What next for the troubled holy site at the Western Wall?

Taken superficially, it would appear that the haredi parties United Torah Judaism and Shas have truly got one over on the progressive Jewish movements.

June 25, 2017 22:17
3 minute read.
The Kotel

ULTRA-ORTHODOX MEN walk past soldiers at the Kotel in Jerusalem. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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With the government decision Sunday to indefinitely freeze the resolution that would have created a state-recognized egalitarian prayer area at the southern end of the Western Wall, the question arises: What’s next for this troubled holy site of ours? Taken superficially, it would appear that the haredi parties United Torah Judaism and Shas have truly got one over on the progressive Jewish movements by nixing the agreement that would have given them true, if symbolic, recognition by the State of Israel as legitimate expressions of Judaism in the Jewish state.

Symbols matter, which is why the Reform and Conservative movements worked so hard to obtain the agreement and implement the decision, and there is no doubt that Sunday’s decision is a bitter blow.

Despite the haredi victory, the problem has in no way disappeared, and could, in fact, get worse.

To start with, the Women of the Wall prayer group whose efforts led to the original agreement will continue to pray in the women’s section of the main Western Wall plaza, and do so with prayer shawls and tefillin.

They are afforded this right by law and by dint of court rulings in 2013 that gave them the right to pray in accordance with their own customs at the Kotel.

This will continue to stick in the throat of haredi leaders, and especially the administrator of the Western Wall, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who seeks to reign over the magnificent prayer complex he has developed in calm and tranquility without the regular disturbances to the premier holy site in Israel caused by Women of the Wall.

One of the unintended consequences of the government decision on Sunday may be to pave the way to a High Court ruling that allows women to read from the Torah at the site, as well.

The original Women of the Wall splinter group has petitioned the High Court, demanding that it be allowed to bring and read from Torah scrolls – the last aspect of Jewish prayer services forbidden to women under current regulations.

If the government does not provide adequate facilities at the Robinson’s Arch area of the southern Western Wall, the court might be inclined to allow women to read from a Torah scroll in the main plaza.

Then there is the High Court petition, submitted by the Reform and Conservative Movements together with Women of the Wall, which demanded that the government either implement the compromise resolution of January 2016 or allocate them prayer space in the main plaza, splitting it into three sections – two separate areas for men and women and one for egalitarian prayer.

It is conceivable that the High Court will rule that by stymieing the compromise proposal for the southern Western Wall the government has created a situation of fundamental inequality in the ability of progressive Jews to pray at a government- mandated holy site at the Western Wall in accordance with their customs.

If it were to take this position, dividing the main plaza into three is a possible, and explosive, outcome.

However, the fact that there already exists a prayer area for egalitarian prayer at the southern end of the Western Wall, albeit not a formal holy site recognized by the government, means the progressive Jewish groups do have some form of access to the Western Wall where they can pray in accordance with their customs.

For the purposes of equality in access to, and freedom of worship at, Israel’s holy sites, it might be more likely that the High Court will deem the current situation at the Robinson’s Arch site at the southern end of the Western Wall as sufficient.

Indeed, it appears that this is what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is banking on.

In parallel with the decision to freeze implementation of the resolution, the prime minister has ordered that an upgrade to the egalitarian section at Robinson’s Arch be carried out. This upgrade will make the site more suitable for prayer, and is designed to ward off any interventionist decision from the High Court.

But the notion of a grandiose, magnificent site for egalitarian worship sharing a unified entrance with the main site that is visible to all and with an administrative committee including Reform and Conservative representatives as envisioned under the 2016 resolution, is definitely off the table for the rest of this government – and any government that includes the haredi parties.

Given all this, the main Western Wall plaza will not return to being the place of tranquility and unity it once represented any time soon.

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