In his Forward column titled “Kotel Controversy Shows That U.S. Jewish Groups Don’t Represent The Orthodox,” Avi Shafran claims that the American Orthodox community has been treated like “chopped liver” in recent debates over the Western Wall and conversion law in Israel. While I acknowledge American Orthodox voices have been missing in the news coverage of recent weeks, Shafran’s implication that this voice is unified against non-Orthodox Jews couldn’t be farther from the truth. The contention that Orthodoxy is being victimized at the Kotel is equally untrue.
His piece may begin as an attempt to define the term “world Jewry” more narrowly, but it quickly turns into a polemic against non-Orthodox Jews. At the heart of Shafran’s argument is fidelity to an arbitrary “standard” which all Jews, he claims, once upheld without complaint. This “standard” is, in fact, an ultra-Orthodox monopoly on religious affairs in Israel. In some ways, this development was understandable: non-Orthodox religious Jews never represented a large constituency in Israel, and secular parties were happy to make concessions to ultra-Orthodox ones in exchange for political support.
What this has amounted to for Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Jews, however, is a complete rejection of our way of life: Our conversions are not acceptable, our prayer practices are deemed a threat to public order, and we do not receive any recognition in Israel or at Jewish heritage sites. We are, apparently, sewing seeds of disunity because we do not agree with Shafran’s personal views and practice. Never mind that the core of Jewish text and tradition is steeped in healthy disagreement, not unity.
Despite ignoring the long tradition of divergent beliefs and practices within Judaism, Shafran longs for the idyllic past when the Kotel was “a Jewish societal oasis, probably the only place on earth where Jews of different religious convictions prayed side by side. No one asked, or cared, what prayer book, or religious attitudes, anyone was holding.”
But this oasis refused to allow any women to stand on equal footing with men. It ignored the religious needs of egalitarian Jews. It relied on lack of protest from those pesky activists Shafran so derides, and required all visitors engage in forms of prayer they would never accept in their home communities.
Though he speaks of unity, Shafran is doing exactly what he opposes: judging non-Orthodox Judaism as a deviation from the norm, rather than as a part of a broad Jewish mosaic that also includes Orthodox Judaism.
Progressive Zionism is part of this mosaic as well, and it deserves expression in the Jewish State. Non-Orthodox Judaism is not meant to exist in a Diasporic vacuum only, without connection to Israel. It is the height of irony that we have equal rights and recognition anywhere but in our homeland, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself insists on the primacy of our strong ties to Israel. Zionists cannot and will not stand on the sidelines as issues core to our religious identity are undermined for political gain. It’s not surprising that the core of Shafran’s argument is fear, a feeling he readily admits to having. Fear that the non-Orthodox will gain a foothold in the Jewish state. Fear that once you give a mouse a cookie — or “teeny crumbs,” as Rabbi Rick Jacobs said of the existing egalitarian prayer space — it will ask for more. Fear that the Kotel will be a place unrecognizable to Orthodox Jews.
This fear, however, is entirely irrational given the details of the now-frozen Western Wall agreement. The vast majority of the Kotel would still be governed by Orthodox standards, including gender separation. What the non-Orthodox movements asked for was not to violate the rights of Orthodox worshippers, but to create a modest space where other Jews can pray with dignity and have their practices respected, and that it be easily recognizable and have administrative independence.
Thankfully, many Orthodox Jewish leaders are not blinded by this fear. The International Rabbinic Fellowship condemned the negation of the Kotel agreement. Rabbis Benny Lau, Shlomo Riskin, and Ronen Lubitch, among many others, have voiced their support for the egalitarian prayer space.
We in non-Orthodox communities respect the practices of all Jews. While gender integration and the inclusion of women in all religious Jewish practices are important to us, we don’t seek to impose this way of life on anyone. To avoid the disunity Shafran fears, we should learn how to share important spaces such as the Kotel rather than create a false unity that excludes millions of Jews.
Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the President of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. He was ordained from the HUC-JIR Israeli Rabbinic Program in Jerusalem, and is currently living in New York.