The New Kotel: exciting progress or sellout?


The New Kotel section under constructionThe New Kotel section under construction

This morning I was contacted by an American journalist writing about the marginalization of the non-Orthodox movements in Israel. She wanted my views on this subject. I am not sure that my response was in line with her premise. I have begun to feel optimistic.

Since the Masorti Movement was established in Israel we have found the doors to MKs and ministers closed. Our congregations, youth groups, and rabbis were not granted funding. The political coalitions with the zealously Orthodox made speaking with us in any official capacity almost radioactive.
But that was then. This is now. There seems to be a new spirit in the air. Maybe I am naïve. Maybe I am excited by what may turn out to be a passing phenomena. But I am seeing something I have not witnessed since my Aliyah in 1987.
The Minister of Religions has met with Masorti and Reform leaders. In fact he greeted us in the Knesset. So too the Chair of the Knesset. In June our rabbis met with the President of Israel at his home. The Minister of Justice has met with us on numerous occasions. These officials are not the usual suspects of the Left.
Now had all of this been confined to a few meetings where niceties were exchanged – some of us may have said Dayeinu (we are pleased). But it did not end there.
The courts have decided that non-Orthodox rabbis may be entitled to funding. Our right to use of Mikvehs will soon be adjudicated. The doors to dialogue are open.
Just this week the new egalitarian section of the Kotel was opened to the public. Davening 24/7 is now available at the Robinson’s Arch area. The government will provide Sifrei Torah (they are currently provided by the Masorti Movement). Masorti prayer books will be purchased by the government. This is the southern end of the Western wall. It embodies no less sanctity that the section to its side. Indeed the atmosphere is more peaceful and the area cleaner.
Now some have said that in embracing (albeit conditional) this new proposal we have sold out Women of the Wall. This idea is baseless.  We are happy to see the progress that is being made in the egalitarian/pluralistic area of the Kotel. Since 1999 we have been praying there. We have a written agreement about our rights to daven at that area that emerged from the violent attacks against us when we prayed in the upper Kotel plaza in the nineties. Every few years the agreement has been renewed and expanded. This is the latest such expansion.  It does not give us everything that the Sharansky plan had offered but we understand that this plan is but a first step. There should be much more to come.
Many of us in the Masorti Movement have supported Women of the Wall since the inception of the group. Our members and leadership join with them on Rosh Hodesh. I was with them for part of the 24 hour sit-in last week. We still advocate for the WoW. At the same time Masorti and WoW are independent group. We have much in common even as each has its own agenda and goals.
But imagine the following scenario. The Masorti and Reform movements have much in common. But our respective approaches differ in not a few areas. Imagine that each of the movements had applied for municipal land in order to build a synagogue building. Let us say that land was granted to the Masorti group but had not yet been granted to the Reform.  Should we refuse to build our new congregation until the Reform group is satisfied? I think most of us would agree that perfect can be the enemy of good. That in an ideal world each would receive a land allocation but it would be foolhardy to refuse to build a Masorti congregation until the Reform too can build. We would act to advance the Masorti Movement. At the same time we would still support the Reform Movement’s request.
Last year hundreds of Minyanim, and over twenty thousand people, davened at the new Kotel space through the Masorti Movement. That number will now grow as more hours and resources are made available. And we shall not be limited to weekday mornings only. You may now daven there on Erev Shabbat and Shabbat morning. In deed you may daven there any time you wish. This is a victory for all of the Jewish people who believe in religious pluralism. It is available for women’s prayer groups – those that feel that to daven as a woman’s prayer group in this section is just fine.
I must agree that this dramatic change does not meet all of the needs of WoW.  It does not meet all of our needs. Yet, as Anat Hoffman of WoW said with regard to the Sharansky plan, “It’s very ambitious, a dramatic change, and it will make history… It’s not everything we were hoping for, but we will compromise. You don’t always have to be right, you have to be smart, and compromise is a sign of maturity and understanding what’s at stake here.”  I believe that this compromise comes as a result of new found attention paid to the non-Orthodox denominations both in Israel and in the Diaspora.
There is truth in those who protest that separate but equal is not truly equal.  But again I would assert that perfect is often the enemy of good. Indeed, the pluralistic area is more esthetic and pastoral. And should the WoW achieve all that they seek it would do absolutely nothing to end separate but equal as there would continue to be a section for men and one for women. The right of women to pray as a group in the women’s section continues to mean men on one side and women on the other. What’s more, the far larger numbers that seek mixed davening would be left high and dry.
Our struggle for religious pluralism shall continue. We will continue to work to advance our goals. We will continue to support WoW. “Both these and these are the words of the living God.”