Western Wall administrator Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz is withdrawing his support for an egalitarian prayer space less than two months after the Israeli government cabinet approved the new prayer spot. On Monday, March 14, 2016, Rabinowitz wrote a letter to haredi Orthodox party leaders asking them to draft legislation overturning the cabinet’s Jan. 31 vote on an egalitarian prayer space. Rabbi Rabinowitz also called on the party leaders to go further by “banning non-Orthodox and pluralist prayer at the Western Wall” and end “the desecration of the holy” site.
Rabinowitz sent his letter to Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman (United Torah Judaism), Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (Shas), and United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni. The rabbi wrote, “I call upon you to act with the same determination to stop the holy site desecration at the Western Wall, whose spiritual damage is beyond imagination.” Rabinowitz stated “For years I have stood alone in the struggle” against liberal denominations, and modern streams.
In the letter, he wrote of his opposition to the WOW feminist prayer group, “Again and again the Women of the Wall have taken increasingly severe steps out of a desire to provoke, cause arguments and harm the sensitivities of worshipers and the holiness of the site.” Rabinowitz claims, “now gone too far, they are seeking to tear down the wall and the people of Israel into bits and pieces.”
Rabinowitz is looking for the 2013 court ruling allowing WoW to pray at the Kotel to be overturned. The decision allowed the group to pray wearing prayer shawls and tefillin, that are usually the custom for men, without the risk of arrest and disruption. Still the group has faced protesters and confiscations of the Torah scrolls to they wish to read from at the monthly Rosh Chodesh prayer services and Bat Mitzvahs. Reading from Torah scrolls were not part of the agreement.
The new prayer space would give WoW a permanent a home, and return the central Western Wall plaza to entirely Orthodox prayer. The deal voted on in January expands the Robinson Arch area. According to the Jerusalem Post, the space will be “remodeled, upgraded and enlarged, will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” and it will be free to enter.
The new area “will constitute a “fully functional and operational” prayer space with the requisite infrastructure, such as provide prayer books, prayer shawls, Torah scrolls, and other necessities for regular prayer services.” The new area will mostly be mixed gender, but will have a women’s only section as per WoW’s demand, and will be accessible through the main entrance and other locations in the plaza. The Wow wanted it to be equal to the main plaza in every sense. The project will cost NIS 35 million in construction costs and to purchase religious items, which include, “prayer books, Torah scrolls, arks, ark covers and prayer shawls – for the running of services there.”
As the Jerusalem Post indicated, the area will not have a chief rabbi. It will be “governed by a committee headed by the chairman of the Jewish Agency, and will include representatives from Women of the Wall, the Reform Movement, the Masorti (Conservative) Movement, the Jewish Federations of North America and the government.” Netanyahu will also appoint an administrator. To accommodate the new prayer space changes will be made to the Law of the Holy Sites (1981).
Rabinowitz and Israel’s ultra-Orthodox fear moderate Jewish denominations, including the Conservative and especially the Reform movement, and have been at war with the Women of the Wall prayer group for years, scared that that these moderate and modern movements might ruin the Orthodox nature of the Western Wall. With the letter, Rabinowitz can “distance himself from the plan.”
When the cabinet passed the plan for the egalitarian space, 15 to 5, Deri and Litzman were among the five that voted against it. The others included Religious Service Minister David Azoulay (Shas), Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel (Bayit Yehudi) and Absorption Minister Ze’ev Elkin (Likud). Although the haredi opposed and campaigned against the space, before they did not fight the plan or threaten the government as they are now. Israel’s chief rabbis, Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau also oppose the proposed space.
Ever since the historic cabinet vote, Rabinowitz, and the haredi political leaders have been backtracking, have been putting pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reverse the vote, threatening even to withdraw from the fragile coalition, and put the country at risk of another election, only a year after the last. Netanyahu has promised to continue to support the decision, and he will not back down.
The recently released Pew Research Center survey on religion in Israel was an eye-opening introduction to the Americans and those outside of Israel into the inner workings of the main Jewish groups in Israel and the haredim’s fierce opposition to any liberal dominations, and the wish for halacha to also be state laws. The right wing haredi political parties also hold the fragile government coalition in their hands, wielding much more power than their population proportion, of eight percent, and secular opposition Israelis feel towards them socially.
Unfortunately for American Jews that cheered the agreement, the ultra-Orthodox are not alone to their opposition to the Conservative and Reform denominations, and Women of the Wall and praying out loud at the Kotel, and reading the Torah there.
According to Pew’s findings Most Israelis oppose “Conservative and Reform rabbis to conduct marriages in Israel,” 54 percent in total including 28 percent secular Jews, this could be because so little of Israelis Jews 5 percent in total identify with those movements. Nearly 50 percent oppose “women praying out loud at the Western Wall,” of the 47 percent total, with 35 percent of secular Jews against it. In both cases, the opposition increased by the level of observance and decreased as it his secular Jews.