In an unusual rebuke, the leading association of Orthodox rabbis in North America issued a statement early Wednesday morning denouncing members of its own denomination for their disruptive behavior at the Western Wall on the eve of the fast of Tisha B’Av.
Noting that “expressions of disagreement, especially in matters of religious principle, should be voiced with respect and dignity,” the Rabbinical Council of America said in the statement that it “regrets the uncivil disruption by Orthodox Jews” of Tisha B’Av services held Saturday night by the Conservative movement in Israel.
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Hundreds of Orthodox teenage boys and girls – students at yeshivas and ulpanas around the country – crowded into the space traditionally reserved for egalitarian services at the southern expanse of the Western Wall on Saturday night. The evening marked the opening of the annual fast of Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the ancient Jewish temples.
The Orthodox youths came early in order to set up barricades at the space to separate men from women. The sight of the barricades shocked members of the Conservative movement, who had come to participate in the annual reading of the Book of Lamentations. When a woman from the Conservative movement began reciting from the megillah, the Orthodox youths made noise to drown her out.
The Conservative movement in Israel holds its Tisha B’Av eve megillah-reading service at this spot, with men and women sitting together, every year.
Leaders of the main non-Orthodox movements, as well as heads of Jewish world organizations and several ministers in the Israeli government, expressed outrage at the behavior of the Orthodox group. Their condemnations were issued within hours of the disturbances.
The RCA, by contrast, waited three days to release its response, which was far milder in tone.
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Its statement also quoted Rabbi Binyamin Blau, president of the RCA, saying: “"If our prayers of restoring the fabric of Jewish society are to be realized, we must fulfill the vision of the prophet Zechariah who foresaw that the fast and destruction of Tisha b'Av will be transformed into 'joy and gladness and cheerful feasts' only when we conduct ourselves with the principles of both truth and peace. (8:19)"
The takeover of the egalitarian space was organized by an extremist right-wing group, known as Liba, which has been trying to prevent a revival of the Western Wall deal, which was meant to provide the non-Orthodox movements with a new and revamped prayer plaza at the southern expanse of the Jewish holy site.
Liba has been fighting the Western Wall deal since its inception. The deal, which was approved by the previous government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu in January 2016, was suspended a year and a half later under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, before any construction had begun at the site. Netanyahu’s decision to walk back on the deal, which had been hailed as “historic,” drew outrage from the non-Orthodox denominations and put great strain on Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jewry.
Surprisingly, the Jewish Agency, which in past years championed the cause of egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, has thus far refrained from outright condemnation of the Orthodox agitators. It issued no statement of its own initiative, and when asked for a response, Yaakov Hagoel, the acting chairman, avoided singling out those responsible for the disturbances. Instead, he issued a general call for “unity” among the Jewish people while condemning “baseless hatred.”
Hagoel, who is Orthodox himself and former chairman of World Likud, is filling in as chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency until a permanent replacement is chosen for Isaac Herzog, Israel’s new president. He currently serves as chairman of the World Zionist Organization.