The Women’s Wall
In calling for desegregation of the Kotel, the modern movement is actually reviving 19th-century traditions
When District Judge Moshe Sobol handed down a historic decision in Israel last week, ruling that the practices of the Women of the Wall do not violate “local custom,” he was more correct than he probably realized. In 1930 Cyrus Adler, who was then serving as president both of New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary and the Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate learning in Philadelphia—as well as editor of the Jewish Quarterly Review—managed also to publish a Memorandum on the Western Wall. The memorandum had been prepared, as its subtitle announced, “for the Special Commission of the League of Nations on behalf of the Jewish Agency for Palestine.” In his introduction Adler noted that Article 14 of the League’s “Mandate for Palestine” had instructed the Special Commission “to study, define, and determine finally the rights and claims of Jews and Muslims at the Western or Wailing Wall at Jerusalem.”
Adler, like many of his contemporaries, would probably have had difficulty imagining that in a future Jewish state, yet another special commission would be required “to determine finally the rights and claims” of Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, both male and female, to that embattled holy site. Yet hardly anyone who might have submitted a memorandum to Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky after he was delegated by Benjamin Netanyahu to deal with Israel’s most recent outbreak of “Women of the Wall” controversies would have been so naïve as to assert, as did Adler in 1930, that “the subject is one purely of religion, of devotion, and of sentiment.” We are dealing, after all, with a dispute between Jews—among whom religion has long ceased to be a matter of mere devotion and sentiment. And few scholars (except some of my fellow Israelis) would feel confident enough to “give the assurance that the memorandum here offered has been prepared in an objective and historical manner.”
One of the earlier 19th-century accounts quoted by Adler in his 1930 Memorandum was William Bartlett’s illustrated Walks About the City and Environs of Jerusalem (1844). “We repaired to this place on a Friday,” wrote Bartlett of his 1842 visit, “when a considerable number [of Jews] usually assemble.” In the wall’s shadow, on the right, “were seated many venerable men, reading the books of the law.” But there were also, he noted, “many women in their long white robes, who, as they entered the small area, walked along the sacred wall, kissing its ancient masonry, and praying through the crevices with every appearance of deep devotion.” Bartlett did not describe the men and women as sitting apart, but as pursuing different kinds of activities. The men, who were presumably more literate, were sitting and reading, while the women walked along the wall, kissed its stones, and prayed through their crevices with evident devotion. Whereas the “venerable men” did not seem to be dressed in any distinctive manner, the British artist commented on the women’s “long white robes”—which may have been donned in honor of the approaching Sabbath.
Had Adler published an illustrated edition of his Memorandum it might well have included Robert Brandard’s steel engraving of the “Jews’ Place of Wailing,” based on a drawing by Bartlett (see above). In it the only person praying at the wall is a woman wearing a long white shawl, which also covers her head. Another woman, similarly draped, stands among the (probably shoeless) men sitting on the ground with books in their hands. In A Visit to My Fatherland (1845), the British nonconformist minister Ridley Haim Herschell, who was a native of Prussian Poland, described his 1843 visit to the “Place of Wailing” on a Friday as “one of the most striking” scenes that he beheld in that city. Herschell, whose account was later quoted by Adler, wrote that “about 30 men and half as many women were assembled together, all without shoes, the ground whereon they trod being in their estimation holy.” He too gives no indication of any separation between men and women at the Western Wall.
Another visitor to Jerusalem during the early 1840s quoted by Adler was John Price Durbin—though just as Adler was evidently too busy with his many other duties to inform his readers that Herschell was a Polish-born convert, so too did he fail to mention that Durbin was a Kentucky-born Methodist minister. Of course, neither Durbin’s background nor that of his British colleague Herschell render their testimonies any less “reliable and authentic.” In fact, the members of the Special Commission addressed by Adler in his Memorandum might have been especially impressed by the testimony of Protestant divines concerning the deep and continuous Jewish connection with the Western Wall. Durbin, who was president of Dickinson College in Pennsylvania when he set off for Europe and the Middle East, later described in his Observations in the East (1845), “a most touching custom, long kept up by the children of Israel.” On Fridays, he wrote, the Jews of Jerusalem would assemble “in considerable numbers” in order “to weep over the fallen glory of their race, under the very ruins of their once magnificent sanctuary.” After quoting a verse from Lamentations (5:2) allegedly recited in unison at the Wall, Durbin reported that “the Book of the Law is read by aged men, and women walk up and down the small area, occasionally approaching the wall to kiss it, pouring forth lamentations and prayers.”
Like Bartlett who visited Jerusalem shortly before he did, the American Methodist contrasted the stationary men who “read” (probably from a printed Hebrew Bible), with the more kinetic (and evidently younger) women who “walk” alongside the wall, “kiss” its stones, and pour forth “lamentations and prayers.” For both authors (as well as, presumably, for the Jews themselves) the division between men and women at the “Place of Wailing” was less spatial than performatory. The women would seem to have moved with greater freedom and prayed with greater fervor than they would in Jerusalem’s local synagogues, and it is they alone who kiss the wall’s “ancient masonry.” The Friday scene, in short, is dominated by their dynamic presence.
From the archive: Daniel Estrin’s 2012 report—which just won a prestigious award—on Jerusalem’s light rail