Non-Orthodox Jews’ Assault on the Western Wall a Provocation, Not a Prayer Service

Forget a 'struggle for civil rights,' or 'liberating' the Wall. That's not the true reason for Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders' uncouth Kotel Crusade.

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Israeli members of the liberal Jewish religious group Women of the Wall, carry a Torah scroll after prayers in the women's section of the Western Wall, in the Old city of Jerusalem on November 2, 2016.
Israeli members of the liberal Jewish religious group Women of the Wall, carry a Torah scroll after prayers in the women's section of the Western Wall, in the Old city of Jerusalem, November 2, 2016.Credit: Emil Salman
Rabbi Avi Shafran
Avi Shafran

The latest heterodox assault on the Western Wall was a resounding success.  If, by “resounding,” one means that the media - duly notified of the action - dutifully reported the resultant fracas; and if by “success,” one means it accomplished its goal of turning a place of peace into a center of conflict.

The several hundred Reform and Conservative-affiliated Jews (allied with Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman and members of her flock) insist that they did not descend on the site to create – perish the thought – a provocation.  But it must have at least occurred to them that rudely interrupting the prayers of traditionally religious Jews with a tumultuous parade of chanting and Torah scroll-brandishing might, regrettably, cause a disturbance.  

They must have missed the story last week about the young man who tried to impress two lady friends by entering the panda pen at China’s Nanchang Zoo and poking one of the residents.  The brave fellow was wrestled to the ground by the poked panda and bitten.  I don’t condone the mammal’s actions, or those of some Kotel regulars who tried to prevent the recent provoca – pardon me, prayer service.  But still. The protesters didn’t choose to proudly venture onto the Temple Mount, the most Jewish spot on earth, despite being unfettered by halakhic concerns about ascending the Mount. They seem to recognize the wrongness of trying to “liberate” that holy site, as Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv described what the protesters had done to the Kotel plaza.

Speaking of the Temple Mount, Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie, a former leader of his movement, recently invoked the across-the-Jewish-spectrum condemnation of the recent UNESCO resolutions omitting the site’s connection to the Jewish People as requiring the upending of the status quo at the Kotel.  “Surely,” he wrote, “Reform and Conservative Jews, who have joined in the battle against UN Israel bashing, should have the right to pray at the Wall as a recognized community.”

Odd that he misses the irony of his thought.  The idiocy of the UNESCO resolutions was their refusal to acknowledge historical truth. But Rabbi Yoffie and his allies do something similar, glossing over the historical truth that, for centuries, the Temple Mount was where the Jewish people gathered to pray in, yes, “Orthodox” fashion, with men and women separated and with adherence to halakhic norms. 

But back to the recent invasion of the Kotel plaza.  Several significant things seem to have somehow eluded the media, which have largely presented things precisely as the “liberators” of the Wall have asked them to – as a high-minded battle for civil rights, akin to the American anti-segregation, voting rights movement in the middle of last century.  If Rosa Parks, who was deeply religious, is aware of the comparison, she is spinning furiously in her grave.  

No Jew is, or ever has been, prevented from “voting” with his or her prayers at the Kotel.  Jews of all religious stripes, or no religious stripes, have always been welcome to stand among the Orthodox regulars at the site.  I have no “civil right” to insist that a Jewish Community Center where egalitarian prayers have been held for years install a mechitza and separate men from women.  I can certainly try to force the issue and impose myself on the place, yes, but that would be uncouth, to use a mild word.  The attack on the Kotel’s longstanding embrace of traditional Jewish prayer is no different.

Also overlooked is the fact that the Robinson’s Arch part of the Kotel, which the Israeli government has assigned as a temporary place for nontraditional prayer, has not drawn very many Reform or Conservative Jews. It is often empty. Why haven’t the “activists” seized upon that adjacent site – which can already accommodate 450 worshippers – to demonstrate their desire to pray in the presence of a part of the Western Wall?  Could it be that there isn’t any disruption to be wreaked there, no media value to a quiet, prayerful presence?

And, further, why is there no challenge to the claim routinely made that “American Jewry” supports the would-be “liberators” of the Wall?   Certainly, the most dynamic, growing and Israel-focused segment of American Jewry, the Orthodox, feel quite different about the issue. “Every year, the Orthodox population has been adding 5,000 Jews,” says sociologist Steven M. Cohen. “The non-Orthodox population has been losing 10,000 Jews.”  No less than 27% of all American Jews under 18 live in Orthodox households.

And there are almost as many American Jews who profess no religious affiliation at all, and have no interest whatsoever in the Kotel, as there are those who say they are Reform.  And many, if not most, of the latter may have no real connection to any Reform institution but simply use the word to describe their Jewish non-observance.  They, too, have no particular concern about Israel’s religious standards.  

No, the activists here are not representative of “American Jewry,” only of themselves and those among their congregants whom they have convinced to follow their example.  

Which leads to what is perhaps the most trenchant, and ignored, part of the issue. There is a reason that the non-Orthodox movements’ leaderships have created and are so strongly promoting their Kotel Crusade.  It’s because they have nothing else exciting to offer their followers.  

Are they as vocal (or even audible) about encouraging their congregants to observe (in any way) the Sabbath?  Are they teaching them about chessed? About lashon hara?  About kashrut?  Do they exhort their followers to pray three times daily, and do they explore with them the meaning of our prayers?  Is study of Jewish texts part of their shul membership’s daily routine?  Or are efforts to promote such things simply not working?  Or, at least, not as exciting as presenting assaults on other Jews’ sensibilities as a “civil rights” issue, to be protested 60s-style – complete with a holy place used as a prop and Torah scrolls brandished like placards.

Where will things go from here?  As someone who never thought that Donald Trump would make it past “The Apprentice,” I can lay no claim to prophecy.  I can imagine, though, the Israeli Orthodox giant stirring (upwards of 50,000 attended Birchat Kohanim, after all) and asserting itself peacefully but powerfully.  On the other hand, I can imagine the Israeli High Court deputizing armed Israeli police to ensure that Ms. Hoffman and company can chant in the Kotel plaza to their hearts’ content.  In that event, the Orthodox might just painfully recognize that they can’t pray there anymore.  It won’t have been the first time Jews were sent into exile.

One thing I know with surety, though, is the solution to the Kotel issue.  It’s ahavat Yisrael and menschlichkeit.  On the Orthodox side, those things require treating Jews unlike themselves with only love and respect, and certainly not assaulting even those who may be engaged in provocative acts.  And on the non-Orthodox side, relinquishing, in the interest of Jewish unity, an exciting, but ultimately losing battle. 

That would represent, for all Jews, true success.

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