A little more than three years ago, I went with my family to celebrate my older son’s bar mitzvah in Israel. We had, as is customary in some places, a ceremony on Thursday morning, when he put on tefillin for the first time, and then a service and lunch on Shabbat. Thursday morning was just immediate family, and we were at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.
But not quite at the Kotel. We were actually in an area known generally as “Robinson’s Arch,” because of the ancient piece of an arch that sticks out from the the southern end of the Western Wall, visible from the Ophel Archaeological Park complex below. At the time, there was a new, temporary platform that had been built over the ancient ruins of that park.
The women’s section of a synagogue is referred to in Hebrew as “Ezrat Nashim,” a reference to the area designated for women in the Beit HaMiqdash, the ancient Temple in Jerusalem that was on the other side of the Kotel. There was also a separate area of the Temple known as the Ezrat Yisrael, which was reserved for men.
That temporary platform where egalitarian services have been held for the last 3+ years is called Ezrat Yisrael, a kind of Hebrew wordplay that suggests an area reserved for all Jews. And yet it has been something of a lightning rod.
For one thing, it has remained controversial since its inception; some of the people who had been advocating for egal prayer groups at the traditional Kotel plaza rejected this plan as something akin to a “separate but unequal” solution to the challenge posed by the fact that the Kotel has become a de facto Orthodox synagogue.
And, without going into all the battles that have occurred at the Kotel plaza, it is worth pointing out that in February of this year, a large group of Orthodox Jews descended upon a mixed group having a service in the Ezrat Yisrael, set up a mehitzah, and prevented the egal service from taking place. In the scuffles that ensued, the female Masorti (that’s Conservative in Israel and in the rest of the world) rabbah (female rabbi) that coordinates services there was physically attacked.
And this platform has remained unchanged now for more than 3 years, although it was not intended to be permanent. About a year and a half ago the Netanyahu government agreed to a plan, coordinated by Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel (and former MK and famous refusenik) Natan Sharansky, to widen the area and make it accessible, with appropriate security, around the clock, just as the rest of the Kotel plaza is. But the Israeli government began dragging its feet over the plan almost as soon as it had been agreed upon, and just this past week, PM Netanyahu’s cabinet voted to freeze the plan (which had never quite been put into motion in the first place). As it happens, lay leaders representing Diaspora communities were in Jerusalem at the time for the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors meeting, including Beth Shalom member (and PGH Federation head) Jeff Finkelstein, and so the cabinet’s decision was immediately met with an outcry from the Diaspora Jewish leadership.
Now, I must concede that officially freezing the agreement to make a permanent, accessible egalitarian prayer area is an affront to world Jewry, a cowardly move by the Prime Minister to maintain his coalition and sacrifice the good will of Diaspora Jewry, who already feel that the Judaism they practice is at best unfamiliar in Israel. However, I must also state for the record that the situation now is somewhat better than it was when I lived in Israel in 1999-2000, when there was really no egal prayer space and groups with people davening together at the Kotel risked their personal safety. Indeed, at the time there had been several violent incidents when chairs and other things were thrown at egalitarian worshippers on the plaza.
However, along with this particular, symbolic act, I hear more about incidents that deny non-Orthodox groups access to prayer spaces, sifrei Torah, and other ritual items. This happened to me at the hotel run by Kibbutz Shefayim, a secular kibbutz on the coast just a stone’s throw north of Tel Aviv, when the teen group I was leading in 2011 was denied the use of the hotel synagogue because we were openly egalitarian.
And, add to that the cabinet’s advancing of a bill this week designed to turn over all affairs related to conversion in Israel to the Chief Rabbinate, and we have a growing pattern of disenfranchisement of Diaspora Jews.
There is a moment in Parashat Huqqat when we are reminded that there are both delicate and blunt ways to get what you want.
You may recall the story in which the Israelites are complaining of thirst (Numbers 20:2-13), and God instructs Moshe to command a particular rock to give water. But then Moshe is emotionally thrown off-balance by the boisterous Israelites, who have been complaining with abandon about everything that is wrong with this whole journey. And so Moshe strikes the rock instead of speaking to it, and as a result is not permitted to enter the land of Israel.
But you may argue that the end justified the means! The Israelites received their water. What difference does it make how he did it?
I’m not worried about egalitarian prayer at the Kotel. That will continue to be available, even if it is shunted to the side and has the sting of second-class about it. Even the current platform is beautiful, if not “permanent,” and on the whole, most egalitarian services that go on there are, I believe, unmolested.
What I am more worried about is the use of the blunt instrument of the Knesset by Haredi parties to force not just Jewish tourists but also Israelis to conform to their extreme vision of what Judaism is. One might say that it is ironic that the only democracy in the Middle East does not give religious freedom to Jews!
One of the great things about America is the lack of an established state religion. That has enabled a multitude of religious traditions from across the spectrum of human spirituality to flourish and thrive. There is a wide range of Christian and Jewish practice, as well as many, many other types of faiths that are practiced here. While our system is not perfect, I think that it’s fair to say that the ongoing struggles over where to draw the lines are still healthy and benefit the overall spiritual bottom line for Americans.
But Israel has no such separation, and the state religion is becoming more and more Haredi.
The free practice of religion enables different groups to compete in the marketplace of ideas for people’s attention and support. That kind of “competition” encourages me, for example, to try to be the most inspiring rabbi I can be, and devote my time to building this community so that it will attract new adherents. It encourages us to be the best congregation we can be, and not be limited by government strictures.
The Israeli Rabbinate, has become state-sponsored coercion, with those in power exhibiting extreme hubris while simultaneously ignoring that Judaism’s very survival for the last 2,000 years has relied on our tradition of disagreement. The Talmud famously states that while Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai disagreed about matters of Jewish law, they still married each other’s daughters (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 14a). Today, religious forces within the government seek to deny some Jews access to Judaism, and to deny the very Jewishness of many others.
If the Haredim are so certain that their way is right, I would hope that they would be subject to the same market forces that the Masorti and the Reform and the Modern Orthodox streams, rather than wielding the clumsy gavel of parliamentary politics. They should speak to the rock to try to get their way, rather than hitting it.
I am sorry to say that nothing will change in this regard until the Israeli government gathers the legal fortitude to cut loose the rabbinate, and create a free environment for religion in Israel like we have here.
The Israeli Rabbinate will not be going away in the near term; this may be a decades-long fight. But in the meantime, what can we do to ensure that our voices continue to be heard, at the Kotel and everywhere else in Israel? First, by continuing to go there. Nothing gives you a voice in Israel more than being there and supporting the Israeli economy with your tourist dollars. We are currently in the early planning stages for a Beth Shalom trip to Israel in 2018; watch for that info.
(I should point out that this first item is actually second to making aliyah; that’s a bigger step than visiting, but if you’re interested in aliyah, please talk to me.)
Second, drop an email to the Israeli Prime Minister’s office: http://www.pmo.gov.il/English/PrimeMinister/Pages/ContactUs.aspx
Tell them how much you care about Israel, and how Israel must continue to be a haven for all Jews, and that religious freedom is an essential plank of democracy.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/1/2017.)