Weeping over the wall

It is time to liberate the Kotel for all Jewish people.

Members of Women of the Wall at a prayer service at the Kotel in 2013 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Members of Women of the Wall at a prayer service at the Kotel in 2013
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
IN ONE of the most famous poems written in the wake of the Six Day War, Haim Hefer wrote the following words: “How does it happen that paratroopers cry? How does it happen that they touch a wall with such great emotion? How does it happen that from the tears comes singing? Perhaps it is because these 18 year olds, born before the State came to be, are carrying 2,000 years on their backs.”
Almost 50 years after the unification of Jerusalem, we can ask how it is that the Western Wall continues to be a major issue for Jews in Israel and the Diaspora, even as Israeli society deals with far more important matters.
With Haim Hefer’s poem in mind, we can say that the Jewish leaders from Israel and around the world, who stood with Torah scrolls at the entrance to the Kotel recently, along with hundreds of activists (mostly women), were carrying a long history of struggle for the character of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and for the nature of its relationship with non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.
The vast majority of Diaspora, as well as Israeli, Jewry recognized a long time ago that the struggle to implement an egalitarian prayer platform at the Kotel and allowing women to pray with a tallit and Torah scroll is not only about freedom of religious practice at Judaism’s holiest site, but about basic questions regarding the character of the State of Israel and the role it plays in the life of the Jewish People. Just as the historical and national significance of liberating the Kotel in 1967 did not end with the renewal of Jewish prayer at the site, so the significance of the current struggle relates to a lot more than just the ability of Women of the Wall to read from the Torah on Rosh Hodesh or the ability of a secular, Reform or Conservative family to conduct a bat mitzvah ceremony at the Wall.
The greatest proof of this is the harsh resistance by Haredi parties to the implementation of a government resolution on the matter, even though they themselves were involved in negotiations surrounding that resolution. The Haredim understand that much more than the style of prayer at the Kotel is at stake.
Other than the fact that the Western Wall is the most prominent symbol of the Jewish People’s religious and historical connection to the Land of Israel, we can point to three additional factors that make the struggle at the Kotel one of a strategic nature.
The first is that it connects very clearly between Diaspora Jewry and the Israeli public in a way that perhaps only the issue of conversion does. Each of the Jewish leaders who marched with Torah scrolls into the Kotel plaza would admit wholeheartedly that the Orthodox monopoly over marriage and divorce in Israel is much graver than the Orthodox monopoly over the Kotel. However, for the millions of Jews around the world, the issues of marriage and divorce in Israel seem distant and to a large extent purely an Israeli matter.
This is not the case regarding the Kotel.
Every Jewish camper and every graduate of a Hebrew school has drawn the Kotel numerous times; has heard stories about it, sung songs about it and written notes to be placed between its stones. The same goes for every Hebrew- speaking Israeli child; whether he or she went to a religious school or to a completely secular one.
REFORM AND Conservative Jews around the world understand intellectually the importance of breaking the Orthodox monopoly over marriage in Israel. The struggle for the Kotel, however, is understood in their hearts.
It is therefore no surprise that the struggle over the Kotel in its intensity is reminiscent of the fight against the conversion laws. In both cases, we are talking about concerns shared by both Diaspora Jewry and the Israeli public.
The second reason for the importance of the current battle relates to the long process of negotiations, which took place surrounding the Kotel in recent years. In an unprecedented manner, the Israeli government led a strategic process with the non-Orthodox movements in Israel and the Women of the Wall, as well as with the Jewish Agency and the Union for Reform Judaism in North America, the American Conservative Movement and the Jewish Federations of North America. In all of its years, the State of Israel had never conducted such a detailed and intensive dialogue with the leading forces of world Jewry.
In contrast to what the ultra-Orthodox parties are now saying, the Orthodox rabbinic establishment was a full partner in these negotiations.
The government resolution passed almost a year ago signified a dramatic breakthrough in the ability to formulate understandings and compromises surrounding the most sensitive issues of religion and state in Israel and those of relations between Israel and the Diaspora.
About 18 years ago, a similar attempt ended in complete failure, when the Ne’eman Commission dealing with the issue of conversion was not able to complete negotiations.
The current failure of the Israeli government to implement its own resolution regarding the Kotel is much worse. It sends a harsh message to world Jewry that the Israeli government cannot reach understandings with it, and that negotiations and attempts at compromise do not bear meaningful and real results.
The Israeli government’s surrender to the aggressive objections of the Haredi parties has led the leadership of world Jewry to feel cheated and betrayed.
Only one year ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained in an unusual hearing at the Supreme Court how nullifying the agreement signed by the government with the companies who received the rights to Israel’s gas reserves will seriously harm the international market’s trust in the Israeli economy and how it will have serious implications going forward.
That same rationale is valid regarding the Kotel resolution. Its annulment or lack of implementation will severely damage world Jewry’s trust in the Israeli government and the ability to reach understandings with it.
The prime minister, who demands day in and day out the complete acceptance of Israel as the state of the Jewish people, chooses to ignore the destructive consequences of the developing mistrust among world Jewry.
AND THERE is a third reason, as well, relating to the identity of those working over the past year to thwart the resolution. In recent months, extreme right-wing forces have joined the ultra-Orthodox parties wishing to prevent the establishment of an egalitarian platform at the Kotel. Surprisingly, their position is even more extreme and blunt. The Haredi parties are concerned that establishing an egalitarian platform will lead to official recognition of non-Orthodox streams.
The extreme right wing forces are not even willing to accept the idea of establishing an egalitarian platform at Robinson’s Arch.
For them, there is no room for non-Orthodox existence in Jerusalem.
More than in any other public struggle, the Kotel matter exposes the strengthening axis between the Haredi establishment and nationalistic and extremist forces. This axis is aimed against the values of the State of Israel as a democratic state and as the state of Jewish people of all sects and communities.
A victory by this axis on the matter of the Kotel will indicate the direction we are headed in when it comes to conversion and many other issues. The question at stake is therefore not who will decide over prayer customs at the Kotel, but, rather, who will set the tone in formulating the character of the State of Israel.
In recent days, speculation has arisen that in light of the election results in the United States, American Jewry will focus on internal matters and will be less attuned to what is going on in Israel. In the short term, this may have practical implications. In the long term – the opposite is true.
American Jewry will realize that the struggle for tolerance, moderation, and freedom of religion is shared by the majority of the Israeli public, and that struggles such as the one over egalitarian prayer at the Kotel express the shared values that are being discussed by so many. Anyone who thinks that the battle for an egalitarian platform at the Kotel will no longer occupy Diaspora Jewry is no less mistaken than the pollsters who predicted a sweeping victory for Hillary Clinton in the US elections.
On the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the Western Wall, the battle to return it to all of the Jewish People is not over, and the determination shown by the leadership of the non-Orthodox movements on Rosh Hodesh Heshvan at the Kotel will remain steadfast.
The Prime Minister, who received a great deal of credit over the government resolution, will have to decide whether the Wall will be one of tears, strife and blind hatred or a site of hope and mutual respect.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv is the executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism