Partisans to a conflict are trying to harness history as an ally.
Natan Sharansky, seeking to restore pluralistic expression at the Western Wall, proposed upgrading a section of the Kotel Plaza known as Robinson’s Arch as an area for egalitarian worship.
The proposal has aroused qualified support. Naysayers, however, insist that “for millennia” the Kotel has been an Orthodox synagogue, divided by a mehitza to separate men and women worshipers. Eyewitness testimony and photos taken prior to July 1967 reveal a different reality.
In 1901, for example, A.S. Hirschberg visited the Kotel and found men and women praying without a mehitza. Men, women, boys, and girls, he wrote, “stand before the Wall in groups, and the recitation of the holy prayers never ceases. All kinds of Jews are there…and [while]…the Ashkenazic women stand a way off…the Sephardic ladies love the Wall with a special love, and most of them come to it enveloped in white.”
Following the Jordanian conquest of the Old City in 1948, Jews were unable to visit the Kotel. With Israel’s acquisition of the Old City in June of 1967, throngs of Jews returned. In time for Shavuot, 250,000 men and women, boys and girls streamed to the Western Wall and to the expanded — and undivided — plaza.
On July 3 of that year, IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren handed control of the Kotel not to the Jewish Agency, representing world Jewry, but to the Ministry of Religion, Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate. Sixteen days later, the ministry erected a mehitza. For the first time in its history, the Kotel became an Orthodox synagogue.
During the ensuing decades, “abundant new customs” were created at the Kotel, “but only on the men’s side,” notes Dr. Shulamit Magnus, a member of Women of the Wall. “To claim that women cannot pray there as a group, with voice, Torah, tallit, tefillin, because these are innovations, ‘violations of custom,’ is absurd,” she writes. “Men doing any of this, or holding bar mitzva or wedding ceremonies, is an innovation. So is the mehitza dividing men and women. Shall it be abolished on grounds of being an innovation in custom?”
Another example of rewriting Jewish history to justify Israel’s religious “status quo” is haredi opposition to being drafted into the Israel Defense Forces. Their leaders claim that in 1947-48, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion granted an exemption for an unlimited number of yeshiva students, and they insist that what they regard as a foundational commitment not be reversed.
The historical record, however, is at odds with this claim. Ben-Gurion did assert that after the Shoa, it was the responsibility of the State of Israel to help replace the elite spiritual leaders and scholars lost to the Jewish people. A limited number of military exemptions was approved, with a maximum set at several hundred full-time, life-long, exceptionally talented Torah scholars.
This compromise more or less remained in effect until 1977. At that point, Menachem Begin became prime minister and struggled to forge a coalition. To do so, he reluctantly invited the non-Zionist Agudah Party to join his government, rewarding them with historic concessions. Begin eliminated the upper limit for haredi student exemptions and extended exemptions to part-time yeshiva students. He also added exemptions for “hozrim b’teshuva” (newcomers to Torah study). The number of exempt haredi young men grew dramatically until today, tens of thousands of people can be found in this protected category.
A third area of conflict is the Chief Rabbinate’s extensive administrative control of municipal rabbinic appointments, life-cycle ceremonies, the hiring of thousands of rabbis, and the official administrative apparatus of Jewish life. Defenders insist that the “Rabbanut” is an entity that has been in existence for centuries and represents “authentic Judaism.”
But again, Jewish history does not affirm this assertion.
The Chief Rabbinate can be traced not to Jewish sources but to the imperial policies of the Ottoman Empire. In 1856, Turkey’s “millet” system was reformulated to control more efficiently the lives of minority religious groups in the Holy Land, including Jews. “Each individual non-Moslem religious community in its entirety became an officially recognized autonomous body whose members were represented to the state through designated communal leaders,” according to historian Norman Stillman. “The first steps toward creating the Jewish millet as a recognized, legal entity had already been taken by the Ottoman authorities [during the previous two decades] when the office of chief rabbi was created first in Constantinople and later in other major cities.”
“The Chief Rabbinate is not a religious institution,” writes Rabbi Reuven Hammer, a founder of the Masorti movement in Israel and a past president of the International Rabbinical Assembly. “It is an arm of the secular government, an anachronistic institution that represents no one. The election of the chief rabbis is a political act that has nothing to do with religious leadership.”
Rabbi Hammer emphasizes that “the chief rabbinate over the past decades has shown that it is incapable or unwilling to deal with the real problems of contemporary Israeli Judaism such as the conversion of new [immigrants] and the problems of agunot,” women unable to obtain a divorce from recalcitrant husbands.
In the view of a growing number of Israelis, the large sums of funds allocated to the Chief Rabbinate bureaucracy would be better spent elsewhere promoting a free Judaism.
To that end, the Rabbinical Assembly is calling for the Israeli Chief Rabbinate to be abolished. “In its place each Jewish religious stream, such as Ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox, Masorti, and Reform, should be enabled to form its own organization and name its own leadership,” writes Hammer. “The government should provide subsidies based on fair and equal criteria considering the services rendered by each organization for its membership.”
The facts of history ought to be applied toward truth, tradition, and tolerance, whether at the Kotel, in the IDF, or in the Israeli Rabbinate.