The Progressive Jewish community worldwide has been in a frenzy this week as a result of two dismaying pieces of news from Israel. The first–and by far the more worrying–is that a bill is advancing through the Knesset that would grant oversight of the conversion process in Israel to the Chief Rabbinate. The Chief Rabbinate is dominated by Haredi rabbis. They have little interest in Jews outside of their closed communities and even less interest in admitting new Jews who in all likelihood will not live lives in strict accordance with Jewish law as they understand it. The Chief Rabbinate have already demonstrated a disturbing tendency to reject overseas conversions even when they have been facilitated by Orthodox rabbis. What hope do Israelis whose Judaism is suspect have if these men are charged with deciding who gets to be Jewish?
The story that has gotten more coverage and apparently has inspired much more outrage is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reversal of his promise to set aside a section of the Western Wall for egalitarian prayer. Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman of Kehillat Kol HaNeshama in Jerusalem wrote, “World Jewry was shocked that Prime Minister Netanyahu reneged on his commitment to developing a pluralistic space at the Kotel so that all Jews could feel comfortable and respected praying there. The timing, when the Governing Board of the Jewish Agency, filled with representatives of North American Jewry, was in town seemed particularly insulting.
In these past few days, we’ve seen passionate Zionist politicians become hardened cynics. First and foremost, our Prime Minister spat in the faces of all the representatives of Israeli and Diaspora non-Orthodox leadership. These servants of the Jewish people negotiated in good faith and made far reaching compromises to reach an agreement. The Prime Minister spoke at length of his commitment to the making Israel a welcoming place for all Jews. It turns out to have been lip service. The only question is how cynical is Prime Minister Netanyahu. Did he ever mean to implement this agreement? Does it matter? He completely lacks the political will to do the right thing.”
It has now been nearly thirty years since the first women gathered at the Western Wall with the simple intention of holding a Rosh Hodesh service. I was in my very first year in seminary, when an international women’s gathering in Jerusalem attempted to conduct a morning service. The women were attacked both verbally and physically, and so the efforts of Women of the Wall began. There have been legal victories and considerable setbacks in the years since then, and still the Western Wall remains a battleground. Early on, Haredi rabbis argued that even though a women’s prayer service was completely permissible within Jewish law, different rules should apply for that most sacred Jewish site. According to a timeline available on the website of Women of the Wall, the low ebb came in 2000, when the Knesset considered a bill that would punish women who wore tallitot and read from the Torah at the Kotel with seven years imprisonment. Thankfully, the bill never became law, but women have been arrested in recent years for these violations. Women of the Wall eventually acquired a very small Torah, which they have managed to smuggle in on several occasions, including for a bat mitzvah not too long ago.
In a column in The Jerusalem Post, American-born Israeli Daniel Gordis wrote that Israelis really don’t care what happens to the Kotel. Secular Israelis have long ago ceded that tiny piece of territory to the ultra-Orthodox and have stopped fretting about it. But for us Progressive Jews, this issue is about principle as much as it is about the specifics of the Wall itself. We know that freedom of religion is enshrined in Israel’s declaration of independence and in its law code, and we think that such freedom should apply to us. We are accustomed to worshipping in mixed-gender settings, and we don’t think it is so crazy that such worship should be permitted at Judaism’s holiest site. What’s more, the antagonism that women’s worship services have encountered at the Kotel has been particularly galling. When women are arrested for wearing tallitot and carrying the Torah, we feel as if it is we as committed Jews who are under attack. It is particularly hurtful to see women mistreated by the Jewish state at a site that has such deep emotional resonance for us.
Dismay at these decisions has come thick and fast. Daniel Gordis suggests that Jews who wish to visit Israel should boycott El Al and fly with another airline. This would send a pointed reminder to Prime Minister Netanyahu of the financial power of the diaspora Jewish community. The Jewish Agency, whose director Natan Scharansky was a driving force in the original decision to sub-divide the Kotel, cancelled its gala at which the prime minister was to be honoured. The Federation of Chicago, essentially the UIA of the U.S., has issued a statement that no member of Knesset who supports the changes to the conversion laws will be welcome in that city. The one-two punch in such a short period has awakened the wrath of non-Orthodox Jews, and there’s no telling what might happen now.
Of course, these developments are important because Israel matters to us. Many of us still have a vision for Israel, and it is not one where Haredi rabbis get to decide who is Jewish or whether we get to worship at the Kotel. In the days ahead, we will continue to seek ways that we can truly make a difference and shape a Jewish state that has space for all Jews. Shabbat shalom!