I shuddered in the late 60s when I read Simon Herman’s prediction that Israeli and American Jewish societies were growing apart. Now I am watching the fruition of his prediction.
Narratives matter. This weekend’s Haaretz contained an article [click here] about how the informal education system under the Natanyahu regime is purposefully teaching their right-wing political narrative in informal Jewish education: like trips and workshops.
The same forces are pushing the narrative that the only legitimate Judaism, the only traditional legitimate Jewish expression, is the Haredi version of Jewish life, without any understanding of the progress of history, and shunning the modern world around them. Their Judaism is obscurantist and anti-modern, anti-democratic, sexist and racist. That’s how the narrative is unfolding.
Earlier this week, Haaretz published an article by Eric Yoffie [click here] in which he calls us to action because now is the time. Eric opens with this statement:
“The Western Wall agreement is collapsing, and it is time for Reform and Conservative Jews and all those who care about religious freedom and gender equality in Israel to go back to the barricades.”
He is not speaking metaphorically. It’s now or never, in Rabbi Yoffie’s opinion, and we had better pressure the Netanyahu government, because the only thing that makes a difference with the current Israeli government is political pressure.
At stake is the vision of a Jewish State held by the vast majority of American Jews, and nothing less. Perhaps we don’t care about whether we can pray in our manner from our siddurim at the Kotel. Perhaps that’s not significant in people’s lives. But the larger point, our place in the mainstream of Jewish life, is critical to the future of our community and Jews worldwide.
We would like to hear your version of this narrative. What actions, in responding to Eric Yoffie, ought we undertake? What actions, launched now, might unite us and make a difference? The breakthrough achieved just a few months ago, recognizing liberal Judaism as legitimate in Israel, is being so undermined as possibly become meaningless. Or, is there another narrative developing now?
Please, send us your opinions or post them on FB at the FB group for RRFEI (Rabbis for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel) [link], or to firstname.lastname@example.org.
We look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Since last week’s bulletin, there have been a number of developments in the ultra-Orthodox political and rabbinical leadership’s battle against the implementation of the Kotel agreement, as well as their battle against the Supreme Court’s ruling to make Israel’s public mikva’ot available for non-Orthodox conversion ceremonies.
These developments reflect, in essence, an escalation in anti-Reform rhetoric and the pressure faced by Haredi politicians to withdraw their unspoken consent to the framework of the Kotel agreement. Thus, due to these increasing tensions, Israel’s political system is being pulled in opposite directions – torn between the demands of the ultra-Orthodox politicians and the consequences of reneging on the Government’s agreement with the non-Orthodox streams and Women of the Wall, not to mention reversing the Supreme Court’s ruling by legislative action.
RRFEI aims to deepen our members’ understandings of current events, and answer all of your questions and requests for additional background materials. In the meantime, we note the following developments since last week’s bulletin:
THE MIKVAH BILL
THE KOTEL AGREEMENT
Since last week’s RRFEI bulletin [link], the flames of religious detraction against the Kotel agreement have been rising. This has been covered widely in the Anglo Jewish and international media; below, RRFEI provides you with the original Hebrew pronouncements of: the Chief Rabbinate, the Ashkenazi Council of [Great] Torah Sages [link], the Sephardic Council of [Wise] Torah Sages [link], Rabbi Shlomo Amar [link] (current Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem), Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach [link] (a leading Ashkenazi Lithuanian posek), and Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron[link] (former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel).
There is no doubt that both Shas’ and UTJ’s key political leaders were involved in the Kotel agreement process and gave it their (quiet) nods, even as it was stipulated that they would vote against it (knowing that their nays would be in the minority). They did not anticipate the extent to which the ultra-Orthodox media would drum up resistance and anger, nor that some key rabbinic leaders (particularly those with an axe to grind against the ultra-Orthodox political powers that be) would be stoking these flames.
For instance, In the case of the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox, while the Council of [Wise] Torah Sages continues to back Minister Rabbi Aryeh Deri, their anti-Reform rhetoric is quite vitriolic. In the case of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox, Rabbi Auerbach has been consistently opposed to the leading forces of Ashkenazi Haredi Judaism on IDF draft issues. In both cases, discontented rabbinic elements are riding the issues of the Western Wall and the Supreme Court’s ruling on mikva’ot under the guise of religious purism.
As we read these sources, let’s note the following:
Before consenting to this agreement, Rabbi Rabinovitch, the Rabbi of the Western Wall, sought guidance from leading Ashkenazi Lithuanian Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky who instructed him to turn to Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzhal. Nebenzhal instructed Rabinovitch to support the agreement so that non-Orthodox and liberal Orthodox prayer practices would have no place at the traditional Kotel plaza. However, Nebenzhal [link] did not expect the extent of the backlash, and is now buckling under the pressure. Short of retracting his opinion, he is saving face and making a half-turn, saying that the agreement should be sabotaged by finding a “better way.”
Following this, a meeting was supposed to take place yesterday, on Sunday, between PM Netanyahu, the Chief Rabbis, Minister Deri, Minister Shaked and some additional Haredi leaders. The meeting was postponed [link] after the harsh pronouncements against the agreement were issued over the last several days, with the understanding that the Chief Rabbis would attempt to propose an alternative approach to the agreement.
Additionally, a number of elements including a rabbinic group associated with the Chief Rabbinate have hired a senior attorney[link] who has presented a legal challenge to the validity of the agreement to the Attorney General. His claim is that the law requires that the Chief Rabbinate be consulted before the Minister of Religious Services institutes such regulations, according to the Law of Preserving the Holy Places of Israel.
Beyond this, in yet another classic clash of religion and state in Israel, Shas’s Minister of Religious Services David Azoulay [link]has declared that he will not sign the regulations, indicating that he’s not answering to the majority Government decision, but rather to the rabbis who control him. Sadly the fragile set-up of Israel’s rule of law breaks when it comes to fundamentalist religious functionaries.
Everyone expected that the Ashkenazi political leadership would voice strong objections to the Kotel agreement, but not that they would seriously consider leaving the coalition over these issues. However, recent statements indicate that the ante has been raised, and they have come under greater pressure from their rabbinic masters. Therefore, they have explicitly threatened to leave the coalition if the Government does not take tangible measures that assert that non-Orthodox Judaism will not gain any traction and recognition in Israel.
All of this leaves Netanyahu between a rock and a hard place. He meant well, but he now realizes that these dynamics may cause a greater challenge to the well-bring of his coalition than he had considered. He is clearly still acting on the logic and strategic direction that led him to accommodate the non-Orthodox American movements in the first place, namely appeasing these key forces in the American Jewish community critical for Israel’s strategic interests, but the political pressure he now faces is only intensifying.
The so-called compromise over prayer access to the Kotel has turned been attacked as giving away too much, as irrelevant to the real religious dispute in Israel, and as exclusionary of Orthodox women who refuse to give up their praying place. It has been lauded as a great advance, as a first in the legal recognition by the State of Israel of Liberal Judaism, as a triumph after 25 years of campaigning and as a breakthrough moment for Diaspora Jewry.
But will it happen? What forces are arrayed against its implementation?
This week’s, we share Israel HaYom’s superb analysis of the forces fighting against implementation. There is a link to the full article in Hebrew, and for those who would like a short-cut, I have summarized each of the opponents position’s in English.
Since the beginning of the rabbinic era Jews have embraced the ideal of creative debate, makhloket l’shem shamayim (M. Avot 5:17), and contrasted it with the political notion of a conflict for self-aggrandizing and strickly political reasons, like Korach’s rebellion against Moses (Numbers 16).
The Report of the Advisory Team for the Issue of Prayer Arrangements at the Western Wall [link] quotes the famous section in B. Yoma 9b regarding baseless hatred, sinat hinam, as the underlying cause for the destruction of the Second Temple. Clearly, the Jewish people again faces the choice between self-destructive political wrangling and tapping into the creative forces that have advanced Judaism for millennia. Which path shall we choose?
On the RRFEI website you will find opposing arguments l’shem shamayim [link] to advance the complexities of the practical arrangements to advance religious pluralism and diversity in the State of Israel and, and hence, among Am Yisrael. One way or another, this historical moment demands thoughtful contemplation from knowledgeable religious leaders regarding adjusting and improving Israel’s inclusion of the entirety of the Jewish people in the brit, at the very site in which that brit was maintained by prayer and sacrifice for over 1,000 years.
Clearly we confront many challenges. As the Report makes clear, the skeptics regarding implementation by Israel’s Government are raising important practical issues. Rabbi Uri Regev, President of Hiddush, asks whether the Prime Minister will use this agreement to deflect diaspora arguments regarding marriage and official inclusion of all Jewish religious streams in Israeli life. Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer sees the current “compromise” as capitulation. RRFEI’s own Rabbi Pam Frydman asks how to include other groups, the Modern and Open Orthodox, into the agreement.
Yet, I have not seen articles regarding what I consider the greatest challenge to this opportunity. Assuming that the new prayer area at the Western Wall is built, who will use it? If thousands of liberal Jews from all over the world flock weekly to pray in a new egalitarian Kotel, to experience what they were denied previously in the gender segregated sections; if rabbis bring congregations to lead fervent and heartfelt prayer, with liberal Jews leaning their heads against the wall attempting to feel the presence of the shekinah, as I have witnessed so often in the Orthodox section; if wives and husbands and children, holding hands or simply standing together, open their siddurim or just spontaneously pray in the place their ancestors prayed because this sacred place holds historic continuity and meaning in their religious imagination; if all of this and more happens because Liberal Judaism is a vital force motivating Jewish lives to connect to God two centuries after Moses Mendelsohn and a century after Haim Nahman Bialik, then this “compromise” will have achieved its purpose of enabling a greater spirituality and Jewish practice among our people.
The success of this opportunity lies in the religious imagination of liberal Jewish leaders in Israel and worldwide. It’s insufficient to watch others fervently embrace Judaism and wonder at their enthusiasm for accepting God. If that’s our forte, then the new area will not avail us, and our people will continue to thrill at watching others at prayer in the Orthodox sections. But the Southern Western Wall is no less the containing wall of the Second Temple than the Northern Section, and God is no less present there. The only question is whether the Western Wall is a relic or a present spiritual reality in our lives.
From the 70s through the 90s, when I brought congregants to Israel, we prayed together in the Kotel Plaza, and people thrilled at the experience. It touched their hearts and souls. Women of the Wall and the others at the table have succeeded in giving us an opportunity for enhanced spirituality. The great question that confronts liberal Judaism is: will we make it real?
Please go to our FB group [link] for further debate, and send your comments to me at email@example.com.
Mark H. Levin
Even before the historic Kotel agreement was reached, the Internet was flooded with information and opinions about the compromise. RRFEI has compiled and categorized many pieces on our website here: [link], in both Hebrew and English, recognizing that the Hebrew articles reflect the feelings of Israelis who have taken a stand on these issues, which may not have been reported upon in the English media. We hope you’ll take the time to explore these informational and opinion pieces, and share others with us to include on the RRFEI website.
The controversy has been sharp, sometimes even harsh, and many have made conflicting factual and/or legal claims in regard to the Kotel agreement and its broader context. If you encounter a murky issue related to the compromise, which you would like to have clarified, RRFEI would be glad to provide you with further analysis and accurate information. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions, suggestions & comments – we look forward to hearing from you.
Below, we present you with an outline of arguments – in favor, against, and ambivalent toward the compromise, as well as several illustrative quotations. The resource links on the RRFEI website are organized according to these categories, as of Monday, February 8; we hope to add additional links and flesh out the arguments further with your input.
“Creating an egalitarian prayer space at the Wall is a small step, and in some ways a mostly symbolic one. But it is important nonetheless. Since what is done in one small area can be expanded to others, it creates a legal and administrative precedent for equality among the religious streams. And it serves as a grudging acknowledgment by Israel’s government that Diaspora Jews matter. Jews throughout the world have fought for these changes; they are Israel’s partners, and they will not tolerate being told that their Jewish way of life does not count in the Jewish state.” -Rabbi Eric Yoffie
“We have no objection, of course, to prayer at Robinson’s for those who wish it. We reject any deal that would infringe upon, let alone deny, the hardearned and historic rights of Jewish women at the Kotel. No one can concede someone else’s rights. Anyone who says she speaks for us in doing so, does not. We say clearly: any deal that delegitimizes, let alone bars, tefillah in our minhag at the Kotel has no bearing on us. We stay at the Kotel. -Dr. Shulamit Magnus
“The time has come that we take responsibility for what happens to the Kotel. It can’t be that the same Kotel, which we all have pictures of, which my grandparents had a picture of at home… that when we arrive to the Land of Israel and the State of Israel, we decide that the Kotel will not belong to all of us; rather it will belong only to one small group.” -MK Rachel Azaria
“While we celebrate, it is important to remember that the issue of prayer at the Kotel is only one of many in the arena of religious freedom. Its impact on Israeli citizens is relatively limited. In other areas changes have usually been for the worse. The tyranny of the Rabbinate over marriage and divorce is ongoing, denying hundreds of thousands of citizens the right to family and denying women their right to equality and dignity…” -Rabbi Uri Regev
The Kotel compromise is like manna. (Exodus 16:4) The sages say that manna tasted like whatever the Israelites felt like eating, but Rashi quotes Midrash Sifri to explain that manna could not taste like cucumber, melon, leek, garlic or onion, because those foods were not good for infants, so nursing mothers refrained from them. The Israelites wanted to go back to Egypt to enjoy adults’ flavors.
HaKotel HaMaaravi (the Western Wall) is the western side of the retaining wall built by the Romans in 20 B.C.E. to secure the Temple mount from mud slides. The entire expanse of the western wall is needed so everyone can pray in peace and dignity. The Kotel Compromise will allow Haredim and Orthodox Zionists to pray in separate men’s and women’s sections according to their custom. Egalitarians will pray in a new egalitarian section. Women of the Wall will pray once a month and on special occasions in a women’s section surrounded by a portable mehitza. That mehitza will be in the egalitarian section because the egalitarians are the only ones willing to welcome Women of the Wall in their prayer section.
On the occasion of the Kotel compromise, I want to acknowledge all of our colleagues who negotiated the agreement. I want to also give a shout out to our colleagues in the Reform Movement who have stayed the course while being called every sinat-chinam-filled name in the book. I want to also give a shout out to our colleagues in the Conservative Movement who engaged in, and absorbed the costs of the pay-to-pray-and-by-appointment-only egalitarian arrangement at Robinson’s Arch for over ten years. That arrangement only ended when Naftali Bennett used 80,000 sheqel from his budget to build a temporary platform that will now be torn down to make way for an egalitarian plaza. In addition, I want to give a shout out to Anat Hoffman and Batya Kallus for their courageous leadership in negotiating the compromise on behalf of Women of the Wall and the board and staff they represent. I also want to acknowledge the Conservative and Reform Movements for insisting on a truly egalitarian section that is not encroached upon by mehitzot. And last, but not least, I want to acknowledge Rabbi Rabinowitz, Prime Minister Netanyahu, Avichai Mandleblit, the supportive Cabinet Ministers and Natan Sharansky.
In our euphoria that the Conservative and Reform Movements are finally recognized in Israel — albeit in one tiny way with much more still needed – we need to also be careful to not abandon the Modern Orthodox and Open Orthodox who pray with separation of the sexes; where men say amen to a women’s Kaddish; or where men lead maariv, shacharit, musaf and mincha while women lead other parts of the service, give divrei Torah, etc.; or where women hold their own women’s minyanim. It is unfortunate that there is no overt plan in the Kotel compromise to address these needs, but that is not a reason to blame those who have successfully negotiated the historic compromise. We can both support the compromise and call for a solution to address these additional needs. One possible way to do so is to envision an additional men’s section and an additional women’s section with a mehitza between them and a dignified entrance and accessibility 24/7.
We are not going to achieve our future goals by continuing to beat up on one another. We are going to achieve our goals by laying down our swords and turning them into plowshares at the negotiating table. Moshe Dayan z”l reminded us that we do not make peace with our friends; we make peace with our enemies. The gem of the Kotel compromise is the joint meetings at least five times a year between those who oversee the Orthodox/Haredi men’s and women’s sections and those who oversee the egalitarian and once-a-month-Women-of-the-Wall section. I look forward to the day when those who oversee the Modern/Open Orthodox men’s and women’s sections also have a seat the table. If those new men’s and women’s sections and their attendant Modern/Open Orthodox governance turn out to be the present men’s and women’s section, that will satisfy some and horrify others; we need a compromise that does not leave our Haredi sisters and brothers out in the cold and also does not leave any of the rest of us out in the cold.
Manna was not a burden on the Israelites because it lacked diversity of flavor. Rather, manna was a burden because the Israelites lacked imagination. We need to imagine the manna of olam habah where adult flavors and the flavors for nursing mothers are side by side. The nursing mothers of our people are no longer the egalitarians and Women of the Wall; they are our mehitza adhering sisters and brothers of the Modern and Open Orthodox movements. If we abandon them, then we are in danger of being in collusion with those religious leaders who have abandoned us when fulfilling their governance roles in the modern State of Israel.
Rabbi Pamela Frydman is a leader in the Jewish Renewal Movement. She serves as Chair of the Executive Committee of Rabbis for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel and was co-founder and former International Co-Chair of Rabbis for Women of the Wall.
RRFEI gives great credit to the Reform movement and Conservative movements, and the Women of the Wall for making the painful sacrifice of giving up their demands of being allowed to hold egalitarian prayer services and women’s minyanim at the traditional Western Wall plaza. While a section of the Wall, which hitherto functioned as an archaeological garden, and had never operated under the dictates of the Orthodox rabbinic establishment, has now been designated as a pluralistic prayer space, it must be underscored that this compromise stipulates that the main Western Wall prayer plaza will officially remain under ultra-Orthodox authority.
Most positive, from RRFEI’s perspective is that the vast majority of world Jewry, the liberal streams, will, at long last, possess an official area in which to pray according to the customs and theology of the modern Jewish world.
However, RRFEI remains concerned that in recent months, Prime Minister Netanyahu has sent very mixed messages regarding the equal status of the non-Orthodox streams in Israel – one for external consumption, abroad, and one for domestic Israeli policy. When Netanyahu speaks with leaders of the Diaspora Jewish community, he voices his support for equality, while the persistent discrimination and denial of key religious freedoms and equality within Israel only continues to degrade. The Ministry of Education’s recent, public freezing of funds designated in the State budget for Jewish renewal, intended for non-Orthodox and secular educational initiatives, serves as a clear reminder of this.
The Western Wall compromise, which requires no substantial concession on the part of the ultra-Orthodox, only further highlights the willingness of PM Netanyahu to trade away the core values of religious freedom and equality, in exchange for the religious parties’ votes, necessary to keep him and his party in power. Therefore, we fear that the Western Wall agreement will simply be used as a smokescreen, aimed at convincing Diaspora Jewry that this represents the implementation of the PM’s promise to ensure that every Jew will feel at home in Israel, while in truth it avoids addressing the real issues that impact the lives and dignities of so many Israeli and Diaspora Jews. So, as welcomed as the Kotel compromise is, it must not distract world Jewry from the need for dramatic changes in Israel in such critical arenas as freedom of marriage and divorce, Who is a Jew, and state-sanctioned, religiously-based gender discrimination.
Is this an historic moment? Only time will tell. I have often wished for the gift of prophecy, alas, it has never been granted.
We come to this crossroad in history: the expansion of the praying area of the Kotel and a sort of recognition of liberal Judaism, specifically the Reform and Conservative movements, in the eyes of the current Israeli government. Some would say for the first time. That, we would all agree, is a good thing.
The modern Orthodox have been left out of this step forward, and indeed there is a group within Nashot HaKotel who vow to fight on for the right to worship according to their custom at The Wall. (In this article [click here], you’ll see how one synagogue in Israel has established a kind of egalitarian mehitza.) Others protest that separating Am Yisrael destroys the unity ofAmcha. Haaretz contends this is a solution aimed, in part, at the Diaspora, but also cites the support of the Conservative and Reform streams in Israel for the long awaited opportunity to pray in accordance with their own minhag at The Kotel.
In the 70s I took groups to Israel and we prayed together without disruption in the back courtyard at The Wall. In the 80s we were disrupted by the watchman, but continued praying. In the 90s and 2000s we were not only disrupted, but it became difficult and then impossible to continue praying as a group. I haven’t tried since.
Why did we pray together near The Kotel? Our people had an innate sense that they had been here before, that they were praying as their families had prayed in a sacred location in which they had gathered, that somehow this experience connected them to Amcha joyously, as the Holocaust connected them mournfully. It was different than just being in Israel. Not land, but experience, Judaism as they knew it at home, a prayer life, connected them directly to their people. Praying touched souls.
The politics has taken more than 25 years to work through. But the Jewish neshama will not be denied. We witness, all over Israel, an indigenous Judaism seeking recognition even as it wells up spontaneously among the people. Religious theory would contend that an indigenous religion will grow over decades within a nation, a “civil religion.” Much has been published both about American and Israeli civil religion. But, perhaps not astonishingly, I believe we are witnessing the birth of a religious and Jewish, not socialist, civil religion in Israel. It’s not just the Diaspora that has won, it’s the entirety of the Jewish people.
I have said before in this space that I believe that we are fulfilling a sacred mission. I believe that. But the speed at which we arrive at our destination, and the breadth of the Judaism lived in Israel, these are yet to be determined.
Our work will be reflected in Jewish life for millennia. God bless all those whose work has brought us to this moment, and may we be invigorated and more determined in the knowledge that this sacred mission expresses amahloket l’shem shamayim, and we cannot be denied as long as we seek to connect Amcha with Tsur Yisrael v’Goalo.