The Kotel Kerfuffle

The latest crisis began when the government backtracked on its decision * to create a state-recognized pluralistic prayer section at the Western Wall.

*Edit: The backtracking was not on creating a pluralistic prayer section. THAT EXISTS ALREADY and has not been removed. The backtracking was in allowing the non-Orthodox (Reform, Conservative, Liberals etc.) to run and manage the section, rather than continue under the Orthodox Rabbinate management.

In addition it approved legislation denying citizenship rights to converts who converted through private Orthodox or any non-Orthodox conversions.

The Kotel filled with thousands of worshippers

To be honest, I’m having a very hard time understanding what exactly happened, and what are the implications. I’m not going to venture an opinion here (contrary to my blog name!) and leave you to draw your own conclusions from the following links:

Does the Kotel fiasco mark a breaking point between Israel and the Diaspora?

[The government’s announcement] drew a slew of angry statements from politicians, Jewish groups and religious leaders on Sunday.

The recurring pronouncement in these statements was that with this decision, the government had delivered a decisive blow to the crucial relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, particularly US Jewry.

The government dealt a double whammy to liberal Jews on Sunday, with its ministerial committee approving explosive legislation that revokes the state’s recognition of citizenship rights for private Orthodox conversions, as well as the rights of Reform and Conservative converts to be registered as Jewish in the Interior Ministry.

These issues of religious pluralism are pushing away Jews who want a connection to Israel at the same as the Jewish state is fighting to keep world Jewry on its side when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and trying to draw the unaffiliated closer to their Jewish identity.

Researchers warned last week that Israel is losing the younger generation of American Jews, as a study released by the Brand Israel Group found that support for Israel has dropped 27 percentage points among Jewish college students in the US since 2010, with many taking issue with Israel’s record on human rights, tolerance and diversity.

The Reut Institute warned in March that ties between US Jews and Israel could reach a “breaking point in 2017,” accusing the government of a “blind spot” when it comes to the Diaspora.

Natan Sharansky, famed former Prisoner of Zion in the Soviet Union and now Chairman of the Jewish Agency, cancelled his meeting with Binyamin Netanyahu in protest at the Kotel decision. Today he writes in the Times of Israel that “We may solve the Kotel crisis but I’m not sure we may be able to rebuild trust”:

In an interview with The Times of Israel, he said the legislation on conversion approved by ministers on Sunday — which would cement an ultra-Orthodox monopoly over conversions to Judaism in Israel — would likely not go through in its current format. From his contacts with ministers and Knesset members, he said, he does not believe Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can muster a majority to pass the legislation in its current form.

Natan Sharansky and Binyamin Netanyahu

As for Netanyahu’s shock decision to freeze implementation of a painstakingly negotiated agreement to give non-Orthodox streams of Judaism a recognized, formal role in the oversight of a permanent, pluralistic prayer area slightly to the south of the main Western Wall prayer area, Sharansky said he believed a “formula” would be found to enable the agreement to go ahead.

“You don’t have to call it ‘recognition,’” he posited. “But you do have to allow representatives of the Reform and Conservative to run the place where they pray. That’s the minimum condition from which all the negotiations started.” Sharansky said he couldn’t say what precise “formula” would be found, but “I believe that very quickly” it can be resolved.

At the same time, he expressed deep disappointment in Netanyahu’s handling of the affair — saying the prime minister had put narrow coalition interests above the wider needs of the Jewish people. He noted, incidentally, that he did not believe the government would have fallen if Netanyahu had resisted ultra-Orthodox pressure on the issues.

And he said that the precious trust that had been established between Israeli and Diaspora leaders, as the Western Wall compromise took shape in recent years, may have been damaged irrevocably.

He also highlighted staggering ignorance among Israeli government ministers about Reform and Conservative Judaism — streams of Judaism with which the majority of American Jews are affiliated. “When I said to the government a year or two ago, Do you know that 85% of AIPAC supporters are Reform and Conservative Jews, half of the government were shocked. They really thought they were supporters of boycotts of Israel, all these crazies from J Street, Breaking the Silence. That’s all.”

I have a great deal of respect for Sharansky so his words are worth listening to.

Amanda Borschel-Dan details the arrangements at the current mixed prayer section, and reminds us that there already is pluralistic prayer at the Kotel, and that is not going to be taken away:

The historic compromise was multifaceted in its impact: The egalitarian prayer would continue in the southern area of the Western Wall, but there would be one entrance for all to the Western Wall plaza, which would lead to the different pluralistic, men’s and women’s pavilions.

There was to be a joint committee of two Reform leaders, two Conservative leaders, two non-Orthodox women representatives, the Jewish Agency chairman and six government officials overseeing the southern area. The existing Orthodox prayer pavilion would be administered by [Rabbi of the Kotel] Rabinovitch. Additionally, the temporary prayer platforms would double in size and be more connected — giving much more access to the Western Wall for prayer in the Davidson archaeological park and room for up to 1,200.

Conservative Jews pray at the section prepared for prayer for the Women of the Wall at Robinson’s Arch in Jerusalem’s Old City on July 30, 2014. (Robert Swift/Flash90)

For some, this 2016 compromise was not a victory, but a defeat: Senior archaeologists decried the decision to repurpose a park devoted to millennia of national heritage. Additionally, many members of the Women of the Wall splintered off into another group, which calls itself the Original Women of the Wall, and is determined to continue prayer in the women’s section of the Western Wall plaza, not in the egalitarian section.

However, the main WOW group termed the compromise a feminist victory. “In approving this plan, the state acknowledges women’s full equality at the Kotel and the imperative of freedom of choice in Judaism in Israel. The creation of a third section of the Kotel sets a strong precedent in women’s status in Israel: women as administrators of a holy site, women as leaders, women as influential force not to be ignore or silenced,” wrote the Women of the Wall in a statement.

Whether it was the triumphalist statements broadcast by world Jewry, or a delayed regret, within days of the government decision ultra-Orthodox members of Knesset decried the deal — even after having accepted it and voted for it — and vowed to derail its implementation.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, and former Religious Affairs Minister, explains how the Kotel compromise was going to work:


And one more person that is simply a must-read in my opinion is Vic Rosenthal, aka Abu Yehuda, who is  worth reading on every subject he touches, but certainly on this one. He explains what’s Behind the struggle for the Kotel“. First he provides a historical overview of the situation at the Kotel and how the religious struggle began, complete with a map of the area:

The Kotel and its various prayer areas

In 1988, the Women of the Wall (WoW) organization was founded in order to obtain the right for women to pray at the Kotel with Torah scrolls and wearing a tallit (prayer shawl). They did not ask for mixed prayer with men, just a relaxation of the rules concerning how they could pray with other women in the women’s section of the Kotel. This would not violate Orthodox halacha (religious law), but is in opposition to the rules established by the Rabbi of the Kotel and the customs of strictly observant Jews (among others, the prohibition against women chanting out loud in the presence of men).

The women held regular monthly prayer sessions and were faced with opposition from the Kotel management and sometimes verbal or physical assaults by Haredim. The group began a legal struggle to force the Kotel authorities to permit them to pray as they wished, in the existing women’s section. They continued to pray there regularly, and numerous members were arrested for creating disturbances and disobeying police.

Then the Reform movement entered the picture and shuffled all the cards – to the detriment of the WoW:

What had been a movement to permit women to pray with Torah scrolls in the women’s section of the Kotel became a movement to permit mixed-gender prayers, according to Reform and Conservative practice.

For four years, representatives of the government and the other involved parties engaged in negotiations under Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky to find an acceptable compromise. Finally, in January of 2016, a deal was made. An area that is currently occupied by an archaeological park at the south end of the Kotel next to Robinson’s arch (see photo above) would be permanently allocated to mixed-gender and other non-Orthodox worship, renovated and made accessible by a single entrance leading to both the new area and the original Kotel plaza. A committee consisting of representatives of the government and “non-Orthodox leaders” would manage the area, which would be outside of the jurisdiction of the Rabbi of the Kotel.

Hoffman, who had previously vehemently opposed the idea of a prayer area at Robinson’s Arch (she had called it “the back of the bus”) suddenly supported it. The Board of Directors of the Women of the Wall voted to move their services to this area when work would be completed, to the unhappiness of some of its more conservative members who felt that the original goals of the movement had been “betrayed.” The URJ put its full weight behind the compromise, because it represents an implicit recognition of the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Judaism by the state of Israel.

And here is the crux of the matter. The whole deal fell apart precisely because the Reform Movement were aiming for political legitimacy in Israel as opposed to a simple arrangement of prayer schedules at the Kotel and its environs:

So the demands of a few women for a small change in the rules concerning their Orthodox worship morphed into a challenge by the URJ, the standard-bearer of non-Orthodox Judaism, to the religious establishment and the government of Israel, to accept it as a legitimate partner. And this will never be acceptable to the Haredi parties.

URJ leadership in the US is furious, but it’s reasonable to ask them “what did you expect?” The overwhelming opinion of Jewish Israelis – not just Haredi, or even religious ones – is that Reform Judaism is not Judaism. And they are asking the Haredim to sit down with them as equals! They would as soon drive to the beach on Shabbat to barbecue pork cheeseburgers.

What will happen next? The Supreme Court will weigh in, and probably a new compromise will be worked out. The Haredi parties will not give in to anything that they see as legitimizing Reform Judaism, but mixed-gender prayer will probably continue to take place at the Robinson’s arch location. The original WoW who want to pray in the women’s section with Torah scrolls and tallesim will probably be out of luck. Rick Jacobs will continue to blame Netanyahu for everything, and continue to do his best to undermine Israel’s democratically elected government (because he understands democracy better than we do).

Who has lost out here are the women who had a reasonable demand, one that many Orthodox rabbis agree does not violate halacha. They might have gotten what they wanted if they had not chosen to ally themselves with an 800-pound left-wing gorilla with ulterior motives, the URJ.

It is all exceedingly sad that the Kotel, the last remnant of our Holy Temple, is being turned into a pawn for political gain by all sides.

And none of this is to address the haredi control of the conversion issue in Israel, with which I have serious issues.

Israel has enough on her plate to contend with (e.g. missiles from Syria and Gaza) without having to tear itself up over internal issues.

Once again we have to keep in mind that the Second Temple was destroyed through baseless hatred.

*The title of this blog was “borrowed” from Elise Ronan’s post on this same subject. Also at the Times of Israel.

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11 Responses to The Kotel Kerfuffle

  1. Pingback: The Kotel Kerfuffle – 24/6 Magazine

  2. normanf says:

    The Orthodox will never accept Reform as legitimate Jews or accept any control by them over religious life in Israel. They would sooner eat treif food than to accept the notion people who don’t even live in Israel should have a say in its future. And for Netanyahu there is no political upside to appeasing liberal Jews who in any case support his political opponents.

    The Women Of The Wall were misused by Reform Jews as part of a political power struggle that had nothing to do where they want to pray. A new compromise will no doubt be struck but it won’t include inclusion of the Reform in Israel’s religious establishment, And this is a fight that is of no interest to most Jews worldwide.

    • Elise "Ronan" says:

      You do know that the vast majority of the Haredi and ultra orthodox in this world do not live in Israel yet somehow they get to decide “Who is and who is not a Jew,” and get control over the Jewish holy places. Moreover, there are nonreligious Jews who do liv ein Israel, who want nonorthodox lifecycle events, especially when it comes to marriage and divorce. And on that note, why should anyone who doesn’t serve in the army have a say in how Judaism’s holy places are cared for? They don’t fight for, or shed blood, for the care of the future of the Jewish people. Sitting and reading Torah or Talmud all day doesn’t a hero make.

      • anneinpt says:

        Hi Elise, I will reply to each comment separately.

        I just want to point out a bit of a misconception on your part. The Haredim outside of Israel have no say in what goes in Israel in the same way that the Reform Jews who live outside Israel have no say.

        Certainly you are 100% correct that there are many non-religious Israeli Jews who do not want to conduct their lives according to the Rabbinate.I’ll let you in on a big secret. There are many Orthdox Israeli Jews who are equally thoroughly fed up with the Chief Rabbinate’s hold on so many aspects of personal life, especially as the Rabbinatre has been getting more strict and more haredi over the past years. This has led to the rise of Tzohar – a moderate, modern Orthodox movement that is gaining ground rapidly, particularly in the field of marriage and conversions. This fed-upness has also led to many alternative lifecycle events, from weddings to funerals although less so amongst Orthodox Israelis, though I feel that this is not far off.

        My personal opinion re the haredim and the army is that the fact they don’t serve in the army does not make their right any less at the Kotel than anyone else’s. There are many secular and modern religious Israelis who also don’t serve in the army. But I do get as frustrated as you and many others that they do not pull their full weight in the country. On the other hand, this status is also changing. There are many haredim who DO serve in the army nowadays, and their numbers are growing. They are also joining the workforce in increasing numbers. This is part of the reason for the Haredi Rabbis’ backlash against “modernisation” (for no better word). They are feeling threatened, as well they might.

        • Elise "Ronan" says:

          I guess my point was that if the argument is that Reform Jews who do not live in Israel and do not fight in Israel’s army should have no say in what happens at the Kotel, I think the same should be for the haredim and Orthodox. Sort of what’s good for the goose is good for gander idea…

          I also don’t like those secular Israelis who don’t serve. If you want to be a conscience objector then be one, just do alternative service if that is what the country asks of you. I am glad that there are haredim joining the army. I think it is very important that they do. And yes I have seen the backlash, especially where they attack the soldiers who are haredi. They should be ashamed of themselves. I am glad they are joining the workforce too. The more that Israel can gain form everyone’s talents the better off the country will be, and these families will have a better future as well.

          I did not really understand what the Zohar movement was and thank you for explaining it to me. I had read something about it, but did not really understand what was going on in Israel as far as the revolt of the Orthodox themselves.

  3. Elise "Ronan" says:

    I want you to know that I am speaking as a Jew who left the Reform movement because of Jacobs and how left leaning the movement has become. We did not join any other Temple or synagogue because we are quite frankly Reform in our practice. So to this day my family remains unaffiliated, secular Zionist Jews. So to begin:

    I love the title of your post. My post at the Times of Israel was title “The Kotel Balagan,” which I translated as “Kerfluffle” when I posted it on my blog geared towards an American audience. Once again, us great minds think alike.

    But on a more serious note: whether the Orthodox/haredi want to accept Reform as jewish or not is not the real issue. The government made an agreement through the Jewish Agency that would satisfy most of Diaspora Jewry. Whether anyone thinks so or not, we do have an invested interest in Israel. We may not live there, but we are your brothers and sisters, and the vast majority of us are NOT religious. I also think Yossi Klein-Halevi wrote the quintessential post about how Israel itself views the Kotel. Basically secular Jews have given up on their holy places because they know they are not welcome.

    Israelis are worried about young Jews moving away from Israel. Well this is exactly how to do it. Make it so that these young people not only do not feel comfortable but are not wanted. Remember with all the intermarriage and with US Jews accepting patrilineal parentage there are going to be thousands of young Jews that Israel will be turning away. For Birthrite you only need one Jewish parent and it can be either mother or father. And when you turn them away you turn their entire families away, every generation. You can say that they shouldn’t marry nonJews, but that horse has already left the proverbial barn to the extent of 70% It is happening and we need to learn how to embrace these families and not turn them away.

    Moreover, that there is some insidious purpose to the egalitarian prayer area is simply paranoid nonsense. The Reform movement isn’t looking to use that as a launch-pin for its political purposes. Its already in Israel doing just that. It sides with the Left. The Left is just very unsuccessful in Israel. This was about legitimacy, and respect for a branch of Judaism. The same day that the government reneged on the Kotel agreement, they voted down the idea that Reforma and Conservative conversions would be seen as legitimate in Israel.

    But above all this is about money. The Orthodox who have a strangle hold on lifecycle events are wealthy from this. Remember all the corruption trials and that so many are being dishonored and sent to prison? This is the reality. And if you don’t think this is about a power struggle or money remember that this same Rabbinate decided that Ivanka Trump’s orthodox conversion from one of the most respected rabbis in the US, was not kosher for awhile. If you don’t think that Lookstein knows what he is doing, then there is something more than religion at play here.

    Less observant Jews are entitled to view our religion as we see fit. We do not have to follow a rabbi from 15th century Poland or decide that simply because someone was “closer” to the giving of the Torah at Sinai that somehow makes them more holy in their view of Judaism and the world. What a self-congratulatory way to view Judaism and to make certain that nothing ever changes. We, the less observant, have found a way to incorporate our Judaism into modern life. Simply because the orthodox and haredi don’t agree doesn’t make us wrong. And no disrespect to the BESHT, but much of what was revolutionary back in the day, is not revolutionary any longer. Remember too, how he was treated by the religious Jewish authorities and what that did to the Jewish people as well.

    But moreover, when you talk about sinat chinam as causing the destruction of the Temple, it is not the Reform or Conservative movements perpetuating the hatred. It is the Orthodox and haredi. If you are worried about spouting hatred then you need to talk to your rabbis and tell them to stop. Their nastiness is right out in the open and right on the front page of the papers. I have yet to have heard that Hashem appointed them as the ultimate deciders for the Jewish people. We have no Pope. Someone needs to reign them in before they do irreparable harm to the Jewish people and create a schism that is insurmountable.

    • anneinpt says:

      I’m going to answer this comment point by point.

      First of all I must apologize sincerely for stealing your headline. I KNEW I’d seen it somewhere but couldn’t remember. I’m going to add a link in my post to your post giving credit.

      I agree with you that Netanyahu’s reneging on the agreement is precisely the wrong way to go about retaining support of the Diaspora for Israel. I am glad that Natan Sharansky thinks there’s a way to put all the pieces together, but like a broken china cup that’s been stuck together, the cracks will always show.

      Your point about the Reform not wishing to make political gain from the Kotel agreement is not strictly correct. Read some of the articles I brought. However I’m sure there is a large part of ideological concern too, and while I strongly oppose Reform Judaism (no personal offence to you) I can understand that they have an ideological point.

      I also agree with you about the conversions issue. I am furious at the Rabbinate at the way they are treating converts and potential converts, and the way they are humiliating Diaspora Rabbis for absolutely no reason at all. It is not only about money, but about control. As I said in my previous comment, they feel they are losing control of their “captive audience”, hence their crack-down. In fact the way some haredi Rabbis are rejecting converts and threatening to reverse conversions is completely against Halacha! A convert is never to be questioned after conversion about his motives or his way of life unless he is seen publicly engaging in idol worship. Just this “minor” fact alone has made me lose respect for the Rabbinate, or at least certain Rabbis.

      As to non-religious Jews being able to be Jewish as they see fit, of course you are right. The question at the kotel though is the public arena. The Kotel functions effectively as an orthodox synagogue, for better or worse, and that is not going to change any time soon. But that does NOT mean that you are not free to worship at the kotel. I would love to welcome you here and take you personally to the kotel, where you can pray or meditate to your heart’s content. However, you won’t be able to stand with your husband at the main kotel plaza, but you can at the Robinson’s Arch plaza. The new deal that was reneged upon would not have changed these basic facts, only the access points to the areas.

      As for Sinat Chinam, I agree with you 100%. I think the extreme haredi Rabbis will eventually be reigned in by their own people. As they have fewer and fewer followers they will have to change their attitudes or simply become irrelevant.

      But I hope the “extreme Reform” (again for want of a better word) will also reign themselves in.

      And I hope that you and I can still retain our e-friendship despite our different religious observances.

      • Elise "Ronan" says:

        I understand how you feel about the Reform. I knew it even before you told me. To me it doesn’t matter. I value our friendship, even though it remains at this moment online only.

        I do understand that the Kotel is like an Orthodox synagogue. But what you need to understand that for me the issue when it comes to the Kotel for me, is that on that special moment when my family is able to finally step before hashem at the Kotel, I want to be able to do it together as a family, standing next to my sons. While my husband can pass the legacy down to them and stand with them, I feel that me being with them is just as important and this goes to my very soul. I want to stand with them and touch the stones with them and pass on our history at that very special moment. It is something I dream about. Something I pray we get to do.

        And not to worry, one day when my family does get to Eretz Israel, you can be certain I will be calling you 🙂

        • anneinpt says:

          I understand your desire to stand with your family. I have felt the same frustration despite (or because?) being Orthodox. For me at least there is no current way to square this circle.

          And I look forward to your visit “speedily in our days”. ☺️

  4. Reality says:

    I was speaking recently to my daughter-a staunch feminist ,who said that Netanyahu was being politically clever.He probably has no problem with giving WOW a place to pray,but needs his coalition.Therefore ,by backtracking,the issue will go to court who will rule in favour of WOW.This way they get their place to pray,Bibi looks good with the coalition and the Haredi parties stated their opinions.A win win expensive situation!
    It’s just sad that as we approach the 3 weeks this is what’s going on.The Chief Rabbinate here have a lot of soul searching to do,but so do the Reform and Conservative leaders.They are politicizing issues which needn’t be,and are alienating a lot of traditional Israelis.Yesterday on Army radio there was a discussion about this between 2 non religious women, who felt that their form of religiosity had been hijacked by these leaders.So possibly it’s time for the members of these congregations to stand up and say their piece

    • anneinpt says:

      Interesting. I hadn’t thought about the court angle, that they’ll do Bibi’s “dirty work” for him.

      But it doesn’t gain him friends abroad. Then again they don’t vote for him and he’s all about the politics.

      Also interesting to hear the views of non religious Israelis.

      As you said, and we all agree, everyone needs to do some soul searching.

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