Women of the Wall
Women of the Wall (WOW), a group of women who have asserted women’s right to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, have struggled against personal violence and public opprobrium since 1988. Though the group is small in number, it has garnered considerable international support, especially for its lengthy struggle in Israel’s Supreme Court of Justice.
The latter has expressly recognized the Western Wall as a site of great symbolic significance for Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora, not only as a holy place but also as a historical, national and cultural symbol. On this historic stage, the struggle between enlightenment and fundamentalism and between patriarchy and feminism is being acted out. Its outcome is important not only for the Women of the Wall themselves but also for the future of human rights in Israel.
WOW’s manner of prayer is women’s prayer in a group, wearing prayer shawls and reading aloud from the Torah Scroll—a manner of prayer customary for men but not for women, which is a subject of controversy amongst Orthodox Jewish authorities. It is considered by many Orthodox rabbis to infringe prohibitions of Jewish halakhic law or, even if it does not, to constitute an impermissible deviation from the custom of the place at the Western Wall. However, it is also fully condoned by some well-respected Orthodox authorities and in this it is distinguished from the mode of prayer of Reform and Conservative Jews. The grounds for the distinction are that the Women of the Wall do not pray in mixed prayer groups of men and women but pray separately from men in the ezrat nashim, the women’s section, at the Western Wall. Nor do they attempt to pray in a minyan (a prayer quorum), which requires at least ten men for certain prayers. Rather, they pray in a group which is not a minyan and do not recite those prayers which require a minyan.
In short, it is within the limits of Orthodoxy that the WOW are seeking to pray in a group in the same manner as men, wearing prayer shawls, holding the Torah Scroll, and raising their voices in prayer. They seek the right to pray as full partners in the Orthodox Jewish tradition and not as silent, passive shadows of men.
The women’s prayer in this manner has been greeted with violent opposition from other Orthodox worshippers, both male and female. They have been physically attacked and verbally abused. Similar violence has met Reform and Conservative congregations of Jews, which have attempted to pray near the Western Wall in mixed prayer groups of men and women. Scenes of spitting and even the throwing of excrement at these groups have appeared on television screens around the world. The violence is orchestrated by small groups of fanatics, mostly seminary students who study and live in the vicinity of the Wall. However, its importance exceeds the number of its perpetrators. Many people who would not identify with the fanatical violence nevertheless openly condemn the participants in women’s or mixed prayer groups as provoking the violence. Officialdom has not banished the violent fanatics from the Western Wall Plaza; instead it has banished the WOW and the Reform and Conservative congregations.
The violence against the Women of the Wall is a manifestation of the attempts of fundamentalist religious activists to preserve their patriarchal hegemony. This attempt is unique neither to Judaism nor to Jerusalem. The use of spiritual symbolism by traditionalist religious leaders to preserve patriarchy is a form of patriarchal politics. More than that, it is the most virulent form of patriarchal politics in our era. Religious fundamentalism has the subjugation of women high on its agenda. Religious institutions not only preach but also proselytise patriarchy, linking up with pockets of resistance to feminist change and legitimizing them.
The WOW represent a new kind of activism struggling for feminist expression within the religious context. In all the aspects of the WOW’s mode of prayer there is a challenge to the patriarchal hegemony of religion. The reasons why each of the attributes of the WOW’s mode of prayer is considered offensive are richly symbolic of patriarchy in feminist discourse. It is this that explains the violent opposition by fundamentalist forces to their manifestation. The objection to WOW’s prayer is an objection to “official” group prayer in a minyan or with tallit or Torah Scroll and not to the idea of a number of women praying together. The latter is perceived as permissible provided that it has none of the trappings of “official” group prayer. In the eyes of the opponents of the WOW, the different aspects of their mode of prayer are all linked to public participatory prayer in a minyan and are hence linked, directly or indirectly, to the performance of positive time-bound commandments (mitzvot aseh she-ha-zeman geraman). Women are exempt from performing such duties and there is conflicting opinion as to whether they may waive this exemption if the exemption is to their disadvantage, rather than to their advantage.
The attempt to prohibit women’s public reading from the Torah is a specific manifestation of the exclusion of women from the public sphere and public functions. It touches on and circumscribes that aspect of public sphere activity which is associated with the acquisition of power through knowledge and spiritual authority.
The objection to the wearing of prayer shawls is also primarily attributed to the exemption from positive time-bound commandments. Relying on the writings of the Rambam (Moses Maimonides; 1138–1204), in the twelfth century, Shmuel Shiloh and Pinhas Shifman, the halakhic experts for the Women of the Wall in the Supreme Court, conclude that women may wear prayer shawls. Relying on the later writings of the Rema (Moses b. Israel Isserles, c. 1530–1572), Eliav Shochetman, the halakhic expert for the respondent (the State), concludes that they may not. He argues that, though theoretically permissible, it would be an exhibition of “arrogance” for them to do so. Arrogance, in this context, is “behaviour which is vulgar and proud, shows contempt for others, and is unconventional in the community”; arrogant behaviour by women, even in private but most certainly in public, is considered improper and impermissible. It need scarcely be said that this requirement for women’s private modesty and public invisibility is another example of the patriarchal exclusion of women from the public sphere. Furthermore, Shochetman points out that the wearing of tallit is contrary to the prohibition in the Torah according to which “ a woman must not take man’s apparel.”
Perhaps the most emotive objection that has been brought to bear against the Women of the Wall is that it is forbidden to hear women’s voices in song. According to Shochetman
An additional problem [to that of a women’s minyan] ... is that … women who seek to organize themselves into a separate minyan in the Western Wall Plaza certainly might, by their singing, disturb the prayers of others—a thing which is absolutely prohibited.
Women’s voices have been regarded as disturbing because they are “seductive.” This instance of silencing of women in the talmudic tradition is stunning evidence that the phenomenon, widely analyzed in feminist literature, has its roots not only in the politics of patriarchal domination but also in the psychology of fear of women’s sensuality.
The traditional limitations on women’s prayer all speak patriarchy and the current opposition to the WOW is a reassertion of patriarchal power. The site of the reassertion of patriarchy is at the Western Wall, the symbolic heart of twentieth-century Judaism. In order to understand the way in which the secular authorities in Israel have dealt with the issue, one has to bear in mind that the legal context in which the issue is being acted out is one of state promotion of religion and not of non-interventionism.
As regards the promotion of Jewish religion, there is in most contexts a monopolistic preference given to Orthodox Judaism over other streams of Judaism; this is a highly contested matter over a whole range of issues, not least in the context of the Western Wall, which is one of the sites governed by the Protection of Holy Places Law, 1967. This law provides that the necessary measures will be taken to prevent desecration of holy places or behaviour which is likely to obstruct the freedom of access or offend the sensitivities of the members of the religious communities to which they are holy. The implementation of the Law is placed in the hands of an Administrator appointed by the Minister of Religious Affairs, in consultation with the Chief Rabbis.
At the time of the initial violent reaction to the WOW, the secular authorities responded by excluding the WOW from praying in their own manner at the Wall: the Administrator of the Wall, who is an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, issued an order preventing the WOW from praying in this manner. The police, too, intervened to prevent the WOW’s active prayer at the Wall, claiming this was necessary to prevent a breach of the peace and desecration of the Wall.
In reaction, the WOW petitioned the Supreme Court sitting as High Court of Justice, challenging the governmental opposition to their mode of prayer. Their petition was based on their constitutional right to freedom of worship, their right of access to the Wall and, less emphatically, their right to equality as women. They claimed that the Administrator had acted beyond the limits of his statutory powers, as determined in the Regulations under the Holy Places Law. Upon submission of their petition, the Minister of Religious Affairs promptly amended the Regulations under the Law in order to expressly “prohibit the conducting of any religious ceremony which is not according to the custom of the place and which offends the sensitivities of the worshipping public…”
Although the Supreme Court rejected the WOW’s petition (1995), the majority opinions of Justices Meir Shamgar and Shlomo Levin recognized in principle the WOW’s right of access and freedom of worship. Justice Shamgar, the then President of the Court, held that the common denominator for Jewish worship at the Wall should not be the most austere halakhic ruling but should allow good-faith worship by all who wish to pray there. Shamgar recommended that the government find a solution which would “allow the petitioners to enjoy freedom of access to the Kotel (Western Wall), while minimizing the offense to the sensitivities of other worshippers.” He based his recommendation on the need for mutual tolerance between groups and opinions and on the need to respect human dignity. He did not mention the disempowerment of women or the need to guarantee their constitutional right to participate equally in the public arena. He was silent on the issue of equality, even though he noted, with the most tentative of criticisms, one of the primary manifestations of that inequality, the objection to the hearing of women’s voices:
The singing of the petitioners aroused fury, even though it was singing in prayer; and anyway is there any prohibition of singing by the Kotel? After all, there is dancing and singing there not infrequently and it is unthinkable that the singing in dignified fashion of pilgrims, whether Israeli or foreign, soldiers or citizens, whether male or female, should be prevented. In view of this, it may be, and I emphasise “may be,” that the opponents are confusing their opposition to the identity of the singers with their opposition to the fact of the singing, and this should not be.
Justice Levin based his recognition of the WOW’s right to pray in their manner at the Wall on his view of the site as having not only religious but also national and historical significance for all the different groups and persons who come there in good faith, for the purpose of prayer or for any other legitimate purpose.
Although the struggle for women’s right to participate in the full ceremonial worship of Judaism, their struggle for equality, is at the core of the conflict, the majority judgements were devoid of any mention of this right. They based their recognition of the WOW’s right to pray on their right to freedom of worship, not on equality. They upheld the need to protect pluralism but did not address the issue of religious patriarchy. It was only in the minority opinion, written by Justice Menahem Elon, who was then the incumbent of the “religious seat” on the Supreme Court, that the issue of equality for women was discussed. However, Elon examined the issue only to conclude that it was impossible to relate to equality in the context of a site of such central importance to Judaism.
In response to the Supreme Court’s recommendation, the government set up a Committee of Directors General of various ministries. After deliberating for two years, this committee finally recommended that the WOW could pray in their manner. However, this prayer was to be by the south-eastern corner of the battlements of the Old City—well away from the Western Wall, where considerations of “internal security” (i.e. a threat of breach of the peace) precluded their congregating. The government thereupon appointed a Ministerial Committee which, after a further year of deliberation, went one better: the WOW could not pray at the Western Wall for internal security reasons and, in addition, could not pray at any of the alternative sites proposed, because of external security considerations. The third committee to sit on the matter was the Neeman Committee, which was at the time deliberating the issue of non-Orthodox conversions; this Committee recommended Robinson’s Arch as the most practical alternative site.
After the conclusions of the first committee were issued, the WOW turned once more to the Supreme Court. The Court issued an order nisi on the WOW’s renewed petition and the hearing was held on September 24, 1998. WOW argued that, since the government had shown itself to be clearly incapable of implementing the recommendations of the Court and securing the WOW’s rights of worship and their right of access to the Wall, the last resort was the Court itself. It is worthy of note that, while in the first decision, which I shall refer to as Hoffman I, all the justices had been male, in Hoffman II the Court was composed of two women and one man.
In Hoffman II, Justice Eliahu Mazza wrote the opinion of the Court and Justices Dorit Beinish and Tova Strasberg-Cohen concurred. The Court held that the majority in Hoffman I had recognized the right of the WOW to pray in their manner at the Wall. Hence, it concluded that the recommendations of the various governmental committees, in seeking alternative sites, had all been contrary to the directions of the Court. Indeed, the Court held, on the basis of its own impressions from a tour of the sites, that none of the alternative sites could serve, even partially, to implement the WOW’s right to pray in the Western Wall Plaza. The Court directed the government to implement the WOW’s prayer rights at the Wall within six months.
This pathbreaking and courageous decision constituted a significant step forward towards implementation of the WOW’s previously abstract right. It clarified that the Hoffman I decision bestowed full recognition of the WOW’s right to pray in accordance with their custom in the Western Wall Plaza. It also transformed the Shamgar recommendation into a judicial directive and concretized the government’s obligation to implement the right as an obligation fixed in time and place. However, the Court refrained from actively intervening and itself establishing the prayer arrangements at the Kotel. It held that, at this stage, it was refraining from doing so because the petition had been presented in the context of an expected government decision and, in the event, the government had not actually issued a decision. This somewhat evasive conclusion is probably to be attributed to the Court’s defensiveness in the face of ongoing allegations by politicians, religious elements and some academics, that the Court is too activist, particularly in matters of state and religion.
The reactions in Israel to the decision in Hoffman II were aggressive. The religious parties immediately presented a bill to convert the area in front of the Western Wall into a religious shrine exclusively for Orthodox religious practice and to impose a penalty of seven years’ imprisonment on any person violating the current (Orthodox) custom of prayer at the Wall. The bill was supported by a number of Knesset members from secular parties.
Popular reaction to the decision in Hoffman II was also hostile. The religious right was predictably vicious in its response. However, even academics, intellectuals and journalists generally committed to a liberal point of view demonstrated an overt hostility to the women. In newspaper articles and public discussion, they claimed that their actions were a “provocation.” This claim is not as surprising as it may seem; it is consonant with the general perspective of the secular majority in Israel that the Jewish religion is what the Orthodox establishment says it is. The secular liberal community has no interest in women’s struggle to open up Orthodoxy and make it more egalitarian, regarding that struggle as irrelevant to human rights concerns. An added layer of political hostility to the WOW probably stems from the perception that the issue may create an obstruction to the various coalition maneuvers which each of the political players conducts in order to gain the support of the religious parties for its agenda.
The Attorney General asked the President of the Supreme Court to grant a further hearing of the case and to overrule Hoffman II, a surprising move on the legal level since the decision had been unanimous. The Attorney General’s action was clearly political, demonstrating the reluctance of the government to implement the human rights of the WOW in accordance with the Court’s directive. The President of the Court, Aharon Barak, granted the request and appointed an expanded panel of nine justices to reconsider the issue.
In Hoffmann III (2000), the Court was divided and gave an ambivalent decision. The majority judgment given by Justice Michael Cheshin and fully supported by Justice Barak and Justice Theodore Orr held that the right of the WOW to pray in their way at the Western Wall Plaza had been recognized but that it was not absolute and the best way to implement it in a manner that would reduce offense to the sensitivities of other worshippers would be to provide the WOW with an alternative place of prayer, properly adapted for the purpose of prayer, at Robinson’s Arch. Robinson’s Arch is an archaeological site which lies south of the Western Wall Plaza but out of direct contact with it and with a separate approach and entrance. Robinson’s Arch is not an area which has traditionally attracted Jewish worshippers and prayer there, although it is used by Reform and Conservative Jews who—unlike the WOW—cannot participate in the separate prayer areas for men and women at the Western Wall Plaza. It is not integrated into the communal prayer of the Jewish people. The majority decision given on April 6, 2003 provided that, should the government fail within twelve months to convert Robinson’s Arch into a proper prayer area, the WOW would have the right to pray in their manner in the Western Wall Plaza. The way in which this rather strange, conditional judgment gained majority support in the nine-member Court was through tactical alliances. The two religious members of the Court, Justice Izhak Englard and Justice Yaakov Turkel, although they opposed any recognition of the WOW’s rights of prayer at the Western Wall Plaza, joined the Robinson’s Arch option. The other four members of the Court—Justices Mazza, Beinish, Strasberg-Cohen and Shlomo Levin—wrote a minority opinion advocating full and immediate acceptance of the WOW’s petition. The Court, in effect, returned the issue to the government playing field, placing the option and the onus of action on the executive branch.
By the time the twelve months had expired (April 5, 2004), the State had commenced but not completed preparation of a prayer site at Robinson’s Arch. The WOW therefore began to pray in the women’s section of the Kotel Plaza. Subsequently, the Court granted the State a requested prolongation of one month in order to complete the preparation. This expired in September 2004. No further court proceedings have since been held.
In August 2004 an alternative prayer site was inaugurated at the Robinson’s Arch excavations, close to the Western Wall Plaza. Preparation of the site, which can accommodate only fifty women, cost over three million shekel. Here, at a place situated out of the sight and earshot of the general public, the state permits women to don tallitot and read from a Torah scroll. At the same time, regulations stipulate that nothing may prevent the Women of the Wall and other women from singing the Hallel out loud even in the women’s section at the Western Wall.
Praying in Her Own Voice, a documentary film on Women of the Wall, directed and produced by Professor Yael Katziv was premiered at the Jerusalem International Film Festival in July 2006.
The case of the WOW is heavy with symbol. The violent opposition to them, condoned by both public will and officialdom, symbolizes the silencing of women through the ages; it speaks tradition and patriarchy at the heart of Jewish nationhood. The three petitions of the WOW were condoned by all five justices of the Supreme Court, condemned by three justices and conditioned on government inaction in providing an alternative place of prayer at Robinson’s Arch by three justices, joined for this purpose by two of the condemning justices. These petitions represented a universalist and feminist ethic and their fate is of great significance not only for religious women and men but also for the secular world and constitutional values. Their success would have signified the victory of pluralism and tolerance over fundamentalism. Their ambivalent outcome is illustrative of the weakness of the courts’ ability to uphold constitutional human rights in the face of violent religious opposition and in the absence of governmental support. Whatever the eventual outcome, the Women of the Wall have placed the issue of women’s full personhood within religion on the public agenda in Israel.
Bagaz 257/89 Anat Hoffman v. Western Wall Commissioner, 48(2) PD 265.
Bagaz 3358/95 Anat Hoffman v. Prime Minister’s Office, Tak-Al 2000(2) 846.
Dangaz 4128/2000 Prime Minister Office v. Anat Hoffman,.
Barack Fishman, Sylvia. “Comparative Reflections on Modern Orthodoxy and Women’s Issues.” Edah Journal 1/2 (June 2001). Also available for download as a PDF from the Edah website: http://www.edah.org/backend/JournalArticle/1_2_fishman.pdf.
Chesler, Phyllis, and Rivka Haut, eds. Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site. Woodstock, Vermont: 2002.
Lederman, Faye. Film: Women of the Wall. http://www.newday.com/films/WomenoftheWall.html.
Raday, Frances. “Religion, Multiculturalism and Equality: The Israeli Case.” Israel Year Book on Human Rights 25 (1995): 193–241.