Canadian rabbis call on Netanyahu to reverse Western Wall, conversion decisions

Rabbis denounce last week's controversial moves as “a significant setback for Jewish religious pluralism in the world’s only Jewish homeland.”

Netanyahu at Western Wall (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu at Western Wall
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Following the two controversial decisions taken by the government last week regarding the Western Wall and conversions, the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus, an affiliate of Canada’s Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), has called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reverse those steps.
The caucus, a multi-denominational advisory body comprising Orthodox, Reform and Conservative rabbis who provide guidance to the CIJA, published an open letter to Netanyahu and called on members of the Canadian Jewish public to endorse it.
Israel freezes plan for mixed-sex Jewish prayer site at Western Wall (credit: REUTERS)
“While we are diverse in our political and religious views, we are united in our passion for Israel, our love for Israelis, and our unshakable commitment to the security and prosperity of the Jewish state,” 60 rabbis stated in the letter.
Expressing their “profound disappointment and frustration” at the approval of legislation last Sunday that would grant the Chief Rabbinate a total monopoly on conversions in Israel, they said the decision had been “a significant setback for Jewish religious pluralism in the world’s only Jewish homeland.”
“We are no less disappointed by the Israeli cabinet’s recent decision to quash the ‘one Wall for one people’ compromise agreement regarding the Kotel,” the rabbis continued, in reference to the Western Wall agreement that was formally suspended indefinitely on Sunday.
“Just as every Jew should feel they have a physical home in Israel if they need or desire it, every Jew should feel they have a spiritual home in our ancestral and holy land – and the opportunity to connect with the sites that have inspired Jews for time immemorial,” they said.
The rabbis requested that Netanyahu “take immediate steps to reverse these worrisome decisions,” saying in so doing, he would reaffirm the government’s “commitment to the freedom of every Jew to grow in their religious and Zionist identity.”
The conversion legislation had been advanced by the haredi political parties, but following a deal reached on Friday, it will be frozen for six months while a special task force is created to find a solution acceptable to both the haredi parties and opponents of the bill, including the Reform and Conservative movements as well as moderate national-religious rabbis and organizations.
In addition, the Prime Minister’s Office has allocated funds to upgrade the infrastructure and renovate the current egalitarian prayer section at Robinson’s Arch, work that will include some of the physical upgrades stipulated in the original resolution.
Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, vicechair of the caucus and spiritual leader of a Conservative congregation, said that while these gestures by Netanyahu were “heartening,” the initial sense of betrayal caused by the decisions would take work to remedy.
“These actions are detrimental to the sense of unity of the Jewish people and negative to the idea that Diaspora Jews have a stake in Israel and that Israel has a stake in the Diaspora – so those gestures are heartening, but they are not in and of themselves sufficient,” Frydman-Kohl told The Jerusalem Post.
He stressed that the carefully formulated plan for the egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall had involved sacrifices on the part of the liberal streams in agreeing to pull back from the main section of the Kotel in order to serve the greater good and unity of the Jewish people.
“The messages I am hearing from young and old Canadians – and particularly women – are very distressing. Nobody is pulling back from their relationship with Israel, but they are looking for ways to be engaged with Israel and are very concerned that their love is not appreciated, or is misunderstood,” he said.
From the Orthodox perspective, Rabbi Reuben Poupko, cochair of the caucus, said the issues highlighted the need for separation of religion and state in Israel.
“Many of the rabbis who signed – and those who declined to sign – have a different vision. Instead of demanding equal recognition, the best possible solution would be complete separation of religion and state in Israel,” he told the Post. He added that countries that “choose to entangle religion and government tend to have a population that is very anti-religion – it ends up hurting religion.”
People should think about “changing the rules of the game completely” instead of advocating in the existing arena, Poupko said.
“It would benefit religion and the state if there was separation,” he reiterated, charging that rabbis in Israel had been turned into bureaucrats.
Nobody denies the Jewish character of the state, he continued, pointing to religious holidays and the need for kosher food in the army.
“But when it comes to matters of personal status and matters of prayer, it is unseemly for a secular government to be entangled in these kinds of issues, and it would be healthy for Israeli society if religion was not a political football,” he asserted.
The CIJA is the advocacy arm of Canada’s Jewish Federations. It focuses on improving life for Jewish Canadians, fighting antisemitism and supporting Israel.