The Israeli government after years of deliberation has granted permission for non-traditional Jews to pray as they see fit at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site.
For a thousand years, Jews who prayed at what is known in Hebrew as the Kotel did so in a traditional manner, including gender separation. Since the 1980s, however, Reform and Conservative Jews have challenged the consensus by demanding recognition of their right to pray as they wish.
Small in number though they be, these non-traditionalists, most recognizable among them the Women of the Wall (pictured), finally convinced the Israeli government to allocate the southern portion of the Temple Mount’s western retaining wall for their use.
That marked a bitter compromise for the Western Wall’s chief rabbi, who called the new arrangement “the lesser of two evils.”
The rabbi stated that “ever since this marginal and tempestuous group of the Women of the Wall started its media campaign, the Western Wall has transformed from a unifying place to a wrestling arena. It will take years to amend the sacrilege this group has caused.”
This new arrangement, he continued, “is the result of legal constraints and fear of further escalation in this fight to break the walls of holiness. We must do whatever we can to leave this horrid affair behind us.”
Reform Rabbi Uri Regev wasn’t too happy, either. “We are talking about a painful compromise. While the Orthodox occupation of the traditional Western Wall continues, the liberal constituency will have to travel to Robinson Arch [the southern portion of the wall],” he complained.
The new area, called Azarat Yisrael, is to be located in the archeological garden at the southern foot of the Temple Mount. The future prayer plaza will be built around the archeological site and will have its own separate entrance. In other words, the Israeli government has effectively created a new holy site for non-traditional Jews that will be separated from the Western Wall.
Little wonder that even lenient rabbis like Haim Navon think that this is a clumsy and expensive arrangement that will solve nothing. He rightly warns that the clashes instigated by the non-Orthodox with the Chief Rabbinate are designed to impose a particular liberal worldview, which is why such confrontations won’t end with the new prayer plaza, but will simply be refocused on other issues.
Navon also touches upon the issue of the of minority groups’ right to impose their practices on the public space that can’t be easily divided.
The Western Wall, he argues, is a national symbol out of which no one has the right to cut a piece for himself. The Wall can’t be equally divided, and demands for an egalitarian holy site can only result in egalitarian disputes where, in the name of minority rights, petitions to the Supreme Court may come to absurdities. Nothing of value can come when common sense gives way to the discourse of rights, he said.