Reform Jews Talk To The Wall

Four days before Passover, on the slopes of Mount Scopus, a group of Kohanim sacrificed a lamb as mandated by the laws of Exodus. The Kohanim, members of the priestly caste supposedly descended from Moses’s brother Aaron, erected their altar in a national-religious settlement overlooking the golden-domed site that was once home to the Second Temple; they slaughtered, skinned, and roasted the lamb, poured its blood on the altar, and delivered the priestly blessing, accompanied by the sounds of trumpets. Hundreds of spectators, mainly from radical Orthodox movements, were provided bleachers. Arieh King, a member of the group and of the Jerusalem city council, thanked the city for its financial support and said that he looked forward to being able to advertise the ceremony using the municipal logo.

A couple of days later, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit prohibited a group of female activists from performing their own version of the priestly blessing, which they intended as part of a (bloodless) Passover prayer service at the Western Wall. The women’s campaign dates back to December, 1988, when a group of seventy women, including a number of female Reform rabbis, carried a Torah scroll toward the Wall—actually, the part of the plaza facing the Wall reserved for female worshippers—to conduct a prayer service. They read portions of scripture and some wore prayer shawls, both of which are prohibited for women by Orthodox synagogues. Their service prompted jeers from the Orthodox women at the site, and they were even threatened by worshippers in the larger, separate men’s section. During subsequent attempts to repeat their service, resistance to their presence grew more violent. Police protection all but evaporated. 

The Ministry of Religion—which maintains custodianship of the plaza, and has typically been run by Orthodox parties in coalitions with the Likud Party—sought to impose jail sentences on those worshipping “not in accordance with the custom of the holy site,” as a 1989 decree put it. An activist group, the Women of the Wall, took shape, led by Anat Hoffman, a charismatic Jerusalem city-council member whose father was American, and who had been exposed to Reform Judaism while studying in the U.S. Over the years, the Women of the Wall filed several lawsuits to the Israeli Supreme Court, which tended to intervene in ways that protected the women’s prerogatives but without challenging the legal status or practice of the Orthodox rabbinate.

The Orthodox rabbinate is not just demonstrating theological antagonism but also exercises state power over important civil rights: weddings, conversions, and other ceremonies are legally recognized only if performed by Orthodox rabbis. The rabbinate sees itself as waging a culture war, and it has been winning. Nearly a quarter of Israeli Jews now tell pollsters that they would, if forced to choose, prefer to live under Jewish law than democratic norms. (In 2009, it was a fifth.) In recent years, the American Reform movement has become increasingly involved in this war, with support for the female activists as its focus. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, could not support the suits directly, but his growing enthusiasm for their activism helped the Women of the Wall raise funds among networks of American Reform donors.

In 2013, increasingly troubled by negative American publicity, Benjamin Netanyahu asked Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, to help put an end to the conflict at the Wall. Sharansky proposed a workaround, which was accepted by all sides, including the U.R.J., earlier this year. The Orthodox rabbinate would retain exclusive control over the plaza, and Reform (and other progressive) Jews would have a section of their own, abutting a newly exposed continuation of the Temple Mount’s retaining wall, about a seventh the size of the original. Some of the women activists rejected the plan, and the Orthodox continue to revile the Reform service, conducted so openly and close to their plaza. Nevertheless, the U.R.J. applauded the agreement. “This effort,” Jacobs said in a statement, “is the result of the extraordinary commitment shown by those in Israel who wouldn’t agree to the second-class status imposed by the ultra-Orthodox religious establishment, and by all of us outside of Israel whose unconditional love for our Jewish State compels us to tirelessly advocate for a more equal, pluralistic, and Jewishly vibrant Israel.”

When we spoke in late February, in Jerusalem, Jacobs told me that he considers Israel’s state-supported Orthodox rabbinate “one of the most corrupt and corrupting institutions ever to happen in the history of the Jewish people.” But the compromise over the Wall is one of several signs that suggests he is ambivalent about whether some kind of a state-supported rabbinate is not, after all, what makes the Jewish state Jewish. In both Israel and America, his movement may rail against the dominance of the Orthodox rabbinate. But in many instances it has not acted to break rabbinic power so much as to share in it. The Reform movement in Israel, supported by the U.R.J., has repeatedly sued to have its conversions recognized by the state (which would make those converts eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return). A small number of regional councils successfully sued the state to pay Reform rabbis, focussing on the social services the rabbis may provide. Reform rabbis have sued, persistently and unsuccessfully, to be able to perform marriages.

The larger challenge—which Jacobs’s statement about the Wall implied success in confronting, although the compromise almost entirely elides it—is theocracy. “Jew” is a legal status in Israel, over which the rabbinate has considerable say. Orthodox rabbinic officials directly control marriage, divorce, and burial; indirectly, by controlling conversion, they determine important parts of immigration and residency law. The state taxes all Israeli citizens to support a network of Orthodox schools, rabbinic courts, local pulpits, and, in effect, theocratic political parties. (The state also provides funding for institutions of other religions, and for secular schools.) A Jew cannot marry a Muslim, or a Christian. These problems cannot be solved by giving a fraction of rabbinic authority to Reform rabbis.

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