Knesset OK of Pluralistic Prayer Ban Has Far Reaching Consequences

The Western Wall, with crowd in front and Jerusalem Skyline beyond.

The Western Wall

Imagine being invited to a party. Of course, you knew that you would be invited since you are related to the celebrants. In fact, you helped pay for the party. Even though you are an out of town guest, you have been in touch with the hometown family, following their lives, investing in their businesses, and supporting their decisions. Whether or not you agree with them, you have been there for them and with them – always with unwavering devotion. That is what you expect of yourself as a member of this large extended family.

After entering the dance hall, you approach a table with place-cards arranged alphabetically. It is strange that your place at a table is not listed. As the band plays, the celebrants dance the hora. You, however, are told to stand to the side.

Your host comes over to welcome you and to express his personal gratitude for the distance you have traveled and for your ongoing support. When you point out to your host that you have no place to sit, he is apologetic. “That won’t happen next time,” he promises. “Next time we’ll make sure that you have a place at the table.” You appreciate the sympathetic response but, in your heart, you know that his promise is unlikely to be kept.

When you politely suggest that you would like to dance, the host says, “that’s fine, so long as you dance the way we dance, not the way you like to dance. That kind of dancing may seem reasonable and contemporary elsewhere; but here, we don’t dance that way.”

And then the thought occurs to you: next time, maybe, I just won’t come. But, in your heart you know you will attend. For better or worse, that’s what family does.

What prayer once looks like at the <i>Kotel</i>. Photo courtesy of <a href="">Daniel Bouskila</a>.

Men and women praying together at the Kotel, circa 1900. Photo: Rabbi Daniel Bouskila.

This week, the government of Israel announced its decision to suspend any action which might lead to the establishment of an alternate site at the Western Wall at which mixed prayer would be permitted. This decision is, for the non-Orthodox segment of the Jewish world, deeply disappointing, to say the least. Over the course of three years, we have participated in formal conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu and party leaders over the issue of providing a safe and accessible option for people who might like to pray at the Western Wall in mixed prayer groups. A compromise was worked out about a year and a half ago. That compromise was approved by the Knesset.

The Orthodox parties in the current coalition, however, responded with an ultimatum to PM Netanyahu: drop the agreement or we will bring down the government. The agreement has been on “long-term” hold for the past year and a half. This week’s vote, which received approval from the PM, put a permanent stop to further discussions and certainly to the prospect of construction of a new space at the Western Wall for non-Orthodox Jews to pray together in ways to which they have become accustomed.

Like the host at the party whose tone was disingenuous and untrustworthy, whose message was patronizing and condescending, we have been deceived, some might say willfully deceived, thinking that the status quo would change. In the meantime, we have plodded along, making our case to those who would listen, receiving sympathetic smiles from those who say they love us like family. We have been mostly silent, hoping that change would come, asking, pushing here and there (at meetings with the Prime Minister, with President Rivlin and with other leaders) making the case for klal yisrael, the worldwide family of Jews, asking to have our needs considered, all to no avail.

And the issue goes far beyond the Western Wall. Included in this discussion are the related issues of recognizing the legitimacy of non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism and the authority of non-Orthodox rabbis and the weddings we perform, the divorces we orchestrate and the conversions we oversee. Rabbis who represent 20% of the electorate in Israel, dictate to the rest of world Jewry, the style, expression and articulation of Judaism which they, and by extension, the State of Israel will accept. Only a right wing, haredi Judaism will satisfy Israel’s State Rabbinate.

The decision this week, which blocks any changes on this matter for the foreseeable future, not only prevents the implementation of the current matter, but signals the direction in which the State of Israel is moving with regard to non-Orthodoxy, a direction which further alienates, disenfranchises and delegitimizes your rabbis and your Judaism.

I do not have a specific solution or strategy in responding to this most recent “slap in the face.” Our representatives, including the national leaders of Federation, the Conservative Movement and others are in Israel trying to think of next steps. Their goal is to reverse the domination of religion in Israel by the right wing of Orthodoxy. In the meantime, what shall we do?

We have been invited to the party. This year’s party: the 70th anniversary of Israel’s statehood. For 70 years we have contributed to the costs and invested in the projects crucial to Israel’s survival. Yet, when we arrive, we have no place at the table. We do not seek ultimate power or control. At the same time, our concerns and needs cannot be dismissed. We must be given a place at the table in recognition of our contributions and our connections to Israel. The State of Israel must remember that this branch of the family is indispensable to Israel’s strength and security and should not be taken for granted. We must continue to make our case.

As we celebrate this 70th year of Israel’s statehood, we rejoice with our family on both sides of the ocean. We want to dance and celebrate. We are not wall-flowers at someone else’s party. This is our party, too. We want to drop the family disputes and discord. We have no right to dictate to Israel the choices it must make or the lifestyles it chooses and regulates. Freedom to choose is at the core of any relationship of mutual respect and reciprocity.

Our representatives are in meetings, forging a strategy and a series of responses. Ultimately, however, the ball is in Israel’s court. Only Israel can fix this. Our ongoing support of Israel is fundamental and vital. For the sake of the body and soul of the State of Israel, and for us as well, I hope they do.


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