This month both Reform and Conservative communities rejoiced at the announced Israeli decision to transform conditions at the Western Wall.
Israeli and diaspora Jews have been seeking accommodations from entrenched rabbinic authorities for their distinct forms of liturgical and ritual activities. These plans for a pluralist prayer location appear to allow for something other than the strict interpretation of Judaism that has been practiced by the Orthodox rabbinate of Israel until now. Or that is the presumed claim.
I, and my group – Original Women of the Wall – are opposed to this compromise. Previously in this column I described my reasons for opposing Anat Hoffman’s representation of WOW, and her conflict of interest as an employee of the Reform movement. Today I want to address the issue of the Kotel itself.
The Kotel is a national shrine in Israel. It belongs to the entire Jewish nation, not to any one sector or denomination. In the past, before 1948, individual Jews came to pray, to present themselves and their needs before God in a place they considered holy; a place sanctified by tradition and history. They stood side-by-side, men and women. It was never a synagogue, never a place of communal prayer.
After the Six Day War all that changed. Israel declared it a national heritage site. As such it was placed under the directorship of a man who was appointed administrator, not a rabbi of a synagogue. Regrettably, this new compromise reduces it to just another haredi synagogue. The administrator now becomes an Orthodox rabbi in charge, able to restrict all who appear, even to deny Jews such as myself from wearing a tallit or lighting Chanukah candles there.
By accepting this plan Israelis are not increasing pluralism, just decreasing shared spaces. The Benjamin Netanyahu government is in fact legitimizing the rabbinate’s overextension of authority. How can that be considered a victory for pluralism?
Along with many of you, in kindergarten, I learned the lessons of sharing. We entered a space such as the sandbox and were taught that we could not take all the toys or build all the sandcastles. We had to let others have some of the pails and shovels. Other children needed to build sandcastles. Sharing was fair and might even be fun. We could learn from others. But most importantly, it was right, just and the only way to live in a joint space.
How then, do we not impose that lesson on this “compromise”? How can the ultra-Orthodox community escape the aspiration of shared space or fairness because of their claim of traditionalism? Do they hold all the cards?
I think not. It is time we recall that they are not the only ones in the sandbox. It is time we acknowledge they are not the only inheritors of our tradition. In fact, we can argue within the Halachah that there are divergent interpretations of Torah. Israel is a democracy and its sacred spaces belong to all Jews. Many, including Orthodox rabbis, have opposed the compromise, oppose changing the status of the Kotel and its heritage status.
Significantly, Robinson’s Arch is not a Kotel. Should a space be used that will destroy an archeological site? Or possibly upset a political balance with Jordan or the Waqf (Muslim religious authority)? What is this decision going to accomplish? Who is benefiting? How much money will it cost? The haredim will be happy to see “others” gone: for them the Arch is figuratively the “back of the bus”! The Kotel is truly the space sacred to all: to be shared by all.
It is incumbent on the government to stand with its own legal tradition and not allow the heritage site of the Kotel to be dismantled. It is incumbent on the government of Israel to promote its own legislative and democratic principles.