We were gratified to hear that Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has said that the plan to upgrade and vastly expand an egalitarian section at the Kotel featuring mixed men-women prayer and participation in the services by women in ways prohibited by halacha will not be implemented at this time. According to The Jerusalem Post, the prime minister had said that there was too much opposition to it in the ruling Israeli coalition government, mainly from the Yamina and New Hope parties.
The plan grew out of an agreement the Netanyahu government made in 2016 with non-Orthodox groups that would have made the small egalitarian section off to the side of the Orthodox Kotel plaza a state-recognized holy site as well as giving representatives of the non-Orthodox movements a say in the site’s governing body.
Yamina head Nir Orbach was quoted as saying that the Kotel plan was too controversial for a government that is focusing on matters of consensus and that “such issues must be deliberated and decided in the right time and place, according to Jewish law. I believe the coalition has more urgent issues that must top its agenda, so I welcome the prime minister’s decision.”
While we can understand the psychology that would impel the Conservative, Reform and women’s movements to seek recognition at the Kotel, from the religious perspective it is counter-intuitive. Indeed, there is no religious imperative for their demands and no tenets would be violated if they conformed to Orthodoxy while at the Kotel. On the other hand, what they seek at the Kotel would compromise Orthodox ritual.
Yet the egalitarian agreement was sold to Israeli officials as a matter of religious freedom and as a way of avoiding alienation of Diaspora Jewry, which was described as overwhelmingly non-Orthodox.
However, as noted, adherence to Orthodox practice at the Kotel does not require violation on non-Orthodox religious requirements. And, according to Rabbi Pesach Lerner, chairman of the World Zionist Organizations’ Orthodox Eretz Hakodesh Party, Bennett’s decision also made sense statistically: The majority of Diaspora Jews from around the world who care about Israel, who pray daily for her safety and security, who send their kids to study in Israel, who invest in Israel, who make up the majority of Jews who make aliyah to Israel, and yes, who pray at the Kotel – want the current Kotel traditions to continue. Every Jew is invited to come to the Kotel and to pray at the Kotel. This majority of Jews only asks that everyone respect the traditions of the Kotel. We would hope that the Israeli government would respect their wishes.
Notably, in the days preceding Bennett’s announcement, the Am Echad organization – an organization dedicated to promoting ties between Israel and the Diaspora on the basis of joint Jewish identity – reportedly forwarded to him almost 90,000 letters from people in the Diaspora expressing their opposition to the Kotel compromise.
Bennett’s decision is not likely to be the final word. Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid, the Yesh Aid leader, vowed to fight his current political partner Bennett to ensure that the Kotel deal is implemented. And Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman pledged to take the steps necessary to bring the plan to fruition.
Yet we still hope that all concerned will keep the full picture in mind. Those who have decided to embrace fundamental changes in the Jewish religious way of doing things that has held sway from time immemorial should not be able to force them on the rest of us.