Frederick L. Klein
Frederick L. Klein

The battle for the Kotel: it’s not just about the Progressive movements

There are many in the traditional Orthodox community who have been shocked by what are perceived as the extreme reactions of the progressive movements and local Jewish Federations to the recent suspension of the creation of an egalitarian or alternative prayer space in the Kotel plaza.   There are some Orthodox Jews who tacitly agree and even celebrate the decisions of the Israeli government.  Both reactions are unfortunate, reflecting an Orthodox world view which either does not understand, or even worse,  refuses to recognize or care about the deep pain this decision causes so many of our brethren.  This lack of sensitivity reflects a true breakdown in our ability to communicate with one another and threatens us as a people at a very critical crossroad in history.  (The recent conversion bill is also problematic, but warrants a separate treatment.)

Ultimately, I believe this conflict should not be framed as a battle between Orthodoxy and progressive movements, but about the very unity of the Jewish people. This conflict is an attempt of one subgroup within Orthodoxy to dictate the standards for the rest of the Jewish people, including many other Orthodox Jews.  This conflict should be seen as a struggle over the future of a Jewish and democratic state, and the promise that the State of Israel would represent the entire Jewish people.  Orthodox Jews are not monolithic in observance either, and they should be as concerned about the recent government decision as much as anyone else.

From where do I get this perspective? I serve professionally as the director of an interdenominational board of rabbis and the communal rabbi for a large Jewish Federation.  I also am an ordained Orthodox rabbi.   My work brings me into contact with Jews of every perspective, but I come home and pray in a vibrant Orthodox synagogue.  In this sense I live in Jewish worlds which often can seem like parallel universes; however, on a more fundamental level they are not.

Over my entire professional life I have worked with and learned from rabbis of all philosophies and backgrounds.  There are indeed deep fissures that divide us.  I do not always agree with my liberal colleagues; they do not agree with me either.   And yet we find ways to work together for the greater good.  Why?

There are fundamental values that unite us all.

The support for great unfinished experiment of the Jewish people which is the Jewish State has been one of the strongest factors that unite us, and non-Orthodox Jews and their religious leadership are among the groups at the forefront of advocating and supporting Israel.   While there is a diversity of opinions regarding specific government policies, the religious leadership of the liberal movements have been steadfast in their support for Israel.   Most have studied or lived for a time in Israel. They organize and advocate for Israel, they bring their congregants to Israel, they speak about Israel from their pulpits. The liberal movements send their children to Israel on summer programs, they have created gap year programs and some have made Aliyah themselves. They are as committed to and vested in the future of Israel as I am.  They have more than heeded the call of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. “ We appeal to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel in the tasks of immigration and upbuilding and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream — the redemption of Israel.”

Disenfranchising the bulk of American Jews and their religious leadership essentially tells most American Jews that they are really not part of Jewish history or Jewish destiny.  To put it bluntly, from the beginning of the State, American Jewry – which is largely non-Orthodox – has never betrayed the Zionist vision.  However, in the lack of recognition of any freedom of religion for liberal Jews or their leadership, the Jewish State has betrayed them again and again.

Israeli leadership tells them that change is a process and takes time.  Seventy years.  How patient can one be?

I must say that these events are especially sad given that we are marking this month fifty years since the liberation of Jerusalem.  All of us remember David Rubinger’s iconic photo, a photo of three Israeli paratroopers gazing with wonder while standing at the Kotel.  In their wondrous gaze Jewish history itself unfolds, the story of a people exiled and scattered, yearning to return.  Their eyes testify to the dreams deferred and the visions unfulfilled for untold generations of Jews.  In this photo we remember the Psalms, we remember how we cried by the rivers of Babylon and marveled like dreamers upon our return.  This is the true nature of the debate over the Kotel.  It is as much symbolic as it is practical.  On a very fundamental level sometimes unspoken, this is a battle about who owns Jewish history.

One colleague remarked, “When you come into my shul, you need to respect the standards.  Why is this any different?”  It is however, fundamentally very different.

Ultimately, the Kotel is not my local Orthodox shul and it does not belong to Orthodox Jews exclusively.  It certainly does not belong to any single rabbinate, movement, ideology, or individual rabbi(s).  Rather, it belongs to the entire Jewish people.  The Kotel is a place for ALL Jews to connect to God and Jewish history itself.   Whether American or Israeli, dati or chiloni, Orthodox or Reform, the Kotel transcends any particular movement; it is a national site and as such should provide access to all Jews with all backgrounds.

The delicate compromise achieved by Natan Sharansky over four years of negotiation was admirable.  While imperfect, the compromise tried to balance the diversity of Jewish religious expression with the religious sensibilities of many traditional Jews who go there.  It should be noted that the new area planned for expansion- the Ezrat Yisrael- was not even in the historic area where Jews prayed and yet for the sake of peace a balance and compromise was remarkably achieved.  Finally the Kotel would be a place where all Jews could connect to the Land, the people and the God of Israel in a way that was meaningful for them.  It was a step in the right direction.

Recent events have shattered this balance, reaffirming that the State of Israel is not ready to be the State for the entire Jewish people.   (Even if that is not the intention of the Israeli government, that is certainly how many American Jews feel.) That the Israeli government did not see this response as inevitable is shocking.

If you are not Orthodox perhaps what I am saying is patently obvious.  However, I do not believe this is obvious at all in certain Orthodox circles, and certainly not among large numbers of Orthodox Jews in Israel.  I would ask my Orthodox colleagues, if you were raised in a different world and a different place, and became a non-Orthodox rabbi, would you take your congregants to the Kotel?  I have thought about this question often, and in all frankness I would have great difficulty doing so.  Far from a place of affirming Jewish history and destiny, it would be a place of alienation and division.

It is time that enlightened Orthodox leadership call on the Israeli government to reinstate the compromise achieved by Sharansky and not delay implementation.  For those of us who are sensitive to our liberal colleagues, we will demonstrate the generosity of heart to see the holiness in the way they pray to God even if we do not always agree with the form that their prayers take.  In a world where so many Jews have ambivalent views about God in the first place and are detached from any tradition, our battle should not be with religious leaders who are brining groups of Jews to Jerusalem to pray to God.  The Pew report bears out that the challenge to tradition is not progressive movements; it is rampant secularism, and progressive rabbis are allies in this battle.

However, even if some Orthodox rabbis fundamentally disagree.  Even if some Orthodox rabbis disagree with all aspects of progressive Jewish prayer as it is not halakhic, and they utterly reject my analysis, seeing the Kotel as an exclusively religious site which must have an halakhic standard, I still would ask the question:  Is the division of our People worth it?  Is it worth tearing Jewry apart because of a mechitzah and a woman reading from a Torah and wearing tefillin, however strongly you object to these innovations?   Moreover, the area provided is totally separate as to not offend the sensibilities of the many Orthodox Jews who pray there.  Is it really worth the price of weakening the bonds between Israel and the bulk of diaspora Jewry?  I think not; the price and stakes are too high.  You may win a battle and lose the war. Its time our forward thinking Orthodox leadership says so loudly and clearly.

Furthermore, it is my sincere belief that Orthodox voices will be respected more –not less- when we grant that same respect to others.  For those of us who believe in spreading our vision of Torah Judaism, we know that in a modern democratic society we will not be successful through fiat and coercion.

For those traditionalists who still object and celebrate this decision, I fear you are in danger of turning your back on the vast majority of Jews, and embraced a concept of the Jewish people as you would like it to be, a concept that has no real ground in reality.  If you see all liberal Jews disappearing and all Israeli secular Jews becoming religious, I fear you indulge in triumphalist religious fantasies which have no grounds in reality.

May we remember the ways of the Torah are peace, and find ways to execute this value in the real life of a diverse people, and not in the imagined Jewish worlds that we would like.   Today I stand with all my fellow religious leaders, and seek ways to strengthen our bonds. I believe this way is good for Orthodoxy, good for the State of Israel, and most importantly good for the Jewish people.

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.