Egalitarian Jewish worship

There is one worldwide Jewish people, that people has one eternal national homeland in the State of Israel, and there is one Kotel. We wish to stand before it and be counted.

Women of the Wall 370 (photo credit: Molly Livingstone)
Women of the Wall 370
(photo credit: Molly Livingstone)
The prime minister has announced that Natan Sharansky will lead a process intended to bring about a compromise between the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform streams. I greet this news with optimism.
Sharansky, a Jewish hero, has shown great wisdom regarding countless challenges facing our people.
He and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are to be praised and thanked for the commencement of this process to preserve the peace and sanctity of the Kotel, which has inspired loyalty, commitment and connection in Jews around the world to the land of Israel for thousands of years.
The compromises Sharansky will need to achieve to bring peace and cooperation to that holy site will not be easy, so we must consider a broad road map as far as which issues need to be addressed and how. Judaism, like many of the great wisdom traditions, struggles with whether conflict is to be resolved or managed. Over time, the direction of Judaism has been toward the management of conflict.
The emergence of this trend reflects our tradition’s interest in preserving differing points of view; as well as the Jewish people’s history of internal conflict. Most significantly, this trend reflects our legal tradition’s preference for p’shara (compromise) over din (judgment), in recognition that compromises encompass multiple truths and thus require each side to give.
A RECOGNITION of the inevitability of different approaches to Jewish observances is found in Iggrot Moshe, the commentary of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, “Because it is almost impossible for everyone to be of the same approach and the same opinion,...we may consider there will be disputes in how to fulfill Torah laws, and there will be separate groupings, each great rabbi and his students, as we witness throughout the Talmud that in almost all the Torah’s laws there are a number of disputes of the Sages, and so shall it be in every era.”
(Orach Haim 4:25) Those who do not accept egalitarian Jewish worship undoubtedly will have an avalanche of reasons why Rabbi Feinstein’s explanation doesn’t apply to Conservative and Reform Jews. To them, I would say, “We have received your memo. Now we need to find a way to live together.”
Under the skilled and steady direction of Sharansky, we ought to look not for “resolution” but for areas in which this conflict can be managed and in which each party stands aside and permits the Jewish strivings of the other to carry on, even without explicit recognition.
In the discourse of religion and state, such a tacit “standing aside” falls under the rubric of “state.” Our Orthodox brethren do not recognize our worship as religiously legitimate or in the best interests of the Jewish people. Indeed, we launch the same criticism against their rejection of us – we find their rejection of our legitimacy not religiously legitimate and not in the best interests of the Jewish people.
The goals we set for this process ought not to be to resolve this fundamental tension, but to manage it.
FOLLOWING THE Supreme Court decision of 2003, the Masorti movement undertook to maintain the area at Robinson’s Arch at its own expense (all operations of the historic Kotel are, of course, government-funded) to create the most inspiring and hospitable egalitarian worship environment in the hours and with the discomforts that the space permitted.
Notwithstanding those obstacles, that 800 groups totaling over 20,000 people come there every year speaks to the hunger for such a place.
At the same time as we have operated within the bounds of the law and contributed to Israeli society and world Jewry at Robinson’s Arch, we hold that the supreme court decision is not just and that instead, we ought to be able to conduct public gender-egalitarian prayer at the Kotel. Robinson’s Arch has provided a historically moving and religiously meaningful place near the Kotel for worship, but it is not the Kotel.
There is one worldwide Jewish people, that people has one eternal national homeland in the State of Israel, and there is one Kotel. We wish to stand before it and be counted.
Herzl proposed that a Jewish settlement be established in Uganda as an interim measure to relieve the suffering of European pogroms. That idea was ultimately rejected. Even under such dire circumstances, fundamental to Zionism is an abiding recognition that the unbroken historical connection of the Jewish people to its sacred land and history cannot be addressed by substitutions.
LEADERS OF the Reform movement have previously proposed a three-part division of the space: men, women and egalitarian. Such a division might be possible on the Kotel plaza. The sections could be separated by a mechitza (the Orthodox standard for separation during prayer) and, as a practical matter, the women’s section would need to go in the middle, as a managed compromise would find a way to separate the egalitarian from the segregated worshippers.
Another way to approach the matter, however, might not be a compromise of space, but one of time.
Under such a plan, a schedule would put egalitarian and non-egalitarian worshipers at the Kotel at entirely different times. Perhaps Robinson’s Arch would become the place for Orthodox worshipers at times when the Kotel is designated for legal use by the rest of the Jewish community.
Perhaps in this way, the Jewish people in our shared homeland can find a way to tolerate one another’s worship, mipnei darkhei shalom – for the sake of peace. The Talmud, in Tractate Sanhedrin, guides that Jewish courts ought to actively seek compromise over issuing a judgment.
We trust that this enduring wisdom will also guide Natan Sharansky in his recommendations. No one will be 100 percent satisfied, but compromise is viewed by our tradition as more just and more reflective of our sacred relationships to God, Torah, Israel and one another. When an agreement is reached, a compromise it shall be.
The author, a rabbi, is executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly.