A monument to discord

We are sacrificing what we share in common.

Women pray at the Western Wall (photo credit: JWRP)
Women pray at the Western Wall
(photo credit: JWRP)
When the government of Israel approved a new prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Reform and Conservative leaders in America celebrated. Traditionally observant Jews and feminist leaders mourned.
Most Israelis simply yawned.
Those who mourned did so for vastly different reasons.
To the observant, this agreement not only gives official Israeli recognition to abandonment of millennia of Jewish practice, but also formally divides the Jewish presence at the Holy Site. To feminists, the compromise permits traditional women to pray undisturbed in a place consecrated for their use.
Anat Hoffman, head of Women of the Wall (WoW), was trapped by her own rhetoric.
For decades she claimed that WoW simply wanted to pray in its own fashion, despite dozens of editorials and statements from WoW leaders about forcing traditional women to “change their world view,” in the words of its late founder, Rivka Haut. Now that American Reform and Conservative leaders agree this new space is adequate for alternative prayers, how could Hoffman argue, especially with the Reform movement paying her salary? So her core supporters have left; Vanessa Ochs calls her “a pawn of the liberal movements,” while Phyllis Chesler says Hoffman was “used.” They and Shulamit Magnus refuse to betray their quest to change the “Jewish sacred space” – to leave no site at the Wall that accords with traditional Judaism.
Gabriela Geselowitz complains that the compromise means “if I want to pray at such a holy site in a way that feels meaningful to me, I have to go to a part that isn’t from the postcards.” The problem remains that had the site not maintained traditional standards, none of those postcards would exist.
We can only join together when we surrender what “feels meaningful to me” in favor of what is shared by us. What Forward editor Jane Eisner calls “the area of the Wall considered most holy” is only so because it has felt the tears of millions of traditional Jews, none of whom could comfortably pray there had the site not maintained traditional norms. When the ad-hoc “Women For the Wall” called for a show of support for the status quo, they brought more women to the Wall on a single day than WoW does in a decade.
My sons and I prayed at the Wall in December, where we saw Jewish unity in practice.
Services began every few minutes, often just meters away from others, with an amalgam of Ashkenazim and Sephardim, hassidim and mitnagdim. (My wife prayed on the opposite side of the mechitza, amidst a similar blend of hundreds of women.) The one who asked to lead our group (mourning the loss of his mother) followed an Italian or North African nusach (style of prayer service) – I never quite figured it out, and when I asked him afterwards he said “just Jewish!” and hurried off. He was right, of course.
Diversity within the framework of common standards enables this living demonstration of Jewish unity.
None of that will exist at the new plaza, where each service will be incompatible with the last. Sofia Freudenstein argues in The Times of Israel that her needs are “neglected from both the right and the left.” She writes: “This is not religious pluralism. This is pigeonholing...
if anything it makes these problems stronger – assuming that there is a clear left and the clear right, a clear one side and a clear other side.” The abandonment of common standards leads not to a single fissure, but fragmentation.
Why did American liberal movements demand this new space? Why would they pressure the Israeli government to fracture unity at the Western Wall? They seek recognition and relevancy.
This is the same reason why the Conservative movement hired a PR agency to survey members and determine how to be current. This is why a Reform movement that calls its institutions “temples” to reject the concept of a single Temple in Jerusalem (a position its Israeli rabbis restated as recently as 1999) demands “equality” with traditional Jews who revere the site as the holiest place on earth.
After our prayers at the Wall, I made sure to visit the Ezrat Yisrael plaza, the temporary platform built by then-religious services minister Naftali Bennett. My son recalled that he had not said a prayer on behalf of a friend.
He was still at the Holy Wall, and said his prayer – which may have been the only prayer said at Ezrat Yisrael that day. I was reminded of the words of Lamentations; it was “lonely and desolate.”
In the end, some $9 million will be spent covering over the last area where the destruction of the Second Temple can still be seen. And for precisely the reason that Reform and Conservative schools of thought never found footing in Israel, the space will still be empty: Israelis are not interested. As Avinoam Bar-Yosef of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute told The New York Times, non-observant Israelis can be described as “secular Orthodox.” They know the Judaism of their grandparents and great-grandparents is still observed at the traditional plaza, and that is the place they will continue to go when they wish to pray.
The new space will remain desolate, a monument to discord.
The author is director of Project Genesis-Torah.
org, and co-editor of Cross- Currents.com, an Orthodox online journal.