More than 150 male and female Reform rabbis on Thursday celebrated the cabinet’s approval of an egalitarian plaza at the Western Wall with a prayer service at the future site of non-Orthodox worship, even as the rabbinate came out against the planned area.
The Thursday morning prayers marked last month’s landmark government decision to allocate an expanded segment of the wall — located in an archaeological park known as Robinson’s Arch — for mixed-gender worship.
The rabbinate, breaking its silence Thursday, declared the new prayer site at Robinson’s Arch unlawful, according to the ultra-Orthodox Kikar HaShabat website. It was reportedly basing its opposition on a legal opinion which maintained that only the religious affairs minister has the authority to designate a new “holy site” in Israel.
The Chief Rabbinate Council convened a meeting Thursday, which concluded with a demand that the government freeze its plans at Robinson’s Arch until it consults with the rabbinate on the subject, according to the report.
But Gilad Kariv, the leader of the Reform Movement in Israel, said the rabbinate had already approved the decision to designate the mixed-gender area.
The Chief Rabbinate Council “is acting like it’s a branch of United Torah Judaism or Shas, rather than a state body,” he said in a statement, referring to the two ultra-Orthodox political parties in the government.
“The rabbinical establishment was involved in the discussions about the Western Wall compromise and gave its consent,” he maintained, while accusing it of “shameful cowardice.”
“The wave of incitement in the past weeks against Reform Judaism is not linked to the Western Wall or to mikvehs [ritual baths], but rather to the understanding and panic of Haredi wheeler-dealers over the fact that most of the Israeli public is sick of the Orthodox monopoly,” he said.
In comments on Wednesday, Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush, also of the United Torah Judaism, reportedly termed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Monday meeting with the leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements to “a stab in the heart of true Judaism.” Fellow party member Yisrael Eichler on Tuesday likened Reform Jews to the mentally ill.
The landmark agreement on prayer at the Western Wall was approved by the government cabinet In January, and officially sets aside an egalitarian prayer space at the Orthodox-controlled holy site for the first time in Israel’s history. According to the government plan, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, Israel will build a new plaza adjacent to the Orthodox prayer plaza.
The far-reaching plan, which advocates say marks unprecedented government support for liberal streams of Judaism, was backed by Netanyahu.
Talks over a plan to expand the non-Orthodox section of the wall began in April 2013. The negotiations were led by Jewish Agency chief Natan Sharansky and former cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit — now attorney general — and included representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements, the Heritage Foundation and Women of the Wall.
Almost three years later, the deal enacted last month calls for the creation of an “official and respected” 9,700-square foot prayer space in the non-Orthodox section of the Western Wall, running along a 31-foot segment of the wall, that Sharansky said will fit around 1,200 people. It will have a government-funded staff, Torah scrolls and other ritual objects, and be open to all forms of Jewish prayer. Sharansky estimated its construction could take up to two years.
Agencies contributed to this report.