By Sam Sokol
Responding to American Jewish pressure to resolve the conflict over prayer rights at the Western Wall, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu tasked Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky with finding a compromise between Women of the Wall, the non-denominational feminist movement, and the Israeli religious establishment.
Just over a week ago, Sharansky presented the rough outlines of a plan to community representatives and leaders of the different streams brought together by the Jewish Federations of North America. He would propose expanding the Western Wall plaza and creating a joint entrance off of which would be three prayer sections for men, women, and those interested in egalitarian services.
This presentation to American Jewish leaders to a problem existing in Israel shows the intense involvement of American Jewry in this issue and their leading role in pushing this item—which most Israelis ignored for much of Women of the Wall’s two and a half decades of activity—to the forefront of international Jewish dialogue.
While Sharansky’s proposed solution has brought reserved kudos from the Reform and Conservative movements, and cautious optimism from Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman, it has ironically upset some members of her organization, who say that they were pushing for their right to pray in a women’s only service without the men who would be present in an egalitarian section.
Calling the Mughrabi bridge leading to the Temple Mount a “natural mechitzah,” Sharansky has explained that his plan would prevent contact between those in the Orthodox prayer zones and those in the expanded, egalitarian area.
What is most interesting about this entire matter, however, is the muted reaction from the Orthodox community. Aside from the regular pashkevilim, wall posters, against Women of the Wall that are posted in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods by more extreme elements, the mainstream chareidi community has been strangely silent.
Kotel Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich has given his assent to the Sharansky compromise, an indication of the acquiescence of the senior chareidi rabbinic leadership to which, aside from his formal governmental superiors, he answers.
One of the organizations present when Sharansky presented his plan was the National Council of Young Israel, which was restrained in its reaction, showing little if any stated objections to the new, if somewhat ill-defined, plan. NCYI’s Rabbi Bini Maryles told the Jerusalem Post that he was “greatly appreciative of Natan Sharansky’s efforts to come to a resolution on the issue of prayer at the Kotel which I am hopeful will lead to the avoidance of future altercations.” “The import of the Kotel for all Jews cannot be overstated and it is imperative for all of us that it be a place where shalom exists among our people,” he said.
Other Orthodox organizations were likewise quite passive in response. Rabbi Steven Weil of the Orthodox Union also responded with “gratitude,” saying that he was thankful that Sharansky was trying to “tone down animosity between Jew and Jew. He has gone out of his way to hear, understand, and be sensitive to all concerned parties.”
“There are some extremely significant challenges which face the Jewish people, including a growing percentage of unaffiliated Jews, the threat of a nuclear Iran, and tens of thousands of rockets massed on Israel’s southern and northern borders,” according to Weil. “Hopefully, Jews across the world can focus on these issues and not expend our energies on intra-Jewish hostility and rancor.”
Even the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, expected to be at the head of any organized opposition to the proposed changes, was largely silent on the matter. In a statement reflecting the neutral stance of the chareidi leadership in Israel implied by Rabbi Rabinovich’s comments, Agudath Israel spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran told the Jerusalem Post newspaper last week that while, in his eyes, “Jewish religious tradition is the ultimate unifier of Klal Yisrael [and] should be what prayer at the Kotel reflects,” his organization defers “to the highest religious authorities in Israel.”
The lack of a statement in opposition, coupled with a statement of subservience to the Israeli rabbis, strongly implies that said rabbis are giving in on this matter. It seems that American Modern and Centrist Orthodoxy does not object strenuously enough, if at all, to launch a campaign against the proposed changes, indicating a liberalization of the movement, and it is possible that both American and Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy are more concerned with the upcoming showdowns over army service and the de-funding of religious schools lacking a core curriculum to worry over what seems to be to them a matter of lesser importance. v