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Thursday, August 21, 2014

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Compromise or sellout at the Kotel?

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I respect Natan Sharansky. How could anyone not? He represents a generation of freedom seekers, of those who fought for their religious and ethnic freedom in the Soviet Union. He and Ida Nudel were our heroes. It seems perfectly appropriate for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to call on him to settle the longstanding confrontation between diverse groups at the Western Wall.

Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, proposed a compromise, not all the details of which are known, but there are many factors and stakeholders involved. The initial reaction is positive; it is even being hailed as a “Solomonic solution.”

To me, it feels like a sellout.

The plan calls for a third section of the Western Wall to be opened where egalitarian prayer groups might function. It would be located at the archeological site called Robinson’s Arch.  Within this new section, all pluralist forms of Jewish religious expression could be practised. The plaza area of the Kotel would be reassigned so that army ceremonies might again be held there.

The Women of the Wall (WOW) seem pleased by certain provisions of the plan. Finally someone in the government is taking their distress seriously. After many years of quiet monthly services, the situation deteriorated, and women were hassled and arrested. Anat Hoffman was strip-searched. A Jewish woman was strip-searched by Israeli police for the crime of praying with a tallit at the Western Wall!

After years of neglect and disinterest, WOW gained national and international recognition. Moreover, the prime minister appointed a serious representative to come up with a plan, and he did.

The Reform and Conservative movements in Israel have welcomed the plan, because it finally breaks the unilateral and absolute haredi Orthodox hold on all of religious practise in Israel. It is a toe-hold perhaps, but an opening nonetheless.

Even the local rabbi appointed over the heritage area, Shmuel Rabinovitz, noted that he would not oppose such a third section. In North America, there was pronounced approval from Reform and Conservative communities and also, interestingly, from modern Orthodox organizations and leaders.

If all parties agree in Israel, there will be a great easing of tension around this very visible religious site. It will look as though the Netanyahu government can settle contentious issues. It will appear that the Jewish People can agree to different practices, and the Kotel is a unifier of sorts. One national monument where diversity is respected. WOW (pun intended)!

So why do I feel like this is a sellout?

We never needed a legal case for prayer at Robinson’s Arch.  The struggle for the Kotel was specifically for women to pray with Torah, tallit and voice in the women’s section at the Kotel itself. We maintained our halachic right to pray with the rituals of our tradition, and we documented that in Jewish legal sources.

Sharansky has taken that entire encounter away. With one compromise, he has relegated us to a Conservative or Reform camp. But some of us in this pluralist group are Orthodox, and we have been compromised out. I don’t pray in a mixed community. I am Orthodox. Have I lost my place completely in WOW?

I must admit that I have not been to Israel to pray with the group since its inception. By virtue of that I have relinquished my right to complain. (I was a participant at the first women’s prayer service at the Kotel in 1988, and I supported the legal case that went to the Israeli Supreme Court, 1989-2002). But I can say that this compromise eliminates WOW’s assertion of pluralism. It eliminates the future participation of Orthodox women and any claim for halachah.

Furthermore, I don’t understand how so many modern Orthodox leaders and organizations don’t recognize this as a sellout. For me, it’s a complete abandonment of any form of Orthodoxy that is not haredi.

Reading carefully between the lines, one can see that for everyone involved, Orthodox from now on means haredi in Israel. The Orthodox will have two-thirds of the Kotel, and the rest of the Jews will have this third area, the egalitarian mixed one third. By this compromise, by hailing it and welcoming it, all these Jews have acknowledged that Orthodox means right-wing haredi. No room for women’s greater ritual participation. No room for diverse halachic interpretation. One rule – haredi Orthodoxy – to guide them all.

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