I have often written and spoken about the difficulty liberal Judaism has in making inroads in the Israeli society. Eighty percent of Israeli Jews are secular, and most view Orthodox Judaism as the only authentic form of our tradition. But things are changing. And one of those changes came to the fore this past week as we celebrated the beginning of the new month of Heshvan.
One of the most contentious sites in Jerusalem is the Kotel. I would like to say the reason for the contention is based on the tension between Jews and Arabs; the Jewish Temple mount verses the Dome of The Rock. This may be true, but there is also a divide among Jews about prayer at the wall; who should be allowed to pray and how.
Since the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 there has only been orthodox control over the Kotel. There has always been a separation of men and women for prayer at the Kotel. But is more than just a separation. Women have not been allowed to pray the way the men pray. For instance, women have not been able to have their own quorum and read Torah – even on their side of the separation wall.
Recently the Supreme Court in Israel ruled in favor of allowing for better and fuller access to all Jews at the Kotel. The rabbi in charge of the Kotel, along with the police that guard the area, have ignored the Supreme Court ruling and continue to refuse to allow women to bring a Torah into the women’s section. Prime Minister Netanyahu has also refused to step in and force the implementation of the Supreme Court ruling out of fear of destabilizing his government coalition. Not only this, but Prime Minister Netanyahu has told the leading liberal rabbis from the US and Israel to stop making public protests and demonstrations about the issue.
Each month on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the month a group of women has tried, in vain, to bring a Torah scroll to the women side and lead a service and Torah reading. Some women have even been arrested. This past week a group of over three hundred Jews, men and women forced their way into the women’s section of the Kotel to hold an egalitarian worship service. They carried in over a dozen Torah scrolls.
They were met with resistance, sometimes violent resistance from other Jews and even police officers. The violent resistance did not deter the group. The statement from the Prime Minister did not deter the group. This demonstration was a coordinated effort by the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and other progressive movements. The majority of the people involved were Israelis, not new immigrants or tourists from America. This is a small victory, but a victory none the less. Victory will only come when the eighty percent of Israelis who are secular and do not care about who gets to pray and how at the Kotel, start to care.
Here is an article and video you can watch that give you an idea of what transpired this week.