What follows is the executive summary of the January 2016 agreement for pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall. The full, 45-page agreement is here.
Background: On January 31, 2016, the Israeli government passed a decision affirming a long-negotiated compromise calling for a pluralistic prayer platform at the Western Wall.
After three and a half years of conversations, the planned expansion of an egalitarian prayer section located in the Davidson’s Archaeological Park on the southern end of the Western Wall was a trade-off made by non-Orthodox world Jewry for relinquishing the mainstream Western Wall prayer pavilion to ultra-Orthodox control.
On June 25, 2017, bowing to ultra-Orthodox political pressure, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “suspended” implementation of the Western Wall plan.
The following is the full text of the advisory team’s January 31, 2016, recommendations for prayer arrangements at the Western Wall, commonly referred to as the “Western Wall plan.”
Prayer Arrangements at the Western Wall
Advisory Team Recommendations
The Western Wall, all that remains of the Second Temple retaining wall, currently serves as the central place of worship for the Jewish people. For years, the Western Wall has been a magnet for many, as a site of unique historic, national and religious importance. According to data gathered over the past several years, more than 10 million people visit the Western Wall site each year. Most of the worshippers at the existing Western Wall Plaza pray in what is referred to as the Orthodox custom. However, there are people who wish to pray in a different manner, in accordance with their own identity, path and custom.
Over the past several years, there has been increased public discord regarding the prayer options at the Western Wall, resulting from the desire of members of the Women of the Wall organization to pray in the Women’s Plaza of the Western Wall in accordance with their tradition and the severe resistance their method of worship provokes among the Orthodox public. This disagreement strengthened the need to reexamine the existing prayer arrangements at the Western Wall. To that end, the prime minister appointed an advisory team, which included Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit, Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber (Counsel), and Zvi Hauser.
The team was asked to examine the existing prayer arrangements, the need for changes, and ways to execute these changes. In order to avoid all doubt, it should be emphasized that the team limited its scope to these aspects alone and avoided dealing with other aspects related to the status of the Western Wall in its national and official context, or other issues related to the status of the non-Orthodox denominations in the State of Israel.
After examining this issue from all sides, and having heard from the relevant parties, the team formulated a proposed framework, at the heart of which is an expansion of the possibilities for worship at the Western Wall site so that each person wishing to worship at the Western Wall can do so in accordance with his or her custom and faith. The proposed framework was formulated in an attempt to balance the rights of all relevant parties – to respect, to equality and to freedom of religion and worship – and to do so in a manner that preserves the special historic, national and religious place that the Western Wall holds for the Jewish people, the entire Jewish people.
The framework is based on the Supreme Court ruling resulting from the struggle of Women of the Wall and on the principles raised therein. The framework combines the old and the new: maintaining the existing status quo with regard to the majority of worshippers at the Western Wall plaza and establishing a new space, both physically and conceptually, for Jewish prayer in other forms in the southern section of the Western Wall. The framework is intended, on the one hand, to provide proper expression for religious pluralism in Judaism in a manner that will allow the various denominations of Judaism to pray and worship; while, on the other hand, preserving the existing Orthodox method of worship in the northern section, all as part of freedom of religion, and in a manner that is in line with the principles of equality.
Following are the main points of the proposed framework:
A. The Western Wall site, which serves as a symbol of the national, religious and cultural renaissance of the Jewish people, will be open and accessible to any Jew who wishes to pray in a manner that corresponds with their identity and faith. To this end, in addition to the section of the prayer plaza which exists today along the northern section of the Western Wall (hereinafter: the northern section), an additional prayer plaza will be established along the southern section of the Western Wall, south of the Mughrabi Bridge (hereinafter: the southern section). The two prayer plazas will operate simultaneously.
B. In the northern section, prayers will be conducted according to Orthodox Jewish custom, in accordance with Jewish law as exercised by the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, which includes, inter alia, separation between the women’s section and the men’s section, and women’s prayers are held in accordance with this custom.
In the southern section, prayers will be conducted in accordance with the pluralistic and egalitarian custom in a manner that will provide a satisfactory solution for worshippers from the various non-Orthodox denominations, first and foremost the Reform and Conservative movements. In general, it is in this plaza that men and women will pray without separation. At the same time, and taking into account the pluralistic character of this section, Women of the Wall, whose unwavering struggle to pray in accordance with their beliefs in the Western Wall plaza has lasted more than 25 years, will have the option to hold separate prayers for women in the section every Rosh Hodesh and on Ta’anit Esther, and at other times for which the supervisor of the southern section will provide specific permission, in accordance with the opinion of the Southern Section Council.
C. The southern section will be physically adapted to serve as a proper, accessible and visible prayer area that constitutes an integral part of the Western Wall site. We note that the preparations for transforming the section to serve as a prayer plaza as aforementioned will be undertaken while taking into consideration the fact that the location, which today serves as a archaeological park, contains archaeological finds of the utmost cultural, scientific, historic and national importance, which commemorate the destruction of Jerusalem. Accordingly, the physical changes planned for the location will be done in a manner that ensures the preservation, as much as possible, of the aforementioned archaeological findings, in accordance with the law, including receiving permission from the Director-General of the Israel Antiquities Authority, as required by power of his authority as granted in the Law of Antiquities, 1978.
D. The upper plaza, which lies west of the northern section, will serve as a place to congregate and as a passageway to the prayer section as well as occasionally to hold ceremonies of a national, governmental or military character. As a rule, prayers will not be held in this area, nor will there be separation of men and women. This does not exclude prayers held on special occasions – during the three pilgrimages, the Days of Awe (Selichot), Jerusalem Day and Tisha B’Av, as well as large prayer convocations – with the condition that the expected number of worshippers for these prayers exceeds the maximal capacity of the northern section.
In such cases, and only during prayer times, the custom observed in the areas of the upper plaza used for prayer (the size of which will be adjusted for the number of worshippers on site) will be the custom of the northern section. All aspects of the administration of the upper plaza will remain in its current framework, i.e., under the purview of the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites of Israel and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.
E. The two prayer sections, northern and southern, will be open free of charge and accessible to anyone who wishes to enter them to visit, worship or for any other purpose, as long as the conduct of those visiting these sections is in accordance with the prayer arrangements customary in the section, i.e. according to what is acceptable in each section and its character.
F. Administration of the northern section, both the administrative and the religious aspects, will remain in its existing framework, i.e. under the purview of the Supervisor of the Holy Sites of the Jews (namely the Rabbi of the Western Wall).
Administration of these aspects of the southern section will be entrusted to the supervisor of this section, who will be the Director General of the Prime Minister’s Office or one of his deputies or one of the Deputy Cabinet Secretaries, to be appointed for this purpose by the Prime Minister. Alongside the supervisor, a council will determine the prayer arrangements at the location and will be authorized to instruct the supervisor with regard to exercising their authority.
The members of the council will include: the Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who will serve as chairman of the council; five civil servants to be appointed by the Prime Minister; the Director-General of the Israel Antiquities Authority; and six representatives of the public, who will also be appointed by the Prime Minister and who will represent the public of worshippers in the southern section. This mechanism is intended to provide an appropriate response to the innovation and sensitivity involved in administering the southern section in light of the groundbreaking arrangement to be implemented there and the complexities resulting from the fact that the aforementioned area combines both a prayer section and an archaeological site.
(The Times of Israel adds: A second, longer document, specifies: “The composition of the council will be as follows: The Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel – who will serve as Chairman of the Council; The Cabinet Secretary; The Director General of the Ministry for Jerusalem and Heritage; The Director General of the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs; The Director General of the Ministry of Tourism; The Supervisor of the Southern Section; The Director-General of the Israel Antiquities Authority; Two representatives of the public, to be appointed by the Prime Minister, as recommended by the Reform Movement leadership; Two representatives of the public, to be appointed by the Prime Minister, as recommended by the Conservative Movement leadership; Two female representatives representing the public of worshippers in the southern section, to be appointed by the Prime Minister, (the team recommends that the Prime Minister appoint representatives from the Women of the Wall organization, in accordance with this clause.”)
G. The proposed framework will be anchored in an amendment to the Regulations for the Protection of Holy Places to the Jews, 1981.
H. Until the proposed framework is implemented in a manner that will provide an appropriate resolution for the prayer needs of Women of the Wall, the worship practices customary at the Western Wall on the date the report is published will remain unchanged.
The proposed framework strives to respect the rights and needs of all relevant parties. It incorporates both tradition and innovation; it demonstrates balance and recognizes and reflects the complexity of the situation. It has both attentiveness and hope that the Western Wall will cease to be an area of discord and that its unifying character will be restored in a manner that befits its unique status among the entire Jewish people as a national and religious site for yearning and prayer. Our only hope is that it advances peace among us.