In the space of several decades, a quiet schism has been revealed. The OWOW (Original, or the Old, Women of the Wall) who are now aggravated, and the present Women of the Wall who have scored political points by having a funded unique space outside of chareidi sightlines; the two wall solution, so to speak.
The originals wished to remain within an Orthodox framework on the one hand while pushing the envelope of accepted, but arguably halachic, practice. They wanted the Mechitza, but once on their side, they wished to express themselves by donning talit, and tefilin. The originals had been given approval by the Supreme court, but those responsible for the Kotel, had refused to enforce it.
The perceived victory of the liberal denominations has to do with the State recognition of the aspirations of the Conservative and Reform movements. This was a departure from the originals intent which was meant to work within an Orthodox framework. Non-Orthodox women who were part of the originals were in solidarity with their sisters, and supported their efforts. Phyllis Chesler, one of the originals, invoking her friend and mine, Rivka Haut z”l lays this out in her Tablet e-zine article:
Most Reform and Conservative Jews, having been misled by their leaders and by the media, do not seem to understand that the feminist and religious struggle that we have been waging for more than a quarter-century has not been to pray at Robinson’s Arch or to pray together with men in a minyan and in an egalitarian service. We all support such rights and had long hoped that the denominations would have fought for their rightful place in the sun: for a third section at the Kotel proper. This never happened. No such lawsuit was ever launched. Instead, the denominations piggy-backed on the contribution of grassroots feminists—and they hired Anat Hoffman, one of us, as an employee of the Reform movement. They used her just as she used them. The denominations have not betrayed our vision; they never shared that vision. Alas, only Anat Hoffman has departed from our original vision ostensibly for pragmatic reasons.
There were two different agendas for the struggle over “whose Wall is it anyway.” Potentially, neither was only about the Wall. For the Orthodox women, the permission to read Torah, wear tallit and tefillin would confer legitimacy on this practice far beyond the Kotel plaza. If a woman could put on tefillin at The Wall, why can it not be done in Modern Orthodox synagogues and schools? Rivka Haut was one of the early activists regarding the dilemmas of agunot, and she was passionate about women’s ritual inclusion in what is generally accepted as being within halachic parameters, but not part of the amorphous, protean mesorah. She may have only had her sights on the wall, but had women been allowed to read Torah there, it would have certainly had an impact well beyond that sacred space.
It has been suggested that we go back to the time when individuals came to the Kotel to pour out their hearts, meditate, place notes, but not make a minyan. For too many, however, those activities only occur within the framework of formal tefila. It wouldn’t be long before people would clamor to pray together at “the holiest site in Judaism”. The claim that the Kotel is a Chareidi shule, howevr, is hyperbolic. It is a shule that conforms to the norms of ninety-nine per cent of the Orthodox shules in Israel, and not much fewer in the diaspora.
As one who is Orthodox in practice, but has only worked in pluralistic environments for forty years, I can tell you this. We are never going to be able to pray with integrity as a unified people. The unintended consequences of the OWOW enlisting/accepting the support of those from more liberal traditions is to have their own agendas and desires eclipsed.
Rabbi Yehoshua of Sakhnin in the name of Rabbi Levy said: Both [Cain and Abel] took equal portions of land, and chattel, so about what did they argue? One said, “The Temple will be built within my borders.” And the other said, “No, it will be built in mine!”…And Cain arose against Abel, his brother, and killed him. (Bereshith Rabba 22:7)
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. In the meantime, let’s learn together.