Chief Rabbinate contests High Court jurisdiction over Western Wall prayer

“A clear majority of the Israeli public opposes the destructive monopoly of the rabbinical establishment at the Western Wall," Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform movement in Israel, said.

August 22, 2017 07:38
3 minute read.
Youth hold their prayer shawls as they stand in front of the Western Wall, May 17, 2017.

Youth hold their prayer shawls as they stand in front of the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayers site in Jerusalem's Old City May 17, 2017.. (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)


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The Chief Rabbinate maintained in a position statement to the High Court of Justice on Monday that the court has no authority to intervene on the issue of prayer rights for progressive Jews at the Western Wall, describing the issue as an intra-religious struggle in which the court lacks competence and jurisdiction.

The rabbinate submitted the position statement, having been denied the right to private representation, which it sought earlier this year, instead of representation by the State Attorney.

The Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements in Israel, together with the Women of the Wall prayer rights group and others, filed a petition to the High Court of Justice last year demanding either the implementation of a government resolution to create a state-recognized egalitarian prayer site at the southern end of the Western Wall or the addition of an egalitarian prayer section at the central Western Wall Plaza.

At the behest of the haredi political parties, the government has indefinitely suspended the resolution it passed last year to preempt any High Court ruling that would force it to implement the deal.

In its lengthy paper, the Chief Rabbinate began by arguing that all religions have specific laws and customs, including those pertaining to visiting holy sites and places of worship.

“One would assume that the court would not interfere with religious arrangements of the Christian denominations in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and change the existing status quo, and would also allow the Muslim communities to make their own decisions when it comes to canceling or not canceling the custom to remove one’s shoes at the entrance to al-Aksa Mosque,” wrote the Chief Rabbinate’s counsel.

As well as arguing that the court lacked the authority to intervene on this issue, the Chief Rabbinate said it lacks competence in religious law to adjudicate.

“The courts are not the appropriate tribunal to decide if Jewish law can be changed and the holy sites can be desecrated and to allow external religious characteristics to be forced [at the site] that are not accepted by the decisive majority of religious arbiters of Jewish law and which will cause dispute, division and the disturbance of public order, which will bring about a desecration of the holy,” the paper argues.

In addition, the Chief Rabbinate says the Law for the Protection of the Holy Places appoints the chief rabbis and Chief Rabbinate as the representatives of Judaism who are authorized to determine the customs for running the Western Wall in accordance with Jewish law.

The position paper also argued that the current status at the Western Wall has been in place since Ottoman times through the British Mandate, has been upheld by the State of Israel, and in accordance with that status quo and the ongoing status of the Chief Rabbinate as the representative of the Jewish community in Israel, the court should not interfere in the running of the Western Wall.

Director of the Masorti Movement Yizhar Hess said in response that the Chief Rabbinate’s argument that the High Court does not have jurisdiction is an attempt to claim that the Western Wall holy site is “extraterritorial” to the State of Israel and a place where the law is determined by Jewish law.

“I assume that the court will remind the honorable chief rabbis not just that ‘there are judges in Jerusalem’ but also that their wages are no longer paid by King George V, but rather the State of Israel,” quipped Hess in reference to the Chief Rabbinate’s claims regarding the status quo under the British Mandate.

Also on Monday, the Reform movement launched an advertising campaign promoting its perspective on the Western Wall crisis, with massive posters being placed on the Ayalon Highway through Tel Aviv, declaring “Jews don’t expel Jews from the Western Wall,” alongside a new social media campaign with the same message.

The campaign and the position paper from the Chief Rabbinate come ahead of a critical hearing in the High Court next Thursday.

“A clear majority of the Israeli public opposes the destructive monopoly of the rabbinical establishment at the Western Wall on conversion, marriage and divorce, kashrut and burial,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform movement in Israel.

“We’re talking about not just egalitarian prayer rights at the Western Wall, but part of a bigger struggle for the image and values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, even if, due to political considerations, the ruling parties fold in the face of haredi parties.”

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