On Tuesday, October 8, Israel’s daily Haaretz featured a photograph (front page above the fold, right-hand column) of Anat Hoffman, the Chair and public “face” of Women of the Wall (WOW). Adjacent to her photo (also above the fold, left-hand column) was a photograph of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the 93 year-old spiritual leader of the Shas Party, who had died the night before.
The article accompanying Anat’s photograph reported that by a majority vote, the Board of Women of the Wall accepted a “compromise” proposal presented by Natan Sharansky, Chair of the Jewish Agency, that would grant equal rights to women’s prayer groups and egalitarian prayer services at the Western Wall (Kotel) at a third section to be located south of the traditional prayer area and under Robinson’s Arch, now a limited space and part of an archaeological park.
The Chief Rabbi of the Wall, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, agreed to the compromise and that he would have no authority over prayer in the new area.
Our synagogue group had attended WOW’s monthly Rosh Hodesh Cheshvan services on Friday morning, October 4, in which thousands of ultra-Orthodox had crowded into the prayer areas at the Kotel.
The last time I attended WOW Rosh Hodesh services was three years ago. Then, I witnessed a display of behavior by so-called “religious” Jews that was as ugly and undignified as anything I had seen anywhere in Jewish life. Ultra-Orthodox men screamed curses, filthy epithets and insults at the women of WOW as they prayed quietly at the back of the women’s section, and ultra-Orthodox women spit on them.
This October’s experience was not much better. Loud-speakers blasted prayers making it difficult to hear oneself think, and a group of religious settlers danced and screamed their prayers on the men’s side of the mechitzah just feet from the WOW women. The purpose of the loud-speakers, allegedly, was to offer prayers of healing for the very ill Rabbi Yosef, but effectively they drowned out WOW prayers (and everyone else too) thus fulfilling the “religious” prohibition against kol isha, the voice of women praying.
The women’s section was packed with hundreds of young ultra-Orthodox girls and women, a strategy the ultra-Orthodox had used in the past at the behest of Rabbi Rabinowitz to make it virtually impossible for WOW to find space in which to pray.
The juxtaposition of the photographs of Anat Hoffman and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in Haaretz was, of course, coincidental, unless you believe that “coincidences are God’s way of staying anonymous!” Regardless, that morning’s headlines visualized the culture war engulfing Israel.
My synagogue group had an appointment with Anat at 10 AM that day, but she was late because as soon as WOW made its decision, she was deluged with calls from the international press seeking comment. Under the circumstances we forgave her happily.
The WOW Board voted by a large majority in favor of the compromise; however, there are WOW members living in the United States and Canada who were angered by this decision because they wanted prayer rights in the women’s section of the Kotel and not the “new“ area.
After voicing their criticism openly, Anat responded that the compromise, assuming all conditions are met, is the first time the government of the state of Israel recognized equal rights of women to pray openly at the Kotel, to be led in prayer by women, to wear tallitot and lay t’filin, and to chant aloud from the Torah. She said:
“This space is revolutionary. It will allow every Jew, man and woman, to pray, celebrate and hold religious ceremonies at the Western Wall. However, know that we are resolved: We will pray there only if it is built in this spirit and according to our conditions.”
There are sixteen conditions that WOW insists must be met for the compromise to go forward. (For details see “Women of the Wall issue list of demands for prayer space” – UPI.com – October 28, 2013 http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2013/10/28/Women-of-the-Wall-issue-list-of-demands-for-prayer-space/UPI-31671382962197/?spt=rln&or=1
This Monday, November 4th (Rosh Hodesh Kislev), marks the 25th Anniversary of Women of the Wall. The compromise agreement is a tipping-point victory not just for WOW, but for world Jewry.
PM Netanyahu, Jewish Agency Chair Sharansky and the Israeli government are to be congratulated for affirming the dignity and integrity of the Kotel, Judaism’s most sacred site, the rights of world Jewry at that site, and for affirming the principles of religious pluralism and equal rights for all Jews, as so stated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
On Tuesday, December 3rd (7:30 PM) Anat Hoffman will speak at Temple Israel of Hollywood (7300 Hollywood Blvd., LA 90046). The community is invited at no charge. We ask that you RSVP to www.tioh.org/rsvp so we may plan appropriately.