Kotel (Western Wall)

Now or never – the need for political pressure

10903999_10153629284553868_1051290180814195830_oI 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 organizers@rrfei.org.

We look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Updates on the Kotel agreement and the Supreme Court’s ruling on access to Israel’s public mikva’ot

The platform for egalitarian prayer at Robinson's Arch, under fire

The platform for egalitarian prayer at Robinson’s Arch, under fire

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:


  1. Following the Cabinet’s decision to support MK Gafni’s (and co.’s) mikvah bill, it passed its preliminary Knesset reading last Tuesday (as is required for all privately proposed bills), with 42 MKs voting for it and 38 voting against.The list of MKs who voted for and against the bill can be found here. Oddly, Yair Lapid, Chairman of ‘Yesh Atid,’ voted for the bill. He explained that his vote was a mistake.
  2. Last week, we noted some of the harsh and base statements made by Haredi MKs and ministers against Reform Judaism. Such statements continued during the Knesset debate, and included Minister of Religious Services David Azoulay’s (Shas) admonition that “Whoever does not accept the Torah’s (Divine) authority, and tramples the mitzvot, cannot claim to represent religion in Israel… It is their right to have ceremonies and all the folklore they want, but Judaism is not theater one drives to for mere enjoyment. Just as a witch doctor would not be allowed near a hospital in the capacity of a doctor, so too these entities should not be allowed near the Torah of Israel.“In the past, Minister Azoulay also proclaimed that he has difficulty accepting Reform Jews as Jews (for which PM Netanyahu scolded him). It is important to note that his are not simply the statements of a private individual, but rather those of a Minister charged with providing religious services to all Jews in Israel. Doubtless, Azoulay’s repeated declarations are aimed at all of non-Orthodox Jewish society around the world. This truly underscores the need for world Jewry to not remain passive in the face of Israeli ministers who curse it publicly on the Knesset floor, while the Prime Minister sits by and does nothing to make good on his promise to ensure that all Jews of all streams will feel at home in Israel.
  3. This Sunday, it was made public that the new Attorney General has made it clear to the government that this bill is unconstitutional, and violates the principles of religious freedom in a way that cannot withstand judicial review. There is doubt that the last word has not been said in this saga, and we expect new developments in the coming days, as the Haredi parties attempt to deal with this new front in the battle.


  1. The pressure on the ultra-Orthodox politicians to withdraw their unspoken support for the Kotel agreement, which they voted against knowing that it would easily be approved by the government, is increasing. As a result, Minister Deri (Shas) and Rabbi Shalom Cohen (Head of the Shas Council of Torah Sages) have demanded that the agreement be nullified (even though they had approved of it in the past), lest Shas leave the coalition and overthrow the government. “It is not acceptable that the government makes these kinds of decisions,” said Deri. “We won’t sit in a government that recognizes the Reform, not over the Western Wall, not for marriage, and not for divorce.”
  2. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, Rabbi of the Western Wall, also changed his position, petitioning the Haredi political parties to void the agreement. Rabbi Rabinovitch had led the negotiations and approved the agreement, but his views are also becoming radicalized under the pressure.
  3. On the legal front, supporters of the agreement face another problem, for the High Court has ordered the government to respond to the “Original Women of the Wall’s” petition submitted by the Center for Women’s Justice (Attorney Susan Weiss). The government now has 12 days to explain why women are denied their right to read from Torah scrolls at the Western Wall, as of March 14, 2016.
  4. The Women of the Wall intend to expand their operations, and, for the first time, conduct a women’s “Priestly blessing” ceremony at the Western Wall during Passover. Their declared intent has been met with harsh reprimands from the Western Wall rabbi and his associates, further heightening tensions.

Rising flames of resistance to the Western Wall agreement

The platform for egalitarian prayer at Robinson's Arch, under fire

The platform for egalitarian prayer at Robinson’s Arch, under fire

Uri-Regev-profile-photo-e1425932791183Since 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:

  • The ugliness of the rhetoric;
  • Both the Kotel agreement and the Supreme Court ruling on the mikva’ot have been assailed – so the operative byproduct is both anti-Reform, as well as anti-civil judiciary and the rule of law;
  • The Zionist Orthodox Jewish Home party has once again emerged as a religious smorgasbord, with its party chairperson continuing to back the Kotel agreement, which is essentially an expansion of his own initiative three years ago when he was Minister of Diaspora Affairs. On the other hand, the party’s stauncher religious and political right, represented by Minister Uri Ariel and MK Smotrich [link] are expressing a more aggressive and rigid stance, challenging the agreement and, implicitly, Bennett’s leadership;
  • All in all, one cannot begin to understand this chaos without understanding the subtext, which goes beyond the Kotel, into personal, political and ideological rivalries. The makers of this deal had hoped it would fly under the radar, but these internal interests and the intense media attention caused by the confluence of events, including the CCAR conference in Israel, which presented the Kotel agreement as a major victory, elicited to these responses.
  • While these voices are attacking the “Reform,” they have a very limited idea of what “Reform” is, and use it as a generic label to describe anybody with whom they have religious disagreements.

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 “Disputatious” Kotel

10903999_10153629284553868_1051290180814195830_oThe 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.


English summary (by paragraph) by Rabbi Mark H. Levin

Click here for original Hebrew article

  1. Many forces are arrayed to oppose the decision.
  2. Although the pluralistic forces achieved official recognition for the Kotel, and attained representation on the Council that will run the Southern Plaza, many impediments have appeared.
  3. Because of a last minute, hidden insertion in the agreement, the Minister of Religious Services will be responsible for developing the regulations. That’s Minister David Azoulay, who last summer denounced Liberal Judaism. Azoulay has indicated he will pass the decision making to the Sages Council of Shas. If it passes there, as Aryeh Deri has great influence with the rabbis, Azoulay is bound by law to consult with the Chief Rabbinate.
  4. The Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi, Rabbi David Lau, has called the decision a mistake because it ignored the Chief Rabbinate. The Chief Rabbinate must express its opinion before Minister Azoulay will sign the regulations.
  5. Should Minister Azoulay delay the decisions, it’s likely that the government will pass the authority to appoint the 6 representatives of the public to the new Western Wall Council, from the Reform and Conservative streams and the Women of the Wall, to Natan Sharansky as head of the Jewish Agency. This will raise the question of whether the Council, with the help of the Jewish Agency, will stick to the current plans if the government avoids recognizing them. Will the matter then go to the Supreme Court, which could decide to implement equality at the current Western Wall Plaza?


Is the Direct Route Preferable?

  1. The second, more difficult obstacle, is that the new law must be implemented according to the zoning laws. Ought Israel move forward at one of the most important and historical archeological sites in the country in a shortened, expedited fashion?
  2. The last time the Government attempted to shorten the path for such decisions, the bridge to the Mughrabi Gate, it ended up prolonging it.
  3. Many who oppose the new plan will voice their opposition. The Hardalim, Religious Zionists in Bayit HaYehudi, with the Har Hamor Yeshiva leaders, will pressure Minister Uri Ariel and the Jewish Home Knesset members to oppose the plan and recognition of the Reform and Conservative Movements at the Kotel.
  4. Jewish Home party members are warning against a slippery slope to further recognition of the liberal streams.
  5. The Hardalim are attempting to enlist the Haredim, who believe this is an acceptable compromise because they do not want the Supreme Court to rule for equal representation of the liberal streams at the current Wall.
  6. Two more powerful opponents: the archeologists and the Muslim Waqf. It’s possible the Antiquities Authority will require salvage excavations before the plans are approved for the prayer area.
  7. Such a dig will take months, and in the event of important findings, even longer.
  8. Important senior archeologists have signed a sharp protest letter to PM Netanyahu opposing the entire program of widening the prayer area.
  9. Dr. Ayelet Mazar states there will be a dramatic destructive alteration to the only visible area at the foot of the Temple Mount where the destruction of the Second Temple is visible.
  10. Dr. Mazar is referring to the fallen stones from the Second Temple. Many years went into revealing those fallen stones, and it’s forbidden to touch or obstruct them. It’s a unique testimony to the Temple and the destruction.


The Waqf Will Not Recognize

  1. The Muslim Waqf has already voiced opposition. Israel fears Jordanian opposition, as occurred with building the Mughrabi Gate walkway. Jordan has not yet officially spoken. Senior Jordanian officials were this week quoted as opposing damage to the ‘Muslim heritage of the region.’
  2. Jordan thwarted Israel’s 2004 plan for the Mughrabi Gate. If Jordan opposes the Southern Wall plaza the conflict returns to the current prayer area. The Waqf and the Mufti have in the past insisted that the area adjacent to the Wall is part of the El Aqsa holy site. The Administrator of the mosque claims that the UN has recognized the area as part of Al Aqsa.
  3. Legally, Israel expropriated the area considered now for the southern prayer plaza after the Six Day War.
  4. The problem, however, is not legal, but political. Jordan does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the area.
  5. The Corporation for the Development of the Jewish Quarter is legally the possessor of the area, and will require agreement.


The Haredim Fear the Supreme Court

  1. The most optimistic view is that implementation will take 1 ½ years. That’s an eternity in Israeli politics.
  2. There have been advantages: the PM got a victory with the Liberal Streams without relying on the Supreme Court. It’s assumed that had the case gone to the Supreme Court they would have ruled for the liberal movements and Women of the Wall to receive rights at the traditional Western Wall. That would have opened a coalition crisis for the PM. Fear of the Supreme Court has moderated Haredi response.
  3. In the Jerusalem court there is a damages lawsuit from members of the ‘Original’ Women of the Wall under the law against discrimination in public accommodations. The same women have appealed to the Supreme Court against the rule preventing Torah scrolls from the women’s section.


Who is the Inquisitor Here?

  1. Little less than 50 years ago archeologists and rabbis disputed over the character and borders of the Wall. The border became the Mughrabi Gate. This plan cancels that agreement.
  2. The ultra-Orthodox have won exclusive control over the current (traditional) wall.
  3. The archeologists have suffered a net loss. The Reform and Conservative streams have won recognition from the government for the first time.
  4. The wider, secular public may prefer the new area for holiday celebrations.
  5. Women of the Wall will continue at their current location until the new area is built, and there will likely will be future conflicts.
  6. The Supreme Court will likely be asked to rule on the compromise in the near future, resulting from appeals of the archeologists and Kolech, who have promised to continue praying in the current women’s section. Kolech’s founder, Dr. Hannah Kehat, call the Kotel Rabbi “The inquisitor,” and maintains that what really demeans the Kotel is the partition he has erected.

The Kotel agreement – which path shall we choose?

10903999_10153629284553868_1051290180814195830_oSince 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 organizers@rrfei.org.

Kol tuv,
Mark H. Levin

Breaking down the arguments over the Kotel agreement by David Bogomolny, Hiddush & RRFEI staffer

David-Bogomolny-mediumEven 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 organizers@rrfei.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.

    • Good for pluralism / diaspora relations
    • Change in the right direction towards religious freedom
    • Support for total separation (Orthodox from Heterodox)

“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

    • The agreement is a betrayal of Modern Orthodox women and women’s prayer groups at traditional Kotel plaza

“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 agreement is damaging to Jewish unity:
      • Unity will be achieved through diversity
      • Unity will be achieved through religious uniformity
      • Unity will be achieved through cultural uniformity
    • The agreement is a capitulation to the ultra-Orthodox establishment / Robinson’s Arch is “less than” the traditional Kotel plaza

“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

    • The State of Israel should not recognize or validate the non-Orthodox streams
    • The pluralistic plaza violates Waqf jurisdiction over Jerusalem’s holy places
    • This is A hollow victory in the war over religion-state in Israel
    • The Western Wall is not the most important religion & state issue in Israel / The agreement may distract from other issues of religion & state
    • The agreement may be damaging to Jewish unity
    • It is unlikely to lead to further necessary policy changes

“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

Rabbi Pamela Frydman regarding the Kotel Compromise

The government’s description of the Kotel compromise is described
in Hebrew here: [link], and in English here: [link]

Pam-2015-with-short-hair-1The 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 response to the Western Wall compromise agreement

  • The agreement is described in Hebrew here: [link], and in English here: [link]

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.

A response to Kotel agreement skeptics by Rabbi Stanley Davids, RRFEI Executive Committee

  1. DavidsStanleyThis agreement IS a compromise. The Rabbanut has won full legal control over what the world normally considers to be the Western Wall and its plaza. In return, liberal forces have gained a promise and guarantee (for whatever that is worth) that within two years a large space next to that other side of the Western Wall will be fully open for pluralistic services with no control by or influence of the Rabbanut. The plaza will be available for national ceremonies which will permit women’s voices and equality among the genders in such national events.
  2. Those seeking the right of women to read Torah and wear Tallitot and Tefillin in the traditional area of the Western Wall have lost.
  3. Those seeking to totally take the traditional area of the Western Wall out of the hands of the Rabbanut currently controlling them have lost.
  4. The compromise does nothing to address the pursuit of marriage equality and and true civil rights with an Israeli society.
  5. But as with many compromises, there is much to celebrate here. Gilad Kariv struck a proper note indicating that we should celebrate for today and use the gains of this compromise, however limited, to re-energize our efforts to strengthen all of our liberal religious causes in Israel.
  6. For whatever it is worth, this compromise points again to the importance of diaspora influence in the shaping of some aspects of decision-making in Israel. RRFEI should be able to pounce upon this fact in a drive to further strengthen its own significance within the North American community.

The Kotel compromise agreement – an historic moment?

10903999_10153629284553868_1051290180814195830_oIs 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.