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Women, Pluralism and Compromise

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Many years ago, when I was a feisty 16-year-old, I had a meaningful experience at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. No, it wasn't a religious awakening or a spiritual vision. Rather, it was a new understanding of the power of compromise.

I had come to the Western Wall (the Kotel in Hebrew) to join a group called Women of the Wall (WoW) in morning prayer, celebrating the beginning of a new Hebrew month. Initially, I was ambivalent about participating: the group, adhering to Jewish religious law to comply both with the Orthodox ruling over the Kotel and with the practice of some of the group's members, was women-only. They did not put on their prayer shawls or phylacteries (ritual garb traditionally worn only by men) until the second half of the service, which was held in an alcove removed from the actual holy site of the Wall; furthermore, the group did not consider itself a minyan (quorum), which meant that it could not recite certain prayers that traditionally are only said when ten men are present.

From my perspective as a young feminist who held a general policy of not praying in sex-segregated space, these compromises were too much. But intrigued by this group of women, their monthly near-civil disobedience, and the violent protests they had faced, I trooped along.

That summer morning, the light and the atmosphere were sunny and peaceful, and I found that despite my ideological opposition to some of the policies held by Women of the Wall, praying with them was moving and sweet. More importantly, I learned a big lesson that day: the willingness to bend one's ideological rigidity and compromise can sometimes lead to new, meaningful encounters.

Many more years have passed since that sunny day in Jerusalem than I had been alive at the time. Almost more shocking to me, Women of the Wall -- after years of court battles -- continues to face monthly reprisals for their peaceful prayer. They are now regularly detained by the police stationed at the Wall for the crime of wearing -- or even carrying! -- prayer shawls.

This week brought a new attempt at a resolution: Natan Sharansky (former Member of Knesset and current head of the Jewish Agency) proposed an arrangement in which a separate archeological area of the Wall would be made an egalitarian space where men and women could pray together. Like all compromises, it's imperfect. It leaves the current public area in front of the Wall unchanged; the egalitarian space would be separate and not visible from the rest of the Kotel. It would require significant renovations to the area, and there is no guarantee that the Knesset will approve funding for this purpose. It will be years before this compromise could actually be fully implemented. But both the rabbi with jurisdiction over the Wall and WoW are willing to work with the proposal.

Again, my feelings are ambivalent. Some days I wonder why I care about this issue. I don't even like the Kotel. I find it fetishistic, almost idolatrous. I would probably never go there except to pray with WoW. Israel struggles with so many bigger obstructions to religious pluralism, like the ultra-Orthodox legal chokehold over marriage, divorce and conversion. But even I, with my distaste for the Kotel, can't deny that it carries enormous symbolic weight, and the fact that women cannot pray freely there undermines their equality and rights in Israel more generally.

Yesterday, something interesting happened. As expected, five women were detained at the WoW prayer service. But the court then ruled that they were not disturbing public order, releasing them and rejecting the police's request that they be barred from the Wall for three months. In what WoW called a "groundbreaking precedent," the judge also declared that it was the ultra-Orthodox protesters who were disturbing public order.

Truth be told, I think I needed to hear it again: Compromise can make space for new opportunities.

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Anat Hoffman and the Women of the Wall
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