Chief Rabbinate: Israel Must Suspend New Western Wall Prayer Arrangements

Rabbis’ decision liable to dissuade religious services minister from signing regulations needed to separate between the Orthodox and other denominations at the holy site.

Two Reform Jews pray at the Robinson's Arch, the proposed site for an egalitarian prayer space near the main Western Wall plaza.
Olivier Fitoussi

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate Council issued a call last week to freeze the cabinet decision to delegate a separate prayer area for non-Orthodox worshipers at the Western Wall until the government fully consults with the council on the matter. The rabbis expressed their opposition to the arrangement, saying they would not permit non-Orthodox denominations to gain a foothold at the site.

The council decision is liable to dissuade Minister for Religious Services David Azulay (Shas) from signing the regulations required to move the process ahead. Nevertheless, the government could find an alternate route to bypass the Chief Rabbinate by transferring responsibility over the matter to another authority.

The Chief Rabbinate Council, which is headed by the country’s two chief rabbis, held a hearing after the spiritual leaderships of the ultra-Orthodox parties met last Wednesday to discuss the matter, and then voiced their objections to the government.

The announcement released following the hearing stated: “The council demands that the government of Israel suspend the decision until such a time that it fulfills the obligation to hold a consultation with the Chief Rabbinate, in accordance with the law. It grants a foothold in the holy place to a group that has for years uprooted Zion and Jerusalem from their prayer book, and which publicly declares that they do not view the Torah of Israel as unique and do not believe in the fundamentals of the Jewish faith, one of whose foundations is ‘This is the Torah, it will not be replaced.’ This is a serious matter. The Land of Israel is outraged by the introduction of alien things into the holy place.”

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the rabbi of the Western Wall, appeared before the Chief Rabbinate Council. He presented the draft program and was criticized by some council members for not consulting with them for over three years, during which negotiations were held at the prime minister’s bureau, together with the cabinet secretary and non-Orthodox organizations.

They did not let him off easy, as reflected in a sentence dedicated to him in the announcement: “The rabbi of the Western Wall and the holy places, Rabbi Rabinovitch, will carry out his activity solely in accordance with the directives of the Chief Rabbinate.”

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, said, “The Chief Rabbinate Council deceives the public and continues to behave as if it is a branch of United Torah Judaism and Shas, and not a government agency. The rabbinical establishment was involved in discussions on the compromise at the Western Wall and agreed to it, and all the declarations now being voiced can only be termed a show of shameful cowardice and ugly disapproval. We are confident that the prime minister will act to quickly implement the decision on the Western Wall, which was supported by a significant majority of cabinet members and has great sympathy in the Israeli public and world Jewry.”

The Torah sages’ councils of Agudat Israel and Shas both issued public letters on Wednesday against the Reform movement and any governmental recognition of it, but avoided issuing any explicit threat of leaving the coalition. Nevertheless, in an accompanying letter sent by the Agudat Israel leadership to its Knesset faction members, the secretary of the executive council instructed the MKs “to stipulate that their cooperation with the government was dependent upon the passage of a law that the status quo in the matter of religion and state, which has existed and has been accepted for decades in Israel, according to which all matters of religion and Judaism are administered by the Orthodox Jews and not by the Reform Jews, must be maintained as is.”

Late last month, the cabinet decided to advance the plan by which the Western Wall would have separate areas for Orthodox worshipers – to whom the central plaza is designated, under the patronage of the Western Wall rabbi – and the Reform and Conservative worshipers, who along with the Women of the Wall would receive their own prayer plaza at the Southern Wall.

Last Thursday, about 150 female and male rabbis from Reform communities in North America prayed at the southern compound. The services were one of the climaxes of a gathering of the movement’s leaders in Jerusalem. Of late, the Reform movement has begun to receive greater legitimacy in the eyes of the state, despite protests from the ultra-Orthodox leadership. Earlier in the week, members of the delegation met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and were hosted in an official visit to the Knesset.

In addition, the High Court of Justice ruled this week that non-Orthodox conversion candidates would be permitted to use state-funded mikvehs (ritual baths), which are required to complete the conversion process. The chairman of the Knesset’s Finance Committee, MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism), announced that he will promote a new law to prevent the verdict’s implementation, which would determine that the mikvehs would operate solely in accordance with the guidelines of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. Gafni contended that the High Court ruling violates the status quo on matters of religion and state, whereas the coalition agreement with United Torah Judaism ensures preservation of the status quo.