It has been 50 years since the State of Israel liberated Jerusalem and returned some of the holiest Jewish religious sites to Jewish control. In honour and commemoration of the anniversary, the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem held a forum on June 6, 2017. The program was entitled: "Jerusalem: The Western Wall and the Old City In Perspective after 50 Years." We were privileged to attend.
|Women of the Wall - from CNN site|
The evening featured an initial group of four academic lectures, which were intended to run about 20-30 minutes each. Then the evening got really interesting and animated with a diverse panel discussing the issue of pluralistic prayer at the Kotel.
We first arrived to hear Dr. Noa Yuval-Hacham trace 50 years of historical development in the area of the Kotel and the Old City. She provided some fascinating historical information about events that have transpired since 1967. She was followed by Dr. Shira Wolkoff, who spoke about the historical struggle between designating the Kotel site as a part of the Israeli national parks and historic sites portfolio versus handing over complete control to the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Her lecture was subtitled "An (Un)holy View..."
|The Kotel and Temple Mount from Wikepedia|
Finally, Professor Alona Nitzan Chieftan spoke about the various archaeological issues that have been addressed over the 50 years including ongoing struggles over how to design the Kotel plaza and all of the various considerations and challenges that various committees and governments have faced in doing so.
For us, the final event was the most interesting. It was a panel discussion moderated by Yair Sheleg, a reporter, on the topic of the State of the Kotel Compromise: Risk or Opportunity?
I have written blogs about this issue in the past. This article was written in early 2012: Woman Arrested for Wearing a Tallit at the Kotel. I updated the issue in October 2012 here: Latest Arrests.
I provided a further update in May 2013: Latest Developments. In a nutshell, as you might recall, the Kotel is currently operated as, essentially, an Orthodox synagogue. There is a women's section and a men's section (the men's section is much larger). Women's groups have been forbidden from praying out loud in the women's section, from reading from the Torah, putting on Tallitot and from wearing Tefillin. The organization "Women of the Wall" has challenged this state of affairs, as have various other religious and pluralistic groups in Israel. This has lead to a number of court cases, which have reached the Israeli Supreme Court. There have also been ongoing political discussions and negotiations. As you might know, a compromise deal was reached in January 2015 which would have allowed for a designated area of pluralistic prayer at the Kotel, the entry to which would be at the same location as the general Kotel entry.
However, the government that had authorized the plan collapsed and elections were called. Following the elections, a new government took charge in Israel in 2015. The plan was never implemented and court challenges ensued. The Israeli Supreme Court has made some decisions but has held off making any final status decisions on the issue and things have been left in a state of legal limbo.
The symposium panel featured three different speakers, each with a different perspective. All three were lawyers. The moderator began with each panelist by asking a very provocative question. Gloves came off and sparks began to fly.
First off was Ms Rickie Shapira-Rosenberg, a lawyer and member of the management committee of the group "Women of the Wall." The moderator's questions asked her to respond to the suggestion that Women of the Wall are simply a provocative, feminist group who lack any real authenticity or relevance.
In response, Ms Shapira-Rosenberg described herself as an Orthodox Jew and spoke about the personal importance of having a voice in Judaism at the Kotel and in her religious life generally. She offered a spirited and powerful description of the struggle that women have faced to pray together, aloud at the Kotel as well as at other communal institutions. She described the history of the Women of the Wall and emphasized how meaningful it is for women to have access to religious equality.
The second speaker was Yizhar Hess, the current Executive Director and CEO of the Conservative ("Masorti") movement in Israel. He was challenged with a similarly provocative question, targeting the legitimacy of "liberal" religious groups in Israel. Mr. Hess spoke primarily about the negotiations themselves, the process of reaching a compromise and the need to recognize and dignify all of the various stakeholders. He emphasized that the Masorti movement had made quite a number of concessions to reach the compromise as ultimately agreed upon. However, given that it was never implemented, he has been left to second guess the correctness of the decision. He seems resigned to the notion that the Israeli courts will ultimately be required to decide the issue.
The final speaker was Ultra-Orthodox representative and lawyer, Dov Halbertal. The moderator asked him whether there would actually ever be any possibility of compromise with these Ultra-Religious groups.
Mr. Halbertal used his time to attack the Women of the Wall, the Masorti, Reform and other "liberal" movements and to malign their motives. His comments included derisive personal attacks on Ms Shapira-Rosenberg as well as the Women of the Wall generally. He characterized the group as a bunch of publicity seekers who were completely outside of any definition of normative Judaism. He asked the rhetorical question - whether we should also permit a group to come along claiming they are the "Adam and Eve Garden Group" who wish to pray at the Kotel naked with a Torah. He argued that the idea of a group of women wanting to pray out loud, put on tallitot, wear tefillin or read from the Torah is as ridiculous as a group of women who wish to pray at the Kotel naked. He attacked Conservative and Reform Judaism and argued that these movements are the direct cause of assimilation in the United States. Judaism will disappear because of women like Ms Shapira Rosenberg and the Women of the Kotel, he submitted. He characterized "liberal Jewish groups" as "worse than the Holocaust" for the Jewish people.
He also noted (to the chuckling but shocked amusement of the audience) that he felt particularly proud, as a Jew, when he watched Donald Trump go the Western Wall, wearing a kippah, on the men's side of the Kotel without his wife and daughter who, obediently and honourably, went to the women's side. He described that scene as far more respectful and authentic than the Women of the Wall, since Melania and Ivanka knew how to dress and how to behave at the Kotel.
When he was finally finished attacking his fellow panelists and most of the audience members (I assume), there was an opportunity for some further exchange. To her credit, Ms Shapira Rosenberg chose not to take the bait and refrained from returning with an equally divisive response. She responded to some of the points but in a more dignified manner. Mr. Hess was similarly restrained. Perhaps it was because they both wanted to avoid having Mr. Halbertal get up and leave. After all, his first comments were essentially an apology for agreeing to appear - and a statement that he has already been called out by at least one of his colleagues for appearing at a Schechter Center event.
There was one other special speaker in the audience. A member of the sub-group, the Original Women of the Wall. She spoke about her concerns about the political compromise that Mr. Hess had been instrumental in negotiating. She argued that the negotiators had abandoned the Women of the Wall, who would be forbidden, under the compromise from praying out loud in the Orthodox women's section and would be required to do so in the pluralistic prayer section. She noted that her group has always recognized the importance of women being able to pray together as women in a separate section of the Kotel.
A few of the audience members (including someone you might know quite well) were less charitable to Mr. Halbertal and attacked his horrible analogy more directly. I should note that the whole evening was, of course, in Hebrew. Although I understand everything quite well, I didn't feel comfortable enough linguistically to jump into the fray. Though I certainly would have enjoyed taking some shots at Mr. Halbertal and his own motives.
As the debate become more heated, the moderator wisely jumped in and concluded the panel at an opportune time. Although nothing was resolved, the vigorous discussion certainly highlighted the wide gap between the various stakeholders over the issue of how the Kotel should be treated by the State of Israel and more general religious issues. What type of prayer should occur at the Kotel and who should be allowed to access it? What should the State's role be in regulating religious sites? More significantly, what will the future bring for the development of religious life for Jewish women in Israeli society?
The discussion ended with the hope that some of these issues would be resolved favourably in time for the next Jerusalem symposium in 2018. בשנה בשנה הבאה. (To quote a well known song - B'shana b'shana habah - Next year....)