Top ultra-Orthodox rabbis urge against mixed-gender prayer plaza at Western Wall

Rabbis Kanievsky and Edelstein lament ‘intention to desecrate the sanctity’ of the site, call on followers to ‘do everything’ to prevent ‘disgrace in the holy place’

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky in the northern Israeli city of Safed, February 26, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky in the northern Israeli city of Safed, February 26, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Two top ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel published a missive Monday evening denouncing the proposed establishment of a permanent mixed-gender plaza for non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, and urging their followers to act against it.

Rabbis Chaim Kanievsky, 93, and Gershon Edelstein, 98, are leaders of the Lithuanian (non-Hasidic) stream of ultra-Orthodoxy.

In an open letter, the rabbis wrote that they “vigorously protest the intention to desecrate the sanctity of the Western Wall by giving space and recognition to the destroyers of religion” who want to “uproot everything and desecrate Heaven.”

They urged their followers to act, saying that “every single person must do everything to prevent the disgrace in the holy place” and engage in prayer and summon up their religious fortitude to avert the development.

The letter, which also made references to possible changes in conversion to Judaism and kashrut regulations that are currently defined according to ultra-Orthodox standards, was apparently aimed at Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana.

Kahana on Saturday appeared to drop his support for a 2016 compromise deal to build the mixed-gender plaza for non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall.

Speaking to the Kan public broadcaster, Kahana said that the “vast majority” of Jews in Israel are Orthodox and it would therefore not be right to give control of part of the Western Wall to minority movements.

“I think we must end the disagreements surrounding the Western Wall, without giving over control of any kind to denominations that represent a very small minority of Jews,” he said.

Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, head of the Ponovitz Yeshiva, seen during a morning prayer at his home in Bnei Brak, February 15, 2021. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

In 2016, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government approved a compromise deal to create a permanent pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall, with representatives of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism sharing an oversight role, after years of negotiations between Israel and Diaspora leaders. But a year later, the then-prime minister capitulated to pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners and indefinitely froze the deal.

Members of the current government led by Bennett have indicated that they are looking to revive the deal.

The original plan includes three key provisions: a joint entrance to the main Western Wall plaza and the egalitarian prayer space; a new permanent pavilion greatly enlarging the existing modest prayer deck, which has served as a site for pluralistic prayer since 2000; and, perhaps most controversially, a joint council including representatives from liberal streams of Judaism and government officials that would be in charge of overseeing the site.

The small platform currently used for pluralistic prayer services is located in the Davidson Archaeological Park, tucked into an area called Robinson’s Arch. It is out of sight of the current mainstream Orthodox prayer plaza, separated from it by the ramp leading up to the Mughrabi Gate, which is the only entrance for non-Muslims to the Temple Mount.

In an interview with The Times of Israel earlier this month, Kahana, who is Orthodox and who has advanced a series of far-reaching religious reforms on kashrut, endorsed the 2016 framework. “We need to look again at [reviving] that arrangement, which was widely agreed upon, and stop all these conflicts,” he said.

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