The Women of the Wall and their Kotel Kontroversy

The Women of the Wall must be one of the most offensively misnamed groups in history. They don’t represent the Wall, they don’t represent the vast majority of the women who pray there, and they don’t represent sincere prayer.

As she was led off by police, their director, Lesley Sachs, was caught on video shouting out: “to all women from all denominations, there is more than one way to be a Jew!” Her actions were never about joining the others in prayer, but about disrupting them.

MK Michal Rozin said it best: “It’s not a religious issue, it’s a political issue.” Of course, it’s a religious site, and thus the first question should have been whether or not it is appropriate to stage a political protest in a place where others are accustomed to praying in peace.

This is why the proposal from Natan Sharansky, much as it is being celebrated in the press, is actually drawing a more positive reaction from Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz than from the group. According to the Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Rabinowitz said that he will not oppose the plan “for the sake of unity and out of a desire to distance the Western Wall from all argument and dispute” — but meanwhile, the Women of the Wall group has announced “that it would find any solution in which the group be forced to pray separately from the main plaza unacceptable.” One side is interested in letting Orthodox Jews [see comments] pray in peace. The other … wants the very opposite.

In reality, there is nothing new or revolutionary about the proposal, from Natan Sharansky, to expand the Robinson’s Arch area. That revolution, if it could ever have been called that, came a decade ago, when the Israel Supreme Court acknowledged both the right of the overwhelming majority to pray according to Orthodox norms, as well as the right of others to do as they wish — and required that a space be provided for them at Robinson’s Arch — and the Conservative movement said yes. You wouldn’t know it reading the articles today, which talk about how liberal movements are taking the bold step of accepting this amazing compromise, but there’s nothing new about it. The conservatives accepted it 10 years ago, and were complaining about fees for access three years later (and I said, at the time, that justice was with them in that complaint).

The reason why the so-called “Women of the Wall” found that solution unacceptable is because they are not trying to observe their own practices, but change Orthodox ones. Let’s be honest, their chairwoman, Anat Hoffman, has never expressed interest in any form of prayer, except when it’s interfering with those of others. While she was still a member of the Knesset (with the rabidly anti-religious Meretz party) in the early 1990’s, she stated quite clearly that “if it weren’t for the media, I would find no reason to be here.” As the executive director of IRAC, she continues to fritter away Reform Jewish dollars for causes having nothing to do with Reform Judaism. As I wrote about their “news” section a few years back, “Articles about Reform, even adding a collection of one-sided portrayals of the ‘Women of the Wall,’ are vastly outnumbered by articles about their opposition to voluntary gender separation on buses, demonstrations against Orthodox Rabbis, interference with Charedi education and unsavory comparisons between Rabbis and Imams.”

But for the record, I do see a bright side. If the Sharansky plan is actually implemented, this tremendous waste of money will provide ongoing, daily evidence of the unpopularity of liberal Jewish streams in Israel. That section of the Kotel Plaza will be used by the IDF for induction ceremonies, on Friday nights by mixed groups on tours of Israel, for Conservative Jews who can’t even fill the small current space, the occasional mixed Bar (or Bat) Mitzvah, and the Women of the Wall. And in total it will see roughly 2% of the traffic of those streaming to pray at the site of S’rid Beis Kodsheynu, l’hispallel sheyibaneh bimheyrah b’yameinu.

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16 Responses

  1. dr. bill says:

    i felt there was greater opposition to the plan by r. shafran than from the leaders of WOW. in any case, given the rebirth of religion in Israel among (so-called) chilonim in addition to a variety of mesorati/hetrodox movements, i would expect a great deal more than 2% use. at least one can hope; there are many paths of return that ought not be dismissed.

  2. E. Fink says:

    I find it disturbing that you are relying on a quote from BEFORE the compromise as the position of the Women of the Wall. What did the Rabbis say before the compromise? The Women of the Wall issued an explicit statement to the NY Times that is the exact opposite of what you wrote here. Your post must be edited to be accurate. Probably should just be taken down.

    Here is the actual quote: “…we will compromise. You don’t always have to be right, you have to be smart, and compromise is a sign of maturity and understanding what’s at stake here.”


  3. Shira Leibowitz Schmidt says:

    While I agree with R. Menken in what he writes above, I want to comment on two statements above. (1) One is a factual correction. R. Menken wrote about Anat Hoffman,

    “While she was still a member of the Knesset (with the rabidly anti-religious Meretz party)…” She was note in the Knesset. She was a Meretz member of the Jerusalem City COuncil.
    (2) R. Menken wrote,”One side is interested in letting Orthodox Jews pray in peace. The other … wants the very opposite.” It would be more accurate to phrase the raisha of this statement something like this (maybe others can formulate it better than I):
    “One side is interested in letting all who come to the Kotel, be they Jews of any stripe, or non-Jews, pray in peace as they wish while an overall framework of traditional Orthodox halacha and custom is maintained. The other side…. wants the very opposite.”

  4. Joel Katz says:

    re: While [Anat Hoffman] was still a member of the Knesset (with the rabidly anti-religious Meretz party) in the early 1990′s, she stated…”

    Anat Hoffman was never a Knesset Member. (She was a Jerusalem City Council member)

    Joel Katz

  5. ChanaRachel says:

    Why do you mention IDF induction ceremonies,in the same breath as “on Friday nights by mixed groups on tours of Israel, for Conservative Jews who can’t even fill the small current space, the occasional mixed Bar (or Bat) Mitzvah, and the Women of the Wall”?
    I for one, take umbrage.
    I would hope that the IDF induction ceremonies will continue to take place in the main plaza overlooking the kotel.

  6. L. Oberstein says:

    Moshiach is on the way, I agree with you!
    I personally have mixed feelings about the Kotel. For years I avoided going there because the rampant begging by professional beggars prevented any ability on my part to feel anything spiritual.Rabbi hauer told me to have a pile of coins and just keep shelling them out, but I found it offensive. Finally, I went there on a Shabbat afternoon and it was spiritual. Now, the beggars have largely been kept out of the prayer area,so I resumed going to the Kotel.
    Most regular Israelis live their lives and don’t have time or interest in frequenting the Kotel.They go on special occasions,like a Bar Mitzvah. So, it’s mostly the very orthodox and the tourists. The Women of the Wall are a good fund raising and consciousness raising tool for the non orthodox movements.They have very little presence in Israel and this gives them front page publicity. The fact is that most of the big givers to Israel are not orthodox and this battle serves to alienate them from the Jewish State and that is bad. Sharansky has to find a way to seem very tolerant while stickig to the seperation and I think he has done that. The WOW will never agree, they davka want to put on tefillin and read from the Torah in the Ezrat Nashim of the Kotel to make their point. They want the fight.They love being arrested , they think they are Martin Luther King’s gilgul.

  7. Yaakov Menken says:

    I appreciate the correction that yes, Anat Hoffman was a member of the Jerusalem City Council from Meretz, rather than a Knesset member. And I also agree with Mrs. Schmidt’s second comment; when I reread my post after Shabbos, I myself said the word “Orthodox” was unnecessary and in fact wrong. Rabbi Rabinowitz wants Jews to be able to pray in peace. Ideally that’s in an Orthodox framework, but if not, let them have a section of Kotel at which to be inspired and perhaps progress from there.

    As for why I said IDF induction ceremonies would take place in the mixed portion of the plaza — very simple, the IDF is mixed! Currently these and similar ceremonies are held behind the partitioned mechitzah section, the same place where the mixed tour groups prayed on Friday nights. It is logical to imagine both moving to the new section, if for no other reason than to try to use it for something.

    E. Fink, you are welcome to take one quote from her, completely out of tune with all that they have said before, as final on behalf of the organization. In my opinion your position lacks foresight. The JPost article from which I quoted is entitled “Women of Wall react to Sharansky proposal,” so there is no problem with my chronology. The organization has always said that they would not accept that type of compromise, and you are overreacting to a single contrary statement in response to what would be a powerful government endorsement of their “rights.” Smart negotiators make positive statements in those circumstances — think Yassir Arafat in 1993 — even if they think this is merely a step in their direction, not what they will continue to aim for. They look good and pull the wool over a lot of eyes that way.

    There are many other quotes, including from Hoffman, saying that a compromise of this nature cannot be sustained. The new plaza will take years to design and build, giving them plenty of time to continue to make the Kotel a battleground. Once built, they will explain to you why it is unacceptable. [“Some of our members are Orthodox, and there is mixed prayer going on in that section..”]

    Hoffman was involved with the organization in 2003 as well. Why do you imagine that the Masortim (Conservatives) accepted the Robinson’s Arch compromise at that time, but the WoW rejected it?

  8. Yona says:

    When Menkin says, “and they don’t represent since prayer.” Menkin loses totally credibility in anything and everything that he says. Absolute chutzpah on his part.

  9. Yaakov Menken says:

    Perhaps if Yona had read beyond the first line, and taken in the quotes from Sachs, Rozin and Hoffman, he would have noticed that to say they aren’t about sincere prayer wasn’t chutzpah, but simply taking them at their word. He might have even noticed how to spell my name.

  10. Charlie Hall says:

    “they are not trying to observe their own practices, but change Orthodox ones.”

    Women’s tefillah groups have now been around in Orthodox environments for 40 years. The Kotel has only been a charedi synagogue for 45. Did something happen between 1967 and 1972 to make it asur to innovate? And now they authorities want to prohibit women from saying Kaddish at the Kotel, something that has been a custom in Am Yisrael for 300 years.

    A number of years ago my rav took a group of day school students to the Kotel and tried to lead an ordinary Orthodox Friday night service, with men to the left of the mechitzah and women to the right. He was pelted with stones by guys dressed up to look like charedim. (I know lots of charedim and not one would even LIFT a stone on Shabat, which is why I used the language “dressed up to look like charedim”.) The police did nothing. Ironically, the one really good argument against women’s tefillah groups is that women should be davening with a minyan, and this was prevented.

    The irony here is that by forbidding things that are arguably permitted we are now going to have a situation where things that are pretty clearly prohibited are going to be permitted. Is the Robinson’s Arch area any less holy than the Kotel plaza?

  11. Lisa Liel says:

    This is a letter to the editor which was published in the Chicago Jewish News back in 2003, when the Women at the Wall were making a lot of noise. It’s just as pertinent now, I think.

    Respect for Jewish views
    By Lisa Liel (11/21/2003)

    This is in response to the article “Woman leading Women of the Wall,” in your Nov. 14 issue. I am a Jewish woman who enjoys going to women’s prayer groups. I enjoy being able to read Torah and participate in ways that would be inappropriate in an Orthodox synagogue. And yet I am inalterably and vehemently opposed to the group known as the Women of the Wall.

    I want to take this opportunity to explain why I oppose the Women of the Wall, and why I believe others should oppose them. And why it is not only “right wing, ultra-Orthodox” Jews who are offended by this group. In Tractate Yevamot 13b, we learn that even though the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai had different legal views of what constituted illegitimacy, they were able to marry between the communities. Why? Because each community would let the other know who among them would be considered illegitimate by the other.

    They did not stand on their own pride and insist that only their view could possibly be correct, but rather showed respect even for the view they thought was wrong. There are authorities in Jewish law who support women’s prayer groups. There are likewise authorities who oppose these groups. Each side has ample support and backing in Jewish law, and each side is as legitimate in their views as the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai were in their views of illegitimacy. When such differing views exist in Jewish law, each side is completely entitled to live according to their own views. They are not, however, entitled to try and force their views on those who hold by the opposing side. For someone who opposes women’s prayer groups to barge into a private home where such a group is being held and try to break it up would be unconscionable. But for someone who supports them to hold a women’s prayer group in a communal location like the Western Wall, where they know it will offend others, is every bit as wrong.

    Change does not come in Judaism by demonstrations and marches. Traditional Jews believe that the Torah we keep is the same Torah given by G-d more than thirty three centuries ago. It is not ours to give up on, or give in on, just because someone is pressuring us.

    This is entirely aside from the habit the Women of the Wall have of staging media events by inviting the press to what they know will result in a confrontation. Creating strife among Jews for the sole purpose of trying to force acceptance of one’s views is not the Jewish way. It has never been the Jewish way.

    I hope that over the years, women’s prayer groups gain greater acceptance, until they are eventually considered acceptable in the Jewish community at large. But I support the right of those who do not accept them to live by their position, which, after all, has been the status quo in Judaism for centuries.

    The Schools of Hillel and Shammai showed us what it means to respect our fellow Jews. The Women of the Wall show us exactly the opposite. And then complain when their disrespect is met with outrage.

  12. Whoa nelly says:


    I suspect quite a bit is missing from your story. I have seen any number of minyanim by the motel, with women joining from the other side of the mechitzah without any incident at all. Why would there suddenly be a to do about you rabbi’s minyan?

    But if one remembers that your Rav is “an in your face” activist who is known to do things that are considered beyond the pale by even the modern orthodox, then one knows that there is probably quite a bit more to the story than you are letting on or than you have been told.

  13. YM says:

    I attended the Carelbach minyanim at the Kosel on Friday nights, which was always by the “rightmost” bimah next to the Mechitza so that the sisters could hear. Never had any trouble.

  14. dr. bill says:

    whoa nelly, how many statements over the past 3 months by chareidi leaders do you consider “in your face?” or is such language only descriptive of the left side of the orthodox tent?

  15. Whoa nelly says:


    It is descriptive of the specific person Charlie is referring to. It was not a generalization.

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