The decision this week by Israel’s governing Cabinet to formally approve a proposal accommodating non-Orthodox, egalitarian prayer at the Kotel – the remaining Western Wall of the ancient Jerusalem Temple – has evoked passionate, but predictable, responses.
Many are celebrating what they see as a major step forward in what has been, and continues to be, a long and difficult process. For the first time, non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism have been granted the stamp of legitimacy by the Israeli government – something they’ve long had in other countries around the world, and never should have had to fight for in Israel. Others maintain that this compromise is nothing less that an admission of defeat; we were played, they say. The hardline Haredim won, the government got the issue off the front page of the Times, the historic Kotel that most people know remains in their hands, and it should never have been agreed to.
In one way or another, I have been involved with the struggle for religious pluralism in Israel for virtually my entire rabbinate, most officially during my presidency of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international professional organization of Conservative/Masorti rabbis, from 2012-2014. I remember well both the excitement and the skepticism when Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, acting at the behest of Prime Minister Netanyahu, first came to American Jewish leadership with the “One Kotel for One People” idea. The New York Times had picked up on the struggle of the Women of the Wall in a big way, and all of a sudden, what had been an internal Jewish issue became an embarrassment for the Israeli government. The antagonism between the forces of change on matters of religious policy and those who opposed them had reached a critical juncture. Clearly, something needed to be done.
The simple truth is that although it often seems uncomprehending on this issue, Israel cannot afford to alienate large swaths of American Jews. At a time when she is increasingly isolated internationally by the BDS movement, her citizens are subjected still to random stabbings that no less than the UN Secretary General regards as a “human response to occupation,” and the security situation in the countries surrounding her continues to deteriorate, removing – or at least moderating – a major source of contention with Diaspora Jewry largely of Israel’s own making has to be regarded as a good thing.
But beyond the political considerations, having the government of Israel finally acknowledge and affirm not only the legitimacy, but also the compelling nature of other expressions of Judaism besides Orthodoxy, and their very real connection to Israel, is a critically important achievement. Remember: Sharansky began his work during a brief period when Israel’s governing coalition had no Haredi parties in it. It was a propitious time to make progress on this issue. That is was able to be moved forward now, when the ruling coalition in Israel leans heavily to the right both politically and religiously, can correctly be read as an indication that there is significantly greater recognition of the rightness of this cause. The time has clearly come to make some kind of meaningful gesture, and the Sharansky plan – even modified – is a meaningful gesture with both implied and externalized significance.
But … remember this.
The over-arching reason for this long struggle, both for Conservative and Reform Jews, is not to gain meaningful gestures. Having dignified and appropriate prayer space at the sacred Kotel site is indeed important to all of us, but the fundamental struggle of the non-Orthodox movements in Israel, Masorti and Reform, it to gain equity in government funding for our varied programs, not just at the Kotel but all around Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu keeps his Haredi coalition factions in line by funneling millions of shekels to their yeshivot and social programs. Masorti programs have to scrape and scratch for every shekel. When all is said and done, we want equity in spending, and an end to a system where the “streams” have to divide an ever-shrinking budget while others have money flowing to them like a mighty stream.
I choose to end this on a positive note. From my own experiences with him, my impression of Jewish Agency Chairman Sharansky is that he genuinely set out to “do the right thing” by the non-Orthodox movements, because he has a deep understanding and appreciation of the power and vitality they bring to the Zionist table. He was a bona fide Jewish hero before, but I salute him anew for his role in making this happen, along with Cabinet Secretary Mandelblit and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Because of this recent decision, Israel is one step closer to a healthier religious climate than it was a week ago, and all of us who love her should be grateful for that. I can only imagine that there will still be bumps along the way. But at least there is a “way.” Shehecheyanu …
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.