Jerusalem’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar said Sunday that a government plan to create a mixed-gender prayer section at the Western Wall was the equivalent of destroying the holy site altogether.
In a Jewish legal ruling, Amar maintained that the government had no legal jurisdiction over the Western Wall, because “there is no ownership” of the site.
“No one can hand it over to be disgraced and defamed, to those who pretend to pray, who act brazenly and mockingly, which is a desecration… And it is no less serious than if they would give it over to be destroyed, its stones dismantled left and right, and razed down to its foundations, heaven forbid,” he wrote.
Earlier in the day, the Chief Rabbinate said it canceled a planned meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the issue, and said it would draft an alternative plan regarding the mixed-gender prayer section, one that does not include recognition of the non-Orthodox denominations.
Amar said he did not recognize the government’s decision to designate the area around Robinson’s Arch for non-Orthodox prayer, because “no man has ownership over the site at all.”
In response, Women of the Wall, which works for increased women’s prayer rights at the holy site, said they agreed that no one “body or person can or should have ownership over the Western Wall.”
“Women of the Wall have long opposed the relegation of the Western Wall to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation and the sole authority of Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz over the holy site. Ideally, the Western Wall would not be divided at all, but opened up to all Jews and their traditions,” the prayer group said in a statement.
But Women of the Wall also accused the ultra-Orthodox leadership of abusing its position to “incite hatred against fellow Jews and Jewish women.”
“The baseless hatred that the chief rabbis in Israel express toward Women of the Wall and non-Orthodox Jews only stands to show how truly out of touch they are with the modern-day Jewish people,” it said.
On Sunday afternoon, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel (Jewish Home) also came out against the mixed-gender proposal, saying it changes the religious status quo.
Speaking from Robinson’s Arch, Ariel said he would draft his own alternative within two weeks.
On Saturday night, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef met with Rabinovitch to discuss their opposition to a plan recently approved by the cabinet to build a new plaza at Robinson’s Arch.
The three also discussed the issue with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit — the Orthodox former cabinet secretary behind the new plan — on the phone, and decided to present an alternative plan, the ultra-Orthodox Kikar HaShabat website reported.
The report said the new initiative would specifically omit any sort of recognition of the Reform or Conservative streams of Judaism.
A meeting between the two chief rabbis and Netanyahu, scheduled for this week, was subsequently canceled.
A 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 plan, the state will build a new plaza at Robinson’s Arch, adjacent to the Orthodox prayer plaza.
The far-reaching plan, which advocates say represents unprecedented government support for liberal streams of Judaism, was backed by Netanyahu.
The rabbinate broke its silence on February 25, declaring the new prayer site at Robinson’s Arch unlawful, according to Kikar HaShabat. 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 two weeks ago that concluded with a demand for the government to 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 at the time that 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, accusing it of “shameful cowardice.”
Agencies contributed to this report.