June 30, 2017
Temple B’nai Chaim
Rabbi Rachel Bearman
This week, a lot has been happening in Israel. These developments and the various reactions to them are important to us as Jews and especially as liberal Jews who love Israel. I would like to spend the next several minutes talking about these recent events because I hope that this will be a topic that we spend time discussing with our friends and families, and I want us to have a solid amount of information for those conversations.
At the beginning of this week, the Israeli government decided to officially freeze the agreed-upon plan to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, the Western Wall, that would have been equal in stature to the gender-segregated section of the Kotel. This compromise had been solidified in January of 2016, but this week, Prime Minister Netanyahu acquiesced to pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners and froze the development of this plan.
The statement from the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) explains that at the same time as the government made the decision to halt any progress with the development of this egalitarian prayer space, “…the Cabinet [also] voted to advance a bill that would grant the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate exclusive control over conversions in Israel.”
These decisions are complicated and troubling. I want to start unpacking them by sharing some of the background information that I have gathered to help us understand the current situation. I also want to note that this is not all of the information available to us. It is just a place to begin.
The Western Wall or Kotel was built to be a retaining wall and is all that remains of what was once the holiest site in the Jewish world, the Second Temple. In the almost 2000 years since the Romans destroyed the Temple, Jewish access to the Kotel has come and gone depending on which empire or people controlled the site. When Nachmanides, one of our tradition’s great commentators, visited the Kotel in the 13th century, he reported that he only met two Jewish families in the city.
During the period of the British Mandate, there are many photos of Jewish men and women praying right next to one another at the Kotel.
During the Six Day War, Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem, and Jews of all backgrounds arrived at the wall—a moment celebrated by the sounding of a shofar. In the years after the Six Day War, the Western Wall was divided into two sections: one for prayer and one for archeological research. The part of the Kotel that had been designated for prayer was then further divided so that men would pray in one space and women in another.
In 2016, after four years of negotiations, the Israeli Cabinet reached a compromise which would allow Haredi control over the existing, gender-segregated prayer spaces to continue but would also expand and officially recognize an egalitarian prayer space at Robinson’s Arch. Importantly—the 2016 agreement called for this egalitarian section of the Kotel to be administered by representatives from the Reform and Conservative Movements, Women of the Wall, the Jewish Federations of North America, and the Israeli Government. This compromise passed with a 15-5 approval vote but was loudly condemned by Haredi leaders and politicians because they objected to any proposal that would grant legitimacy to non-Orthodox Judaism. Since the agreement was solidified, Haredi leaders have threatened to leave the coalition, and earlier this week, the Israeli government chose to bow to these threats.
ARZA (The Association of Reform Zionists of America) explains that, “Reneging on the Kotel compromise is an abandonment of the principle of Jewish unity and a statement against the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Jewish expression. It is a violation of the principle of Jewish nationalism that unites the Jewish people &mdash: the very foundational idea of Zionism.”
It is important to note that this decision has been condemned by representatives from many different Jewish movements as well as by many large Jewish Federations that serve and represent American Jews from a variety of movements. Others though have supported the decision. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks attempted neutrality when he commented, “Each side has a place to pray—and therefore we must not think of victory or defeat.”
Just this afternoon, the Reform Movement posted a press release announcing that today the Israeli cabinet voted, “to postpone further action on the offensive ‘conversion bill” which had been advanced earlier this week. The URJ’s release reiterated that, “[The leadership of the Reform Movement] will continue insisting that the Haredi establishment not have a monopoly over conversion and if necessary, …will not hesitate to go back to the courtroom.. They continued by stating, “We expect the Prime Minister to act in a similar way on the despicable decision made regarding the Kotel. We will not allow the unity of the Jewish people to be placed in the hands of parties and politicians who have hardened their hearts to compromise, mutual respect, and dialogue. We have no doubt that most coalition parties, just like most of Israeli society, believe in these values, and we expect them to act upon them immediately also regarding the Kotel resolution.”
These developments and the conversation that surrounds them are all ongoing, and I am unable to end this D’var Torah with a succinct take-away or list of concrete action steps. But, I want to say tonight that liberal Judaism is not a secondary form of Judaism. It is unjust for liberal Jews to be treated as if we are practicing a Judaism that is lesser than that of our ultra-Orthodox brethren. You have heard me say it before, but I must repeat that we do ourselves a disservice when we think of ourselves or even joke about being “just Reform” Jews. Using this designation represents an internalization of the idea that true Judaism is represented by the ultra-Orthodox and that we we are simply a pale reflection of that true faith.
We are the spiritual descendants of rabbis and lay people who argued that our spirits and our minds can work in tandem. We belong to a movement that was once called “Prophetic Judaism” because of our deep commitment to social justice. We are a community that celebrates and welcomes people of all gender identities and sexual orientations and that allows children of all genders to stand on this bimah and chant from the scroll that contains the sacred words of our tradition. We should be proud of that heritage and that identity.
I encourage all of us to take time to learn more about what has been going on in Israel. Like any aspect of Israeli society, these issues are complicated and deserve the time and energy that understanding will require. Failing to engage with these events will send the message that Israel belongs to the ultra-Orthodox more than it belongs to liberal Jews and that is an idea to which we must object strenuously.
I also encourage all of us to follow the Reform Movement on social media so that we can continue to receive updates about this situation. And finally, I encourage us to recommit ourselves to honoring our identities as liberal Jews. We have so much to be proud of.
Chazak. Chazak. V’nitchazek.
Be Stong. Be Strong. Let us strengthen one another.
Rabbi Rachel Bearman
Temple B’nai Chaim