Every month a group of women go to the Kotel in Jerusalem to pray while wearing talitot (prayer shawls) in an area designated as all male. They are there to challenge the authorities' compromise decision to restrict women to one area only. This month this demonstration made headlines the world over because one of the women was a sister of a celebrity: Rabbi Susan Silverman, sister of the comedian Sarah Silverman. The women were promptly arrested in front of media photographers. No charges were laid, but the women were told not to go to the Kotel again for two weeks. Here is the Jerusalem Post's coverage.
I belong to a Conservative synagogue in Brooklyn which lost no time to declare, in a statement sent to all members, how proud it is of the arrested women, not least because one of those arrested is a former rabbi of the very synagogue in question.
My response was, I believe, muted. Here it is:
Women at the Kotel --
Compromise or Civil Disobedience ?
I must respectfully dissent from the sentiments expressed in [Synagogue] Connections (Feb. 14) concerning the Women of the Wall.
I agree that women should be able to pray at the Kotel on an equal footing with men. The question is how to achieve this objective.
Basically, there are two sides to the story. The appearance of women at the Kotel wearing tallitot, etc., is offensive to a many Orthodox Jews. To them, it constitutes desecration. Hence it is necessary, in the eyes of Israeli authorities, to fashion a compromise, one which takes into account the religious sensitivities of both the Orthodox and those of the more liberal Jewish communities. The Israel Supreme Court has taken up the case on a number of occasions, and now the Israeli government has designated Natan Sharansky to help in working on the compromise.
At the moment, the authorities have designated a certain area of the Kotel where women can pray in full freedom. To the Women of the Wall this is not enough, they apparently want equal access to the whole Kotel. I sympathize with that demand, but, again, the issue is how to pursue the issue.
The Women of the Wall have chosen civil disobedience to assert their rights. Civil disobedience obviously has a role in the face of intolerable oppression. But does the compromise worked out by the Israeli authorities constitute such intolerable oppression ? In my view, it does not. The spectacle of people getting arrested at the Kotel gives rise to a world-wide press coverage that suggests oppression in Israel. This suggestion is basically flawed. For that reason, rather than applaud the WotW for their civil disobedience we should urge them to seek the way of compromise and peaceful persuasion.
The Reform and Conservative groups that support the WofW are based, to a large extent, outside of Israel. In my view, they do not adequately appreciate what the Israeli Supreme Court in this connection has called the minhag hamakom, the local custom. The Jewish Old City of Jerusalem, religiously speaking, has been Orthodox for centuries, and those of us in the diaspora need to understand its sensitivities, without, of course, giving up our own convictions.
Finally, I cannot at all agree with the statement's suggestion that Israel has somehow failed to "honor all Jews." The Israelis are struggling with the very difficult problem of religious/secular relations of which the Kotel problem is but a small aspect. The Israelis seek to find reasonable compromises. I can find no merit in the suggestion that their handling of the Kotel issue constitutes a fundamental violation of human rights.
For a careful analysis of the situation, please see the article by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen