Academic journal article Shofar

Feminists in the Temple of Orthodoxy: The Struggle of the Women of the Wall to Change the Status Quo

Academic journal article Shofar

Feminists in the Temple of Orthodoxy: The Struggle of the Women of the Wall to Change the Status Quo

Article excerpt


On April 24, 2013, something extraordinary happened at the Western Wall, the Jews' most central holy place. A group of religious, activist, and feminist women-the Women of the Wall (WoW)-succeeded in breaking the ritual status quo at the site. The Jerusalem District Court Judge Moshe Sobel produced a ruling (interpreting a previous Supreme Court decision) that recognized the right of the WoW to conduct ritual worship at the Wall according to their custom, in a way that the majority of the worshippers at the place view as a disgraceful abomination.1 The WoW's worship includes prayer and singing by women at Rosh Hodesh (the first day of each Jewish month), reading from the Torah while wrapped in colorful tallitot (prayer shawls) and wearing tefillin (phylacteries).

This ruling issued a dramatic change: it effectively opened the space for ritualistic pluralism at the Western Wall, a holy place that is open to everyone. It dealt a blow to the status of the hegemonic religious establishment that belongs to the Orthodox and Haredi/Ultra-Orthodox streams in Israel.2 Indeed, for the religious Orthodox Jews currently dominating the Western Wall and Israel's religious institutions, the actions of the WoW are almost like bringing an "idol into the Temple"-a desecration of the holy place.

In April 2013, the same month in which Judge Sobel's ruling was published, the Chair of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky, presented a new arrangement in an attempt to solve the controversy. It suggests erecting a third, egalitarian prayer plaza at the Wall, in what is known as the Robinson's Arch site (an area of the antiquities park south of the Mughrabi Ascent), identical in size and status to the current plaza dominated by the Orthodox Jews.

The Sharansky Plan promoted by the government may turn the achievements of the WoW upside down. Instead of bringing an end to the dispute, the court ruling has perhaps brought the beginning of a new conflict. Rather than granting women full egalitarian worship rights at the existing historic Western Wall (which was the WoW's main goal), this solution would create two different Western Walls: the historic Orthodox Western Wall plaza, and the new prayer platform at Robinson's Arch, which would have to fight for its recognition among the general public.

This case contributes to the existing research on holy places shared by more than one religious group, which mostly claims that holy places are indivisible and, by virtue of their status as "protected values," cannot be redivided without evoking a violent dispute. Ron Hassner and other scholars, for instance, have argued that at the religious level, the supreme spiritual force overpowers all else, and thus the congregation's commitment to protecting the sacredness of the place prevents the existence of any compromise or alternative on the custom of the place.3 Hassner claims that the existence of division arrangements at Samuel's Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs (Me'arat HaMachpela) is irrelevant because these are forced arrangements. I have studied the shared arrangements at the Cave of the Patriarchs/Al Haram Al-Ibrahimi and the Tomb of Samuel the Prophet/Nebi Samuel and conclude that the action of division arrangements creates, over time, a new reality, with which the parties come to terms. When a powerful governmental agent dictates and enforces amendments to the status quo, and when these are carried out over time, the nature of the change becomes a fact.4

This study adds to previous studies of Lea Shakdiel,5 Stuart Charmé,6 and Pnina Lahav,7 who studied the gender-religious factor of the dispute, and to Yuval Jobani and Nahshon Perez's study on the moral solution to the dispute.8 This article analyzes the strategies and conflict resolution methods of the dispute, incorporating also the broader perspective of the Conservative, Reform, and Modern Orthodox streams and revisiting the accomplishments of the WoW, which should also be viewed as part of a larger struggle over the shape and identity of Israeli society. …

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