My initial reaction to the latest move in the ongoing conflict over the Western Wall resembled Jonathan’s: I thought the new platform erected at the Robinson’s Arch section of the Wall was an asinine decision which, however well-intentioned, would only upset large swathes of American Jewry. But my view changed after reading this Jerusalem Post column by Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, who serves as executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis.
What Schonfeld explained is that Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett was trying–with some success, in her view–to address the real needs of real-life Conservative and Reform Israelis. And what she understood is something too many American Jews fail to understand: that Israel is a real-world country with real-world constraints, not a fantasyland where ideal solutions can be magically implemented overnight. Thus in trying to bridge the gap between these citizens’ real needs and the country’s real constraints, modest steps that can be implemented quickly are often better than doing nothing, even if they don’t provide an ideal solution.
Schonfeld was quite clear that the new platform wouldn’t satisfy her if that were the government’s final offer. But as an interim solution–which is how Bennett explicitly defined it–she deemed it a major step forward. Though the Sharansky plan, which involves developing the Robinson’s Arch site more fully into a coequal extension of the existing Western Wall Plaza, might be preferable, she recognizes that such a major project would take years to complete (if it happens at all). Meanwhile, there are real Israeli Jews with real needs that have to be taken care of–and Bennett was trying to address those needs within the limits of what could be done right now, in time for next week’s Rosh Hashanah holiday.
As Schonfeld explained, Masorti Jews (the Israeli branch of the Conservative movement) have been quietly holding egalitarian prayer services at Robinson’s Arch for 12 years. But until now, they had no permanent place of worship there, so holding services meant “carrying prayer books, tables and Torah scrolls in and out of the site on their backs without cover from rain or sun.” Now, they will at least have a permanent site with its own ark, Torah scrolls and prayer books, one that can accommodate a sizable number of people. As she put it, “With the government’s construction of this platform, 450 egalitarian worshippers will now be able to pray comfortably at one time in several minyanim.” That’s a real improvement for the real Masorti Jews living in Israel, and consequently, Schonfeld welcomed it, even though she still hopes for additional progress in the future.
As religious services minister, that’s exactly what Bennett is supposed to do: address the real religious needs of real Israelis as best he can within the constraints of what can realistically be done quickly at one of the world’s holiest and most sensitive sites. Perhaps he could have done a better job explaining himself to Americans. But if American Jews find a genuine effort to help real live Masorti Jews objectionable, it may be because, as I’ve written before, too many of them still have trouble accepting a flesh-and-blood state with all its inherent constraints and flaws, rather than the utopia of their dreams, which no real state could ever be.