Freedom’s light

Netanyahu’s call for patience was too little, too late for Israel’s Reform and Conservative Jews, who are backed by the great majority of American Jews.

November 30, 2016 21:43
3 minute read.
Western Wall

Praying at the Western Wall. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

By the time most of our readers have seen today’s editorial, the Women of the Wall activists will have already performed their monthly celebration of the new Hebrew month (Kislev) at the Western Wall.

We hope this month’s worship will have passed peacefully, unlike the scuffles that broke out at last month’s celebration of the advent of Heshvan, when stewards in the employ of the ultra-Orthodox custodian of the site tried to seize Torah scrolls being carried by women, even shoving several women to the ground.

The monthly confrontation between ultra-Orthodox state officials appointed to supervise the Western Wall and pluralistic Jewish worshipers is the result of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to freeze implementation of January’s cabinet decision providing for egalitarian worship at the Wall.

Netanyahu asked for “patience and tolerance,” declaring: “We have one people and one Wall – it’s our Wall.

The less publicly we talk about it, the better chance we have to resolve it. The last thing we need is more friction, as that will make a solution more difficult.”

Surely our prime minister grasps the bitter irony in his words. The Jews of the Diaspora – particularly those who live in true democracies – have long believed that precisely because we are “one people with one Wall,” all Jews should have equal access to pray there according to their own traditions.

Netanyahu’s call for patience was too little, too late for Israel’s Reform and Conservative Jews, who are backed by the great majority of American Jews. Last month, pluralistic Israeli Jews carrying 14 Torahs were attacked by religious stewards while trying to join the Women of the Wall in the Rosh Hodesh service.

It should be noted that some Israeli Orthodox leaders choose to endorse civil rights rather than worship the status quo at the Kotel, which delegitimizes the rights of Jews around the world. Examples of such prominent Modern Orthodox rabbis include Shlomo Riskin and Binyamin Lau, who also happen to have followings in the US.

Some progress was made in this direction two years ago, when Jerusalem District Court Judge Moshe Sobel upheld a lower court’s decision and ruled that the custom of the Kotel is not necessarily Orthodox. He ruled that women are allowed to pray out loud, in an organized group, with tallitot, tefillin and to read from a Sefer Torah at the Wall.

The Hebrew month of Kislev is a celebration of history’s first recorded battle for religious freedom. Appropriately, Women of the Wall kicked off its annual Hanukka campaign for public support under the theme of “Sparking the Light for Equality.” It is the activists’ role to be the vanguard in the struggle of all Jews to transform the dream of equality and pluralism into reality.

Nobody said this would be easy. This year, once again, women are barred from participating in the lighting of the national menorah in the men’s section of the Western Wall. The state-run observance is thus men only, and only male politicians, heads of industry and finance, Supreme Court justices and high-ranking civil servants are invited.

As in previous years, Women of the Wall will conduct an alternative ritual on its separate but unequal side of the Kotel. Women are asked to bring their individual hanukkiot to light, in hope that “these flames will help light up the night, sparking the light of equality and banishing the darkness of prejudice and discrimination.”

This struggle is being waged beyond the Western Wall.

The Shas party, under Interior Minister Arye Deri, this week introduced a bill to criminalize pluralistic prayer at the Wall. If this were to pass into law, it would ban non-Orthodox worship and subject violators to prison terms and heavy fines.

Attorney Yizhar Hess, director of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement, described the bill as “craziness,” saying, “The many prohibitions that appear in the law are what is desecrating the sanctity of the site, and creating divisions and argumentation. 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.”

Hanukka’s message for the prime minister is to implement the cabinet decision to create the pluralist prayer site now and not to wait for another Hanukka miracle.

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