The Western Wall Compromise – A Small Bit of Clarity in the Dark

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…

Whereas heterodox and a few left-edge Orthodox leaders have hailed the Israeli government’s decision to create an expanded official area for non-Orthodox prayer along the Western Wall (a decision by and large opposed by most Orthodox Jews), Women of the Wall (WoW) and feminist allies who identify as Orthodox are assailing the decision for reason that it does not provide for WoW-type women’s prayer groups at the Orthodox women’s prayer section of the Wall; such prayer would need to be conducted at the non-Orthodox Robinson’s Arch prayer area, along with the heterodox groups.

WoW representatives and their allies, laying out the context of various lawsuits filed by WoW against Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz (rav of the Kosel) and the Israeli government, have created straw man arguments to artificially bolster their position, claiming that the Western Wall has been unfairly designated as a site of Chareidi-only prayer, to the prejudice of other forms of Orthodoxy, such as WoW:

To our Orthodox sisters, who participate in our pluralist, inclusive services, whom our tefilla policy accommodates with respect, we say this: no deal which says, either adopt haredi prayer practice in order to stay at the Kotel, or go to Robinson’s, a site of prayer practices contrary to your religious commitments, and a place with no resonance or meaning for any of us, is one we will accept. We are about Jewish women’s prayer, at the Kotel. Neither aspect is negotiable. Nor is our solidarity as Jewish women. Our prayer is no afterthought to other goals, other players. No back of the bus for us, with or without padded seats, or signs.


I do not want to abandon that tradition to Haredi fundamentalists—at least, not at this unique holy and national site.


capitulation to fundamentalism… allowing misogynists to turn the Kotel into a Haredi shul

These statements are false and intentionally misleading. It is patently clear that the Western Wall’s Orthodox prayer area is home to all types of tefilla that are within Halacha and Mesorah (Tradition); one need not look past his eyebrows to see the countless minyanim there which are led and populated by men wearing kippot serugot (knit yarmulkes – as well as leather yarmulkes, baseball caps and all else), identifying as “non-Chareidim”. And so too for the women – one will find loads of women in the Orthodox women’s section from all stripes and walks of life. The Orthodox tefilla area of the Wall is glaringly not a “Chareidi-only” site. Indeed, the common thread that runs through the souls and minds of all of who worship there is not the type of headgear they sport, the color of their clothing, their background, their specific hashkafic (ideological) bent, or their accent, but rather their deference to Halacha and Mesorah while at the holiest site of prayer.

Clearly, the argument of WoW and its allies that the main Kosel prayer area has been unfairly designated as an exclusive locus for Chareidi fundamentalists is false, intentionally misleading, and was designed to advance a self-serving agenda.

But alas the truth has emerged, for it is not only the opinion of the greatest halachic authorities across the spectrum, including the roshei yeshiva of Yeshiva University and the senior cadre of Israeli Religious Zionist sages, who do not accept WoW “minyanim” and similar groupings as Orthodox; for it is crystal clear as well even to the secular Israeli government and the non-Orthodox movements that negotiated the new Western Wall deal that WoW-type prayer groups do not fall within the Orthodox classification. To behold women laying tefillin, in violation of the Rema in the Shulchan Aruch (OC 38:3), and women filling male roles at public services, in contravention of thousands of years of Tradition and the rulings of the most preeminent halachic masters across the board, is readily recognized as non-Orthodox practice by even secular authorities, who have relegated WoW-type prayer gatherings to the Wall’s non-Orthodox worship area. Just as I cannot claim to be a blonde with black hair, or a bearded man with a clean-shaven face, has the new Western Wall decision settled on a very public level WoW’s claims to Orthodox bona fides.

One WoW ally laments:

(The decision excludes) women who live according to Orthodox tradition, which mandates daily prayer, and desire that prayer to be led by women, in the company of women… The desire of women who live their lives according to halakha and desire to pray communally in the fellowship of other women, and be led by them, remains unrequited and unrecognized at the Kotel…

As sincere as this sentiment may be, it is one of inherent contradiction, as those who “live their lives according to halakha” are expected and bidden to submit to the rulings of Halacha’s greatest decisors. Otherwise stated, in the lexicon of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l, Halacha is about surrender to the Divine Imperative – not about designing Judaism as I want it to be.

While the new Western Wall decision may offend Tradition inasmuch as it legitimizes the violation of Tradition at our most sacred locus of prayer, it has also served to separate the men from the boys, or, more precisely, the Orthodox from the non-Orthodox, with glaring and prominent clarity.

You may also like...

21 Responses

  1. Charlie Hall says:

    The article is misleading. In fact, the WOW members who identify as Orthodox have broken with the group, forming a new group called Original Women of the Wall, and oppose the establishment of the Robinson’s Arch site for egalitarian prayer.

    The Rema did indeed prohibit women wearing tefillin but there were rishonim who permitted; the idea that it is in violation of thousands of years of tradition is clearly hyperbole given that the Rema lived less than 500 years ago. Furthermore, there are many examples of instances where Ashkenazim do not follow the Rema and Sefardim largely ignore him. (I am a big fan of the Rema and am not advocating not following him; I am merely pointing out that a better argument is needed here unless we are all going to  start keeping one hour between meat and milk, wearing tefillin on Chol HaMoed, and dispensing with Hallel in shul on seder night.)

    It should also be pointed out that Women’s Prayer groups do not in general use the term “minyan” to describe themselves.



    • Doc P says:

      Frankly I don’t find this article misleading . R’ Gordimer simply quotes one source. But I’m sure there is little doubt that this type of woman’s service goes against thousands of years of our traditions. Are you contending that women’s prayer groups where a common occurrence , until a das yachid by the name of RMA came along and assured it?

      is it not possible that the reason we don’t find clear statements in the rishonim against this practice, is that it never occurred to them that we would stoop this low?

      • Eli Blum says:

        So do lots of other things that we do, like saying Berich Shemay (Kabbalah! In public!), Women going outside the home to work (What does the Rambam say?) and Kollel for all (certainly K’neged Halacha).

        I’m not for women’s prayer groups (or Amen groups, or Challah baking groups, etc.), but you need a better source than screaming “Tradition!” from the top of your roof.

      • Steve Brizel says:

        What is wrong either with an Amen group ( which is no different than girls who daven together in a BY with Shem UMalchus) or Chalah baking ( a mitzvah that is traditionally associated with women) ?

      • Eli Blum says:

        They are not “Traditional”. If the argument against prayer groups is “tradition”, logically you would be against these other things as well.

        Personally, I believe Doc. P (and R. Gordimer) would be better served by minimizing the “tradition” aspect and concentrating on the “Halachic” aspect.

    • David Ohsie says:

      @Charlie Hall

      It appears that all the statements attributed to WoW should really be attributed to OWoW. Is that the correction that you are suggesting?

      Also, what exactly is the OWoW position, if you know? Since there is no way to decide who is “right” in these areas, why isn’t the pluralistic solution of multiple areas sufficient to OWoW?

    • mycroft says:

      “wearing tefillin on Chol HaMoed, and dispensing with Hallel in shul on seder night.)”


      A separate issue but certainly worth commenting on-how classical Ashkenazic practices that probably dates centuries if not millennia have basically almost disappeared in the US in the course of my lifetime.

      Tfillin in chol hamoed half century ago putting on tfillin chol hamoed in a standard US schul-majority put on tfillin, today vast majority don’t, Hallel in schul not quite a big a change has happened but the ratio of people saying hallel in schul has increased immensely. Ashkenaz would not have the Shaliach Zibbur stop between Psalms 92 and 93 after lecha dodi. Very few today don’t separate the sections. Tradition has been completely ignored-some Ashkenazic schuls in Shabbos have switched Mizmor Shir to follow Sefardi practice after Shacharis instead of after Mussaf. Sadly IMO no one cares about Tradition mesorah.If one can change those things wo batting an eyelash explain the distinction in opposing different changes based on “mesorah”

      • dr. bill says:

        I think the phenomena has numerous potential factors that probably deserve a careful study.  Some change is explainable by Dr. Grach’s essay; I suspect as well some are mimicking behavior viewed as more religious over that which is traditional.  as well, with the multi-cultural nature of most of Jewry post the Shoah, some traditions were slowly eroded.  and the very nature of an increasingly global community, perhaps contributes as well.

      • Doc P says:

        I wouldn’t say “without batting an eyelash”. The chassiduk/ litvish split caused a huge turmoil. So did the haskalah , and we too are going through that turmoil with OO and feminism.

        you are correct that it’s hard to say to these groups “you are messing with tradition!” When the chassidum did just that and got away with it. More than “get away with it” , their population is causing the demise of the original litvishe minhagim. Living in Brooklyn, when I put on tefillin on chol hamoed , I am typically outnumbered 20:1

        but there was a huge difference between the chassiduk split and haskalah. One was lshem shamyim and one wasn’t. One not only survived but thrived the other is fading into history. We sit on this site debating the individual merits of each change made by OO and feminism, but the real question is, are they acting lshem shamyim or not? Frankly I find it hard to see these groups as acting lkoved shamyim. Especially in the case of those who reject Torah msinai or those who feel that Torah needs to stand up to their ideals of what a woman should be.

      • Y. Ben-David says:

        Who says that Haskalah is “fading into history” and that it inherently wasn’t “l’shem shamayim”?  One can study secular subjects like science and the humanities “l’shem shamayim” because one is interested in them and wants to understand G-d’s creation better. Sure there were virulently anti-religous Maskilim, but there were also religious Maskilim. In fact, Haredi women study a lot of secular subjects that the Maskilim advocated 200 years ago and which the Haredim at the time rejected, including the very principle of education for women.

        Regarding your triumphalist claim that the massive growth of the Hasidim seems to prove to you that they are right. Their recovery from the Holocaust has certainly been remarkable, but it is partly due to various social and political developments that nourished this growth. In the past there was massive outflow from these same groups and should the social and political environment which I mentioned above change, there could be a repeat of the massive disillusionment that plagued these groups a century ago.

  2. Y. Ben-David says:

    Although I regret the situation has come to this, I don’t think the Orthodox had any choice but to accept this compromise. Hopefully, at least, it will stop the confrontations that have occurred at the main Kotel site. I think the new site will attract primarily ceremonies like bar-mitzvah for non-O people and non-O visitors from outside Israel will probably stop in there. I doubt there will be ongoing minyanim or tefillah-tehilim people there. I live a short distance from the one and only Conservative congregation in my town which is a suburb of Tel Aviv and they do NOT have daily tefillot there, only Shabbat. Although some 40 years ago the C’s ruled that women count in a minyan, their women don’t seem to be breaking down the doors of their congregation to pray daily, wear tefillin or read the Torah.  In fact, since R’s and C’s long ago ruled that the Beit HaMikdash is anachronistic, so I don’t even understand why they think it is important to have tefillot at the remnant of the Beit HaMikdash at all.

    Having said all this, I still believe that there was no choice but to open this alternative site for the non-O’s. The fact of the matter is, and whether we like it or not, these non-O movements do exist and do have some real followers. With Israel under constant threat from the Muslim countries, we need to gather as much ACTIVE support we can from world Jewry, which is in the majority, non-Orthodox.  They have felt strongly about this issue and so the new compromise was the best outcome for this bad situation. One can jump up and down and yell “This goes against tradition” but they won’t understand what they are talking about. I do NOT think this is the thin edge of the wedge. The non-O movements have very little presence in Israel, are not growing to any significant extent and so are in no danger of recruiting religiously unaffiliated Israeli Jews.  Thus, we might as well accept what I believe was inevitable.

  3. dr. bill says:

    One of the most important lessons applicable to both limmud hatorah and dealing with disagreements in various contexts is the ability to state the other’s POV and arguments as well as or even better than they can.  In this case, the confluence of divergent groups with different objectives complicates the issue.  Frankly, WOW (a very small but aggressive group) are an enigma because their constituency and position has changed, with charges that they forced out their more traditional wing.  A second vast constituency is largely foreign and consists of Jews from reform and conservative movements who want to worship as they do abroad when at the western wall, primarily to celebrate bar and bat mitzvot. Their support and advocacy for Israel is the basis for their position.  It would appear, that that this latest compromise is meant to appease this constituency; without them WOW has minimal support and it appears they also agreed to the compromise.   The third group is the smallest by far and consists of orthodox feminists, who claim that their feminist awareness motivates their desire for more active roles in avodat haShem.  Their desire is for (occasional) gender separated, women only services in the existing Ezrat Nashim, wearing tefillin, reading from a torah scroll, etc., all with what they view as within the bounds of permitted halakhic behavior.  They have no chance of being heard in the political debate, and are successfully making their case in judicial forums.  This has led to violations of court orders by R. Rabinowitz, supported by the local police.  I expect this group to keep fighting as they receive little from the current agreement, from their perspective.  Conflating these groups makes for garbled arguments on all sides.

    • David Ohsie says:

      Won’t the Orthodox OWoW  be able to have women-only services in the new location?  If they can, doesn’t that solve it for them?

      • dr. bill says:

        they do not want a mixed-gender location; they are orthodox.

      • David Ohsie says:

        Understood. That is why I asked if they would be allowed to have a women only service in the new location. If so, it sounds like a reasonable solution.

  4. Steve Brizel says:

    Assuming the facts as given-which are a political victory for R and C in Israel, which are perceived as American imports and which have never taken off on the ground Israel,  the facts on the ground will demonstrate that the same was a political move with only symbolic value with zero lasting effect on the secular Israeli landscape and that the rov binyan uminyan of mispallelim at the Kosel will be those who view it as where one stands before the Shechinah in the traditional manner.

  5. zd says:

    Thank G-d for Rabbi Gordimer’s bravery and honesty! No one else has the guts to tell the truth about the plague of false Orthodoxies that threatens to engulf us – truly the “makas choshech” of our day. And thank you Cross-Currents for being a “sacred locus” (to borrow R. Gordimer’s beautiful phrase) in the midbar of the Internet.  Hashem imochem.

  6. R.B. says:

    Dr. Eilat Mazar claims that this expanded egal section will destroy sensitive archaeological area:



  7. dr. bill says:

    Doc P: you write “So did the haskalah , and we too are going through that turmoil with OO and feminism.”  the haskalah and OO are largely reactions to modernity and the slide to the right, respectively.  feminism like the lack of discrimination against blacks or the rejection of slavery is likely to be another stage in the development of the concept of human dignity and equality.  Judaism has a long history exhibiting an ability to remain vibrant and meaningful as the world marches on.  Feminism will, IYH, be no different.

    • Steve Brizel says:

      So, based on the above-we should anticipate anxiously the elimination of all gender based differences in Halacha and Minhagim?

      • dr. bill says:

        Halakha applies to new circumstances.  Anyone familiar with history of pesak, recognizes that.  The conclusion you draw is neither a logical consequence of what I said nor remotely possible.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This