in an area where there are many important artifacts in the ongoing research at site.
So those are the first two major parts of the compromise: Sharansky will have to work with the Muslim Waqf which controls the bridge to ascend to the Temple Mount that is extant; and he will have to work on developing a worship space in an archeological park.
The next compromise comes from Women of the Wall who let go of the idea of creating an existing egalitarian prayer space in the current plaza, the one that is considered an Orthodox synagogue, for the sake of having this new place to pray.
They have not given up the right to wear religious garb, to pray out loud, to read the Torah, and to worship according to the non-Orthodox liturgies that they use. And this week in a second major breakthrough an Israeli court ruled that women could wear ritual religious garb in the women’s section of the Wall.
With respect to the new area proposed by Sharansky, the rabbi of the Wall would have no authority over this area.
It still needs to be worked out who will have authority but the fact remains that there is a solution in place and this week the Prime Minister, himself, endorsed it. Simply amazing speed for such an important issue.
What Sharansky is doing is truly extraordinary--he is molding a compromise at a site where religious feelings among different groups of people run extraordinarily high.
Between now and the implementation it will be important to monitor the situation, and for the Women of the Wall to continue their efforts to ensure that the compromise is implemented.
Sharansky said, “The Kotel (Western Wall) will once again be a symbol of unity among the Jewish people and not one of discord and strife. One wall for one Jewish people.”
Let us hope that this comes to fruition.