Over the Wall

Jewish Light Editorial

“Reform Jews are a group of clowns who stab the holy Torah,” (Knesset Finance Committee Chair Moshe) Gafni said, according to Walla news. “There will never, ever be recognition for this group of clowns, not at the wall and not anywhere else.”

— “As Western Wall deal celebrated, haredi lawmaker calls Reform Jews ‘clowns,’ ” JTA, Jan 31.


This vitriolic comment about the historic compromise on prayer at the Western Wall demonstrates just how impressive it is that a deal was actually made this week after years of acrimonious debate.

If you follow news about Israel, it would be impossible not to know about the ongoing frustrations about prayer at the Wall, also known as the Kotel. Many, including the Women of the Wall group that has conducted monthly gatherings and encountered arrests and sometimes physical assaults, have complained about the nonegalitarian aspects of the main prayer plaza: segregation of men and women, women not being able to wear tallit and read from the Torah, and so on.

Those who were supportive of mixed-gender prayer and relaxed rules on how Jews can pray at the Wall had a smaller space south of the main area, toward the archaeological feature known as Robinson’s Arch. But the area was significantly smaller and in need of improvements. Its status was considered sufficiently inferior that there was little hope that protests and disagreements with the management of the Kotel would dissipate.

But that all has changed, at least a little in substance, but a lot in tone.

Thanks to the leadership of Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and participation by Women of the Wall, the Wall’s haredi leadership, the Israeli government and the Reform and Conservative movements, there’s a deal in place. Jewish Federations of North America, among other groups, lobbied heavily in favor of the compromise.

The deal calls for the non-Orthodox, or egalitarian, area to be expanded significantly, to be improved and to be placed under a pluralist oversight committee. The current haredi authority will retain oversight for the Orthodox, gender-segregated section. 

Women of the Wall has agreed to move to the egalitarian side once the improvements are completed and, with about two-thirds of the funding already accounted for, this could happen within the next couple of years.

As far as deals go, it wasn’t one chock full of new and interesting substance. After all, it comprises a few tweaks to  dimensions, and several million dollars to upgrade a section of the prayer area and ensure that there is an entrance that respects all who come to pray at the Kotel. But those who see and recognize Jewish identity, both in Israel and the diaspora, as more complex and diverse than does the more stringent religious authority that resisted change, will recognize the importance of the agreement.

In many ways, the compromise plays more to the perceptions of diaspora Jews than Israeli Jews. Polls show that the latter largely support the notion of all Jews being able to pray at the Kotel according to their beliefs.

But the breadth of support is not necessarily reflective of the depth of the concern: As JTA’s Ben Sales wrote in an analysis  this week: 

“And even within the realm of religious reform, the Western Wall ranks pretty low. Israelis are much more likely to campaign for changes that would affect their lives, like civil marriage in Israel, a liberalization of conversion policy or an expansion of military conscription. A holy site in a city some Israelis rarely visit just isn’t as relevant.”

Still, the Israeli government, which always has an eye on what diaspora Jews think — the Jewish Agency being the “bridge” that must span those waters on a regular basis — now has a modest win in its pocket. The tempestuous status quo just wasn’t going to cut it any longer, and this deal at least creates a perception that President Benjamin Netanyahu is listening to the cares and concerns of Jews of all kinds around the globe, and in the United States in particular.

The compromise deal appears to give Jews choices about how to pray at the Kotel, whether traditional or modern, Orthodox or not, gender-together or gender-segregated, egalitarian or otherwise. The resolution sends the right kind of message to Jews across the world. Let’s hope it can be a benchmark against which other important issues of import to Israeli and diaspora Jews can be measured.