“The arc of the moral universe is long,” declared Martin Luther King, “but it bends toward justice.” The wisdom of this adage is on display in Israel, where the government-endorsed and funded stranglehold of Orthodox authorities on Jewish religious expression appears, at long last, to be losing its grip. This signals a tectonic shift that Jews of all denominations (or none) and the entire Jewish People should celebrate.
This phenomenon is illustrated by two profoundly important recent developments, one executive, the other judicial. The first involves Naftali Bennett, a religiously observant, Orthodox Jew, who holds the portfolio of Minister of Religious Affairs in the Netanyahu government, and recently announced sweeping changes in how the ministry will fund rabbis in Israel. Heretofore, the state appointed communal rabbis selected exclusively by the ultra-Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate, excluding entirely Reform and Conservative rabbis and, sometimes, modern Orthodox candidates as well. Under Bennett’s groundbreaking proposal, Israel’s citizens will be free, for the first time, to engage rabbis of their choice, who would receive state funding, according to the Ministry’s announcement of the reforms, “independent of which Jewish denomination the relevant community belongs to.”
A necessary (dare I say, inevitable) next step needs to be a parallel plan to fund synagogues, schools, and educational programs of all major streams of Judaism on an equal footing. Historically, just as with the funding of community rabbis, state funding has been made available only to build and operate Orthodox congregations.The same narrow, discriminatory practice has long prevailed with respect to schools and other educational institutions. Denied the funding that accompanies official recognition, non-Orthodox synagogues, institutions and programs have had to rely on membership dues, which Orthodox congregations do not require, expensive membership fees, and philanthropy. This has hampered their development, depriving Israelis of experiences of Judaism that, as surveys have repeatedly demonstrated, are far more consistent with their values and beliefs than those presented by the monolithic religious establishment so many find profoundly alienating.
Tel Aviv, led by Mayor Ron Huldai since 1988 and Shlomo Lahat before him, has demonstrated the vision, fairness, political courage and pragmatism that state officials have so far lacked, providing municipal funding for Reform-sponsored schools and programs. It does not do so in order to promote our agenda, but rather its own: to provide a quality education to Tel Aviv’s children, one that introduces them to classic and modern Jewish texts, traditions, practices and values, including social justice, in a way that ignites enthusiasm and stimulates deep commitment to engaged citizenship in Israeli society, one whose democratic character has yet to be fully realized and, at times, appears endangered. While the details of the transformative policy shift Bennett has announced have yet to be revealed, and the plan has yet to be implemented, its potential significance cannot be overstated.
This historic announcement did not occur in a vacuum. In recent months, the eyes of world Jewry, and of Israel’s political leaders and religious establishment, have been focused on the Kotel, the Western wall of the Temple Mount. For nearly a quarter century, “Women of the Wall,” founded and led courageously by Anat Hoffman, composed of women from across the Jewish denominational spectrum, including Orthodox women, have sought, monthly on Rosh Chodesh, to pray in the women’s section of the Kotel plaza wearing tallitot, and to read Torah undisturbed, following their interpretation of Jewish tradition. While many in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox camp denounce these ritual practices, they are accepted by a considerable majority of Jews in the diaspora and are widespread even within Israel.
For having the desire and insisting on the right to pray together at that holy site, these brave women have endured harassment, obscene cursing and verbal abuse, bombardment with such objects as chairs and diapers filled with human excrement. Nonetheless, they persist, Jews intent upon praying to the God of our People, the hatred and contempt of others notwithstanding. Adding insult to injury, Israel police on the scene, rather than protecting the women from assault, became unwitting accomplices of intolerance by threatening to arrest them, ultimately doing so on April 11, 2013 for wearing prayer shawls, holding this to be a violation of an Israeli law dating to 1981 (Regulations for the Protection of Holy Places) that forbids religious ceremonies that do not accord with “local custom” at the Kotel or that “may hurt the feelings of worshipers” there. In accordance with a Supreme Court ruling in 2003 and a Justice Ministry directive reiterated in 2005, this had been interpreted to mean that only strictly Orthodox practice was permissible at that site.
The arrests aroused the fury of Reform and Conservative Jews throughout the world, particularly in the United States, where a predominant majority of Jews identify with those movements. While the injustices I have described, which convey a message of dismissal and disrespect to much of world Jewry, have been long known and much too patiently endured, the arrests were the classic “straw that broke the camel’s back.” To see Israeli police arresting women engaged in prayer rather than protecting them from the mob that set upon them, revealed something terribly, sickeningly wrong in Israeli society.
Yet, at just that climactic moment another watershed event occurred. Brought before Jerusalem Magistrate Court Judge Sharon Larry-Bably, the five arrested women were ordered released, the judge holding that there had been no cause to arrest them and that the Women of the Wall’s prayer services did not cause a public disturbance. The Israel Police, sincerely believing they were enforcing existing law, appealed the Magistrate’s Court decision, but it was upheld by Judge Moshe Sobell, who ruled, on the basis of several Supreme Court precedents, that “local custom” did not automatically mean Orthodox practice. Remarkably, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and Religious Affairs Minister Bennett announced that the government would not appeal Sobell’s decision.
The resulting change was powerful and immediate. When the Women of the Wall gathered for the Rosh Chodesh Sivan new month services, and were confronted once again by a mob incited by Haredi leaders, the police functioned as they must in a democracy, protecting those who sought to exercise their rights from those who would prevent them from doing so. Their professionalism on that difficult occasion merits high praise. I trust that it was not an aberration, but the setting of a new norm.
Resolving the WoW controversy is now recognized as a matter of utmost importance by virtually everyone, whatever their view of the religious practices involved. At the behest of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who seems genuinely determined to heal this breach in world Jewry, the Jewish Agency’s Natan Sharansky has been working diligently to find a solution with which all sides can live. Having met with him several times, I am convinced of his powerful personal desire to accomplish this, but numerous obstacles must be overcome and such a result will require flexibility and a willingness to compromise from all sides, as well as the fortitude to resist all efforts to pare back or undermine the proposal altogether.
The broad outlines of the Sharansky proposal are widely known. It would involve the construction of a new area for egalitarian and pluralistic prayer, equal in size and height to the present combined men’s and women’s section, along the Kotel above the Robinson’s Arch area, with one point of entry leading to all the prayer sections, which could be accessed on a 24/7 basis. Management of the new site would not be under the control of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, presently dominated by the ultra-Orthodox. Nonetheless, that foundation, too, would be changed to reflect the diversity of Jewish practice in Israel and of the Jewish People itself.
The Kotel and the plaza in which it stands is not just a religious venue, however sacred. They are a place where national events of significance to all Israelis, whether they consider themselves religious or not, take place. And if all involved have sufficient wisdom, patience, tolerance, and will, the Kotel can yet become an inspiring symbol of Jewish unity, rather than a tragic, pathetic example of division and needless hatred.
Here, it becomes clear that the internal tensions over Jewish identity in Israel cannot continue to be pushed off until the state no longer faces existential external threats and dangers, a day for which we pray, but cannot predict when, if ever, will come. Anything that needlessly divides the Jewish People in such perilous times as ours is not just unfortunate, it is a national security threat to Israel. With the US Israel’s only true and reliable friend of consequence, and politically active American Jews indispensable to ensuring the continuity of that strategic partnership, the Jewish State can ill afford a situation where American Jews, feeling insulted and rejected, find it difficult or impossible to identify wholeheartedly with Israel. That is what is ultimately at stake here.
And let us keep in mind that the Women of the Wall conflict is not an isolated issue. Rather, it symbolizes and reminds us that there are other pressing issues of social justice in Israel society that require courageous and imaginative solutions, including a fair distribution of burdens, and the unequal status of women and others. These challenges, too, cannot wait for the elusive peace for which we yearn to arrive, and even a solution to the Kotel controversy will not make them disappear.
The arc of moral history is bending toward justice in Israel. Thank God!