A building block at the Kotel


You can tell that a true compromise was reached on a matter by the number of people on both sides of the issue who are dissatisfied with the result. And so it is with the agreement on egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall compound below the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. While hailed as a breakthrough compromise by the government and many involved in the delicate negotiations, there are vocal critics who disagree.

Those Jews who do not recognize the validity of liberal Judaism, condemn the Israeli government’s agreement with the Kotel’s Haredi Orthodox leadership, the Women of the Wall, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Reform and Conservative movements to expand the wall’s egalitarian section and place it under the authority of a pluralist committee, even though it solidifies Haredi control over the site’s traditional Orthodox section.

Thus, for example, the Haredi Agudath Israel of America responded to the compromise by saying that allowing egalitarian prayer at the compound “defames” the site. And Moshe Gafni, a Haredi lawmaker who chairs the Israeli Knesset’s Finance Committee, reacted by calling Reform Jews “a group of clowns who stab the holy Torah.”

Indeed, even the Muslim Waqf, which administers the Temple Mount above the Western Wall plaza, criticized the agreement for its “defaming” nature of allowing egalitarian and mixed-gender prayer.

But there was criticism from other sides as well. Some maintained that the agreement didn’t go far enough and were critical of the second-class status of the egalitarian site. And then there were complaints from Orthodox women who yearn to pray in women-only groups at the Wall. Writing in Tablet, Phyllis Chesler recounted a quarter-century of activism by Women of the Wall to do just that. They endured harassment and arrest for carrying a Torah to their monthly prayer services at the Kotel’s women’s section. And they complain that the Reform and Conservative movements sold out these women in their push for egalitarian space.

We prefer to see the agreement as a welcome first step — a kind of building block — but hardly the last, in the drive for religious freedom in Israel and the wresting of Israel’s religious apparatus from a narrow-minded and uncompromising Chief Rabbinate.

And there are signs that other compromises may be in the making. Commenting on an online criticism of the agreement, Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md., who chairs the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, proposed that at the pluralistic prayer area, time be set aside for all-women prayer. “Then it will truly be pluralistic,” he wrote. We agree.

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