Ben-Gurion moment at the Western Wall

Everyone knows that Ben-Gurion, in a moment of socialist hubris about religion, granted exemption from army service to what he expected to remain a small number of yeshiva students.

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September 19, 2016 21:54
Western Wall

Western Wall. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Talk of the deal for Robinson’s Arch as the solution to the question of Jewish practice at the Western Wall and the future of Israel-Diaspora relations is back on.

Discussion resurfaced because of a petition to the Supreme Court challenging the publicly-funded Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the Western Wall, to end its exclusive haredi (ultra-Orthodox) domination and admit Jews of other persuasions to its operation.

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The Reform movement and other petitioners brought the motion years ago but iced it once the former entered negotiations for the deal: why make administration of the Western Wall open and representative if you are ceding the Western Wall officially to the haredi establishment, which the deal would do? With the deal moribund under haredi opposition, the Reform movement revived the petition, which had a court hearing last week.

The Supreme Court is notoriously reluctant to rule on politically charged cases, particularly those touching on religion. True to form, some of the justices excoriated the state for not implementing the deal, which would moot this petition.

The Reform movement and its offshoots were ecstatic: their goal was not good governance at the Western Wall but their own narrow gains: official recognition and state funding for the Reform and Conservative movements to run long-established egalitarian prayer at Robinson’s Arch, and a grand new entrance to the Western Wall plaza that would proclaim the equivalence of prayer options there: progressive at Robinson’s; officially haredi at the Western Wall.

It is no wonder why the haredi establishment in all its many competing and adversarial divisions ultimately united against the deal. The question is why the haredi rabbi in charge of the Western Wall – and the rest of the haredi establishment which, denials notwithstanding, knew all its details – agreed to it in the first place.

Aside from the substantial accomplishment of official, as opposed to de facto, control of the Western Wall, substantial financial payoffs to the Western Wall haredi establishment were buried in the bowels of the deal, as exposed by Yehuda Yifrah in Makor Rishon last April. If the deal goes through, that would be just the beginning.

The deal has been pitched to the rest of us as critical to preserving relations with North American Jewry and to fostering Jewish unity. Recently, Natan Sharansky, who first conceived the deal, made the unity argument in a way that deserves careful attention, not just by the parties interested in the future of the Western Wall but by all Israelis and all Jews.

Unlike most who speak for it, Sharansky admitted that the deal would cede the Western Wall to the haredi establishment.

But, he argued, “By creating separately administered, egalitarian prayer space alongside the traditional one... this agreement granted legitimacy to liberal communities while acknowledging that Orthodoxy remains Israel’s de facto religious common denominator.”

In agreeing to the supremacy of Orthodoxy, he continued, “the non-Orthodox parties... recognized that Orthodoxy’s preeminence in Israel is not an accident [but rather,] stems from the historic need for a unifying religious force in the Jewish state. Orthodoxy... has long played a crucial role in forging a nation out of previously disparate communities... It is to their credit that the representatives of the liberal movements conceded this fact in agreeing to preserve the Western Wall’s traditional prayer section as is, and even sign into law that it would not be subject to future interference [my emphasis – S.M.].”

This is where the rest of us need to wake up and smell the coffee.

Everyone knows that Ben-Gurion, in a moment of socialist hubris about religion, granted exemption from army service to what he expected to remain a small number of yeshiva students.

We all know what this has turned into: a system of permanent privilege, inequity and dysfunction that no government is able to dislodge. On the contrary, the current one has only solidified this arrangement, and others, like not enforcing requirement of even minimal English and math in government-funded haredi schools, and the disgraceful mikve bill. No party in the opposition with a hope of attaining power says anything but that these arrangements will continue.

With the deal, they will not just continue. They will mushroom.

The haredi establishment united against the deal, spurred by a street indoctrinated to demonize any form of Judaism but haredi. That establishment is way up a tree about this. The only ladder to bring them down is some huge, new payoff. If you think mortgaging the state and society further to the haredi establishment is a good idea, this deal is for you.

Sharansky’s argument – that not Judaism, but Orthodoxy – is the glue that unifies Israeli Jewish society, is debatable at best. One could more readily make the case that Orthodoxy, and the official rabbinic establishment, in particular, are responsible for a society increasingly split between types of Jews and observance, and for the alienation of huge segments of society from Judaism.

We can see this dramatically at the Western Wall. During the 1967 war, no single event had the emotional resonance for the Jewish people and for Israeli Jews as the taking of the Western Wall.

Secular as well as religious soldiers wept at its stones. In the war’s aftermath, Israeli Jews of all stripes streamed to it. It – national memory, not Orthodoxy in any variant – united Jews. Fifty years later, more people than I can count say, “I can’t stand the place, never go there,” repelled by what it has been turned into: a de facto haredi shrine, instead of the site par excellence of sacred Jewish memory, a point around which Jews of all kinds could indeed unite today, as we did not just 50 years ago but for centuries.

Even if Sharansky’s point was correct, its perspective is fixed on the past. More and more Israeli Jews are avoiding official, Orthodox-haredi Judaism in the areas of its most ubiquitous control: marriage and divorce.

The number of Jewish Israeli couples choosing to live together rather than marry through the rabbinate rose by 29% in the past two years alone. Entire website and Facebook pages are devoted to ways to marry and separate without rabbinate or any state involvement (lack of the latter means no rabbinate involvement in case of divorce, which is far more important than 15 minutes of rabbinate involvement under the marriage canopy).

At the same time, there is increasing interest in free Judaism: secular yeshivot, pluralistic study halls, independent prayer groups, and kabbalat Shabbat on Tel Aviv beaches draw increasing numbers, particularly of young Jews, who want study and connection with Jewish tradition but who will not seek it from Orthodoxy, let alone the haredi variant.

These are the trends we should be encouraging, not a faceoff of dueling camps at the Western Wall.

A poll just released by The Jerusalem Post shows overwhelming Israeli support for recognition of Reform and Conservative Judaism. I am willing to bet that those holding that position wish to see it implemented in the form of an end to the official rabbinate’s monopoly of marriage, divorce, and conversion – reforms that would make a real difference in the lives of millions of Israelis – not in a deal to cede the national holy site of the Jewish people to the haredi establishment and vastly increase its powers.

Here’s a taste of possible things to come. At last week’s court hearing, the lawyer for the Western Wall Heritage Foundation argued that it cannot be made inclusive and representative because the Foundation has no administration.

The rabbi appointed to administer the Western Wall – and its budget, its finances – is it.

Make no mistake. The only way the deal for the Western Wall will happen is through some immense new payoff to the haredi establishment. Ostensibly progressive movements are fine with that. The rest of us should not be.

This is a Ben-Gurion moment at the Western Wall. Will the mire we find ourselves in for past Ben-Gurion deals become the template for the future? Or will we boldly step forward to a new, healthy paradigm, starting at the Jewish people’s most sacred site?

The author is an award-winning Jewish historian, core activist in Original Women of the Wall (OWOW) and a plaintiff on a petition to the Supreme Court to enforce already-recognized rights of Jewish women to read the Torah at the Western Wall using the site’s scrolls, currently barred to women.


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