The Crying Need for Jewish Unity and Religious Pluralism at the Kotel

by Rabbi Mark Zimmerman, Conservative rabbi serving Congregation Beth Shalom in Atlanta (from his blog)

Shortly we will celebrate the holiday of Shavuot which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Our tradition teaches us that every Jew was in attendance for this magnificent, historic event — including all who ever lived in the past, and all those yet to be born in the future.

The image is indeed a very touching one. We were allpresent at Sinai, and the entire Jewish people stood together as one.  The whole Jewish people standing together as agudah achat, one unified group has always conveyed a beautiful, inspirational lesson for us to emulate in every generation.
Yet sadly, that was not the scene at the Kotel this past Rosh Hodesh. Over five-hundred women came together to peacefully pray and read words of Torah together at a service organized every month by the group Neshot HaKotel, or Women of the Wall.  This time they had even more obstacles to overcome than usual.
In a groundbreaking ruling, the Jerusalem District Court upheld an earlier decision that women who wear tallitot at the Kotel plaza are not contravening “local custom” or causing a public disturbance, and therefore should not be arrested — as they had been in the past. The issue of equal prayer rights at the Kotel has become more prominent recently because of the frequent arrests of women participating in these special services held each month on Rosh Hodesh — which has long traditionally been considered a special holiday for women in Judaism.
During the last Rosh Hodesh service at the Kotel, the scene was chaotic as a large police presence tried to keep the the protesters and women daveners separated.  Haredi (Ultra Orthodox) women had gathered in large numbers to fill the women’s section in an attempt to prevent Women of the Wall from holding their monthly service.  Meanwhile Haredi men and children hurled stones and insults in the direction of these women, simply trying to gather in  prayer. Absolutely appalling.
I, like many of you have long supported Women of the Wall and their efforts on behalf of religious pluralism in Israel.  Yet when I expressed that support in the comments section of Jpost.com I was greeted with the typical barrage of delegitimizers, and those who deplore any expression of Judaism other than their own.
But let me say it clearly. WOW’s actions are not at all contrary to halacha, (Jewish law) but haredim throwing rocks at people clearly is a grave sin in Judaism. There is no comparison. Halacha is dynamic, and there has never been only one authoritative interpretation of Jewish law.  Our Sages have taught us that there are shivim panim laTorah (seventy faces to the Torah) and many modern Jews who support WOW are also living according to Torah. So those who say WOW and their supporters don’t accept the Torah are completely misguided.
The Kotel belongs to all Jews; not just the haredim, not just the Orthodox, and not just Conservative or Reform either.  But even beyond that, ethical, moral and civil behavior should be expected of all Jews and in all places — but especially in a sacred space such as the Kotel.
Others objected to my words of support saying it’s a complex issue and the sensitivities in Israel are different than they are here in America. I couldn’t disagree more.  It’s NOT complicated at all. I have davened at the Kotel many times over the years, and twenty years ago I could lead an egalitarian Kabbalat Shabbat service in the Kotel plaza without incident. But today there are haredi thugs who can’t accept that anyone has a right to any interpretation of Judaism other than their own narrow definition of Judaism.
The article on Jerusalem Post’s website where my comments appeared was titled: “Western Wall rabbi: I am hurting and crying”.  Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz told the Post: It wasn’t for this Kotel that we prayed. We don’t want a Kotel of disagreement.”
Well I certainly agree. The Kotel should indeed be for all of us, praying together in harmony, each in our own respective way. The Kotel belongs to all Jews, not just those who delegitimize us. We modern Jews who identify with more progressive streams of Judaism are tired of having our voices shouted down. And refusing to even acknowledge our observance of halacha is an insult that we should no longer tolerate.
So I encourage you all to add your support to these brave women who are liberating the Kotel for the entirety of the Jewish people.
L’Shalom,
Rabbi Mark Zimmerman
Congregation Beth Shalom

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