Esor Ben-Sorek
Esor Ben-Sorek

Kotel Versus Kittel

One of our readers sent a comment on my recent article “A First-Time Tourist”. He was concerned about my remarks referring to the lack of freedom of religion for Jews in Israel. He began by asking me if I had a problem with the kotel. Absolutely not. My problem is not with the kotel but rather with the kittel.

If the reader had examined photos and etchings made of Jews praying in the narrow passage of the kotel in the 1920’s and 1930’s, he would notice that men and women were praying together. No separation. No segregation. The problem began shortly after our independence in 1948.

Jews coming to Israel from diaspora countries where there is separation between religion and state are discriminated against when they wish to pray according to their religious practices and they (and I) resent them being told that they must pray only according to Orthodox tradition.

There has been a revolution in the past twenty years of women seeking to be equal to men in religious matters. Women have become rabbis in Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues. When they pray, some put on tefilin and taleysm, mandatory for Jewish males but not acceptable for Jewish females.

The ultra-Orthodox haredim have been harassing these women for years, denying them their Jewish right to pray at the kotel among the male worshippers. A compromise was suggested and implemented by building a space at Robinson’s Arch facing the kotel where men and women alike could pray together. It was not exactly the place where the women of the Wall hoped to pray, but it was a compromise and ultimately accepted by the women.

There they could don their prayer shawls and put the phylacteries on their left arm and on their head between the eyes in fulfillment of the Biblical command that they be placed close to the heart and close to the mind as they directed their prayers to God.

Women read aloud from the Torah scroll and lift it up on high at the conclusion. This practice drives the haredim wild with anger and they rush to put an end to these “forbidden” practices. A physical end, often.

The haredim rejected the nuance and often they would throw chairs and stones over the separation barrier in order to “demolish” the mixed place of prayer facing the kotel.

There are about 1000 synagogues in Israel but one can count on the fingers of the hands the small number of Conservative and Reform synagogues in our country. The non-Orthodox Jewish world is by far much larger than the insulated haredi communities. Why then, should non-Orthodox Jews not be permitted the privilege of praying at or near the Wall?

The haredim have political power because of their membership in the coalition government. Without their Knesset members, the government could not exist. New elections would have to be called. In order to placate these extremists, Robinson’s Arch was created as the prayer space of the non-Orthodox.

The singing of women is forbidden among Orthodox men. Not only does it distract them from their prayers but there is also an erotic concern. God forbid the ultra-Orthodox men should become aroused in the midst of their holy prayers.

Our Prime Minister, Bibi Netanyahu, seeks to placate the women of the Wall and to preserve ties to the financial contributing members of the Jewish diaspora. More than 40% of diaspora Jews are showing less attention to Israel’s needs, even to granting equal rights for the Palestinians and a future Palestinian State.

In that regard he gave in to the decision of the High Court permitting Robinson’s Arch to be used as a prayer space for liberal Jews. But then, due to the howling of the haredim and their threats to topple the government, Bibi backed down from his promise.

Will it cause a diminishment in the number of diaspora Jews coming for a visit in Israel? No one can be sure. But as one man, standing next to his wife, remarked to me: “I don’t need to waste my money in Israel. Prices are too high anyway. My wife and I can take a cruise in Europe for much less than a trip to Israel would cost us. And if and when we want to go to a synagogue on Shabbat, the one we go to is our choice. We don’t have to be forced by haredim in black hats and kittels telling us where and how to pray”.

I do not think that we will ever see a separation between our secular government and the powerful rabbinate which enforces their laws on our freedoms. Happily, now some food stores in Tel-Aviv will finally be permitted to be open for business on Shabbat over the strong objection of the rabbis.

Hallelujah! (A good Hebrew word meaning praised be God) . Maybe the messiah who lost his directions, will find them and make his way to us in our homeland and will make peace between the warring factions.

In Rishon Lezion, the only decision I have to make concerning where to worship is the choice between the Great Synagogue and the Chabad synagogue.

I leave it to the good readers to guess in which one I pray.

And I hope the nice gentleman who responded to my earlier article will Profit from my response !

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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