An Egalitarian Kotel
In the movie The Ten Commandments, Moses comes down the mountain with two tablets, containing the 10 laws that the Israelites are to follow.
I love that movie. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Jewish tradition tells says what happened at Sinai was far bigger than any 10 Commandments. It was even bigger then the entire Torah, with its 613 commandments. What was given to us at Sinai with the entirety of Judaism – the written and oral traditions, the ethics and morals and stories and laws.
This week’s Torah portion is part of that. It’s called Mishpatim, which means “laws.” And boy, does it have laws. This portion contains everything from the laws of slavery to the different kinds of sacrifice, from how to keep kosher to the prohibition against accepting bribes.
The point is that this is also Sinai. Last week, we received the 10 Commandments. This week, still standing at Sinai, we receive the laws of how to be a good society.
It says in the Mechilta of Bar Yochai, “Rules of the just society have the same divine origin as the Decalogue.”
This is an important principle in Judaism. As a religious way of life, Torah doesn’t only govern how we pray and how we perform rituals. In Jewish space, how we relate to our fellow human beings is just as important as how we relate to God.
And this week, we have seen a watershed moment in terms of how we relate to our fellow human beings in Jewish space.
This week, we learned that for the first time, the Israeli government agreed to create a true egalitarian section at the Western Wall.
This announcement is the result of a long negotiation that involves the Jewish Agency, the Reform and Conservative movements, Women of the Wall, and the government of Israel.
It provides, essentially, that the two year old “mixed gender prayer space” that is to the south of the Western Wall will be refurbished, expanded, and made equal to the existing, gender segregated space. And after that’s done, Women of the Wall will move their prayer services to that space, and the liberal movements will essentially govern a Kotel, just like the Orthodox.
This is an extraordinary shift. Rabbi Denise Eger, president of the Central Conference of American rabbis, writes:
For the first time, the Israeli government recognized the authentic ritual and religious needs of those of us who believe in egalitarian prayer and women’s equality.
Let’s not minimize that fact. The Israeli government has, begrudgingly, begun to recognize some liberal rabbis, pay a few salaries, and provide some prayer spaces. But this is the first time in history that space has been made for non-orthodox prayer at a communal Jewish holy site. That is a very big deal.
But the compromise is not perfect. Not by any stretch. There are three basic critiques of this deal I’ve seen tossed around the airwaves for the last few days. I’d like to address each one briefly, and think about what responsibilities they give us.
The first critique is the one that says “this isn’t really the Kotel.”
Take a look at the picture of the Kotel/Robinson’s Arch area. What we’re talking about here is the more “off the beaten track” area to the south of the current Kotel Plaza. The two are separated by the Mughrabi bridge that leads to the Dome of the Rock. This is actually part of an archaeological excavation, and it’s only been over the course of the last 30 to 40 years. Which means, that it’s correct to say that for the last 2000 years this wasn’t part of the Kotel. However, it IS part of the western retaining wall of the ancient temple. As Rabbi Elyse Goldstein has pointed out, it has the same holiness and the same historicity.
And as Yair Ettinger writes in Haaretz:
The Southern Wall is a site no less sacred than the northern plaza, and in many senses is a more dignified, quieter and more beautiful site, and Jewish history is strongly present due to important archaeological finds scattered there.
In other words, this really IS the Kotel. It’s just the less famous part. It’s kind of like moving into a new house – it’s no less your house, it’s just not the one you’ve been living in.
Our challenge, then, is to make it our house. To build new memories and new associations with this extraordinarily holy spot. Think of the opportunity this presents – to create a holy space – a kotel – that reflects the kind of Judaism that we believe in. It’s exciting, and it’s challenging.
Which brings me to the second critique – the charge that this compromise divides the Jewish people.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein writes:
The resistance of the heterodox movements to the mechitzah in the Kotel plaza means that they have erected an even larger, more ominous one between millions of Jews.
A Mechitzah is a dividing wall. And there’s no question that this creation of a parallel Kotel divides the Jews.
I’m of two minds about this one. On the one hand, I believe deeply in the value of K’lal Yisrael – Jewish unity. I think we have to choose carefully when it comes to pitting ourselves against fellow Jews. The Talmud teaches that it wasn’t actually the Romans, rather causeless hatred between Jews, that brought down the very second temple that we’re fighting about right now. That’s an important lesson for all of us.
But at the same time, my Jewish values teach me that I can’t let injustice stand. This isn’t simply a case of different ritual practices. This is about the basic moral issue of men’s and women’s equality. The basic question of whether Jewish sites should be available to all Jews. That’s why our movement made this decision.
And this isn’t the first time that we liberal movements have chosen to deprioritize Jewish unity because of some moral issue. We did the same thing when we were gained women rabbis, when we begin to perform same-sex marriages. And each time we’ve done so, we’ve seen that eventually, the Jewish world follows us. My hope and prayer is that this new liberal Kotel will be an opportunity for that to happen again.
It’s worth noting in all this that with the creation of a liberal Kotel to the parallel the Ultra Orthodox Kotel, there is one group being left behind. And that is the third critique of the compromise.
In the new setup, the Liberal section will be governed according to the laws of liberal Judaism – women and men may pray together, women’s prayer groups may read from the Torah and wear t’fillin. But that will still not be the case for the women’s section on the Orthodox side. And, as Yair Ettinger writes, that leaves “no room for Liberal orthodox.”
The big losers in this deal are the Orthodox women who wish to be able to sing, worship, and pray together as orthodox women. There will be space set aside for them in the mixed section to do so, but that’s not really what they’re looking for.
It’s a reminder to us that we still have much work to do. That this is a marathon and not a sprint. That we are still deeply engaged in fighting for the religious rights of all Jews – liberal AND Orthodox – in the Jewish state.
Eleh hamispatim asher tasim. These are the laws you shall establish.
Law is an expression of values. As we rejoice in this moment, may we recognize the ways that these new laws express an evolution in the values of the Jewish state.
At the same time, may we recognize our responsibility to continue that work.
And may Ahavat Yisrael – our love for the people and land of Israel – always be our guiding light.
 Etz Hayim 477, note 3.