American Jewish Unity In Favor of Egalitarian Kotel Is a Fiction

It might be hard to imagine the hardline Israeli Haredi parties and the hardline feminist “Original Women of the Wall” group as occupying the same library, much less the same page. But that’s where they find themselves.

It’s not just that both are hardline, and that both reject the compromise idea of an egalitarian Western Wall prayer site at Robinson’s Arch. It’s that both groups have the same, correct, understanding of what exactly is the subject of their clash.

Needless to say, the respective rejectionists harbor very different visions of how the Kotel should look. The Haredim want the area closest to Judaism’s holiest spot, the Temple Mount, to remain the way it has been for almost a half-century: a place open to all, but where behavior of visitors is governed by traditional Orthodox Jewish practice. And the feminists want the area to reflect a greater diversity of Jewish worship, including vocal services that offend most Orthodox Jews, Haredi and otherwise.

But the two adversaries are nevertheless united in their understanding of what is really at play in the long and sometimes ugly battle over the Kotel plaza. They both comprehend that the struggle, at its core, reflects a larger conflict, one that informs countless religious, political and social wars: the age-old fight between progressivism and traditionalism.

Progressivism has birthed important and wonderful things, like women’s suffrage and racial equality. But things that turned out rather badly — like Marxism and national socialism — were also rooted in ostensibly “progressive” movements.

Tradition, certainly in the religious realm, has had its successes and failures, too. Most religious practice is, by definition, traditionalist. Every Jew who will be participating in a seder (even a “progressive” one) on Passover will be accessing a religious tradition. On the other hand, if the contemporary Catholic Church were true to all the traditions of its past, well (with apologies to Monty Python), nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

The rub lies in the inherent uncertainty about which progressive ideas will prove salubrious, and which will end up hurting things; which traditions are vital, and which are expendable. Still, progressives instinctively embrace the conviction that all societal change is healthy, and traditionalists insist that principles of the past should not be jettisoned simply because there are newer ones available.

And so, feuds like the current one over the Kotel plaza are really zero-sum games. The compromise solution was thus likely doomed from the start. It was bound to be rejected by those who regard gender roles as inherently backward, who pine to see their egalitarian vision promoted everywhere, including in the main Kotel plaza, in the faces of the traditionalists who are always to be found there. And it was equally objectionable to Orthodox religious leaders, who perceived the plan as a progressive foot in the Kotel door.

There is no bridging the progressive/traditionalist divide. If anything is “what it is,” this is. The most we can hope for is some toning down of rhetoric. Even strong disagreements needn’t degenerate into name-calling. Unfortunately, Israeli society has picked up something of the regional culture of insult.

Actually, there is one other thing to hope for, too: the shunning of threats. Like the barely veiled one issued by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who predicted that if the Kotel compromise doesn’t happen, “it will signal a serious rupture in the relationship between Diaspora Jewry and the Jewish state.” He went on to remind people that “Reform Jewish leaders speak up every day on behalf of the State of Israel on the college campus and in our communities. We are asked to speak up for Israel, even as Israel treats Reform Judaism as inauthentic.”

If Jacobs means to insinuate that Reform Jews’ support for Israel is dependent on the state’s adoption of the Reform movement’s determinations in communal religious matters as an official alternative to Israel’s halacha-respecting standard, that is regrettable. And revealing. Israel’s security should never be held hostage to any group’s particular wishes.

What’s more, the Reform leader’s contention that “Diaspora Jewry” supports his position and his threat is bizarre. The Orthodox segment of American Jewry is the only one that is growing from within. Pew Research Center data indicate that fully 27% of Jews younger than 18 now live in Orthodox households. The common response to mentioning such things is a harsh accusation of “triumphalism.” But what’s triumphant here is the Jewish religious tradition, the heritage of all Jews, no matter their level of observance.

The claim that American Jewry is somehow united in favor of an egalitarian Kotel ignores a major chunk of the community, one whose collective life is infused with Jewish practice and that supports Israel both financially and through aliyah.

Maybe it’s time for those American Jews to make their own strong feelings known to Israel.

Or maybe it’s just time, in the interest of peace among Jews, for Jewish progressives to find a different, less polarizing, venue for their promotion of societal change.

Avi Shafran blogs at rabbiavishafran.com and also serves as Agudath Israel of America’s director of public affairs.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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American Jewish Unity In Favor of Egalitarian Kotel Is a Fiction

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