Rabbi Uri Regev responds to “How to Finally Get Egalitarian Prayer at the Western Wall” (Tablet Magazine – Nov. 22., 2016)

Liel Leibovitz’s “How to Finally Get Egalitarian Prayer at the Western Wall” can be found HERE.

Rabbi Uri Regev’s response follows below:

Rabbi Uri Regev, Hiddush President and CEO; Executive Committee, Rabbis for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel

Rabbi Uri Regev, Hiddush President and CEO; Executive Committee, Rabbis for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel

As  Liel Leibowitz (LL) suggests, the non-Orthodox movements should broaden their appeal and avoid unnecessary conflicts. Nevertheless, I have strong reservations as to the specifics of LL’s perspective on what is “unnecessary conflict” and *who* the appeal should be broadened to include. I fear that LL, in as much as his credentials are impressive, may not be as authoritative on the relevant questions involving the Kotel controversy and the politics of religion & state in Israel, as he assumes in prescribing to the non-Orthodox movements how they should conduct their affairs.

LL suggests that the impasse over the Western Wall Agreement (WWA) was generated by the Nov. 2 demonstration by liberal North American rabbis, but this had very little to do with it. The impasse was ironically precipitated in party by the victorious Torah service at the Wall celebrated on February 25 during the CCAR (American Reform Judaism’s rabbinic umbrella) convention in Israel, which, by chance or Divine providence, took place shortly after the WWA was announced. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox leadership dug its feet into the ground at that point, and demanded that PM Netanyahu not implement the agreement. This was not a regular case of slow-paced Israeli decision making. Rather, the WWA was an exceptional case of an agreement slow in the making (more than 3 years of intensive deliberations), which received tacit endorsement from the political leadership of the Haredi parties, as well as the Rabbi of the Western Wall. It was achieved because it was viewed by the Haredi operatives as the lesser of all evils. What neither they nor the PM took into consideration was the extent to which this agreement would play into the hands of disgruntled Haredi rabbinic leaders in both the Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities who were looking for an opportunity to challenge the movements’ leadership, as well as the sensationalist urges of some key Haredi media outlets that refused to hold their peace in the face of an agreement.

While LL probably does have experience with “buearucratic Israel,” as he claims, this conflict has nothing to do with that, but rather with a theological conflict, which can only be won by “hard-sell tactics,” which LL objects to.

The more than 3 years of negotiations factored in all the normal measures of bureaucracy and more. We are left with an unfortunate arm wrestling between both Ashkenazi and Sephardi leadership who abhor non-Orthodox Judaism, and view it in Satan-like terms. Having publicly committed themselves to prevent even the slightest measure of State recognition of the non-Orthodox movements’ legitimacy, they are therefore (being pushed by their own grassroots vengeful rabbinic figures and) going back on their initial tacit consent by threatening the PM with the potential demise of his Government.

In the face of this kind of confrontation, no gentle touch will do the trick. Behind the scenes renegotiation will only result in further delay that will last as long as the non-Orthodox movements and their allies refrain from the “hard-sell tactics” that LL warns against.

None of this is intended to challenge the good will and sincere intentions of PM Netanyahu. I believe he genuinely wished to reach a compromise, and he sincerely desires to implement it. To his credit, one should add that he was the only PM to have open high level negotiations with the non-Orthodox movements of American Jewry over the primary bone of contention between the two communities – namely, “who is a Jew.” While Labor-led governments may have been more sympathetic towards liberal Judaism, they nevertheless refrained from creating the likes of the Ne’eman commission, which Netanyahu appointed to seek a solution to the conflict.

If Netanyahu is halting the implementation of the WWA, it is because its foes have put him on notice; as Rabbi Wernick noted, this is about Netanyahu not being willing to “risk the coalition over these issues.”

Frankly, unless the Haredi parties are bluffing (which they very well may be, given their State funding, governmental portfolios, and battalions of political appointees), one should realize how unlikely it is for Netanyahu to give up his government coalition over the symbolic Western Wall battle.

One possibility for non-Orthodox Judaism, along the lines LL suggests (to “broaden their appeal”), is to pressure the Labor and Yesh Atid parties as well as Netanyhu to consider establishing a civil Government Coalition, excluding the Haredi if they disband the Government. This would go a long way to addressing the unholy alliance of religion & politics in Israel, not only regarding the Kotel, but a whole array of truly critical issues involving the right to family, security, the economy, gender equality and much more. This is something a large majority of the Israeli public strongly favors – a civil government without the Haredi parties’ extortionist practices.

LL seems to omit one crucial factor regarding Israeli public opinion. He chooses to quote an Israeli official, with an implied endorsement to his views, as to the non-Orthodox movements being either clueless about Israeli politics or consciously sabotaging a resolution – or both. Readers may not be aware of the fact that such statements by Israeli officials often have very little to do with reality on the ground, and are primarily aimed at intimidating or de-legitimizing challengers to the Israeli political establishment. This Israeli official was engaged first and foremost in self-serving rhetoric, whereas the consistent truth regarding the Israeli Jewish public is that by an overwhelming majority, it rejects all aspects of the Haredi demands and pressures, opposes the Governmental policies on relgion & state, supports the views of the non-Orthodox movements regarding religious freedom & equality, and supports the Kotel compromise.

The Prime Minister and other political figures are pushing the non-Orthodox movements to keep quiet and have patience. This is not intended to help implement the agreement, but rather to get the non-Orthodox movements’ public pressure off their backs. The aim is not to reach a satisfactory resolution, but rather to gain time and refrain from upsetting the Haredi leadership. The negotiations will last as long as the non-Orthodox movements are willing to keep their peace. No resolution will be forthcoming without real pressure.

I, like LL, am very concerned about the growing rift between Israel and American Jewry. This threat is greater than the Kotel controversy and will not be healed merely by reaching a new compromise over the prayer arrangements. For as long as the majority of the children growing up in the American Jewish community today would not be treated as full Jews by the State of Israel (i.e. would not be able to legally get married in Israel due to the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over Jewish marriage), Netanyahu’s publicly proclaimed promise that he “will always ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel — Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews” will not be realized. The WWA is simply not enough to make that larger looming issue go away.

Lastly, while the challenge of worship freedom on top of the Temple Mount and at the bottom of the Temple Mount (i.e. at the Western Wall) are seemingly analogous, as LL suggests, they are worlds apart in reality. LL is right that freedom of worship should be supported regardless of whose freedom it is and where the worship takes place, but his analogy is unfortunate because whereas prayer on top of the Temple Mount is faced with serious security challenges, which go way beyond the limited question of freedom of worship, the challenge to prayer at the Western Wall raises no security question. Rather, it’s simply about a particular Jewish group that hates the non-Orthodox movements and the Women of the Wall, to the point of abusing the power invested in it to ban worship of a manner that is not prescribed by the Chief Rabbinate… even though this is in accordance with the way the majority of world Jews consider acceptable and legitimate.

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