One’s reception to a historic compromise concerning egalitarian and non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall depends on the depth of focus.
For those long opposed to the second-class status afforded to non-Orthodox Jewish movements in Israel by law and custom, the creation of a legally sanctioned, dedicated prayer space along the Western Wall — under non-Orthodox leadership — is nothing less than monumental. Not only will the space set aside for non-Orthodox prayer be more spacious, more amenable, and more accessible, but the agreement was reached with a level of consensus rarely seen when it comes to religious issues in Israel. That represents a victory for the Reform and Conservative movements, Women of the Wall, and the Jewish Federations of North America — including the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, whose leaders have played a key role in promoting pluralism at the Wall and throughout Israel (see story).
But as in any compromise, there were disappointed parties. What most visitors and worshipers know as the Western Wall will essentially remain a gender-separated Orthodox synagogue. (The non-Orthodox prayer space abuts the southern end of the same huge retaining wall of the Temple Mount, in an archeological park known as Robinson’s Arch.) The new space is historically significant in its own right, but its location feels like “exile” to critics. Former members of Women of the Wall say they will continue to fight for their right to wear tallitot and tefillin and pray with a Torah scroll in the women’s section of the “traditional” Kotel.
All compromise, however, is based on give and take. Non-Orthodox Jews gain dignity and authority at Judaism’s holiest site and can “pray in the spirit of pluralism and equality that we believe is critical to a vibrant Judaism,” as Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall and head of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, put it. Orthodox authorities retain authority over their famous portion of the wall but surrender control of a key public space just beyond it. Meanwhile, all Jews living in and visiting Israel will have a range of options to experience their faith at the holy site.
Isaiah prophesied that in Jerusalem God would build “a house of prayer for all peoples.” With this week’s agreement, that vision has come closer to being fulfilled.