Leveling the playing field of religious struggle

Should the Israeli people decide to separate synagogue and state, we would likely support that position, but until then, the playing field of ideas must be made level.

Women of the Wall 2013 (390) (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Women of the Wall 2013 (390)
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
These have been a few puzzling days as a large platform now referred to as “Ezrat Yisrael” appeared with short notice and some confusion at Robinson’s Arch, the area at the southern end of Jerusalem’s Western Wall.
As we all await a clearer picture of the policies and plans the Israeli government intends to oversee regarding this space, it behooves us to review how Robinson’s Arch came to be a venue for egalitarian, pluralistic customs.
For more than two decades, two equally brave and righteous religious struggles have taken place in the shadow of growing extremist Orthodox control of the Kotel: Women of the Wall’s battle for a women’s Rosh Hodesh minyan in the women’s section and the struggle of the Masorti Movement to attain a fully equal prayer space at Robinson’s Arch, a right promised by the Ne’eman Commission in 1998 and reaffirmed by the decision in the Israeli Supreme Court (in a case brought by Women of the Wall regarding their presence in the women’s section) in 2003.
Three central issues dominate our immediate attention: acknowledgement of steps forward for religious legitimacy in Israel; redoubled, unified efforts to fight for full equality, especially equal government funding of non-Orthodox Judaism; and recognition of the ongoing sacrifices of both Women of the Wall and the Masorti leadership at the Kotel.
The Masorti Movement came to Robinson’s Arch in 1998 in a compromise that emerged from our movement’s desire to worship at the Kotel free from violence and harassment. Over the past 12 years, Masorti rabbis, quietly and without fanfare, have stewarded prayers in this archaeological park, with vastly insufficient Israeli government support.
Masorti rabbis did this carrying prayer books, tables and Torah scrolls in and out of the site on their backs without cover from rain or sun.
Because we needed, immediately, a place to pray, the Masorti Movement accepted the Robinson’s Arch compromise while affirming in writing that we need a fully suitable solution.
The number of worshippers at Robinson’s Arch annually has grown from a few hundred to 20,000 last year. With the government’s construction of this platform, 450 egalitarian worshippers will now be able to pray comfortably at one time in several minyanim.
During these same years, several thousand Masorti Jews, including hundreds of our rabbis, have prayed with Women of the Wall, bearing the intolerable abuse WoW suffers at the Kotel, as egalitarian Masorti minyanim also did, and even getting arrested alongside WoW.
But praying is not an act of solidarity, it is an act of worship.
Women of the Wall’s adherents do not hold by the Masorti Movement’s halachic understanding of gender-egalitarian prayer. Our movement’s religious needs will not be fulfilled even when Women of the Wall are finally permitted to pray in the women’s section of the Kotel.
The Masorti Movement’s obligation to our own values and our own adherents is to make egalitarian worship at Robinson’s Arch the most inspiring it can be, as we have already done for 12 years.
However painful the sacrifices, every egalitarian minyan that took place at Robinson’s Arch in these 12 years (including many for Israelis of diverse religious outlooks and Israeli and American public officials and their families), every prayer uttered in that remarkable historical setting has been, for the Masorti Movement, a triumph of Masorti religious values and a victory for future generations of Judaism.
At one and the same time that Robinson’s Arch has become an anchor and wellspring for us, the very same place feels like the back of the bus to Women of the Wall.
Predictably and authentically, the platform that sprung up under the feet of those who worship there regularly feels like progress, and to those who wish to pray at the northern end of the Kotel feels like a betrayal. For each of us, it is our truth.
THE STRUGGLE for full equality at Robinson’s Arch is also very far from over, even though in the long view we believe that this gradualist strategy has been the right one because of the number of Jewish lives we were privileged to inspire by our presence there. We seek full equal treatment including equal funding for religious streams, a value enshrined in the basic laws of Israel and upheld in multiple Israeli Supreme Court decisions.
Only with equal funding for liberal and egalitarian Jewish expressions, including the Masorti and Reform streams, for synagogues, mikvaot, education and rabbis’ salaries, will Israelis have the opportunity to learn about Judaism in a noncoercive way. Without full religious equality throughout Israel, including equal funding, even the total implementation of the so-called Sharansky plan at the Kotel would be little more than a Potemkin village, painting a misleading picture of the immense inequalities left unresolved.
The question of whether there should be separation of synagogue and state is a complex one that is widely debated, including among members of our own movement. But as a practical matter, the $600 million Israeli taxpayer-funded Orthodox mega-monopoly makes it impossible for any other Jewish messages to be heard in the Israeli public square.
At this point in time, a fair and level playing field with the full equality already enshrined in Israel’s basic law is the most pragmatic and effective means to bring the most opportunities to discover Judaism to Israel’s Jews and to overcome the damage to the Israeli soul done by decades of coercion.
Should the Israeli people decide to separate synagogue and state, we would likely support that position, but until then, the playing field of ideas must be made level.
It is only the slightest bit more level today. But it’s a start.
The writer is a rabbi and executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis.