The news that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has asked Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky to look into the troubling issue of discrimination against non-Orthodox Jewish prayer at the Western Wall is an encouraging, if long overdue, step in an attempt to right a grievous wrong.

In what is now a monthly ritual on rosh hodesh, police arrest female Jewish worshipers from Israel and abroad who are associated with the Women of the Wall movement for the crime of praying. Their infractions? Wearing “male” tallitot (prayer shawls), or donning colorful “feminine” shawls over their shoulders in a manner similar to tallitot, or even reciting one of the central prayers of the morning service – the Shma – in a loud, feminine voice.

The police actions, on behalf of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation that administers the Kotel area, stem from an April 2003 High Court of Justice decision in which a panel of nine justices, led by then-court president Aharon Barak, in a 5-4 ruling, upheld a law stipulating that it is forbidden to conduct a religious ceremony “contrary to accepted practice” at a holy site, or one that may “hurt the feelings of other worshipers.”

The judges interpreted the law to preclude women performing religious practices at the Western Wall traditionally done by men in Orthodox Jewish practice, such as reading from a Torah scroll, wearing tefillin or a tallit, or blowing a shofar.

The issue is exacerbating the increasing rift between the Israeli Orthodox establishment and Diaspora Jewry, particularly with the millions of Jews affiliated with the Conservative and Reform movements who claim that the Kotel is in the hands of a rigid Orthodox monopoly and see the altercations there as signs that as Jews, they are not welcome at Judaism’s holiest site.

In addition, when the world reads or sees reports coming out of Israel focusing on women’s rights being curtailed, it only provides fodder for our enemies to use in efforts to delegitimize us. Clearly, some process must be put into place to prevent the “prayer-arrest-condemnation” cycle from endlessly repeating itself.

The widely respected Sharansky seems to be the right person to try to sort out the issue and arrive at a reasonable compromise that will take into account the sensitivities of Orthodox Jewry while at the same time enabling those who believe in religious pluralism and gender-blind prayer to feel like the Kotel is their home, too.

Besides his fabled past as a Prisoner of Zion, he has experience serving as a unifying bridge between all streams of Judaism and has proved his mettle helping to soften the Israeli conversion bill that threatened to alienate many Diaspora Jews because it included stringent, ultra-Orthodox definitions of who is a Jew and who is eligible to immigrate to Israel.

“I imagine very easily a situation where everybody will have their opportunity to express their solidarity with Judaism and the Jewish people and the State of Israel in a way he or she wants, without undermining the other,” Sharansky told The New York Times last week, adding that he was planning to discuss this vision with the appropriate bodies.

There is some hope that somebody will be listening. As reported in The Jerusalem Post on Thursday, two leading national-religious rabbis – who admittedly fall on the liberal side of Orthodoxy – expressed support for accommodating non-Orthodox prayer at the Wall. Rabbi Benny Lau from the capital’s Beit Morasha showed that he gets it, when he said that the fact that only Orthodox worshipers feel at home at the Western Wall is damaging to the Jewish people and that the “sectoralization” of the site “distances other Jews from their heritage.”

And Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, dean of the Hesder Yeshiva in Petah Tikva, even suggested a creative solution – designated different hours for Orthodox and non-Orthodox prayer. Sharansky will have to consider that option as well as other ideas that are raised as he begins his task.

We hope that Netanyahu’s request for help from a legendary Jewish figure is not just an empty gesture aimed at sweeping the issue aside without any concrete results emerging. But instead, Sharansky should be empowered with the power to recommend changes to the status quo that will insure that the Kotel remains a site of transcendence and unity instead of controversy and division.

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