A place for every one of us

Rather than continuing to justify or condone allowing Reform and Conservative Jewry to exist under the radar, we want the state to publicly celebrate our people’s diversity.

September 16, 2016 11:56
Aliya from United States

Newly arrived immigrants from North America react as they are welcomed after landing in Israel on a special flight organized by Nefesh B’Nefesh at Ben-Gurion International Airport. (photo credit: REUTERS)

There is more than one way to understand, practice and live Judaism. Pluralism is embedded in the very marrow of our tradition, from the Bible to the Talmud through to our day. My teacher Rabbi David Hartman, the brilliant Orthodox Jewish philosopher, taught and lived a Torah of pluralism. One of his books is based on a compelling metaphor from the Tosefta, an ancient compilation of Jewish oral law: “Make yourself a heart of many rooms and bring into it words of the House of Shammai and the words of the House of Hillel, those who declare unclean and the words of those who declare clean” (Sota 7:12). Today we don’t all agree about the authentic ways to live lives of Torah, but as the Tosefta reminds us, we never did.

Yet, today in Israel, a small minority of religious leaders controls the well of spiritual engagement, aiming not only to deny the majority of world Jewry expression of their religious values, but also maintaining a stranglehold on Judaism that offers only the most narrow view of our religion.

Why is the Western Wall at the core of this struggle? It is no accident that after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed courageous leadership with a plan for the inclusion of the entire spectrum of Jewish practice at the Western Wall – including securing a 15-5 vote by the cabinet to implement an egalitarian and pluralistic space at the Western Wall – the ultra-Orthodox parties sought to have the decision overturned. Now, we are asking – no, we are demanding – that the prime minister continue to show leadership by finally implementing his own government’s decision. But we are not simply waiting; we are preparing a petition to the Israeli Supreme Court.

Why? Because in this decision, the Jews of the world seek a commitment by the government of Israel that demonstrates that Israel is also our home. We want to believe that while we may live in Toronto or Atlanta or Buenos Aires, Israel is also our home. As Jewish Agency leader Natan Sharansky, one of the Jewish people’s greatest human rights advocates, put it, “There should be one wall for one people.”

Two key stipulations in the government agreement are at the core of our moving forward – and they are precisely the same two the ultra-Orthodox leadership is now challenging.

We desire one entrance to the Western Wall, with three visible options for prayer: a separate men’s section, a separate women’s section, and an egalitarian shared section. This arrangement would entail moving the current entrance and providing new signage, an eminently doable option. We also want our Reform and Conservative leaders to sit on the governing council that decides upon the day-to-day practices and policies of the egalitarian section of the Western Wall, including administering a government budget for the site.

Rather than continuing to justify or condone allowing Reform and Conservative Jewry to exist under the radar, we want the state to publicly celebrate our people’s diversity. This desire means dramatically reconfiguring the Robinson’s Arch space at the Wall, so that it is no longer obscured and inaccessible.

We are waging this struggle because of our love for the State of Israel, our concern for the way it treats all its citizens and our desire to eradicate the monopoly ultra-Orthodox leaders hold on the role of religion in the state. We don’t approach this challenge with anger, but with love. We stand ready to work together with all Jewish leaders to create an inclusive, pluralistic worship space.

Now it is time for the ultra-Orthodox to engage. Instead of agreeing to meet with us to discuss our differences, or to meet us halfway, their leadership continues to treat us as if we are invisible.

Worse, many of their rabbis spew hatred and incite others to act similarly against our leaders – all in a manner dangerous to the fabric of Israeli democracy.

As part of the Western Wall decision, we aim to let all voices be heard and not to silence women or secular Israelis.

The rabbi of the Wall seems to believe that the mehitza (divider to partition men and women in prayer) at the Western Wall presently extends all the way through the national plaza so that women’s voices cannot be heard even when soldiers are inducted into the IDF. In military ceremonies held in that courtyard, women are not permitted to speak. Such repression is not only offensive, but also illegal, and we aim to do away with it. We want to strengthen the role of the national plaza as a welcoming place for all Jews.

It’s easy to connect the dots. The ultra- Orthodox rabbis and their political leaders who rail against the government’s Western Wall decision can see that their monopoly is coming to an end. Shortly after the original Western Wall decision this past January, the Supreme Court ruled that Reform and Conservative Jewish converts have the right to immerse in the network of government funded mikvaot (ritual baths).

This ruling too, was perceived as a threat to the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties, which swiftly introduced legislation into the Knesset – that passed – to overturn the decision by the Supreme Court.

As we fight for a Jewish democratic state that guarantees freedom for all citizens, we will engage more vigorously in fighting for civil marriage, equal funding for Reform and Conservative movements and more.

When we pray at the temporary site of the egalitarian and pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall, we see the stones of the Wall that fell when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. The Talmud, in tractate Yoma 9b, suggests that one of the reasons the Temple was destroyed was because of sinat hinam – groundless hatred among various Jewish groups in antiquity. We must do better! The well-being of our people and the Jewish state depend on recognition by the government that there is more than one way to live authentic Jewish lives.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism

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