Knesset lobby discusses freedom of prayer at Western Wall

US Jews continue to slam passing of conversion bill as ‘divisive.’

women of the wall 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
women of the wall 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A day after Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of the Women of the Wall prayer group, was detained for holding a Torah scroll at the Kotel, the Knesset Lobby for Civil Egalitarianism and Pluralism held a preplanned discussion Tuesday on the freedom of all Jewish streams to pray at the Western Wall.
MKs Shlomo Molla (Kadima) and Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), who head the new lobby, led the chorus of speakers from numerous liberal religious and civil groups condemning Hoffman’s arrest and noting the importance of making the Western Wall a site where any Jew could freely express his or her religious beliefs.
Hoffman herself relayed how Knesset security had initially refused to let her in with her tallit, as her entry permit had not detailed that she would be carrying “equipment.”
“I’d like to see them telling an Orthodox man he can’t bring his tallit or phylacteries into the Knesset,” Hoffman said.
“From a symbol of the Jewish people, the Western Wall has become a symbol of concessions in our Judaism,” she noted, adding that transforming the Kotel into a site open to all streams of Judaism could provide inspiration for similar trends in other Israeli institutions.
The new lobby’s mission is to deal with issues that are being insufficiently addressed at the parliamentary level, such as the struggles against religious coercion and for equality in military and civil service.
Many of the speakers at Tuesday’s session mentioned the importance of galvanizing the public to join the struggle to wrest the Western Wall out of the “haredi hands that currently hold it.”
A recent poll conducted among 500 respondents by the Smith Institute on behalf of Hiddush – an organization that promotes equality and freedom of religion – showed that 42 percent of the public was in favor of allowing men and women to be together in the entire Kotel plaza, including the area where prayers are conducted. Some 37% think that the current situation, in which there is separation only in the prayer area, is desirable, while 21% would rather have men and women separated in the rest of the plaza as well, according to the poll.
“The current trend of radicalization is counter to the spirit of Judaism,” said Hiddush head Rabbi Uri Regev, who presented the data.
Notably absent from Tuesday’s discussion was Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, who canceled his participation following the incident with Hoffman.
In an explanatory letter to Molla and Horowitz, Rabinovitch referred to the incident as “a group of women insistent on defying the Supreme Court decision and offending thousands of people attending prayers, by creating an unnecessary and loud provocation... that caused me and others deep grief.”
Rabinovitch expressed his concern that Tuesday’s lobby would be a continuation of the argument, and ended the letter with a call for cooperation and dialogue, imploring that the Western Wall not be turned into an arena for a conflict.
Horowitz rejected the notion raised by The Jerusalem Post that the conference’s timing, so close to Hoffman’s detainment, might not be coincidental, and noted a recent chain of similar detainments and arrests at the site.
Horowitz also said that in the next few days, an amendment to the Holy Sites Law would be presented to the Knesset, to ensure tolerance and pluralism at holy sites for members of all religious streams.
Meanwhile, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the world’s largest group of Jewish clergy, issued a statement strongly condemning Hoffman’s arrest.
The CCAR said it “looks with shock and revulsion” at the detention of Hoffman, adding, “We view her arrest, interrogation and subsequent ban from visiting the Western Wall for a month... a desecration of God’s name.”
In a related development, angry reactions continued to pour in from North American Jewry on Tuesday over the Knesset Law Committee’s passing of the conversion bill on Sunday.
Officials from a broad spectrum of Jewish organizations joined in condemning the passing of the bill, which they said would put the haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate in charge of conversions and harm ties with the predominantly non-Orthodox Jewish community in the US.
Rabbi Steven Warnick, executive vice president of the Conservative Movement, said his organization would not allow the bill to become law.
“I think that [MK David] Rotem’s goal of easing the process of conversion in Israel is something we all support, but this bill does more harm than good,” said Warnick, who is currently on a visit to Israel.
“It puts into the hands of the rabbinate, which we don’t have great confidence in, the authority for conversions, and it’s a big issue for us. It’s divisive; both [the conversion bill issue and the Hoffman incident] happening on the same day and [in the Hebrew month of] Av is heart-wrenching.”
He added that “if Israel wants to continue to be the land of the Jews, it needs to become the land of all the Jews, and I say that as someone who is wholly committed to the land of Israel.”
Meanwhile, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) sent a letter to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu expressing its “dismay” over the legislation.
In the letter, URJ president Eric H. Yoffie questioned both the bill’s substance and its timing, saying it could cause a rift in ties between Israel and US Jewry when a joint effort was needed to face outside threats.
“[The bill comes] at precisely the time when we are all working so hard to strengthen these ties and to deal with other concerns – such as Israel’s security and the nuclear threat from Iran,” he wrote.
Netanyahu said Monday that the bill would not be allowed to become law. A Prime Minister’s Office spokesman told the Post that it was in the process of drafting a response to the URJ letter.
At Beit Hanassi on Tuesday, President Shimon Peres told a delegation of 120 federation leaders of Jewish communities from across North America that “we have to find a proper solution to enable giyur [conversion] in Israel, but not at the cost of unity with the Jewish community in the United States. A split in Jewish life will be catastrophic and is totally unnecessary.”
He added that he appreciated Netanyahu’s comments that the legislative process would be postponed in order to conduct a serious and inclusive discussion.
Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, welcomed the president’s remarks and told The Jerusalem Post, “We are hopeful that the prime minister will strongly support and continue down the path that he began by appointing Natan Sharansky to lead the dialogue, and that the parties that are trying to drive this bill will stop and think about the entirety of the Jewish people.”