Let Us Go and Pray: Equal Access to The Western Wall

The Israeli Supreme court has ruled that the rabbis that oversee the Western Wall have to prove that women are not allowed to read from the Torah, per Jewish Law. This is a monumental ruling that shows the increasing demand for non-Orthodox, pluralistic prayer to be available in all its forms at the holiest site in Judaism. The idea that only the Orthodox should be allowed to conduct services there goes against Israeli law, as the argument goes that the Western Wall is not a synagogue, but a “national holy site,” and thus must be open to anyone. To say that only Orthodoxy is the correct form of Judaism shows how little the Israeli rabbinate understands about not only their own country, but also the Jewish communities in the rest of the world. There is an old Israeli joke that the synagogue that they don’t attend must always be Orthodox. The religious affiliations of Israeli Jews have been changing, in that both the Reform and Conservative/Masorti movements are growing. Many Israelis want to be connected to Judaism but have no desire to become Orthodox. Therefore, both lay and clergy members of those movements are challenging the Orthodox establishment’s refusal to grant them equal status and access. The issue is that the men have access to 100 state-owned Torah scrolls that are kept at the Wall, while women who wish to read the Torah are not allowed to do so. There are also issues for the Orthodox relating to kol ishah, literally, “woman’s voice,” which states that a man should not hear the singing voice of a woman he is not related to, either by blood or by marriage.

The agreement made last year about creating a pluralistic prayer space at Robinson’s Arch, an archaeological park near the Western Wall, has been ruled to not count as access to the Wall itself by the Israeli Supreme court, as part of this ruling. Pluralistic prayer that counts everyone at the Wall should be the default, rather than ostracizing those who are not Orthodox. A related issue, I think, is that from the Orthodox viewpoint there are problems relating to the Jewish status of those who have not converted under Orthodox auspices. I feel that anyone who self-identifies as a Jew, especially someone who wants to attend the Western Wall, should not be barred from doing so. All of this shows that the Orthodox establishment is unwilling to relinquish any of its power, even at the expense of those who want to be connected to Judaism, just not in the Orthodox fashion.

While many Israelis are secular, they do perform some of the traditional Jewish rituals, such as lighting candles on Friday night, not performing certain actions on the Sabbath, etc. This shows that they feel it important to preserve some aspects of Judaism, even if they don’t do anything else in their daily lives. This has always been a complicating factor between the Israeli understanding of being religious and the American Jewish understanding of being religious, in that these actions would be counted as marking one as being religious in America, but in Israel it is just part of the culture. Therefore, many Israelis are not members of synagogues as they don’t see the need to formally identify with one of the movements, although this is changing as I have mentioned above. I know from my experiences at the Conservative synagogue I attend that our rabbi speaks about the many growing Conservative synagogues in Israel, which had not really been happening in the past.

The idea that a Jew does not need to be Orthodox to feel connected to Judaism is of course anathema to many in the Orthodox community, as they hold that Orthodoxy is the only valid approach. Some Orthodox thinkers use the category of “Tinok she-nishbah”, a talmudic term (Shabbos 68b; Shavuos 5a) that refers to a child who was raised by non-Jews and therefore has no understanding of Judaism, to mean that those who are not Orthodox (let alone not observant at all) either can’t help themselves as they don’t know any better, and don’t understand that only Orthodoxy is the true path. Therefore, many in the Orthodox community see it as their duty to save the people in this category by trying to influence them to at least explore Orthodox Judaism. To this end there are many organizations that try to further this goal, which can be seen by some as denigrating to the non-Orthodox, as it sends the message that their entire way of life is invalid. As there are multiple movements in Judaism that are all active in this type of outreach, I feel that someone who is searching for a connection to Judaism should explore the various options and decide what level of observance they are comfortable with, and this choice should be accepted. 

This case and other cases like this one are each a step further towards the goal of acceptance of status of the non-Orthodox movements as valid and true approaches that are faithful to the traditions of Judaism. Preserving the tradition is the ultimate goal, even if the means used by each of the movements are different. I have always said that disagreement is healthy, but only when all parties recognize that each has a right to be included in the discussion. Access to the Western Wall should be a right of all Jews, even if this right needs to be afforded to certain groups by the court system in Israel.  

Image Credit: Here via Wikimedia Commons

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