The Kotel Decision: The Parties at the Table
I remember going to visit Judy Chicago’s art installation “The Dinner Party” long ago at the Brooklyn Museum. This iconic feminist art piece sits in a mood-lit room, in the middle a triangular table upon which are 39 place settings, using mixed media, to highlight thirty-nine women: goddesses, historical figures, and women of importance in Western Civilization. The tables stand on a large porcelain-tile floor containing the name of 999 other important women. Judy Chicago’s intention in her well-known work was placing women back at the table of history, celebrating their contribution. Her-story is highlighted so that it might become one again with his-story.
Our Torah portion also speaks about including all parties at a table. In Mishpatim, just after Moses has finished relating all the various laws to the Children of Israel,and the people have agreed “to do all the things that God has spoken” (Ex. 24:3); Moses arises early the next morning and builds an altar, a type of table, resting on 12 pillars, representing every tribe of Israel. (Ex. 24:4) The message in the construction of the altar is clear. The Torah rules and relationship with God that has been elaborated in this week and last week’s Torah portions is for each and every one.
I remember going to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem two years ago, to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Women of the Wall. I was with a group of women rabbis and one male rabbi from the Americas. We arose early that Rosh Chodesh morning to go to the small section reserved for women in the northern plaza of the Western Wall, to mark space for the crowds that were expected at that significant anniversary. We knew that their might be some violent and vocal resistance to our bigger-than-usual gathering at the beginning of the new month. The message by the ultra-orthodox for 25 years, since that first Rosh Chodesh gathering by women, attending a conference in 1988 was clear. They objected to women praying together as a group. For them, they denied its halachic validity and it was an anathema brought in by female Jews from the Diaspora. This orthodox gathering of prayer was not kosher – they declared that there was no room at the table for women’s public worship.
In my hallway at home, sits another piece of art, a photo that for me is a foundation text. Nested in a wooden frame and burgundy matting, the picture depicts an earlier time, before the first Western Wall plaza was built. A time my Egyptian grandfather remembered clearly in the stories of my childhood.
Side by side, at the wall, men and women are praying together. Each gender having an equal place at a site which for generations has been deemed as sacred by our people. Side by side are men and women at the outer western retaining wall, that bolstered the hill upon which the Temple once stood. The Kotel, the Wailing Wall was a place where all were welcome to pray according to their own custom regardless of gender, practice or belief.
Over the years, as the plaza has been twice renovated, the women’s section has become smaller. Those who control the wall have become more extreme in their views. They view this symbol of Jewish unity as an Orthodox synagogue, but not just any orthodox synagogue, but “their” type of Orthodox synagogue, understanding their practice to be the true expression of Judaism. A national symbol, if not the national symbol, of the Jewish people hijacked by one strand of Judaism.
Meanwhile, especially in the Diaspora, Judaism has changed. The largest numbers of Jews are worshipping in more liberal movements – Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and more. The Western Wall that belonged to all Jewish people, felt like a place of alien practice for many.
As a compromise overseen by Natan Sharansky, on the southern section of the Western Wall over an archaeological dig, a temporary wooden platform was raised for mixed prayer. Some of you may know someone who was Bar or Bat Mitzvah there. It was makeshift. Not big enough. It looked like the wooden porch you added on as an afterthought to the back of your house. You had to pay to get in because it was in an archeological park. And the underlying message to Jews who value gender equality and diversity is that we were second rate in the land of Israel and among the Jewish people.
This week, marks a historic moment for all Jews. After two-and-a-half years of quiet and difficult negotiation with the Reform Movement, the Conservative Movement, the Women of the Wall, the Israeli Government, the Archaeological Trust – it has been agreed to enlarge the Western Wall Plaza by the Israeli Government, on a vote of 15 in favor and 5 against.
The Israeli Government will finance an enlarged plaza, with one main entrance, which will contain three space-options for worship. The Orthodox men and women sections will remain on the northern end of the Western Wall; and in the southern end of the Western Wall there will be a beautiful and egalitarian sacred space overseen by movements and organizations that value pluralism and equality.
You will enter and have a choice on which part of the Western Wall you will go to pray. The new part of the plaza will be a national site. A place where men and women can worship together. Where female Israeli soldiers may speak and be honored. Where a woman can sing HaTikvah at National Events or stand on the same stage as a man. Where people of many faiths will be welcome on their own terms. No Pope will be asked to remove the cross they wear. Where male and female Olim can be naturalized together. Where no dress police will demand that women cover every inch of their skin to touch the holy stones that will be reachable from the Herodian roadway.
This decision is indeed a Shehechiyanu moment, a first time moment to celebrate!
In many ways this is a miraculous decision. Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israeli Religious Action Center and a founder of Women of the Wall, who will surely go down in her-story and history as one of the great leaders and game changers of our people, speaks of this miracle. She did not think that Avicahai Mandelblit, the black kippah wearing, lawyer, red headed Orthodox cabinet minister, who would not shake her hand, who had been assigned to negotiate this deal, would have the integrity to see through the compromise. She did not believe in a coalition government, that Prime Minister Netanyahu would risk political capital to let this happen.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform Movement in Israel, was also skeptical that the government would make a deal. He knew that any changes for the egalitarian and liberal movements of Judaism in Israel have always come through the Supreme Court after much back and forth.
But the miracle happened. Partly because of the wide coalition of women across the movements of Judaism, from Orthodox to Reform who for 27 years have consistently added their voices and persons to this cause.
Partly because of the good will of the Israeli Government who came to see this as an issue of Jewish peoplehood and unity.
Partly because of the support of Natan Sharansky, a consistent voice for Jewish peoplehood and inclusion, who was part of and supportive of the negotiations.
Partly because of the consistent lobbying and agitation of the Reform Movement, especially Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, the Conservative Movement, and the Federations of North America.
And mostly because the right people of good will were around the right table at the right time.
What now? Well celebration of course! We will recite Shehechiyanu.
But also an awareness that this decision comes with some resistance – from the Elad NGO, Islamic Groups, a small number of Israeli Archaeologists and of course, Rabbi Rabinovich who controls the northern end of the Western Wall Plaza. We must continue to answer objections with reason and love and by making sure that people understand that the new area will be one of tolerance and respect in its building as well as its administration. That those behind the new southern section of the Western Wall implementation are committed to “getting to yes” in making this happen.
As for the Orthodox Women who feel that we have abandoned their cause to change Orthodox in agreeing to an Egalitarian Plaza, we are saddened that this historical decision was not their ultimate dream. The new section of the wall will offer them a segregated part to prayer in Orthodox custom whenever they desire. They will have the liberal movements support for equal access within orthodox Judaism, but their fight must be fought within and we pray, won for them and Judaism at another time.
In the Diaspora, we have a role to play in continuing the pressure to see that the plans are not thwarted and that the new part of the Western Wall plaza comes to fruition. We must make sure that every visit to the Western Wall by like-minded liberal individuals and by Federation and Synagogue tours includes celebration, visits and ceremonies to the site of the new egalitarian section. so people can envision what can be.
We must continue to support people on the ground – the Israeli Reform and Conservative movements financially and spiritually and make sure the money we send to Israel is used in causes that speak to our Jewish values of inclusion.
We must support Women of the Wall, who will continue to nudge the issue with their monthly Rosh Chodesh meetings in the Women’s Section, in order to encourage the new part of the plaza to be built quickly. We must send them money, watch their streamed services, and pray with them in the Holy Land.
In Mishpatim, Moses build an altar that includes all the Israelites with its 12 symbolic pillars. In our time, we seek to create an Israel and a Western Wall that is also inclusive of all. I am reminded of the words of Judy Chicago’s beautiful poem which originally accompanies her installation of “The Dinner Table”:
And then all that has divided us will merge.
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind.
And then both men and women will be gentle.
And then both women and men will be strong.
And then no person will be subject to another’s will.
And then all will be rich and free and varied.
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many.
And then all will share equally in the earth’s abundance.
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old.
And then all will nourish the young.
And then all will cherish life’s creatures.
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the earth.
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.
This week a step in that direction to that Messianic vision within Jewish peoplehood, when all will live in harmony with each other and the earth, and then everywhere will be called Eden again. A Western Wall for all of us.
Shehechiyanu, V’ki’y’manu, V’hig’y’anu La’zman HaZeh.