I believe it is unfair to claim that Jews of the Diaspora have developed an obsession for the Kotel, the Western Wall, as Peter Joseph stated in his article in The Forward. Love of the Kotel has been a carefully cultivated interest and passion fostered by Jewish leaders for centuries in order to keep our people connected with the only remaining remnant of the structure that surrounded the hill on which the Holy Temple stood in ancient times. Prior to the founding of the Modern State of Israel, the Kotel was known as the Wailing Wall. After the Wall became part of Israel during the Six Day War, its name was intentionally changed to Western Wall in order to continue to inculcate the strong connection to the Wall among Jews both in Israel and in the Diaspora.
Even today, the Kotel is precious to millions of Israeli Jews, in particular, those who embrace an Orthodox Zionist or Haredi lifestyle. Tragically, many such Jews not only love the Kotel and visit often, but they also viciously harass Women of the Wall and Reform, Conservative and other Jews who visit the Kotel to pray and connect each in their own way. See, for example, the school girls who blocked a busload of Women of the Wall worshipers while flipping them the bird on Rosh Hodesh Shevat. (http://mailchi.mp/womenofthewall/women-of-the-wall3-2689098?e=d504ecbfb3)
I believe Joseph is right that there is also a preponderance of Israelis who do not care about the Kotel and it is also true that these tend to be the very Israelis who are struggling with not being able to marry in their own homeland. I believe, however, that the problem is one of perception and not reality. Modern non-Orthodox Israelis have lost the connection that previous generations had with the Kotel because the Kotel no longer provides a venue where children and teens can visit during school-based field trips because secular educators feel uncomfortable bringing their classes to a place where boys and girls must gather separately and everyone must cover up in ways that are foreign to them. Not only do school children miss the age-old opportunity to visit the Kotel, but non-Orthodox families visiting Jerusalem also tend to avoid the Kotel because they also do not feel safe in a gender-separated environment where their clothing and lifestyle are shunned.
Were the Kotel compromise to have been implemented, there could be a new atmosphere fostered by a single unified entrance and signs that tout both gender separation and egalitarian worship as though these two venues were each facets of the same faith, which they actually are. It is this very diversity and the accompanying empowerment of those who practice non-Orthodox forms of Judaism side by side with the continuing empowerment of those who practice Orthodox and Haredi forms of Judaism that would help to heal the rift and allow non-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox Jews to return to the Kotel in safety as they refine and redefined their connection to the site.
I fear that the divide between Israeli Jews and North American Jews is a divide being fostered by those who wish to insist that they are right. The fact is, however, that no one is right and yet everyone is right. Haredim are right that there must be a place at the Kotel for gender separate worship, including a space where women may pray alone and in silence or low voice. Egalitarian Jews are also right that there must be a place at the Kotel for people of all genders to pray together. North American Jews are right that when they visit Israel, they are entitled to visit the Kotel in safety and with women being allowed to wear tallitot and tefillin and read from Torah scrolls just as men do.
Telling people that they are wrong has never been good for retail sales. Tourists are not going to flock to Israel and spend their money there because we tell them that the tourist view of Israel is flat out wrong and they should worry instead about the needs and sensibilities of the natives. Instead of telling North American Jews to mind Israel’s business by trying to get into the Israeli Jewish headspace, why not tell North American Jews to “come as you are, be Jewish the way you are and while you are there, hang out with Israelis and see what it’s like to live in our Jewish homeland.”
Israel is a nation of strong vibrant contributors in many fields, including science and agriculture. A procedure honed at Rambam Hospital in Haifa helps people with Parkinson’s to overcome tremors. Kibbutz Yotvata enjoys lower temperatures and higher humidity than its Negev surroundings through agricultural techniques that help the desert to bloom. Yet despite the excelling of Israelis in the fields of science and agriculture, Haredi public schools do not teach science to boys. It is a well-known fact that the Rambam, Maimonides, whose teachings are basic to modern Judaism, was himself a physician. It is noteworthy, however, that science is not denied to Haredi boys in order to keep them from being like the Rambam. Rather, they are denied science in order to keep them focused on the Haredi lifestyle.
When tour groups start learning about the Haifa based procedure that cures tremors and the southern Kibbutzim that keep the desert blooming together with the plight of Israeli citizens who must leave their homeland to get married or who live together and raise children without being able to marry, then, and only then, will we start to develop a common language among Israeli and Diaspora Jews of non-Orthodox persuasions.
Haredim are already sharing their ideas and realities across the Israel-Diaspora divide. It is high time that Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and secular Jews do the same. Developing connections between like-minded and similarly-practicing Israelis and Diaspora Jews will be good for Israel because it will increase the possibility that Israel will have strong Jewish allies in the Diaspora for hundreds of years to come. It will also be good for Diaspora Jews to feel assured that in 50, 100 and 500 years from now, their descendants will still be considered Jews under the Law of Return so they can make Aliya if they wish, or if, heaven forbid, their Diaspora surroundings require them to flee.
A fine education must be available for all Israelis regardless of whether they are Jewish or of another faith or of no identified faith. Among Haredi Jews, a fine education that includes math, science and technology might also turn out to produce future Talmudists and Chassidic thinkers who will do their people proud. As we have seen, however, we cannot legislate this into reality as evidenced by the fact that newly approved legislation requiring math and science in Haredi schools for boys was overturned as soon as Haredi parties returned to the government coalition. Other methods must be found. I do not know what those other methods might be, but if we open to the notion of welcoming all Jews to the conversation together with their values and interests in tact, rather than telling large swaths of the Jewish world that their values and interests are wrong because they care about the Kotel and not the lack of freedom to marry, we might just find that Jews in Israel and the Diaspora will come up with the answers and implement them before our very eyes.
What if the tour of the Parkinson treatment center at Rambam Hospital was accompanied by a Herzl-type “im tirtzu ein zu agaddah,” “if you will it, it is not a dream” speech telling tourists that just as scientists found this miracle cure to eradicate tremors, so Israel must find miraculously ingenious ways to evolve Judaism under the careful scholarship of future Rambams who parse Jewish law and values in accordance with science, mathematics and halacha. As James Bond says, “never say never.” It could happen and we can be part of hastening its arrival by doing just what we are doing now, but with a positive spin such as the one offered by the Bat Kol, the feminine mystical voice, that announced to the divergent Schools of Hillel and Shammai, “these and these are the words of the Living God.”
*Rabbi Pam Frydman is Chair of Ruach Hiddush, Rabbis and Cantors for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel. Pam writes, “I dedicate this article to my friend and teacher Rabbi Uri Regev who is a shining example of how to walk our talk and talk our walk, and with gratitude to Rabba Sara Hurwitz who points out that needing to be right stands in the way seeing from the point of view of the other, and to Rabbi Les Bronstein, Rabbi Marcia Prager and Rabbi Simkha Weintraub whose commitment to a Jewishly diverse Israel and Clal Yisrael are breathtaking.
Criticism of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate is nothing new. It has often been voiced in the RRFEI newsletter and resources, as well as in Hiddush’s materials. It covers a myriad of issues, which in recent years include its delegitimization of Modern Orthodox attempts at addressing the Rabbinate’s failures in the areas of conversion and kashrut certification.
Developments in the last few days regarding the Kotel controversy bring me to focus again on the Chief Rabbinate, pointing to the fact that the institution itself stands in sheer conflict with the notions of democracy and the rule of law in Israel, as well as the realities and interests of the Jewish people worldwide. A lengthy document presented by the Chief Rabbinate this week manifests a real threat to the State of Israel and the Jewish people, which is frequently underestimated and misunderstood by both Israelis and Diaspora Jewish leadership.
For the benefit of RRFEI members, the original 13 page document submitted by Chief Rabbi Lau’s team, in Hebrew, can be download HERE. The document is intended for public consumption and was presented at a Knesset hearing. It is presents the Chief Rabbinate’s position on the pending Supreme Court case regarding the Kotel and the demand that the Rabbinate be allowed independent representation before the Supreme Court, rather than be represented by the Israeli AG who represents all agencies of the state.
In assessing the threat emanating from the Chief Rabbinate, beyond its attempt to dictate norms of worship for all Jews at national sites like the Kotel, one should only look at the Rabbinate’s recent initiative to establish a global ‘Jewish lineage’ database (already in motion, funded by the State of Israel) and Chief Rabbi Yosef’s public lashing out at Rabbi Dweck in London, who dared to present the complexity of Orthodox attitudes towards homosexuality and the need for sensitivity and embracing of homosexuals. Chief Rabbi Yosef came out with a public pronouncement, declaring that he is “amazed and angry at the words of nonsense and heresy that were said about the foundations of our faith in our Torah.”
The selection of quotes below from the Rabbinate’s lengthy document will illustrate the wide chasm between its views and those associated with a democratic society. I dare say that no RRFEI members would tolerate the mindset and demands of the Rabbinate, if they were made in the USA or elsewhere. As you also know from Hiddush’s systematic public opinion polling, Israelis don’t endorse this outlook either; the lack of political backlash can only be explained by the cynicism and utilitarianism of Israel’s political infrastructure, as opposed to the public will.
The above quotes are both a grievous misperception of the Chief Rabbinate’s authorities, reflecting a disregard for the law and the State authorities and perception of itself as standing above the law and the government. This document misrepresents past Supreme Court rulings, and forces Israel to move further and further (if the Chief Rabbinate’s position prevails) onto a collision course with world Jewry.
To begin with, the Chief Rabbinate has never had any authority over the Southern part of the Western Wall, beyond the Mughrabi Bridge known as the Robinson’s Arch area. It functioned as an archaeological garden under the antiquities authority, and was not used for regular worship until parts of it were designated for egalitarian worship and later recommended as a solution for the challenge posed by the Women of the Wall. The Chief Rabbinate never really claimed any authority or interest in this area, and its recent outburst has little to do with the sanctity of the Wall, but rather their desire to exclude both non-Orthodox and women’s minyanim. Therefore, the maps that define the boundaries of the Wall, attached to the official rules of conduct, only ever covered the traditional area known as the Wall.
As to the latter – if the Chief Rabbinate comes to be accepted as the highest religious authority for all Jews in Israel, and is guided by the view that ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ Jewish groups around the world are heretical, disconnected from Judaism, and their practices constitute desecration of holy places… then obviously, the result would be that the State of Israel will maintain that the overwhelming majority of world Jewry, which absent of religious coercion freely chooses to associate with non-Orthodox Jewish religious streams, are illegitimate, should be barred from Israel’s Jewish religious sites, and should be viewed with disdain and rejected. This conclusion, if the Rabbinate is not stopped, is an imminent threat to the future of Israel-Diaspora relations, in which the Kotel is merely a token reflection.
However, what should be emphasized by Diaspora Jewish leadership to Israel’s political leadership is that not only is the Rabbinate’s misrepresentation of world Jewry and contemporary Judaism offensive and anachronistic, but it is an expression of undue self-aggrandizement, which has no basis, even in Israeli law.
The Rabbinate’s quotes regarding its being the ‘highest halakhic authority in the State’ and ‘religious state authority of all Jews’ are taken out of context, representing only the view of a single (Orthodox) Justice on the panels that heard the cases, and are an ‘obiter dictum’. As a matter of fact, the law governing the operations of the Chief Rabbis and the Chief Rabbinical Council is very specific, and it does not crown any of them ‘the highest halakhic authority in the State’. Rather, in halakhic matters, the law describes their role as ‘providing responsa and opinions in halakhic matters for those who seek their advice.’
Similarly, their implied assault on the Supreme Court and the Government shows a misunderstanding of the Rabbinate’s true role and its relationship with the judicial, the executive, and the legislative branches of government. The Chief Rabbinate, as such, has no existence and no authority outside the scope of the law, which created the institution and defines its authorities. Clearly, in every other democracy, individual rabbis and rabbinic leaders gain trust and following by virtue of voluntary choice and association. That is how the role of the rabbi ought to be in a democratic society. The anomaly of an official state Rabbinate is not only a departure from Jewish tradition, but it is therefore confined and limited to the authorities and powers granted it by the state.
The laws cited by the Rabbinate regarding ‘desecration’ are actually intended to ensure access for all members of all religions to their sacred sites, as well as to ensure that they be respected. The pretentious view of the Rabbinate that they can define what constitutes ‘desecration of a holy place’ clashes with Israel’s own foundational promise of freedom of religion and conscience for all. Moreover, in the Supreme Court ruling on the 1989 petition regarding the Kotel, it was only the Orthodox Justice Elon who held that the ‘custom of the place’ should be interpreted as the manner of worship customary in Orthodox synagogues. The majority of Justices held that there is no necessity to interpret the ‘custom of the place’ according to Orthodox halakha.
The Rabbinate claims that no state authority has the right to regulate the administration of holy Jewish places, and that such a decision, whether made by the government or by the Minister of religious services, are outside their authority and constitute trespassing. The law they misquote and misinterpret regarding the protection of the holy places says in Article 4: “The Minister of Religious Services is in charge of the implementation of this law, and he MAY, after consulting representatives of the religions involved or according to their proposal, and with the consent of the Minister of Justice, establish regulations as to the execution of the law.” Thus, the authority is vested in the hands of the civil Minister of Religious Services and requires the consent of the Minister of Justice. The representatives of the different religions, including the Chief Rabbis, according to the law, should be consulted, but in no way is the Minister limited by them. That is the proper of authority in a normal state that upholds the rule of law, but as far as the Rabbinate is concerned, it is neither of significance, nor is it binding.
It was reported that the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Knesset factions – Rabbis Deri, Litzman and Gafni held a phone consultation with the Chief Rabbis of Israel who “instructed them that they may not agree to the compromise proposed by PM Netanyahu to suspend the implementation of the Kotel compromise, and that they must demand the revocation of the compromise in a formal governmental resolution.” Clearly, not only do the Chief Rabbis understand their limited authorities, but they feel that it is appropriate for them to instruct political functionaries on how to act. While Hiddush does not advocate the American model of separation of religion and state, clearly the Chief Rabbis giving instructions to Ministers and Knesset Members is an unacceptable blurring of the essential boundaries of politics and religion.
A lot more could be said, quoted, and analyzed, but even these limited snippets demonstrate that regardless of one’s view of what constitutes legitimate prayer worship for Jews, the growing demands and pressures of the Chief Rabbinate pose a real threat, which requires strong counter measures, both within and outside of Israel.
Originally posted on Times of Israel blogs:
The latest escalation in the attacks upon women praying as a group at the Kotel on the second day of Rosh Hodesh Adar is as remarkable as it is perverse. Senior rabbinic figures summoned hundreds of dati leumi (religious Zionist) teenage young women from their high schools to the Wall to protect its sanctity from women performing a religious act of quiet devotion.
I don’t think this has been done before in the religious Zionist world, to set women against women, by drowning out the voice of the prayer group with their own. In the laws of prayer, we have a principle that shtai kolot lo mishtamei – 2 voices can’t be heard so that a prayer leader must be of one voice. Applied here, we can be astonished at the implication that God will hear only the protesting, bused in girls’ voices. Are not their voices also drowned out by din and roar of their own opposition?
The perversity is of course deeper. This is the month in which we follow the story of Esther who emerged to save all Jews and began with calling upon all to fast and pray. Esther is classically celebrated as performing all her daring do with great tzniut (modesty). And I’m sure that is how these young women certainly have been raised and taught. Tzniut is always understood as going beyond the notions of what body parts are to be concealed. It is an all-encompassing stance, in which one does not put themselves first or shine a light upon their own performance. No Jewish ethical system can condone this mad Purim inversion of tzniut to mean infringing upon other women’s space to intimidate, shame, or frighten. And tzniut education has never meant to cause hatred. Senior rabbinic figures who ordered these girls to perform shamelessly do not allow the same girls to costume themselves as men for Purim fun. By what right do they order their students to don “manly” garb to attack women at prayer? Shame!
And the men leading the whistles and jeers at the women at prayer, way beyond the noise they create upon hearing the name “Haman” during the Megilah reading? Aren’t they commanded with the same tzniut? Of course, and every yeshiva curriculum teaches that quality intensively. I suppose they are more interested in the quality of their gevurah (heroism). But they really need to think about this. Jewish male heroism is expressed in several ways, especially: learning intensively, working and supporting a family, defending our country in battle. If they are bothered by women praying as a group then let them go back to the Beit Midrash, join the army, or go to school and get a job. Or all of the above. At the least they should consider the fourth definition, as found in the teachings of the Rabbis: “Whoso is a Gibor (hero)? One who conquers his passion,” and recognize the not so latent sexual obsession revealed by their violent responses to women.
As an Orthodox Jew, I have prayed individually and in a minyan in a wide variety of locations – valleys and hilltops; on a New York subway car headed to Brooklyn, in which someone needed to say Kaddish; resolutely seated during Kedushah in an El Al seat even though the other 9 wanted me to stand (but our teacher the late Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach maintained that one should not stand and inconvenience the other passengers and staff). I have prayed in a few Young Israels with record ear shattering decibel chattering. All Orthodox Jews, and others, have the know-how – keep your eye on the text, and your heart fixed on God. So, young, religious Zionist women, you know better than to let your teachers force you to act in a non-tzniut fashion like bratty boys. And young men, if disturbed by the women, just calmly walk away. You don’t really want to throw a hissy fit, now do you?
Liel Leibovitz’s “How to Finally Get Egalitarian Prayer at the Western Wall” can be found HERE.
Rabbi Uri Regev’s response follows below:
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.
At the initiative of leading Israeli archaeologists that approached a ready and willing Knesset committee chair, a public hearing was held regarding the Kotel agreement from an archaeological perspective [LINK]. Early on, we assessed that the archaeological angle could indeed develop as a significant challenge to the implementation of the Kotel compromise [LINK].
While there is no consensus among archaeologists as to the extent of the potential damage that implementation would cause to this singularly precious historic site, among the opponents one may find some of Israel’s leading archaeologists. They come to the issue without religious malice, but at the same time express a strong rejection of the compromise, based on objective scientific and historical concerns. When such opponents turned to a typical ultra-Orthodox opponent to the compromise who does indeed bear religious malice towards both the Women of the Wall and the Reform and Conservative movements (and happens to chair the Knesset Education Committee [LINK], whose turf includes archaeological matters) there is little wonder that their plea is met with a full court welcome; and the deliberations of the committee result with a public appeal to the Reform and Conservative movements and the Women of the Wall.
Two additional interesting elements of the meeting are worth mentioning.
None of this is surprising, and it indicates that there is yet a turbulent path forward, in which significant circles that come from outside the pluralism debate insistently weigh in, and they play into the hands of those who never wanted to see the site turned over to the Women of the Wall and the non-Orthodox movements. At the same time, given the impediments put in the agreement’s path, this may serve as a basis for giving greater credence to the new front opened by the non-Orthodox movements, reflecting the wishes of the Women of the Wall. Namely, moving the eye of the storm back to the traditional Western Wall plaza, rather than the Robinson’s Arch section.
Originally posted in Haaretz HERE
In the last six months, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties have gone on an extremist rampage. They have infuriated Diaspora Jews in two ways: First, by blocking a compromise on non-Orthodox worship at the Western Wall; and second, by passing legislation that bars Reform and Conservative converts from using state-run ritual baths for their conversions.
There was no religious justification for either of these acts. In both cases, the purpose was simply to express scorn for Reform and Conservative Jews and to deny the two non-Orthodox movements even the slightest measure of recognition by the Jewish state.
Haredi politicians, by the way, did not hesitate to acknowledge their motivations. Moshe Gafni, a member of the United Torah Judaism Party and a font of contempt for his fellow Jews, was the sponsor of the bill restricting access to ritual baths. In the Knesset committee considering the bill, Gafni was challenged by members of the opposition who noted that immersion in ritual baths by Reform and Conservative Jews did not detract in any way from the suitability of the baths for religious use by Haredim. No one can argue that halakhah – Jewish religious law – requires barring non-Orthodox Jews from the baths.
Gafni did not deny this, and he also made no attempt to suggest that the bill in question was intended to promote the cause of Torah or advance the sacred character of Israel. The bill’s purpose, he acknowledged, was to prevent Reform Jews from making use of the ritual baths to gain “legitimacy” in Israel.
There is something sad, pathetic, and even tragic about all this. These are the actions of small men with small minds, and Diaspora Jewry looks upon such pettiness with a combination of astonishment and despair. Israel faces a multitude of problems: Her relations with the American administration are strained, terrorism is a daily threat, and Iran is spewing hatred of the Jewish state. Is it really necessary for so-called religious parties to defame the Judaism practiced by the great majority of American Jews? Might their time be better spent on making Jews more Jewish and bringing them back to Torah?
Prohibiting Jews from praying at the Western Wall or using ritual baths is bad enough, of course. But even worse is the bill now being pushed by the Haredi parties that would allow Haredi schools to eliminate virtually all secular studies from their curriculum and still receive government funding. In other words, not only do the Haredim intend to alienate the Jews of the world by deriding their Jewish practice and belief. They also intend to undermine Israel’s economy by denying ultra-Orthodox children the tools they need to function in a modern economy.
And once again, there is no religious justification for such a drastic act of ghettoization. Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik studied economics and philosophy in Berlin, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, studied mathematics and physics in Berlin and at the Sorbonne. In France today, in addition to religious studies, Haredi schools are obligated to teach the entire public school curriculum. In most communities around the world, in fact, secular authorities impose general education requirements on Haredi schools. Why should this not be the case in Israel, where 10 percent of the population is Haredi and the stakes for the economy are much higher?
To be sure, there are voices that offer a defense of the Haredi position. Evelyn Gordon, writing in Commentary, argues that there is a younger generation of Haredim that disagrees with the current, elderly rabbinic leadership and that over time will promote secular education for their children, along with traditional Torah study. Gordon makes the case that bottom-up change is always better than top-down change. Therefore, she says, it would be best not to impose a secular curriculum on Haredi schools through legislation, as was done by the last Knesset, but to allow the process to develop on its own.
Gordon is correct that younger elements of the Haredi population are more open to secular studies. But she is wrong to suggest that no legislative mandate is needed to bring about truly meaningful change. Even she admits that it would take a very long time for such change to occur, and it could be decades until younger rabbis who favor secular studies rise to positions of leadership. This means that the current law must be kept in place or a similar one enacted. Under any circumstances, abolishing requirements for secular study will be disastrous.
Top-down change is difficult, of course. But given that half of Israel’s fast-growing Haredi population remains out of the workforce, Israel does not have the luxury of waiting a quarter century for its Haredi leaders to come to their senses.
When specific requirements are considered, my own preference would be a grand bargain. For Jewish students, the task of the schools is to help Israel understand its Jewish mission. That is a complicated business, to be sure, and one that is far from defined. But the best way to get there is to pass a core curriculum law that requires Haredi children to study English, math, science, and Shakespeare, and that requires secular children to study Rambam, Shulchan Aruch, Tanach, and Buber. The goal: Serious secular studies for the Haredim and all religious children, and serious religious studies for secular children. If Israel needs a top-down approach, and she does, that’s a good place to start.
In addition, Gordon says nothing about Haredi Diaspora-bashing. World Jewry will not tolerate 25 more years of Haredi-led public attacks. If the ultra-Orthodox do not like Reform and Conservative Jews, that is their business, but the Knesset must not be the instrument that Haredim use to pour out abuse on Israel’s most devoted supporters. Prime Minister Netanyahu, are you listening?
Originally posted on Rabbi John Rosove’s Jewish Journal blog HERE
Eight months ago, following two years of intense negotiations between representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements, the North American Jewish Federations, Women of the Wall, and the Ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbi of the Wall, an agreement was reached to create an independent egalitarian prayer space in the Southern Kotel Plaza.
The agreement stipulated that this plaza would be designed by a leading world architect and would be equivalent in size to the traditional Northern Kotel Plaza. The liberal streams and Women of the Wall would control and oversee how prayer services would be conducted without interference from the Ultra-Orthodox or Chief Rabbi of the Wall. A common entrance to the plaza would be shared by all worshipers with equal sight lines to the Northern and Southern Plazas.
Right-wing ultra-Orthodox extremist rabbis and their communities have risen up in protest using incendiary rhetoric and threats.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, though stating that the entirety of the Jewish people must feel “at home” in Israel and at our holy sites, has back-pedaled and sought to reopen negotiations that would effectively kill the original agreement. Our leadership has told him that a deal is a deal and that any change now is unacceptable.
The Prime Minister is fearful of losing the ultra-Orthodox parties in his government and being forced either to form a new government or to call new elections. There are times, and this is one of those times, that the best interests of the Jewish people are more important than cow-towing to an extremist minority.
Our movement leadership, frustrated by the Prime Minister’s and government’s inaction, has decided to take this matter to the Israeli High Court.
In the meantime and until the egalitarian plaza can be built, the liberal coalition will conduct prayer services in the large Kotel Plaza. Our leadership this week warned the Prime Minister that we fear violence against us by the ultra-Orthodox. In a letter to the Prime Minister, the liberal coalition stated:
“We expect that the police will protect us as we exercise our legal rights, and we are stating plainly that absent a clear and a strong response, the current wave of incitement and violence might lead to bloodshed, as seen in the streets of Jerusalem during last year’s Pride parade…” At the Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem last year, 16-year-old Shira Banki was stabbed to death by an ultra-Orthodox Jew.” (“Reform, Conservative Leaders to Netanyahu: Incitement Against Us Could Lead to Bloodshed” – by Judy Maltz, Haaretz, July 11, 2016 – http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/1.730200):
It is time for Prime Minister Netanyahu to fulfill his pledge to world Jewry and allow the design and construction of the Southern Kotel Plaza to begin.
Note: I serve as National Chair of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), the Zionist arm of the American Reform movement representing 1.5 million American Jews.
When Rav Amar, the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, pushed his way into the egalitarian section by Robinson’s Arch, he also spoke out about Conservative and Reform Jews being ‘Reshai’im’ (evil ones). Yet the Talmud defines a Rasha as one who says ‘what is mine is mine and what is yours is mine.’ Apparently this is the thinking of Rav Amar with regard to the Kotel. On January 31, 2016, the government signed an agreement with us regarding the egalitarian section. The government has failed to implement the agreement. So we are now demanding that if an egalitarian section is not created in keeping with the agreement, then we are entitled to a third prayer area in the main section of the Kotel. What happened on June 16, 2016 in the Kotel Plaza sends a message to the Prime Minister that he must respect his agreements with us, that he cannot continue to deny us and give in to the Zealously Orthodox.
Click HERE for the RRFEI bulletin: 'Reform and Conservative Movements write the Police Inspector General'
The government spent three years negotiating a Kotel compromise that includes building a dignified worship space at the Kotel (Western Wall) for mixed gender egalitarian prayer. Jerusalem’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar appears to view the Kotel compromise as a form of encroachment on Orthodox and Haredi turf and he is fighting against it with all his might. Perhaps he is opposed to the compromise simply because it includes constructing a dignified egalitarian plaza. Perhaps it is because there will be one unified entrance through which tourist and regulars will enter the Kotel area and proceed to either egalitarian or gender divided prayer spaces. Perhaps it is because leaders of the Reform and Conservative Movements and Women of the Wall will have seats on a Kotel governing body. Perhaps it is for a combination of these and other reasons.
In February 2016, a month after the cabinet approved implementation of the Kotel compromise, Rabbi Amar gave an interview on Kol Hai radio during which he criticized aging Haredi leaders for supporting the compromise. Rabbi Amar went so far as to imply that these Haredi leader lack intellectual competence.
In June 2016, Rabbi Amar stooped to a new low, desecrating the present egalitarian platform by using it to incite hatred against non-Orthodox observant Jews. On June 14, 2015, Rabbi Amar went to the platform with a group of supporters, installed a mehitza and davvened shacharit. Then Rabbi Amar gave an emotional talk decrying Reform and Conservative Judaism in general and mixed gender worship and the Kotel compromise in particular. While making his way from the platform to the street, Rabbi Amar muttered a prayer asking God to bring these “evil ones” back to Judaism.
As we know, Mishna Avot (5:10) defines a “rasha” (evil one) as one who says “what is mine is mine and what is yours is mine.” Oddly enough, Rav Amar declared Conservative and Reform Jews to be reshai’im at the very moment that he himself was engaging declaring “what is yours is mine” by taking over and inciting hatred in and from the egalitarian section at the Kotel.
The Reform and Conservative Movements responded by holding an egalitarian mincha in the Main Plaza two days later, on June 16, 2016. The egalitarian service was held in an open area behind the gender separated men’s and women’s prayer areas. Hundreds of Yeshiva students were sent by their rabbis to protest. The students protesters attacked and harassed the four hundred egalitarian worshipers by shouting, blowing shrill whistles continuously, cursing, spitting, and throwing water bottles.
A small number of border guards were stationed between the worshipers and the protesters. The guards became overwhelmed and did not protect the worshipers. To make matters worse, police stationed nearby looked on and did nothing.
For me, the saddest part of this entire affair is that Reform, Conservative and other egalitarian Jews were treated by police as a population unworthy of basic protections and yeshiva students were treated as though they are above the law. As if that were not enough, the government has been silent in the aftermath. As of this writing, there has been no apology and no promise by the Prime Minister, the Chief of Police or anyone else to do better in the future to protect egalitarian worshipers at the Kotel and to inform Haredi protestors that harming worshipers and visitors to the Kotel is against the law. We call upon the Prime Minister and the Chief of Police to rectify this situation going forward.
Click HERE for the RRFEI bulletin: 'Reform and Conservative Movements write the Police Inspector General'
Click HERE for the original Hebrew version of the letter below
14 Sivan 5776, 20 June 2016
Chief of Staff Ronnie Alshich
Israel Police Inspector General
Via Bar Lev 1 Jerusalem
Re : Insufficient police preparations for egalitarian mincha prayers at the Western Wall
We are writing to alert the Police regarding serious deficiencies that occurred last Thursday, 10 Sivan 5776, 16 June 2016) at the Western Wall while the Masorti (Conservative) and Reform Movements were holding an egalitarian mincha service in the public plaza.
We did not veil our intention to gather at the Western Wall nor did we veil our intention to exercise our right to pray there. In an attempt to prevent our worship, the Minister of Religious Affairs asked the office of the Legal Advisor to look into whether our worship could be prevented, but, as expected, the Legal Advisor informed him that there were no grounds for preventing the service from taking place in the main plaza. A petition was submitted to the Supreme Court in this matter on behalf of the Association of ‘Justice’ and that petition was also rejected. The police were aware of all of these realities, and to remove any doubt (about whether the police were aware of these realities), Masorti Movement Chair Attorney Yizhar Hess (undersigned) phoned Police David Commander Doron Turgeman to update him regarding the planned worship, and they had a substantive conversation.
Our worship included approximately 400 men and women from all over the country. The protesters included approximately 120 yeshiva students. The students rioted. They shouted, blew whistles, cursed, spat, and threw water bottles. At moments, the riot erupted into serious violence, including punching and throwing stones. There was also an obscene act (in which someone cupped the buttocks of a female worshipper who is part of the military preparatory program). The event videos and media reports in Israel and abroad depict an atmosphere of worsening violence.
It was certainly possible to anticipate that tempers would flare. We were, therefore, shocked at the lack of sufficient police presence and the lack of police capacity. The police forces dispatched a small number of border guards — deaf individuals not in uniform — tasked with separating the factions. They tried, without success, to prevent the Ultra-Orthodox students from harming the worshippers. There were many police officers in the vicinity, but they did not intervene; they did nothing. It was as if there was a message that if worshipers wish to exercise their legal right to pray in egalitarian fashion without a mehitza, they will be punished for doing so. Please note that this was one-sided violence. There could have been, God forbid, serious casualties, although there were, in fact, only light injuries. The Israeli police must prepare accordingly, and not stand idly by when emotions flare.
This constitutes a serious operational failure, and perhaps even a basic flaw in understanding the role of the police. It is the duty of the police to protect the beleaguered and maintain public order. In this instance, the police did neither. This is particularly noteworthy in view of the fact that just two days earlier, the police allowed Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar to engage in a prayer of defiance by placing a mehitza in Ezrat Yisrael (the section designated for egalitarian worship) and conducting morning prayers there.
Honorable Police Commissioner, we ask you to please investigate the incident to ensure that deficits of this kind do not recur. We are law-abiding. In the coming months we plan to hold regular egalitarian worship in the public plaza at the Western Wall. We expect that the Israeli police will stand guard to avoid anything happening to worshipers who wish to enjoy the freedom of worship to which they are entitled to by law, and in accordance with case law and the spirit of the law.
|Yizhar Hess, Attorney at Law
Executive Director of the
Masorti (Conservative) Movement
|Rabbi Gilad Kariv, Attorney at Law
Executive Director of the
cc: Avichai Mandelblit, Attorney at Law, State Attorney General