Israel Has Failed the Jewish People Over Its Inaction at the Western Wall

Rabbi John Rosove
on November 3, 2016

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Rabbi John Rosove, National Chair of the Association of Reform Zionists of America and former Co-Chair of J Street’s Rabbinic Cabinet, wrote this piece about the crisis over religious pluralism and worship at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  It was published today in Haaretz.

On Wednesday morning, Rosh Hodesh Heshvan, hundreds of liberal Jews marched into the Western Wall plaza with Torah scrolls, song and hope. I was one of many surrounding those carrying Torah scrolls and protecting them from the aggression of the ultra-Orthodox to tear the scrolls from our rabbis’ arms. One young Haredi Jew, so filled with rage, lunged at Women of the Wall’s Anat Hoffman. I jumped in front of him, blocked his advance and he fell back onto the stones. I felt a mix of defiance and grief. His behavior and that of others represent the opposite of what Judaism teaches, that we are here to love God and our fellows, to draw all to Torah and the pursuit of justice, mercy and peace.

A deal is a deal. An agreement is an agreement. Good faith is good faith. Enough is enough!

The Reform and Conservative movements and the Jewish Federations of North America have been engaged for more than three-and-a-half years in negotiations with the Israeli government to find common ground on an issue of utmost importance to world Jewry.

In January of this year, those negotiations succeeded. We Reform and Conservative leaders were proud of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Chair of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Natan Sharansky, who concluded the painstaking, complicated and very long negotiations to create a new egalitarian prayer space overseen by the liberal movements and Women of the Wall in the southern Kotel Plaza. The greater values of Klal Yisrael and shalom bayit were confirmed. Religious pluralism in Israel attained as a value at this holiest site in Judaism and we had hopes that future efforts to grant rights to the non-Orthodox in the Jewish state. We imagined a day when Reform and Conservative rabbis could legally convert people to Judaism, officiate at marriage ceremonies, oversee divorce proceedings and could in the mitzvah of burial of our beloved in the land of Israel.

The agreement was clear. All would remain the same in the traditional prayer plaza and would continue to be overseen by the Chief Rabbinate of the Wall. A new prayer space would be created in the southern Kotel Plaza beneath Robinson’s arch. The agreement was the result of compromise by all parties. The Kotel as a whole would symbolize the historic diversity and unity of the Jewish people.
The ultra-Orthodox community, despite its own participation in this long and arduous negotiation represented by the Chief Rabbi of the Wall, decided it could not abide the deal. It has now been 10 months of prevarication, delay and retreat by the government and prime minister.

We waited and waited and waited. Our leadership was patient and in the end, it became clear to us that Netanyahu would not honor his commitment. Natan Sharansky told those of us on the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency that Netanyahu said he would do everything possible to fulfill the agreement except that which would bring down the government.
Some matters, however, are greater than any particular government. The vast majority of Israelis, let alone world Jewry, supports religious freedom and diversity in Israel. In a democracy, the majority must rule with respect for the minority. The agreement accomplished both.

The arbitrary rules of the Kotel plaza disallowing the use of any Torah other than those approved by the Chief Rabbinate of the Wall and the denial of the rights for women to pray using tallitot, tefilin and to read Torah are unreasonable, unfair, unjust and discriminatory.

Enough is enough. The Kotel should not be an ultra-Orthodox synagogue. It is the most sacred site in all of Judaism and belongs to the entire Jewish people.
The Talmud teaches that sinat chinam, baseless hatred between Jews, caused the destruction of the Second Jerusalem Temple two thousand years ago. I sadly see that same hatred in the eyes of those who attacked us yesterday.
The Israeli government has failed the Jewish people, but it is not too late to do what it should have done ten months ago – go forward and implement this historic, fair and visionary agreement. If not now, when!?