This week's arrest of 10 women wearing prayer shawls during a prayer service at the Western Wall has revived the debate over what can be done to resolve this controversial issue.
They were joined by IDF veteran paratroopers who were among those to liberate the Kotel during the 1967 Six-Day-War and the sister of American comedian Sarah Silverman. While the men prayed on the side of a partition designated for their gender, the women wore tallit and prayed on their side. At the end of the service, after the veterans and much of the media had left the site, Israeli police arrested 10 women, including Silverman's sister, for violating a ban on women wearing prayer shawls at the site.
In response to the arrests, Women of the Wall's chairwoman, Anat Hoffman, wrote, "Once Israelis see that it is possible to change the status quo, they will demand pluralism in other areas; they will want freedom of choice in marriage and divorce; they will demand that gender segregation in the public sphere be completely done away with; they will no longer accept religious coercion from the Rabbinate."
Sue Levi Elwell, who lives in Philadelphia and works foro the Union for Reform Judaism, has attended past Women of the Wall prayer services and plans to attend the next service in March.
"The stranglehold of the ultra-Orthodox has to end, and in many ways the Wall is just the beginning," Elwell said in response to the arrests Monday. "Obviously the challenge of separating religion and state in Israel is enormous, and this is just one very visible aspect of it."
In early January, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, to find a solution to the controversy over prayer restrictions at the Wall.
What's the best solution? We asked local rabbis to weigh in on the debate. Be sure to give us your own suggestions by commenting at the end of the piece.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Union for Reform Judaism
I think that one very good option would be to divide the wall into three sections, maybe 1/6 for men only, 1/6 for women only and 2/3 for men and women praying together. I think that probably less than a third of Jews around the world care about separate seating, but that would allow 1/3 of the space to be allocated for men and women who want to be separated. And for everyone else, there would be no gender restrictions. It's community prayer in the way that most Jews in the world pray, that is acknowledging the holiness and the sanctity of the site.
Rabbi David Teutsch, Center for Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
The current system is patently unfair to the non-Orthodox in general and to women in particular. I suggest that the Western Wall's status be returned to the time prior to its being considered a synagogue. As a national monument, it can be a place where individuals act as they see fit within the bounds of respect for a holy site. If that is impossible, then the prayer space should be divided into thirds — one for men, one for women and one for both men and women, with that section allowing tallitot, tefillin and women's voices.
Rabbi Shmuel Jablon, head of Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia
The Kotel is a holy site and special to each and every Jew. Each and every Jew — and every person — is welcome to pray there. It is truly an amazing experience. Nobody inspects the kind of prayer book being used. Everyone can quietly pour out their heart to God in the manner they so choose. However, just as one is expected to follow the norms and customs of any house of worship one visits, one should do the same at the Kotel. Those who view themselves as religious liberals would neither visit a mosque wearing shoes nor enter a church wearing a baseball hat. And they certainly would be upset if Orthodox Jews came into their synagogues and insisted on Orthodox prayer services.
The public norms and customs at the Kotel are Orthodox. This has always been the case. It is interesting to note that when the British attempted to appease the Arabs by trying to prevent traditional prayer services, including the separation between men and women, even non-Orthodox Jews objected. It is simply not respectful to the place and to those who go there expecting to pray in a traditional manner to attempt to impose non-traditional changes. It is not just a breach of Jewish law; it is a breach of basic respect.
Rabbi Michael Ross, independent Reconstructionist educator
In my travels to Jerusalem over the past 14 years, I have found myself visiting the Kotel frequently with female American rabbis. Due to their anger over these vital issues, my traveling companions and I came up with a spiritual compromise. We have stopped visiting the Orthodox section because of the gender discrimination, and we either visit Robinson’s Arch or we take a siddur in our packs and visit the southern wall instead.
Rabbi Michael Knopf, Assitant rabbi at Har Zion Temple
Looking at it historically, the Western Wall was never considered an Orthodox synagogue and the erection of a partition is really a recent invention, post-1967. In making a suggestion for greater inclusion of varying different Jewish points of view at the Wall, I think it's worth acknowledging that it's not a revolution, it's a return to the original state. You can go back and look at photo archives and look at men and women praying side by side.
The Western Wall is the holiest site for all Jews, and there is thankfully a great vibrant diversity among the Jewish people, and at our holiest site that diversity should not only be welcomed but embraced. Every Jew should have an equality of access. And at the moment, only men are allowed to pray at a certain volume. Only men are allowed to wear a prayer shawl. Only men are allowed to hold a Torah scroll. I think three distinct areas all with direct access to the Wall is the most likely option.
Rabbi Rayzel Raphael, Reconstructionist rabbi
I spent 1988-89 living in Israel. As one of the original Women of the Wall in 1988, I think it’s a shandah (shame) that after all these years, women still can't carry a Torah or wear a tallit at the Kotel. Where there is rabbinic will, there is halachic way. The Orthodox need to make room for the women.
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