• The Kotel Compromise: Unprecedented Achievement, or Historic Catastrophe?

    7979910861_9f5340b377_zThe Israeli Cabinet recently approved what it called a “historic” decision to create a new prayer space at the Kotel which will be open to egalitarian prayer as well as to women’s prayer services. Driven primarily by monthly unrest caused by an ongoing, seemingly unending dispute between the Rav of the Kotel and the Women of the Wall over the right of women to pray at the Kotel in Tallit and Tefillin with a Sefer Torah, the government decided to create a new permanent prayer space at the far end of the Kotel in the Robinson’s Arch area, which will replace the temporary platform that was constructed two years ago.

    The new space will “dramatically remodeled, upgraded and enlarged, will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, will not entail any cost to enter, and will constitute a “fully functional and operational” prayer space with the requisite infrastructure, such as provide prayer books, prayer shawls, Torah scrolls, and other necessities for regular prayer services.” Rather than sit a short distance from the actual Kotel, the new area will offer access to mixed prayer at the Wall with access from the main entrance of the Kotel Plaza.

     

    Who Controls the Site?
    While the current Kotel complex remains under the authority of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Rav of the Kotel, the new site will fall under the authority (and budget) of the Prime Minister’s Office, and be administered by a committee headed by the chairman of the Jewish Agency, including representatives from Women of the Wall, the Reform Movement, the Masorti (Conservative) Movement, the Jewish Federations of North America and the government, with an administrator appointed by the prime minister. The area will have no rabbi. Essentially, the government created a “secular” prayer space governed by a political, and not a religious office.

    Is This a Good Thing?
    On one hand, the seemingly never-ending fight over the Kotel and who has the right to pray there was not good for Israel nor for world Jewry. Compromise in general is a laudable goal that we must strive to achieve, and we must be willing to make concessions in order to achieve it accord and agreement between different Jewish factions.

    Tzohar’s Perspective

    The announced compromise as currently constituted faces a number of challenges that call the agreement into question. First and foremost, there’s no guarantee that the compromise will lead to peace between the different factions. Immediately after the agreement was announced, a splinter group of Women of the Wall publicitzed its objection to the agreement and their refusal to pray in the new egalitarian section. In addition, many top archeologists condemned the plan, which will destroy a critical archaeological site. Finally, according to Rav Yuval Cherlow, the Ethics Department Chair at Tzohar, this agreement is a grave mistake that will ultimately divide the Jewish people.

    From the time of reunification in 1967, there was always one Kotel – one place that all Jews around the world turned to, visited and were drawn towards to pray and connect to God. Now, according to Rav Cherlow, “The final outcome of this compromise is that from this moment forward there are two Kotels – a halachic Kotel for the religious, and another Kotel where one can do as one pleases. Now, specifically in the placed that used to serve to unite all Jews – the place that we gather, and will one day gather to unify the name of God, everyone will have to decide: what type of Jews am I? Am I this type of Jew or that? When I enter the Kotel plaza do I turn left or right? At which Kotel do I pray at? Now, the Kotel will serve as yet another place for divisiveness and separation.”

    “I wonder”, asked Rav Cherlow, “the next time the Prime Minster of Israel visits the Kotel, which Kotel will he visit? To which Judaism does he belong? The next time the State brings a head of State, or a visiting emissary from another country, to which Kotel will he be brought? A family bar mitzvah suddenly becomes yet another opportunity for debate and argument, and that to my mind, is a Churban.”

    Asked what could have been done to prevent the split, Rav Cherlow admitted that while he’s not in favor of the Women of the Wall reading the Torah from the Women’s section. “I would have rather swallowed the fact that women were praying in Tallit in Tefillin once a month – even though I’m not happy about it – if that was the price I had to pay to keep the Kotel as a source of unity for the Jewish people – so that everyone, all Jews, would pray at one, single halachic Kotel.”

    “I fear that instead of the Kotel being a place that unites Klal Yisrael – a place where everyone compromises to some degree in order for all Jews to have a place where they pray together – it will now turn into a place of distance and discord. Instead of the picture we have in our minds of the Kotel as a source of unity, it will instead become a place of disunity and communal fragmentation.”

    “Instead of Jerusalem serving as a source of Shalom and unity, it will become yet another symbol of that which divides us.”

    “That, to my mind, is a tragedy for Klal Yisrael.”