The monthly ritual at the Western Wall has now become a melodrama of political theatre. The Women of the Wall bring prayer shawls, some bring tfillin, to their court-designated location at the Western Wall for the prayers ushering in the new month. But the women are prohibited – by a decision of the rabbinic establishment and sanctioned by the Israeli Supreme Court – from wearing prayer shawls, for the shawl is considered by that rabbinic establishment to be halachically forbidden to women.
And thus, the police, some enthusiastically, some quite embarrassed, are compelled to enforce the law by confiscating the women’s prayer shawls and detaining the women intent on wearing the shawls on suspicion of “disturbing public order.”
The real underlying issue is less theological than it is political, namely, who is to set the rules for prayer and Jewish ritual congress in Israel’s public spaces.
Given the historical, religious, national and emotional significance of so many of Israel’s public spaces – especially the Western Wall – to the entirety of the Jewish People, the question can no longer be considered “merely” an internal domestic issue within Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu understands this. A public policy that does not also somehow accommodate non-Orthodox rituals of prayer at the Western Wall alienates millions of Jews who consider themselves excluded because their way in the Jewish faith is not that of Israel’s rabbinate.
Thus, he, the prime minister, last week asked Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky to find a way that does accommodate non-Orthodox prayer at the Wall.
Despite the hold on Jewish religious institutions in Israel by the haredi establishment, there are encouraging signs that changes may not be too far off. As reported in the Jerusalem Post, two leading non-haredi Orthodox rabbis have expressed support for accommodating non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall.
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, dean of the Hesder Yeshiva in Petah Tikva, told the Jerusalem Post last week that “Jerusalem is at the heart of the Jewish People, and if we want all of the Jewish People to feel connected there, then we need to find a place for all parts of the Jewish People at the Western Wall.”
Rabbi Benny Lau said the fact that only Orthodox worshippers feel at home at the Western Wall is damaging to the Jewish people and that the “sectoralization” of the site “distances other Jews from their heritage.”
As Netanyahu himself noted when he instructed Sharansky to undertake this new important task, “the Western Wall must remain a source of Jewish unity rather than division.”
The unity – not uniformity – of the Jewish People has been one of the millennial cords binding us together in common moral commitment through the long years of history. We must do our utmost to buttress that unity, not undermine it.
We commend Netanyahu for this initiative.