The Israeli government has recently passed legislation which will establish an area before the Kotel (i.e. the Western Wall) in which men and women may commingle, as opposed to the current setup in which, as in any Orthodox synagogue, there are distinct sections for men and women, separated by a mechitzah (i.e. a physical barrier or wall.) At the very least, I consider this and yet another case of fixin’ what ain’t broke: the current arrangements at the Kotel have worked for almost 50 years. Of course there have been grumblings of sexism and sectarianism, but not until now has the Israeli government trumped the Rabbinate and surrendered a part of the country’s most important religious site to a group of (bottom line) Americans displaying our new and most unfortunate national characteristic: the desire to eat our cake and have it too.
As with any Jew, the issue runs deeper with me, and, despite such reservations as I might have with Orthodox (note the capital O) Judaism, I find myself siding with the Orthodox camp (inasmuch as there can ever be a single Orthodox camp) on this issue. My primary reason for doing so is the matter of decorum. While getting the various strains of Orthodoxy to reach agreement on any single topic is practically impossible, there is a consensus minimum standard as to the arrangement of a synagogue, and a large part of that is the mechitzah separating men from women. There is a clean line in the sand: women on one side with their shoulders covered, men on the other with their heads covered. As a result, everyone knows how to behave at the Kotel.
Creating a gender-integrated area for Conservative and Reform Jews will create, first of all, considerable internecine friction about whose standards of decorum should apply. Conservative synagogues require that men cover their heads; no such edict applies at Reform services. How will a rule for kippot be decided? Moreover, reduced standards of decorum will inevitably reduce themselves: how long until the Kotel is flooded with half-clad Jezebels in tallitot, carrying Torah scrolls and leading droves of unbehatted men astray?
There is, actually, one argument in favor of allowing such an area in front of the Kotel where my facetious half-clad Jezebels can parade themselves. The historical reality is that the plaza in front of the Kotel never was part of the Temple precincts: the Kotel is a retaining wall which helps hold up the Temple Mount, which, at the moment, is occupied by…other structures. Ergo, as, in standing before the Kotel one does not actually stand on Temple real estate, the Temple’s strictures of where gentiles and women aren’t allowed to pass do not apply. In other words, in Temple times, the area in front of the Kotel was frequented by everyone, and there is no halachic (legal) basis for making it otherwise.
The halachic counter-argument is that the Kotel plaza is a now (de jure, I believe) an Orthodox synagogue, and, as such, requires a mechitzah and the separation of the worshipers by gender. In fact, all standards of decorum encountered in an Orthodox synagogue do thus apply at the Kotel.
Relaxing those standards is a headlong jump down a slippery slope. To use a favorite Talmudic term of mine, ayn l’davar sof: there is no end to the matter. Or, to use another of my hockey analogies, you can’t have a sports league without rules, and the Orthodox are the only ones who have come up with anything approaching a rulebook.
One should also bear in mind that it was a group of predominantly secular socialist idealists who decided (ultimately…and no doubt after much arguing) to put Israel’s ritual affairs under the aegis of an Orthodox Rabbinate. Anything else would have been impractical, but I think they were also motivated by the poetry (if you will) of having their Jewish state run along firmly Jewish lines.
The Israelis have been sitting on this Conservative and Reform Pandora’s can of worms — and kept it from opening — for nearly fifty years. Why they should suddenly have yielded to the misconceived entitlement of a group of American Jews is a good question. Not that there isn’t a way to affect change with regard to Israel’s internal religious affairs: it’s called making aliyah.