Image: Women praying at the Kotel, early 20th century. Public Domain.
Longtime readers may remember that I was not thrilled about the plan announced last January for an egalitarian prayer space near the Kotel [Western Wall] in Jerusalem. It was hailed as a solution to the issue raised by the Women of the Wall: that because the Kotel was effectively run as a Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) synagogue, women were not allowed to pray aloud, lead prayers, wear the religious garb they would normally wear, or read from the Torah.
Now it seems that the plan is falling apart. Many key players among the haredim who are influential in the current government regard Reform and Conservative Jews as heretics.
I just learned from my teacher, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler, that one of the original Women of the Wall, Shulamit Magnus, wrote an opinion piece for the Jerusalem Post. In it, she outlines an alternative plan that is much more savvy to Israeli politics, that will make a much more lasting change for the better for women in Israel, and that seems to me to be totally workable.
Dr. Magnus also shared the piece on her Facebook wall, with directions on how to advocate for this plan, if readers choose to do so. I share her Facebook post here with permission. The bolded font and the links in it are mine.
I have already followed Dr. Magnes’s suggestion and written to all those leaders. If this issue speaks to you, I encourage you to do so as well.
From Shulamit S. Magnes:
Dear Friends, Below, please see my Op Ed in today’s Jerusalem Post. In it I call on the Reform and Conservative movements to let go of this terrible deal to make the Kotel an official haredi shul and do something significant that would build the grounds for real progressive religious influence here– not flash-in-the-pan but largely meaningless symbolism, but real impact in Israeli society (I know this deal, given how it’s been peddled, has great resonance in North America but I assure you, that is not how it plays here. Other, smarter priorities, and real financial backing of them, could meet the aspirations of North American Jews AND do real good here).
Please send the Op Ed on to the heads of the movements and of Federation. This should not be a moment of perceived win (the haredim)-lose (these movements), but of real smarts about how to make a real difference going forward– one that would unite broad segments of disadvantaged and largely religiously and politically right-wing Israeli society and largely middle-class and religiously and politically progressive Jews in North America. Win-win!
This needs thousands of letters. Please send it yourself– and encourage others to do the same via your facebook pages and other media.
Please send to:
Rabbi Steven Wernick – firstname.lastname@example.org
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld – email@example.com
Rabbi Rick Jacobs – firstname.lastname@example.org
Rabbi Deborah Waxman – email@example.com
Yizhar Hess – firstname.lastname@example.org
Rabbi Gilad Kariv – email@example.com
An appeal from an Original Woman of the Wall
By SHULAMIT S. MAGNUS
(in case the link does not work, here’s the piece):
Shulamit S. Magnus
To the Reform and Conservative Movements from An Original Woman of the Wall: An Appeal
We have just marked yom yerushalayim, the anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem in 1967. Much in this city is fraught. Among the unresolved issues is the deal for State recognition of Reform and Conservative Judaism at Robinson’s Arch in exchange for changing the status of the Kotel.
Under the deal, the Kotel, the national holy site of the Jewish people, not now a synagogue, would be made officially a haredi synagogue. This is the tradeoff for making Robinson’s Arch, already a site of egalitarian prayer, a Reform and Conservative site. The haredi authorities would ban women’s group prayer at the Kotel, every aspect of which has Supreme Court recognition as legal, and which a District Court pronounced also in accord with local custom there. Women who will not move to Robinson’s Arch would be arrested. This aspect of the deal is deliberately obscured by its backers, who trumpet the deal as enlightened and progressive, without mentioning the coercive, misogynistic aspect at its core.
The empowerment of the haredi establishment in this deal is the reason that establishment agreed to it, until the fury of their street about recognition of movements they systematically demonize drew them back. The haredi establishment is now making demands for fundamental revision of the deal, which the Reform and Conservative movements say they will reject, threatening to take the matter to the Supreme Court, where they will demand accommodation at the Kotel itself. We seem poised for bitter, quite possibly violent, confrontation.
There is another way, and I ask the movements to take a step back and consider.
It is easy to understand the appeal of recognition at Robinson’s Arch. But there are tangible, powerful, facts-on-the-ground changes that the movements could set in motion if they go another way with the clout, and the money, the deal they negotiated would give them.
Take the money, take the political payoff the State “owes” you for being unwilling to implement the deal against haredi demands, and invest it in schools that teach your version of Torah. This has none of the blaze of glory that accompanied your announcement of the deal a few months ago. But the long-term payoff will be far greater and will move you far closer to what you really want here: real impact on Israeli society. Take that money and invest it in schools—not in the comfortable middle class locations in which you currently have them, serving your current constituents, but in “the periphery,” among the have-nots of Israel, who have never heard of your movements or have only negative associations with them. Build schools—in Yeruham, Dimona, Sderot, Afula. Give hard-pressed Israelis a robust alternative to 40-student classrooms in schools that do not offer afternoon clubs, enrichment which wealthy schools, or well-established parents give their children and which afford parents full work days and children inestimable advantages that play out generationally. Intervene in this dynamic, is which privilege begets privilege and disadvantage, likewise, is passed on, perpetuating the social divide that plagues Israeli society and feeds right-wing politics and religion. In fifteen years you will begin to see cohorts who repay you and all of society with better education, broader horizons, and deeply embedded commitment to pluralism and respect for others. Not a symbolic site, but real social change. And votes.
Get your constituents in North America charged up about partnering with Israelis to open minds and hearts from the “bottom” up and changing Israeli society for the better, based on shared values and language. They can have egalitarian events right now at Robinson’s.
Let this deal, any version of it, pass away. It was a mistake. This is a Ben Gurion moment, no less than the one in which that Prime Minister shrugged off the consequences of granting haredi exemption from national service. Empowering the fundamentalist haredi establishment; supporting banishment of the one non-haredi custom—women’s group tefilla– which has been established at the Kotel– is the last thing you should be doing. Duking it out in the Kotel plaza between vastly more retrograde custom at the Kotel and progressive practice at Robinson’s, for which proponents of the deal have thrown down the gauntlet, is puerile. Defer gratification. Think Yavneh—go for deep cultural change, and the time and hard work to bring that about. Send your young people and rabbis on hachshara to these schools. Forge deep ties; build broad, societal loyalty to your movements. Forego the show.
I recall in this connection the remark which the previous Lubavitcher rebbe made in the 1920s, while on a visit to the US from Europe. Taking in the US Jewish scene, he noted, “They will build Temples, and they will be empty. We will build schools, and they will be full.”
Take a page from Habad, Shas: invest in school systems.
Go to the Supreme Court, by all means. But as a veteran of time in the latter, where a case to enforce Jewish women’s already-recognized right to read Torah at the Kotel languishes while the State wins delay after delay, any notion that you will get swift justice there is sadly mistaken. In the meantime, sow real change.
Having just celebrated Shavuot, commemorating the bringing of First Fruits to the Temple and the giving of Torah, please think about those fruits your labors can ripen, and about the transformative power of Torah. Invest in those.