This past Sunday, the government of the state of Israel, led by PM Netanyahu, took an historic decision to fund and create a new egalitarian prayer space at the holiest site in Judaism, the Western Wall, that will be characterized by gender equality, pluralism and a lack of segregation between men and women.
This new space will be overseen by non-Orthodox Jewish religious streams (Reform, Conservative) and Women of the Wall.
The following are highlights that I noted in an international conference call for the leadership of the Reform movement this morning, February 4.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, Chair of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, and Anat Hoffman, Director of the Reform movement’s Israeli Religious Action Center and Chair of Women of the Wall, discussed in detail the significance of Sunday’s cabinet decision.
Rabbi Jacobs thanked PM Netanyahu who made the establishment of an egalitarian section of the Western Wall an important part of his leadership, and he expressed gratitude to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, Jewish Agency Director Natan Sharansky, the Conservative movement, the Federations of North America, and Women of the Wall. He singled out Rabbi Gilad Kariv and Anat Hoffman, whose leadership has brought about this historic decision. Rabbi Jacobs, it needs to be noted, was also a central figure in effecting this historic compromise between the liberal religious streams and the Israeli government.
Though the final agreement is imperfect, it will allow the construction of a grand and fitting entrance to a new prayer space beneath Robinson’s Arch at the southern end of the Western Wall that will be visible to all. The decision establishes as a matter of law for the first time that the Kotel belongs to the entirety of the Jewish people and not just to the Orthodox.
Rabbi Jacobs emphasized: “We sought to change the state of Israel with this decision – we could not nor did we wish to change Orthodox Judaism. That’s for them to do!”
In reaction to the decision, hateful and inflammatory words have flown from the mouths of several government Ministers who disparaged the Reform movement. We have not taken their slanderous remarks lightly, and PM Netanyahu also condemned what they said as unrepresentative of the government of Israel.
Now, this agreement must be implemented and we Jews in the Diaspora, along with our movement in Israel, will need to maintain public pressure on the government to bring it about. The best way to do this is for groups of all kinds – Synagogues, Federations, Jewish organizations, NFTY, Birthright Israel trips, family b’nai mitzvah ceremonies, weddings, and individuals need to visit and use this new prayer space.
This government decision is but one step in a longer process of bringing greater religious freedom for all Jews in the state of Israel. Other challenges include our continuing to advocate for civil marriage, for non-Orthodox burial, for the elimination of the hegemonic Chief Rabbinate over the personal choices and lives of Israelis, and for a 2-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Anat Hoffman reviewed the history of this effort that commenced on December 5, 1988 when a small group of Diaspora orthodox women on Rosh Hodesh brought a Torah to the Kotel and then continued to do so on every Rosh Hodesh for the next 27 years. Anat characterized this as a precious gift that Diaspora Jewish women have given not only to Israel but to the entire Jewish people.
Rabbi Kariv shared three insights:
1. This is the first time in the history of the Israeli Reform movement that an agreement has been achieved by negotiations in the Knesset and not through the Supreme Court;
2. Israeli law recognizes that there is more than one way to worship God in Judaism;
3. The upper Kotel plaza has been removed from the purview of the Chief Rabbi of the Wall and has been reclaimed according to national democratic parameters that will allow women and men of the IDF to gather together there for ceremonies.
• The Orthodox Rabbinate will maintain complete control over the traditional northern section of the Kotel;
• Notes can be placed in the new prayer section’s Wall as in the northern traditional prayer area;
• We are sensitive that this is an historic religious area for other faith traditions. We will be thoughtful neighbors and we will not ask Christians to remove their crucifixes when entering our prayer area, as they are asked to do in the traditional area (the Pope was asked to do so when he visited the Kotel);
• The National Antiquities Department Director promises that modifications to the Robinson’s Arch area for this new prayer space will not disrupt the archaeological integrity of the site or the Al Aqsa Mosque compound;
• There will be no modesty police overseeing people in this section as is the case in the traditional northern section;
• This area will be known as “The southern section of the Western Wall.”
This decision not only enhances the democratic character of the state of Israel, but it enhances the Jewish character of the state. It is an extraordinary example of partnership between the state of Israel and the Jewish people around the world working together on behalf of klal Yisrael.
To PM Netanyahu, the Jewish people owe you a debt of gratitude.