Rabbis offer plan for non-Orthodox prayer at Wall

National-religious rabbis offer provision for prayer at Western Wall; PMO: There are no changes in prayer arrangements.

Tisha Be'av at the Western Wall (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Tisha Be'av at the Western Wall
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Two leading national-religious rabbis have expressed support for accommodating non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall.
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, dean of the Hesder Yeshiva in Petah Tikva, said one solution could be to designate different hours for Orthodox and non-Orthodox prayer.
“Jerusalem is at the heart of the Jewish people, and if we want all of the Jewish people to feel connected there then we need to find a place for all parts of the Jewish people at the Western Wall,” Cherlow told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
Rabbi Benny Lau, another senior figure in the national-religious community, said 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.”
Both Cherlow and Lau are, however, considered to be on the liberal wing of the nationalreligious world.
The Western Wall has become a flashpoint in recent months, with police at the site frequently detaining participants at the Women of the Wall organization’s monthly prayer service for wearing so-called “male-style” prayer shawls.
Despite Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s recent request that Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky look into the matter of prayer arrangements at the Western Wall, the Prime Minister’s Office downplayed the significance of the move on Wednesday, saying that “there are no changes in prayer arrangements at the Western Wall and no committee has been established.”
Meanwhile, Rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinowitz said that it was business as usual at the site.
“Nothing has changed,” Rabinowitz told the Post. “We will continue to do everything so everyone feels at home at the Western Wall without harming prayer arrangements or Jewish law.”
Netanyahu’s request to Sharansky relates to the demands of pluralistic groups and non- Orthodox Jewish denominations that they be accommodated at the Western Wall Plaza.
Both the Jewish Agency and the Prime Minister’s Office have stated that the prime minister spoke with Sharansky by telephone to ask him to “check into the issue,” but following an inquiry by the Post, the office studiously avoided defining exactly what issue Sharansky has been requested to examine or the mandate he has been given.
“Following requests from world Jewry which reached the Prime Minister’s Office, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu requested that the Jewish Agency chairman check into the matter and report back to him,” the Prime Minister’s Office said.
Rabinowitz said that he was torn between two extreme factions, the haredim on one side and Women of the Wall on the other.
“We need to act between the two and find the middle ground,” he said.
Israeli law, upheld by the Supreme Court in 2003, stipulates 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.”
This law is interpreted 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.
Police have been less stringent regarding more colorful “female style” prayer shawls worn in a less traditional fashion as a scarf.
Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman, who was arrested at the Western Wall in October, said that she was “somewhat optimistic” about the news that Sharansky had been asked to look into the matter, calling the Jewish Agency a “serious table” for deliberating on the matter.
She did, however, express concern, saying that she was “trying to have faith” that Sharansky and the Jewish Agency will take the assignment seriously.
Hoffman again dismissed the solution proposed by the Supreme Court in 2003 to establish a prayer area for non- Orthodox denominations in the Robinson’s Arch complex, likening it to “sitting at the back of the bus.”
“If it’s so holy, if it’s such a hot spot, why don’t the ultra- Orthodox want to go there?” she asked. “I want to chose wherever I want to sit on the bus and I don’t need government permission to pray next to the wall.”
The Robinson’s Arch area does not have the same amenities and 24-hour accessibility as the Western Wall Plaza, but Hoffman said that even if the site was upgraded it would not be acceptable unless it were accessible from the plaza.
“I want to see and be seen,” she said.
Yet Hoffman added that she was willing to compromise and says one suggestion is for the Western Wall Plaza to be operated as an Orthodox synagogue during the daily morning, afternoon and evening prayer services, outside of which the space would be made accessible to everyone as a “national monument for all,” with some form of retractable partition built which could be automatically erected and retracted at prayer times.
“Ultimately, we want to change the way the plaza is run today, to accommodate the diversity of the Jewish people,” she said.
An official in the Prime Minister’s Office stressed that the Western Wall should be a unifying force for Jews, both in Israel and abroad.
“Natan Sharansky was turned to because of his unique experience and abilities in serving as a bridge for all streams within the Jewish people,” the official said.
Previously, Sharansky helped negotiate a conversion bill that alienated many Diaspora Jews because it included stringent, ultra-Orthodox definitions of who is considered a Jew and who is eligible to immigrate to Israel.
Melanie Lidman contributed to this report.