Women of the Wall: The Sharansky Proposal

by Rabbi Rick Block

There are times when it seems that something fundamental might, just might, be shifting. That’s how I felt following a discussion in which Rabbi Steve Fox and I represented the Reform Movement (for the CCAR), together with Rick Jacobs (for the URJ) and Jack Luxemberg (for ARZA), in a meeting with Natan Sharansky of the Jewish Agency, about his proposed solution to issues presented by the Women of the Wall. While an obligation of confidentiality limits what can be shared publically about that discussion, it has been widely reported that Sharansky envisions “one Western Wall for one Jewish People.” This would involve expanding the plaza leading to the Kotel and creating an area for egalitarian/pluralistic prayer to the right of the ramp to the Temple Mount. It would be equal in size and elevation to the existing prayer areas, with one access point to the plaza. Those seeking to approach the Kotel would choose between the gender-segregated and the egalitarian/pluralistic areas, with equal physical access to both. The latter zone would be supervised by the Jewish Agency (emphasis added), which is to say, a pluralistic body, not the present, Orthodox-dominated Kotel Foundation.

This is not an optimal solution, which would require full and equal access to the entire plaza and the Kotel itself and transferring authority over the entire zone to a pluralistic, broadly representative body. We must not forget that the Kotel area is both a religiously important site and the venue of major national gatherings. Whereas its present character is alienating for many Israelis and other Jews, it could and should become a source of unity for all Israelis, whether they consider themselves religious or secular, and the entire Jewish People.

Clearly, the Sharansky proposal falls short of that ultimate goal. Nonetheless, we cannot allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. The essence of this compromise has elicited a very positive reaction by Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall and a courageous leader of Progressive Judaism in Israel, and the NY Times reported that Schmuel Rabinowitz, the ultra-Orthodox rabbi of the Western Wall, has declared he will not oppose it. Israeli President Shimon Peres deserves praise for interceding with Rabinowitz to press for moderation and for Peres’ public support for Jewish pluralism.

A host of critically important details remain to be resolved and major questions must be answered. How much will this cost? Who will pay for it? How long will it take? How will the governance of the larger area be addressed? What happens in the interim? And what is Plan B, if this ambitious proposal cannot be implemented? Will a third section be carved out, geographically or temporally, within the existing prayer zone to allow for pluralistic/egalitarian prayer?

One thing is clear. The role of the Israeli police needs to change completely and immediately. Heretofore, the police have been an instrumentality of ultra-Orthodox intolerance and oppression, threatening and arresting women for wearing a tallit or praying aloud near the Kotel. This is intolerable. Just this morning, Israeli police arrested five women for wearing tallitot at the Kotel. Remarkably, the judge before whom they were arraigned ruled that the women did not disturb the peace. Rather, she held, those who sought to interfere with their observance of Rosh Chodesh were the provocateurs. The obligation of law enforcement is to protect everyone who seeks to pray at the Kotel from harassment or assault. This was a point I emphasized strongly in the discussion, one that I consider central to both the interim period and the long term.

I also raised the question of whether this is a “separate but equal” approach to the problem. “Separate but equal,” in the context of American law, was repudiated by the US Supreme Court in 1954, in Brown vs. Board of Education, which proclaimed that separate was inherently unequal. Sharansky responded that his proposal differs fundamentally from the American situation, where the intention of the invalidated laws was to segregate the races. Here, he argued, the intent is not to segregate, but to create the opportunity for all Jews to worship at the Kotel according to their own beliefs and practices.

I believe that argument has merit. When Jewish sovereignty over the Kotel was regained in 1967, the entire Kotel, from the present prayer area down to the Southwest corner, was recognized, including by Orthodox leaders, as one sacred precinct. The proposal is an opportunity for us, too, to affirm that view. But while expressing support for the approach in this situation, subject to an acceptable resolution of the details, I cautioned that it should not be seen as a precedent or paradigm for resolving other issues in Israeli society, such as ultra-Orthodox attempts to impose gender segregation on public buses and occasions.

A host of potential obstacles and possible opponents stand in the way of implementing this proposal: some Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, Israeli archeologists, the Islamic Waqf, which manages the Temple Mount, Jordan, which sees itself as custodian of that precinct, or international bodies. Nonetheless, the proposal is historic. For the first time, the government of Israel seems ready to recognize that it is accountable to all the religious streams of the Jewish People and to make a major financial and political commitment to fulfill that accountability. This represents a dramatic and historic step forward.

This promising development is only the beginning of the process, not its culmination. In the weeks and months to come, as details of the program are clarified and questions are answered, as opposing views are addressed and hopefully, overcome, I believe that we, as individual rabbis and as the CCAR, the rabbinic leadership arm of Reform Judaism, need to do three things: work to ensure a satisfactory resolution of the details of the proposal, rally support for the proposal, and step up our advocacy on the larger issues of justice in Israeli society that the Women of the Wall situation symbolizes.

Rabbi Rick Block is Senior Rabbi of The Temple – Tifereth Israel in Cleveland, Ohio, and President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.