2016-02-17 / Editorial

Why the Western Wall deal is a victory—for now

By DEBRA BENNET JTA

On the morning of Dec. 1, 1988, a group of about 70 Jewish women entered the sacred space of the Western Wall. The women represented all the major streams of Judaism. Some wore prayer shawls or kippahs. Some did not. One woman cradled a Torah in her arms.

Together, their voices rose in prayer, marking the beginning of a movement. From that day until now, the Women of the Wall have fought for the right of women to pray together at Judaism’s holiest site—out loud, with tallit, tefillin and the Torah.

It has been no easy task.

For the past three decades, the Women of the Wall have faced down the many who object to their mission. During the women’s monthly prayer services at the wall, people have screamed and yelled, blown whistles, and hurled rocks and even feces at them.

Critic after critic told the women they were the ones disturbing the peace, causing problems and airing dirty laundry in public. They were commanded to stop and give up their fight without acknowledgement of the injustice they were battling.

But on Jan. 31, some of the Women of the Wall’s greatest hopes came to fruition. The Israeli government approved a deal recognizing mixed-gender, egalitarian services at a part of the Western Wall called Robinson’s Arch, an archaeological site adjacent to the traditional prayer area.

The government will expand Robinson’s Arch and make it accessible from the main plaza, where everyone enters to get to the Western Wall. Those coming to pray will be able to choose between an all-male section, an all-female section and an egalitarian section where anyone can pray however they choose.

An incredible victory, right?

Yes. But much has been lost, too.

While Robinson’s Arch has been recognized for the first time as a place for Jews of any denomination to pray, the area known as the Western Wall has been officially designated an Orthodox Jewish prayer section ruled by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.

For some—even members of Women of the Wall—this concession makes the deal a defeat rather than a victory. They refer back to the original goals of the movement: Demanding room for women to pray with other women out loud, not separate but equal spaces.

Gloria Steinem, a fighter for equality and justice, said, “I’m a realist, but I’m also a dreamer. And I’m not just a dreamer, I’m a hopeaholic.”

We Jews are hopeaholics, too. So we hope and pray for a time when every woman and man can pray, raising their voices, wearing the garments that provide meaning to their prayer and speaking the ancient words of our people at our holiest site, the Western Wall.

We grasp this hope while understanding the reality of the world. And we carry this hope with us as we move forward, striving for the next great victory. .

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