Non-Orthodox prayer

February 4, 2016  

The news this week is that there has been a breakthrough on the contentious issue of prayer at the Kotel for non-Orthodox minyanim, so to speak. Upon closer examination, however, despite the Israeli government decision to recognize the religious legitimacy of egalitarian services at the Western Wall, it seems that little is changing.

Yet, according to the critics of the decision, while little will be changing on the ground, the move is a significant setback for tradition and the guidelines of halachah. Member of Knesset Yisrael Eichler of United Torah Judaism said on Monday in a phone interview with the 5TJT that what has been accomplished with the latest decision is that the group Women of the Wall “are creating of a place of peace and prayer a makom machlokes,” that is, a place of dissension and disagreement.

Here is the statement issued by MK Eichler prior to our conversation on Monday morning: “Anyone who thinks that the ‘Women of the Wall’ will settle for the southern wall (Kotel ha’dromi) does not understand their war. Their aim is to create loopholes in the holiest place of the Jewish people.

“They want to expel the Divine Presence and the sanctity of the holiest place of the people of Israel.

“Reform groups slander Israel—that the Western Wall is not something that unites the people of Israel, but is rather the focus of controversy and strife.

“These are the same organizations that incite against Israeli occupation and portray Israel as an apartheid state that should be internationally boycotted.

“For a half a century, millions of Jews have come to pray at the Western Wall in unity and joy from all sects and classes. Reformers want to make this place a place of licentiousness, so that an ultra-Orthodox Jew will be forced to stay away from the Holy of Holies—the remnants of our Holy Temple.

“We will stay there. Even if the Palestinian flag were to fly there, we will not give up on the sanctity of the Western Wall. The nation of Israel will continue to cling to the Western Wall and fight for the purity and sanctity of this holy place of prayer.”

While that is a rather forceful statement, upon closer examination it may be little more than much ado about not that much at all. The not-so-new location of the Conservative and Reform services is known as Robinson’s Arch, and for all practical purposes it is not attached in any way to the Kotel Plaza as we know it today.

The plan is for the Israeli government to spend about $2 million to reconfigure the Kotel Plaza area so as to create some contiguity between the men’s section of the Kotel, the separate women’s area (which is divided from the men’s by a mechitzah), and the area where those who want to can pray in a mixed congregation and where women can read from the Torah and so on.

The real victory, it seems, is the government’s recognition of the quasi-legitimacy of the two non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, something these movements have been pursuing for decades. Both the Conservative and Reform movement here in the United States declared victory in what they consider a breakthrough on the matter of the Orthodox-dominated religious status quo in Israel.

In the talk with MK Eichler, I suggested that in years past, an issue like this would have been sufficient cause to bring down the governing coalition with a no-confidence vote that would lead to new elections. The current ruling coalition is especially fragile these days, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government ruling with a mere one-vote majority of 61 in the 120-seat Knesset.

I asked MK Eichler why his chareidi party did not at least threaten to bring down the government over the matter. He explained beyond his above statement that this was the best of the worst choices there was to make on the matter. He explained that the real objective of WoW is to have an aron kadosh placed on the women’s side of the wall, where the women could convene their own minyanim and read from the Torah. He explained that in order to prevent the High Court from getting involved and making that policy objective the law, his leaders decided to not object to the Robinson’s Arch option.

The reality is that in all likelihood it is more of a contentious issue here in the U.S. than it is in Israel. Over there, it is about two or three dozen women gathering at the Wall once a month. Here in the States, it is about the emotional bond and the material support of the Jewish State depending on which formula of the role of women in prayer at the Kotel you subscribe to.

Rabbi Steven Graber of Temple Hillel in North Woodmere (Conservative) sent us this statement: “For many years, progressive Jews who are passionate about their Judaism have yearned for a place at the wall where they can feel close to the Al‑mighty while worshipping according to their own masoret and standards. In the early part of the 20th century, men and women frequented the Kotel together. The present situation has only been the status quo since 1967. Since Israel is a democracy and not a theocracy, and whereas the remains of our Holy Temple belong to all the Jewish People, the decision to create a third section at the Kotel for use by the more liberal streams of Judaism is a just and righteous decision.”

Rabbi Heshie Billet of the Young Israel of Woodmere sent this statement: “Peace must be brought to the Kotel. There was no option but to accommodate those people who feel that they cannot comply with the Orthodox practices at the Western Wall. The monthly demonstrations and police confrontations were a big distraction. They are now in a private secluded place to do as they wish. No one will see them and they will not disturb anyone at the main Kotel site. I think that this is a good and necessary arrangement. We must adjust to the realities of our time while maintaining our standards for ourselves.”

Here in New York, Agudath Israel of America issued the following on the matter earlier this week: “Designating an area at the Kotel Maaravi for feminist and mixed-gender prayer not only profanes the holy site, it creates yet a further lamentable rift between Jews.

“For more than three decades, the Western Wall has been a place—perhaps the only one in the world—where Jews of all affiliations and persuasions have regularly prayed side by side.

“What has allowed for that minor miracle has been the maintenance at that holy place of a standard—that of time-honored Jewish religious tradition—that all Jews, even those who might prefer other standards or none at all, can abide.

“If the current plan is realized, that will be no more.

“Instead, there will be two options: some Jews at the Wall will pray at a space whose atmosphere respects and reflects traditional Jewish prayer, and others at a space that doesn’t.”

It has been felt by some that the resistance to women praying together and reading from the Torah is the main factor spurring interest in the cause and has helped to buttress the numbers of women and the supporters coming to pray as a matter of protest of the halachic dominance at the Kotel. In the past, when there were no pronouncements about not allowing women to form their own minyanim, long stretches of time elapsed in which not more than a handful of women came to protest or to lead prayer groups at the Wall.

The gross misunderstanding here that is reinforced by these extreme statements on the matter is that Orthodoxy disrespects women in some fashion and that there is no significant role for them when it comes to prayer. That is the furthest thing from reality. Halachah simply (or not so simply) defines the roles of women and men in Jewish life at a time when society seems determined to blur those lines and distinctions in rather emphatic ways.

Israel’s Interior Minister, Aryeh Deri, said the other day that regardless of what happens and what policies are instituted, the religious establishment in Israel will never recognize the Conservative and Reform movements as legitimate or as being on par with Orthodoxy. (Although if he really didn’t recognize those movements’ existence, he may have been better off not saying anything. That would be real non-recognition on his part.)

The setting aside of the southern wall that once surrounded the Beit HaMikdash for mixed and women’s prayers is not a new idea. The compromise formula was devised by Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky over ten years ago, when he was a member of the Knesset. For the last decade, Women of the Wall, their founder, Anat Hoffman, and others have rejected the idea, holding out for a presence at the Kotel as we know it today. Their acceptance of the not-so-new formula is more of a breakdown than a breakthrough.

Everyone should be allowed to pray to the extent that they desire and in the direction that their hearts lead them. No one here is saying that people’s prayers are not important. Frankly, we need everyone’s tefillos. What has occurred here over the years is a struggle for control over the greater policy of Jewish law in the continuing development of Am Yisrael. Today it is less of a religious matter than a political one; therefore, compromise was in order and possible.

The plan is now to develop easy access from the Kotel Plaza to Robinson’s Arch. But it will take at least two years for construction to be completed, and that means that if during that period this government falls and Israel goes to elections, there is a chance the plan will be scrapped in order to curry favor with the chareidi parties like UTJ.

In the meantime, the Finance Ministry, as well as the Religious Ministry, which is controlled by Israel’s chareidi parties, is refusing to allocate money for the project, so for now the money is coming out of the Prime Minister’s Office.

The Rabbi of the Kotel and Jerusalem’s Holy Sites, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, received the decision “with a heavy heart and a sigh of relief.” He also issued the following statement:

“Ever since the fringe and vociferous group of ‘Women of the Wall’ started its mass-media activity, the Western Wall went from being a unifying site to one of incessant quarrels. The chillul Hashem (defamation of G‑d’s name) that this group and its supporters have caused is terrible, and it will take years to repair it.

“My personal and halachic stands on the subject are well known. Prayer in general and at the Western Wall in particular must be based on halachah and Jewish tradition as passed down from generation to generation. The situation in which we have found ourselves stems from legal constraints and the fear of additional deterioration in the battles breaching the sacred walls and defaming the name of Heaven. We must do everything to put this terrible chapter behind us. . . .

“It is a pity that the Women of the Wall did not act in accordance with what the committee recommended already over a decade ago—when the plaza was established at Robinson’s Arch.

“The Western Wall will continue to remain open to any worshipper—man or woman—at all hours of every day, with respect and loyalty to Jewish tradition and Jewish heritage, as the Western Wall is the clear symbol of these.”

While Jerusalem may no longer be geographically divided, it certainly seems that there is an assortment of divisions at play here. What else is there to do but pray for its future?

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