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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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,