Reform movements express outrage with Shas law criminalizing pluralist prayer at Western Wall

Director of the Reform Movement in Israel Rabbi Gilad Kariv said the bill was part of the “campaign of incitement” being waged against Reform Judaism.

Progressive Jewish leaders begin procession with Torah scrolls to Western Wall entrance (photo credit: JEREMY SHARON)
Progressive Jewish leaders begin procession with Torah scrolls to Western Wall entrance
(photo credit: JEREMY SHARON)
The Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements in Israel have reacted with anger to new legislation introduced by the Shas party, which would render the resolution to create a state-recognized pluralist prayer space at the southern end of the Western Wall obsolete.
The bill, announced by Shas on Monday night, would criminalize anyone participating in progressive prayer services at the Western Wall, including the southern section, who would be liable to prison sentences and hefty fines.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform Movement in Israel, said the bill was part of the “campaign of incitement” being waged against Reform Judaism.
“The purpose of the law is to make permanent the Orthodox monopoly in opposition to the prayer customs of millions of Jews in Israel and around the world, and in opposition to the democratic values of the Israeli government,” said Kariv, who once again called on the prime minister to implement the government resolution to create the pluralist prayer site.
Attorney Yizhar Hess, director of the Masorti Movement, described the legislation as “craziness,” and said that the current government was acting in a “post-Zionist” manner.
“The many prohibitions that appear in the law are what is desecrating the sanctity of the site, and creating divisions and argumentation,” said Hess. “This law would be rejected anywhere else [in the world] due to antisemitism and maltreatment, but here in the state of Orthodox Jews this law can get support.”
Shas’s new bill, which is only in its initial legislative stages, would formally place the entire Western Wall site under the jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbinate, which has been bitterly opposed to a prayer section for progressive Jews.
The explanation to the bill states that although regulations for Israel’s holy sites were legislated in 1981, the status of the Western Wall as a holy site has never been directly formalized, which Shas’s bill says has led to “injury to the holy values of the Jewish people.”
The new bill would “regulate prayer arrangements at the prayer plaza of the Western Wall and protect the status and holiness of the entire Western Wall,” a reference to the Robinson’s Arch area at the southern end of the wall, which is the proposed site for the pluralist prayer section.
The Shas party stated that the law would define the exact perimeters of the Western Wall itself including the prayer plaza, the customs of the site, the position of a rabbi of the Western Wall, and what is prohibited at the site.
The draft legislation states specifically that the “local custom” at the site will be “according to Torah law as defined by the rabbinical courts and the rabbinical administrator of the site, and that actions such as not violating the Sabbath and not using a separation barrier between men and women will be prohibited.
Any ceremonies or religious services which are not in accordance with “local custom” will be banned, while any action which would “disturb worshipers” such as mixed gender prayer would also be banned, as would the use of a Torah scroll, shofar, prayer shawls and tefillin in the women’s section of the site.
Anyone violating any aspect of these new regulations would be liable to six months in prison and a fine of NIS 10,000.
The Religious Services minister would be given authority over implementation of the law, and the right to draft further regulations for it.
“This law comes to create vital order to the holiest place for the Jewish people, and to arrange its status within Jewish law,” the Shas party stated in announcing the introduction of the bill. “It is unthinkable that the place from which the Holy spirit never departs, which generations of Jews longed for, can be the center of arguments and offense to the millions of Jews who visit it on a regular basis. We have no doubt that this bill accurately reflects the opinion of the overwhelming majority of the Israeli public, and will restore its status, honor and sanctity.”