Image credit: Mark Neyman/Government Press Office of Israel
The cancellation of the Western Wall deal – everybody's talking about it.
Pundits and politicians on the left, among them Knesset Opposition head Yitzhak Herzog, gleefully warn of a crisis with "world Jewry" brought on by the "right-wing religious" government that would seem to threaten the future of Israel and the Jewish people. Meanwhile, Jewish Home chairperson Naftali Bennett of said government emphasizes how he opposed cancelling the deal and boycotted the vote, even as rabbis of the National Religious movement he purports to represent laud the cancellation. Haredi parties celebrate their victory in quashing the move. For his part, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, as is his wont, is hedging his bets by generally not taking a public position.
So what's all the hullabaloo about? In a nutshell, a deal to place part of the Western Wall – which is managed by the Israeli rabbinate – in the hands of the Reform and Conservative movements to hold prayer ceremonies that buck Jewish tradition was, at least temporarily, scuttled on June 25. That, together with a decision to keep Jewish conversions under the oversight and regulation of the rabbinate in keeping with Torah-observant Judaism, has sent the Jewish world into a tither.
The decisions are a slap in the face to religious freedom, according to the protestations of the Reform and Conservative movements, which are largely indistinguishable as both groups’ rejection of the divine nature of the Torah and of adherence to Jewish law has largely dovetailed. Case in point: The Conservative Movement, which has allowed driving on Shabbat since 1950, recently issued a list of electronic devices it permits to use on Shabbat; it embraces homosexual marriages and homosexual rabbis and is increasingly advocating transgenderism; and it has undermined the Jewish dietary laws, with even a mild suggestion for affiliated organizations to conduct basic checks regarding the cooking process when ordering cooked dairy meals at non-Kosher meat restaurants eliciting heavy backlash.
Getting back to the point at hand, is there any truth to this allegation of religious persecution at the Western Wall? Unfortunately, that question was already answered at great expense to Israeli taxpayers in 2013, when Bennett, in his role as minister of religious services, built the Ezrat Yisrael “egalitarian prayer section” on the southern part of the Western Wall. That area is said to have remained largely unused by those for whom it was designated, and their request for a new section illustrates that having real estate at the Western Wall where they can hold ceremonies as they please is not their end goal.
No, the question is not whether non-Torah observant Jewish streams can conduct their ceremonies at the Western Wall, since they already can, but rather whether they can do so in the limelight afforded by a section accessible from the main Western Wall plaza, where observant Jews will be forced to grudgingly see and accept Reform/Conservative practices at the holy site. This push for legitimacy for non-Torah Judaism by using the Western Wall inevitably seeks to undermine rabbinic Torah Judaism.
If that sounds like hyperbole or a conspiracy theory, it isn’t.
Anat Hoffman, who serves as chair of the board of Women of the Wall, the Reform group that spearheaded the recently quashed Western Wall deal, has over the years engaged in press-hungry shenanigans such as smuggling Torah scrolls into the Western Wall plaza to offend the sensibilities of observant Jews and challenge the status quo.
Hoffman, in a rare moment of candor in July 2013, clearly stated that her goal is to “end the chief rabbinate” in Israel. In her tirade against the “outdated institution,” Hoffman declared: “It is time to throw out the whole rabbinate.”
Hoffman’s weapon of choice in her battle against the state body overseeing Torah Judaism in the Jewish state is the Western Wall, an open, central, and significant venue where her Women of the Wall have sought to impose new norms on religiously observant Judaism.
With the cancellation of the deal, this assault on Jewish tradition at the Western Wall is entering a new phase, now that the attempts to pressure the government into submission via activism and court cases have at least temporarily failed. The next stage appears to include fiscal blackmail and an economic boycott, which began when wealthy American Jew Isaac Fisher threatened to pull his financial support for Israel, with others potentially following suit. This step is reminiscent of the BDS movement, although the target of the economic warfare on Israel is not its geographical presence in Judea and Samaria but rather its religious Jewish nature.
Tragically, overshadowing this attempt to undermine Jewish tradition is an actual case of religious persecution against Jews of all stripes, which is taking place just over the heads of visitors to the Western Wall.
There, on the Temple Mount where the First and Second Temples once stood, the Jordanian Waqf, a politically and theologically foreign body, is exercising brutal dominion over the holiest site in Judaism with the tacit approval of the Israeli government. There the Waqf bans Jews - not from holding defiant rituals challenging religious norms as the Reform movement is doing below at the Western Wall, but from the basic right to personal prayer. There Jews have been arrested for having the temerity to move their lips in prayer, and on the basis of their religious and ethnic identity, Jews are blocked from visiting their holiest site, or at best are limited in their access.
Here is an actual battle for religious freedoms that should unite Jews of all walks - but alas, those who profess to fight for the right to worship are busy below trying to dismantle Torah Judaism.