By Robert Sklar Contributing Editor
By Robert Sklar
Contributing Editor

Israeli leaders should let wisdom prevail and enforce a derailed government-approved plan to expand a separate, pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall.

Four years in the making, the contentious ritual change in Jerusalem’s Old City not only would recognize the expanding non-Orthodox presence at Judaism’s holiest site, but also would preserve Orthodox control of the traditional prayer sections there. The Wall is central to all Jews — in Israel and across the Jewish diaspora.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is supportive of the plan but hasn’t ordered its enforcement nearly a year after Cabinet approval.

The prime minister’s stonewalling of advancing expanded egalitarian prayer at the Wall, presumably in deference to opposition from Israel’s haredi Orthodox Jews, is disconcerting, to say the least.

For Netanyahu to bow to pressure from the religiously insular wing of his Cabinet is to fail the Jewish people. By any measure, we’re as religiously diverse as we are ethnically rich.

Balancing Act

DSC_0382The proposal may not be ideal, but it does accentuate the art of compromise to the longstanding divide over who is a Jew. Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and the haredi Orthodox parties linked to it oppose the plan, fearing legitimizing of Judaism’s Reform and Conservative movements.

Fuller egalitarian prayer at the Wall would be in keeping with Reform and Conservative custom yet solidify the sanctity of tradition in the area of the Wall under Orthodox purview.

The prime minister should take a cue from the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and acknowledge the “growing sense of urgency” among American Jews to see a Wall scenario that embraces “a diversity of Jewish religious practice and expression.” He was in the vanguard of creating a mixed-gender prayer space before politics intervened.

It was Netanyahu who, before a Nov. 1 board meeting of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), declared, “We are one people and we have one Wall.” He vowed to act on the stalled deal, which was struck in January.

Broad Effect

The agreement, brokered by JAFI Chairman Natan Sharansky, was negotiated by the liberal Women of the Wall, the haredi-led Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Israeli government and Israel’s Progressive (Reform) and Masorti (Conservative) streams of Judaism.

The prime minister’s stonewalling of advancing expanded egalitarian prayer at the Wall, presumably in deference to opposition from Israel’s haredi Orthodox Jews, is disconcerting.
The prime minister’s stonewalling of advancing expanded egalitarian prayer at the Wall, presumably in deference to opposition from Israel’s haredi Orthodox Jews, is disconcerting.

At stake is religious pluralism in Israel, a Jewish state by mandate with a secular government and a haredi-leaning Chief Rabbinate.

Under the agreement, an inclusive worship space to the south of the Western Wall Plaza near Robinson’s Arch would be significantly enlarged. The plan represents the ultimate compromise to a lingering dilemma dividing Israel’s haredi leadership and the Reform and Conservative movements — dominant movements in the U.S. and gaining traction in Israel.

A pluralist authority would oversee the pluralistic prayer space.

The agreement would enable the haredi leadership to retain oversight at the Orthodox section of the Wall — a tradition dating to 1968. That’s when the Ministry of Religious Affairs first erected a mechitzah, or religious barrier, there to separate men and women, taking advantage of Israel’s claim to the Wall following the Six-Day War of 1967.

The agreement fell apart when a haredi-driven petition filed in June with the Supreme Court of Israel sought a stay.  In reaction, the Women of the Wall joined with Progressive and Masorti leadership in October to petition the high court to order the government to move on the plan.

The International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF), an Orthodox rabbinical group, said the plan “can be improved upon” by demarcating a space for Orthodox women’s groups that “do not want to engage in full egalitarian prayer but do want to read from the Torah.” Still, the IRF gave its support, calling the plan “a positive step” to making the Wall “a public place where all Jews can experience the presence of the Divine according to the dictates of their conscience.”

Inflammatory Conduct

It doesn’t help that Israel’s Sephardi Orthodox Shas political party has proposed a bill that calls for fining or jailing Western Wall visitors who join in egalitarian prayer or female visitors to the Wall who wear a tallit, lay tefillin or read from the Torah.

Israel is the Jewish state — as such the ancestral homeland for all Jews. Diaspora Jews don’t control Israeli government decisions but their views should matter, especially in regard to prayer at the Wall, which is in Israel but belongs to the Jewish people. Pluralistic prayer at the Wall is a concern between the state and the Jewish people, not between the haredi and non-Orthodox Jews.

Equally unnerving is the haredi response to the Women of the Wall bringing Torah scrolls into or wearing prayer shawls at the women’s section of the traditional prayer space, against Western Wall Heritage Foundation policy. Branding those who perform the rituals “Nazis” and “whores” is abhorrent.

World Jews have more pressing themes to address than restrictive prayer at the Wall: for example, festering anti-Zionism in vast parts of the Middle East; dangerously rising anti-Jewish sentiment in the West; and a relentless bias against Israel in some corridors of the United Nations. In Israel, high domestic housing and food prices and a host of religious lifecycle issues also must be addressed.

So the quicker striking a balance to the ideological dispute at the Wall is achieved — in effect, securing Orthodox tradition without shunning non-Orthodox beliefs — the better. It’s unfortunate the public and legal struggle must drag on because a faction that helped draft the promising agreement reneged on backing it.

There’s no perfect solution to the religious rift at the Western Wall, but the status quo clearly isn’t the way forward.

Here’s hoping Israel cultivates a political environment to tweak the Sharansky-brokered plan and usher it into law — quickly — so it doesn’t die on the vine of Jewish infighting.