Commentary Magazine


Topic: The Western Wall

Can the Wall Become a Symbol of Unity Rather Than Division?

The protest group Women of the Wall is back in the news. They have been fighting for the right to hold prayer services at the Western Wall in Jerusalem for years–drawing fire from the Orthodox for doing so–dressed in prayer shawls and reading from the Torah. These are practices that are normative for Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist congregations in the United States but considered an outrageous violation of the customs of the site that is operated as if it were an Orthodox synagogue rather than a national shrine of the Jewish people, which is the way most Americans think of it. In recent months, members of the group were again arrested when they tried to hold a prayer service. The controversy was further fueled this week when Jerusalem Police Chief Yossi Pariente sent a letter to the head of the protest group warning her that they were prohibited from saying Kaddish—the Jewish prayer of mourning—when they held their monthly service at the Wall.

The ensuing furor was only contained when the rabbi who heads the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which oversees the place, said no women would be arrested for saying Kaddish. That assurance was delivered to Natan Sharansky, the hero of the Soviet Jewish movement who now heads the Jewish Agency, the philanthropic group responsible for the absorption of Jews from the Diaspora into the country, who had expressed his dismay at this development.

But the exchange shouldn’t reassure anyone. The problem at the Wall is not only not going away, it is escalating and it’s obviously going to take more than talk from Sharansky, who was asked by Prime Minister Netanyahu to deal with the situation. Israelis need to understand that the damage being done to their country’s image by these goings on is not a minor issue. As much as he dreads any involvement in what appears to him to be a no-win situation, it is high time for him to step in and stop the madness.

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The protest group Women of the Wall is back in the news. They have been fighting for the right to hold prayer services at the Western Wall in Jerusalem for years–drawing fire from the Orthodox for doing so–dressed in prayer shawls and reading from the Torah. These are practices that are normative for Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist congregations in the United States but considered an outrageous violation of the customs of the site that is operated as if it were an Orthodox synagogue rather than a national shrine of the Jewish people, which is the way most Americans think of it. In recent months, members of the group were again arrested when they tried to hold a prayer service. The controversy was further fueled this week when Jerusalem Police Chief Yossi Pariente sent a letter to the head of the protest group warning her that they were prohibited from saying Kaddish—the Jewish prayer of mourning—when they held their monthly service at the Wall.

The ensuing furor was only contained when the rabbi who heads the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which oversees the place, said no women would be arrested for saying Kaddish. That assurance was delivered to Natan Sharansky, the hero of the Soviet Jewish movement who now heads the Jewish Agency, the philanthropic group responsible for the absorption of Jews from the Diaspora into the country, who had expressed his dismay at this development.

But the exchange shouldn’t reassure anyone. The problem at the Wall is not only not going away, it is escalating and it’s obviously going to take more than talk from Sharansky, who was asked by Prime Minister Netanyahu to deal with the situation. Israelis need to understand that the damage being done to their country’s image by these goings on is not a minor issue. As much as he dreads any involvement in what appears to him to be a no-win situation, it is high time for him to step in and stop the madness.

As I wrote last December, most American Jews have little understanding of the underlying issues at the Wall. The disinterest most Israelis feel about the question of religious pluralism strikes Americans as shocking. However, it is a reflection of the fact that non-Orthodox Judaism is something that most Israelis think is a foreign import with little relevance to their society. As our Evelyn Gordon wrote here a few days after my piece, Israelis are unsympathetic to a movement such as the Women of the Wall that appears to them to be primarily political and intent on disrupting the existing order of the Wall.

Yet as much as I understand that most Israelis may agree with Evelyn’s evaluation of the issue, this latest absurdity about the Kaddish prayer ought to serve as a reminder that what goes in Jerusalem affects the rest of the Jewish people. As Evelyn noted, the spectacle of women’s rights being violated in this manner hurts Israel’s image, particularly among American Jews. It is hard enough for Israel’s defenders to hold their own against the falsehoods and calumnies launched at the Jewish state’s defense policies. For them to be further burdened by incidents that constitute a violation of women’s rights and an insult to the religious practices of most American Jews is as intolerable as it is unnecessary.

When Sharansky told Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz of the Western Wall Foundation “The Kotel must continue to be a symbol of unity for all Jews in the world and not a symbol of strife and discord,” I’m afraid the Orthodox rabbinate may have thought the incident could be papered over with platitudes. But it cannot.

Sharansky is working on a plan which, according to Haaretz, will ensure that “that every Jew in the world can pray in the manner that they are accustomed to at Judaism’s most important national and religious site.” If so, that is a formula for confrontation with an Orthodox establishment that has gotten used to the idea that it can dictate policy about the Wall even, as this week’s incident proved, to the police.

It goes without saying that Netanyahu would prefer to avoid such a confrontation if he possibly can. Even while leading a coalition that, for the first time in a long while, has no Orthodox parties among its members, the prime minister knows that knocking heads with the rabbinate will be messy and costly. But he must also know that when American Jews see headlines about women being arrested for praying at the Wall and policemen talking about prohibiting prayers, that is the sort of black eye that neither the country nor the Jewish people can afford.

When Sharansky comes forward with his plan, it will be up to Netanyahu to see that it is adopted and enforced. That won’t make everyone happy but it will end the running sore that the bans on certain services at the Wall has created. Though many, if not most, Israelis don’t identify with the Women of the Wall, the time has come to start treating the place as if it belonged to all Jews, rather than just the rabbinate. That won’t end the ongoing controversy about pluralism or make Reform and Conservative Judaism equal partners with the majority. But it will be a rational step that will strengthen the country and its bonds with the Diaspora. Let’s hope Netanyahu has the guts to see that this happens.

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The Women and the Wall Between Israel and the Diaspora

In the last week, the New York Times has published two articles on the simmering controversy in Israel over the right of non-Orthodox Jewish women to worship at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. The Wall may be a sacred site for all Jews, but it is operated as an open air Orthodox synagogue under the authority of a foundation determined to keep it that way. Thus the desire of women who adhere to the beliefs of Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist Judaism to pray with Torah scrolls and in prayer shawls is considered a breach of the peace leading to unfortunate scenes in which female worshipers have been dragged off to jail. As far as most American Jews are concerned this is an outrage, and the latest argument over the activities of the Women of the Wall, who have been pushing to change the status quo there, has created another surge of anger that has led Prime Minister Netanyahu to say that he will initiate a study by Natan Sharansky that will seek to explore ways to make the place more accommodating to all Jews.

Whether Netanyahu is sincere or not, the Women of the Wall are entitled to react to this proposal with cynicism. It’s highly unlikely that Netanyahu will do anything at the Wall to upset the religious parties that make up his governing coalition. The non-Orthodox—who make up the overwhelming majority of American Jews—can choose to see this as one more reason to distance themselves from the Jewish state. But the reason why nothing is likely to change there tells us more about the divide between Israeli Jews and those of the Diaspora than any bad will on the part of the prime minister. The problem here is not so much prejudice against Reform and Conservative Judaism—though that exists in abundance among the Orthodox establishment in Israel—but the fact that those denominations remain tiny and without much influence in the country.

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In the last week, the New York Times has published two articles on the simmering controversy in Israel over the right of non-Orthodox Jewish women to worship at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. The Wall may be a sacred site for all Jews, but it is operated as an open air Orthodox synagogue under the authority of a foundation determined to keep it that way. Thus the desire of women who adhere to the beliefs of Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist Judaism to pray with Torah scrolls and in prayer shawls is considered a breach of the peace leading to unfortunate scenes in which female worshipers have been dragged off to jail. As far as most American Jews are concerned this is an outrage, and the latest argument over the activities of the Women of the Wall, who have been pushing to change the status quo there, has created another surge of anger that has led Prime Minister Netanyahu to say that he will initiate a study by Natan Sharansky that will seek to explore ways to make the place more accommodating to all Jews.

Whether Netanyahu is sincere or not, the Women of the Wall are entitled to react to this proposal with cynicism. It’s highly unlikely that Netanyahu will do anything at the Wall to upset the religious parties that make up his governing coalition. The non-Orthodox—who make up the overwhelming majority of American Jews—can choose to see this as one more reason to distance themselves from the Jewish state. But the reason why nothing is likely to change there tells us more about the divide between Israeli Jews and those of the Diaspora than any bad will on the part of the prime minister. The problem here is not so much prejudice against Reform and Conservative Judaism—though that exists in abundance among the Orthodox establishment in Israel—but the fact that those denominations remain tiny and without much influence in the country.

The battle over the Women of the Wall is just one more illustration of the gap between the rhetoric about Israel being the heritage of all of the Jewish people and the fact that the country is, as a matter of course, always going to be governed to suit the needs and the beliefs of those who live there.

In the United States, where the Orthodox remain a minority in the Jewish community—albeit the only one that is growing rather than shrinking in terms of population—the treatment of Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel remains a source of anger and puzzlement. To many American Jews, the fact that Reform and Conservative rabbis and congregations in Israel are not given the same support as those of the Orthodox seems to be an expression of pure bias. The relegation of the Women of the Wall to an out-of-the-way section of the Wall known as Robinson’s Arch for their prayer services is viewed as a contradiction of the country’s purpose as the homeland of all of the Jewish people.

But as much as the Reform and Conservative movements have made some strides in recent years, they remain a tiny minority in the country. It may no longer be true that, as some wags used to say, there are more Scientologists in Israel than Reform or Conservative Jews, but the same point still applies: the political constituency inside Israel for equal treatment for non-Orthodox denominations is practically non-existent.

To those who say that politics should have no role in determining decisions that ought to be made on the basis of the principles of religious freedom and pluralism, the only response is to point out that this is one point on which Israel has more in common with European democracies where there is an established religion than with the United States. In a country such as Israel where religion and state are not separated as they are in America and the clergy is paid by the state, the question of who is a rabbi is inherently political.

Though, as critics of the Orthodox establishment rightly point out, most Israelis are not observant, the vast majority still sees Orthodoxy as the only valid form of Judaism. By contrast, Reform and Conservative Judaism are viewed as foreign imports whose adherents are mostly American immigrants. There is strong support among the Israeli electorate for disestablishing or cutting back on the influence of rabbinate, but there is little interest in the question of giving equal treatment to the non-Orthodox. That is a source of understandable frustration for American Jews, but until the ranks of Conservative and Reform Judaism inside Israel swell to the point that they have some kind of political clout, no Israeli government will care much about them. This is also the reason why most Israelis either don’t care about the Women of the Wall or dismiss them as publicity-seeking Diaspora troublemakers.

The symbolism of the Wall is such that Netanyahu is right to make some sort of gesture about the issue that will calm American Jewry. The Wall ought never to have been allowed to become yet another point of contention in this manner. Letting the Orthodox authorities abuse the non-Orthodox who wish to worship there according to their own lights is a problem that can only worsen the already tattered ties between Israel and the Diaspora. But stripping it of Orthodox control simply isn’t in the cards. That doesn’t make what has happened at the Wall right, but the fact that most American Jews don’t understand why this is so just illustrates how little they know about the country. 

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