New Western Wall Prayer Space Drives Wedge Between Ultra-Orthodox Communities

Prominent rabbis and ultra-Orthodox media outlets pressuring their political leaders to either quit government or kill the plan and demand religious 'status quo' at holy site.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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The area where a plaza for mixed-gender prayer will be placed at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem's Old City, February 1, 2016.
The area where a plaza for mixed-gender prayer will be placed at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem's Old City, February 1, 2016. Credit: AP
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

The cabinet decision to create a pluralistic prayer area at the Western Wall in Jerusalem for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism and for the Women of the Wall prayer group is causing a split in the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel.

Though neither of the two budding factions support the plan, some simply condemn it while others are calling for the two ultra-Orthodox parties in the government coalition, United Torah Judaism and Shas, to pull out of the government if the plan is not scrapped.

United Torah Judaism Chair Yaakov Litzman.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

As long as the matter is dependent only on the leaders of the two parties, UTJ’s Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni and Shas’ Arye Dery, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can rest easy, but pressures are mounting on them from ultra-Orthodox media outlets and now from senior rabbis as well.

A first sign of pressure was a demand by the two in a meeting with Netanyahu Sunday to remove the Reform and Conservative movements from managing the site. They also demanded having a law passed that would limit the power of these movements in Israel, and enshrine the supremacy of Orthodox Judaism, apparently as interpreted from an ultra-Orthodox perspective.

Religious Services Minister Arye Dery. Officials hope the administration will continue to function, under his auspices.Credit: Michal Fattal

Litzman, the health minister, already announced on Thursday at a gathering of Gur Hasidim that absent such a law, he would lead his Agudat Yisrael faction of UTJ out of the government. Shas chairman Dery, the interior minister, has suffered particular embarrassment over the past several days on the issue. Like his UTJ counterparts, he had been briefed in advance on the details of the agreement regarding the Western Wall. Dery voted against it but allowed it to pass in cabinet. Now he would apparently like nothing more than for it to drop off the ultra-Orthodox agenda.

Dery was seemingly taken by surprise last week by a new round of condemnation of the plan from his party colleague, Religious Services Minister David Azoulay, on Saturday evening that was compounded by a new letter of condemnation from a group of high-ranking Sephardi rabbis that the Shas leader cannot ignore.

Religious Services Minister David Azoulay.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The effort was led by the Sephardi chief rabbi of Jerusalem, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who along with several other senior rabbis signed a letter on the subject with the heading “judgment.”

It was printed on letterhead of the Jerusalem Religious Council. In reference to the Western Wall, the letter stated: “There is no permission to turn [the Western Wall] over to contempt and defamation in the hands of those who pretend to pray and conduct themselves with permissiveness and foolishness, which is profaning of holiness and the Temple and trampling the holiness of Jewish tradition over the ages, insolently and cruelly. This is no less severe than giving it to a demolition company that would disperse its stones in every direction and demolish and destroy it on its foundations, heaven forbid.”

The rabbis condemned the cabinet decision on the matter, adding that “any decision to turn over the Wall or a portion of it to any entity whatsoever is not a valid decision.” The letter is particularly striking coming as it does following a letter by the Shas Council of Torah Sages, which did in fact condemn what it called “the destroyers of the religion,” but also backed Dery and Shas representatives who it said would be working “with our agreement and on our behalf.”

Anyone comparing the two letters is likely to be confused when a rabbi such as Rabbi Shalom Cohen, who heads the Council of Torah Sages and is considered an uncompromising ultra-Orthodox ideologue, writes in a relatively careful and stately manner regarding the agreement with the non-Orthodox movements, while Rabbi Amar, who is purportedly more closely connected to the general Israeli experience than the Shas rabbis, comes out against the agreement and against the government, in harsh terms.

Beyond the ideological issue, what the signatories to the second letter have in common is that they all, to some extent or another, play an opposing role to Shas officialdom. They don’t miss an opportunity to take Shas to task and portray it as an establishment party that would not forgo its material benefits at any price. This institutionalization has also recently found expression in the curious disappearance of Shas party representatives on the Jerusalem city council in an important vote relating to the desecration of the Sabbath in the city.

And behold, an oppositional line that had been dormant over the past year since the Knesset elections, between Rabbi Meir Mazuz – the spiritual patron of former Shas leader Eli Yishai – and the “hardalniks,” those straddling the line between national religious Orthodoxy and ultra-Orthodoxy, has nearly awaked.

Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Uri Ariel of Habayit Hayehudi, who unlike his party colleagues Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked voted in the cabinet against the arrangement at the Wall, paid a non-routine visit last week to Rabbi Mazuz in Bnei Brak for consultations on the issue. On Sunday, Ariel was planning to outflank Shas and UTJ from the conservative side and demonstrate his opposition to the agreement with a prominent visit to the holy site, to be joined by Habayit Hayehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich and Shas’ arch-rival Yishai.

The ultra-Orthodox parties are expected in any event to present demands of their own in the face of the non-Orthodox movements’ achievements, beginning with legislation. On Thursday Litzman, speaking at a yeshiva fund-raising event in the Gur Hasidic community, said his Adugat Yisrael faction would quit the government unless legislation is passed reducing the power of the Reform Movement, according to the Behadrey Haredim ultra-Orthodox website.

The comments are also in keeping with the directives of the Agudat Yisrael Council of Torah Sages, which convened about two weeks ago following the announced new arrangement at the Western Wall. After that meeting, the council’s secretary sent the Agudat Yisrael members of the UTJ Knesset faction a letter directing them to condition their cooperation with the government on legislation that would maintain the status quo on matters of religion and state. The letter defined the status quo as requiring that “all matters of religion and Judaism [be] conducted by the Orthodox.”

The rabbis, including Litzman’s rabbinical patron from the Gur community, demanded an action report on the matter within 30 days.

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