Liberal Jews (mostly American or American-born) have been escalating their protests against Israel’s unequal treatment of non-Orthodox worship at Judaism’s holiest site, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. They want the architecture of the Kotel (the site’s Hebrew name) to greatly expand a marginal section where heterodox, egalitarian worship has been permitted. Israel’s more traditional sector has fiercely defended the holiness of the site from those who want both styles of worship equally validated.
But other than monthly worship services doubling as political demonstrations, liberal Jews don’t pray much at the Kotel. The designated Robinson’s Arch area has only attracted a trickle of non-Orthodox Jews, and the typical Kotel tourist has encountered the site with all its historic traditions – as is appropriate. But the protesters are now essentially demanding the Kotel they rarely attend resemble their own synagogues they rarely attend.
And that’s not fair.
The conflict is a flashpoint between Americans affiliated with the liberal Reform and Conservative movements and Israelis who – while mostly secular – tend to cede religious matters to the Orthodox. The non-Orthodox religious presence in Israel – as elsewhere outside North America – is slight. When non-observant Jews in the other continents pray or celebrate a lifecycle event, they generally choose Orthodox rites. (That’s my own approach.) In 2016, the heterodox movements are an overwhelmingly American phenomenon.
Thousands of Orthodox worshippers flood the site for prayer services three times a day, every day. At certain holidays, the crush of Orthodox Jews can top 10,000. Yet the sporadic Reform and Conservative participants, many of them tourists, want one-third of the refurbished Wall area to follow their rules. Perhaps if they started attending at a third or even a tenth the Orthodox rate, there would be something to talk about.
A thought experiment:
Many small Jewish communities in North America have but one congregation. Let’s say ten Orthodox families move to Butte, Montana and began attending Congregation B’nai Israel (Reform), or arrive in Waterlook Iowa and join Sons of Jacob (Conservative). What else could they do, with no other choice of house of worship?
Soon, they demand changes. Fire the woman rabbi and hire a man, they said. Construct a mechitza (divider) to separate worshippers by gender. All future minyanim (prayer quorums) should count only men.
The minority of observant Jews in those congregations would be showing real chutzpah to expect the larger congregation to adapt. Unless the Orthodox membership began to dominate numerically, change would be inappropriate.
The sole fact Reform and Conservative Jews exist, praying rarely (if at all) at both the Kotel and their own synagogues, does not give them a claim on a site that has never operated with their customs. If they want a say in its governance, let them show up – and not once a month or on tourist missions.
But the Kotel is our heritage, too, non-Orthodox Jews retort. Well, guess what? Orthodox Jewish prayer (also known as Jewish prayer) is another part of your heritage. And Reform and Conservative Judaism don’t forbid participation in services that strictly follow Jewish law.
At heart, the Kotel controversy is about Jewish identity. Liberal Jews want Israel – and Orthodox Jews everywhere – to declare them equally Jewish. Regarding personal status, that’s true – the majority of Reform and Conservative Jews (the ones with Jewish mothers) are 100 percent Jewish. But regarding practices that diverge from normative Jewish law, not every custom a set of Jews observes is a Jewish custom. The Jewish people have a set of obligations known as halacha (Jewish law) not subject to tinkering by those who don’t respect it.
Many of the same American Jews who trumpet Israel’s democracy when discussing the Middle East conflict quickly turn anti-democratic when discussing Kotel governance. Sometimes, they even threaten to stop supporting Israel altogether if the country doesn’t kowtow to their tantrum over a site they rarely visit.
Worshippers at the Kotel deserve the loudest voice in determining the site’s future, with Israeli citizens also contributing to the discussion. American Jews don’t even belong at the table, although the moment they commit to living in Israel they deserve equal input.
The timing of this latest push couldn’t be worse for Israel, which is fighting a resolution by a United Nations agency whitewashing the Jewish historical claim to the Western Wall. Israel would be foolish if, while highlighting millennia of prayers at the Kotel that follow Jewish tradition, it introduces prayers at the Kotel that don’t follow Jewish tradition.
As Israel defends the Kotel’s very Jewishness, liberal Jews who demand space at the Wall to, well, not pray seem petty and selfish. Their demands should be rejected.
David Benkof is Senior Political Analyst at the Daily Caller. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.