Like many Modern Orthodox Jews, we ponder the impact of the Israeli government’s recent decision to permit egalitarian, pluralistic prayer in the Kotel area known as Robinson’s Arch.
The Western Wall Plaza has a prayer area with segregated men's and women’s sections in line with Orthodox custom. The area falls under the management of Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz of the Orthodox rabbinate and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.
The Robinson’s Arch area will be governed by a committee going forward chaired by the head of the Jewish Agency. This includes representatives from Conservative and Reform movements, the Jewish Federations of North America, the government of Israel and Women of the Wall.
The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance has not yet made a public statement about the decision, but the group’s executive director, Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, told the Jewish Link that a statement the group made in 2013, that sought to applaud the broadening of allowances for certain types of prayer at the Wall, is a view generally still shared today by the group. However, there is not a consensus and there are, in fact, “mixed sentiments” within JOFA about this latest move, Greenberg said. “On the one hand, we are thrilled that religious pluralism is finally happening at the Kotel. On the other hand, it remains unclear if this plan will grant a place for liberal Orthodoxy. Will there be a place for women’s tefillah groups? Partnership minyanim? The question is if liberal Orthodoxy has a place at the Kotel,” she said.
A comment writer on JOFA’s Facebook page stated on Tuesday that “The Women of the Wall are not going anywhere.” That person makes it crystal clear that neither she nor many other women are going to discontinue donning tallit and tefillin while staying put on their side of the mechitza. They are also not going to move over to Robinson’s Arch and join the egalitarian minyanim.
Rabbi Rabinowitz, quoted in the online edition of Haaretz, has said that once Robinson’s Arch is open to the egalitarian minyanim, then the women-only section of the Kotel will prohibit the wearing of tallit and tefillin.
“Women will pray in accordance with Jewish tradition and heritage,” he said, “without tefillin and prayer shawls.”
Yet, whether it’s in Teaneck, Riverdale or Jerusalem, there are women, who just like their fathers, brothers and sons, are voracious learners of Torah and whose prayer illuminates their souls. We know that many women find a sanctity in davening in tallit and tefillin, which traditionally isn’t an obligation.
But there are also those women in our communities who would consider the very idea of donning tallit and tefillin inconsistent with their religious practice.
So let’s get back to the Kotel. Perhaps wearing a tallit and even tefillin before the Holy of Holies lifts a person’s soul to higher spiritual levels. But many other women might find it almost an insult to the Holy of Holies to wear what is typically considered part of a man’s davening obligation.
If anything, we would hope that we’d all agree to condemn any violent behavior such as the hurling of insults, not to mention soiled diapers, at women donning tallit and tefillin and davening at the Kotel. Yes, this does unfortunately occur. We urge every Jew to act in a spirit of civility towards one another in any place or circumstance, but especially at the Kotel.
No, this isn’t an easy discussion. That’s why we ponder such issues and discuss them together as members of a highly educated, observant Modern Orthodox community. The decision whether or not women should wear tallit and tefillin at the Kotel is as deeply personal as an individual’s prayer. Hopefully, every Jewish woman and man is reinforced in their religious observance with a belief system rooted in Torah and mitzvot.
In some sense we are happy for those Jews, not part of the Orthodox world, who wish to deepen their levels of observance in a spirit of Torah observance even if it’s at the separate Robinson’s Arch location.
May we continue to understand that whether we live in Israel, Teaneck, the Bronx or in any part of the Diaspora, the Kotel should be the destination for every Jew. How each individual approaches the Kotel internally or externally? That’s for Hashem to judge.