Two large groups of Jews at diametric odds over the fate of Jewish prayer at the Western Wall gathered at the holy site Monday morning to mark the beginning of the Hebrew month of Av, when tradition holds both the First and Second Temples were destroyed for a roster of reasons, including a lack of unity.
The Women of the Wall, which pushes for egalitarian prayer rights at the shrine, held its monthly prayer session while nearby, a group of grassroots Liba Center activists bent on protecting what they say is the traditional Jewish character of the site, gathered under the banner of “Safeguarding the Holiness of the Western Wall.”
For both groups, the focus of the prayer was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s June 25 freeze of a January 2016 cabinet decision calling for a designated pluralistic prayer pavilion in the southern portion of the Western Wall (commonly known as Robinson’s Arch in the Davidson’s Archaeological Park).
While the Women of the Wall await a scheduled August 31 Supreme Court hearing of a petition of continuance, there are ongoing efforts by Diaspora and liberal Israeli Jewry to restart the plan.
However, aside from a few Modern Orthodox rabbis and religious thinkers, there is little support on behalf of the Israeli religious public for the pluralistic prayer pavilion.
A separate protest prayer just a few feet away by grassroots volunteers who are connected to Mercaz Liba drew some 2,000 people, a spokesperson said. Liba, an organization founded in 2013 to protect the Jewish nature of Israel which last week held a conference for some 1,000 Israeli rabbis, is a self-stated non-political organization made up of Israelis from all walks of life, including educators, farmers, and businessmen.
The group assembled to vocally state their support for the pavilion’s freeze, to ask for the chief rabbinate’s authority over the entire Western Wall site, and to pray for those injured in the recent spate of terrorist attacks, the spokesperson said.
Women of the Wall said its much smaller group of 118 participants were “attacked verbally, vocally and physically,” while its 118 supporters conducted the Rosh Hodesh Av service. In addition to a near miss of a thrown water bottle, the group claims that masked women and girls “whistled and shouted to silence WOW voices, spitting and cursing.”
Additionally, groups of men catcalled and shouted slogans to drown out prayer, including, “Reform are worse than ISIS.”
With the extreme vitriol experienced today, WOW Executive Director Lesley Sachs said she is concerned about escalation of violence.
“Given the amount of incitement, bloodshed at the Wall is only a matter of time, because the people in charge of WOW safety, are eager to get rid of WOW,” said Sachs, alluding to the security forces employed by the Orthodox Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which overseas the Western Wall pavilion.
It is unclear whether the Liba activists perpetrated the alleged attacks or other protesters at the site. The Women of the Wall are plagued most months by extremist ultra-Orthodox demonstrators who use disturbance tactics during the women’s prayer service.
According to Liba organizer Hodiya Ben-Tzvi, 22, the prayer today was “not a protest.”
“We didn’t come with an approach of being against [the Women of the Wall], rather as being ‘pro’ protecting the Western Wall. We didn’t pay attention to them; not one girl even looked at them. We didn’t come to argue,” she said.
To draw worshipers, a couple of weeks ago Liba distributed a poster titled, “Who decides on the holiness of the Western Wall?” Clearly a protest, the poster depicts the wisest sages of the modern era — among them Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef — as condemning the pavilion, whereas former Supreme Court chiefs Dorit Beinisch and Aharon Barak, alongside outgoing Chief Miriam Naor are depicted alongside text denying the site’s categorization as a synagogue.
“Every new month the Women of the Wall and the Reform movements desecrate the holiness of the Western Wall and put pressure on the Israeli government to give them standing at the Western Wall and in every religious issue in the state,” reads the poster. “With divine providence, the cabinet has taken a historic decision to freeze the Western Wall compromise and not to hand over part of the Western Wall to the Reform. Much to our sorrow, the Supreme Court is attempting to change the government decision and to give the Reform movement standing.”
Ben-Tzvi told The Times of Israel that while she welcomes every Jew to pray at the Western Wall, it must be done in keeping with Jewish traditions. To Ben-Tzvi and the majority of religious Israelis, this means mainstream Orthodox practices.
For Ben-Tzvi, who volunteers with Liba and works with youth, the goal of this morning’s prayer was to state clearly that the entire Western Wall “is one, from the north to the south,” she said. Its holiness must be sacrosanct and only “authentic Jewish” behavior approved by the Israeli chief rabbinate should be allowed, not “new, bizarre innovations” such as those performed by the Women of the Wall or non-Orthodox Jewry, said Ben-Tzvi.
“I believe that impetus for Women of the Wall and the Reform movement is not driven from the will to pray or read from the Torah, but to make noise, to get recognition, to get authority and the ability to give ideas to the Israeli government. There is no place for that in this public space,” said Ben-Tzvi. What they do at home, is their own business, of course, she said.
Build bridges, don’t burn them
A minority of religious Israelis are taking a stance in support of their Diaspora brethren, who overwhelmingly support the pluralistic prayer area. High-profile members of the liberal Modern Orthodox Ne’emanei Torah Va’avodah (Believers of Torah and Work) organization, which attempts to promote moderate Orthodoxy in Israel, participated in a brief video released on Monday.
With Jewish sages teaching that the Second Temple was destroyed over baseless hatred, the month of Av has become a time when Jewish unity takes on an added resonance for some, a point hammered home in the video.
In the video, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a co-founder of the liberal Tzohar rabbinical organization, says he considers the freeze of the pluralistic pavilion “a disastrous defeat, as a huge danger and as a failure to fulfill our primary mission which is first and foremost to safeguard the Jewish people.”
The American-born Efrat chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin says, “It is unthinkable that we deposit the future of Judaism in the sole hands of Orthodoxy, and not with others also.” Social Justice activist Rabbi Benny Lau adds, “We have to be vigilant to ensure that each and every Jewish man and woman from all Diaspora communities will feel at home at the Western Wall.”
‘Our Sages note that the city of Jerusalem was not divided up amongst the Tribes’
Several female Israeli Modern Orthodox leaders were also included in the video. Torah scholar Chana Friedman, who is also an adviser on Jewish law, gave a textual basis for supporting the pluralistic pavilion. “Our Sages note that the city of Jerusalem was not divided up amongst the Tribes, thus it does not belong to any specific tribe or sector but rather to the entire Jewish people – Israelis, Diaspora Jews, religious people of all streams, and secular Jews.
“Jerusalem belongs to all of us. Although it is the holiest place in the world, and perhaps because it is so holy, we have to know how to give in on demanding the highest level of halakhic observance and standards of holiness in order to enable all Jews to be part of it,” said Friedman.
In the video Cherlow makes it clear that as Orthodox rabbis and thinkers, he and his cohort “have an uncompromising disagreement with the Reform and Conservative streams on religious issues.”
The group believes, however, that the majority of the next generation of Diaspora Jews will be unaffiliated. “They won’t even be identified as Reform or Conservative Jews” and over half the Jewish people will have disappeared, said Cherlow.
“We must change our outlook and learn to understand that it is our responsibility and in our interest and we must do a lot in order to rebuild our connections with all sectors of the Jewish people and to ensure its existence in the future,” he said.
But for Liba activist Ben-Tzvi the future is now.
She demurred when asked whether her group’s prayer protest may contribute to strife between Jews.
“I like to get along with every Jew. I believe in brotherly love,” she said. “Although that love doesn’t mean we have to give recognition to an idea we don’t agree with.”