Pluralism debate now ramming into the Western Wall

JERUSALEM — One of the holiest sites in Judaism has moved front and center in the battle over religious pluralism in Israel.

Orthodox officials boycotted a tour Monday that was aimed at finding a site for egalitarian and women's prayer groups to worship at the Western Wall.

The tour was organized by the Ne'eman Committee, which was created last year by the Israeli government to seek solutions to religious pluralism issues.

After claiming recently that it had worked out a compromise over conversions performed in Israel — a claim disputed by the liberal Jewish streams — the committee began to seek a site at the Wall where women's and mixed prayer services could be held without sparking clashes with Orthodox worshippers.

Orthodox Jews maintain that men and women should be separated during worship and that women should not don prayer shawls or lead services.

When representatives from the Chief Rabbinate and the Religious Affairs Ministry refused to participate in Monday's tour of the wall, Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti movement, the organization of Conservative Jews in Israel, said the Orthodox officials were proving that they had no wish to engage in dialogue with the liberal streams of Judaism.

One day before the tour, a delegation of U.S. Reform movement leaders held a mixed prayer service at the wall plaza under police protection. It was the second time in a week that the delegation, which included 170 lay leaders and rabbis, prayed near the Wall.

Unlike times past, the mixed prayer services on Sunday did not provoke violent confrontations with fervently religious Jews.

In both instances the worshippers, surrounded by police barricades and about 20 police officers, were closer to the parking lot than to the Wall itself.

The Religious Affairs Ministry canceled its participation in Monday's tour of the Wall because of the previous day's Reform prayer service.

The Chief Rabbinate, which had also criticized the mixed service, soon joined the boycott.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau told Israel Radio he considered the Reform service to be "more of a demonstration than a prayer service," adding that he hoped the Reform movement's desire for confrontation had "been satisfied for the moment."

The main prayer area at the Western Wall is divided into separate sections for men and women according to Orthodox custom.

Even before the Ne'eman Committee began its work, a group called Women of the Wall — made up of modern Orthodox, Conservative and Reform women — had been petitioning Israel's Supreme Court for several years to win the right to pray at the Wall.

The Women of the Wall, who have been coming to the holy site each month for the past nine years, have been forced to retreat to other areas of Jerusalem's Old City to read from the Torah in order to be safe from the taunts of the haredi, the fervently religious community, who consider their practices sacrilegious.

Betsy Cohen-Kallus, a member of Women of the Wall, was angry when she saw police protecting the American Reform leaders when they prayed Sunday at the Wall.

"The government has said it would be unable to protect us if we pray at the Kotel [Western Wall], and this is obviously a lie," Cohen-Kallus said.

"The Supreme Court has made it clear that a solution must be found for us within the prayer plaza at the Western Wall."

The court empowered the committee headed by Finance Minister Ya'acov Ne'eman to find that solution.

Because the issue of Reform and Conservative worship at the Wall has also entered the debate, the committee is also seeking a site that would be suitable for mixed services.

One site discussed during Monday's tour was the southern wall, which is also a remnant of the outer wall that surrounded the Temple.

The committee also considered an area adjacent to the Western Wall prayer plaza near a site known as Robinson's Arch, near the corner of the western and southern walls. It is there that the Antiquities Authority has carried out extensive archaeological excavations.

Cohen-Kallus said neither site would be acceptable to the Women of the Wall because the Supreme Court specifically said the group should be entitled to pray at the prayer plaza.

Bandel of the Conservative movement said the liberal movements would not be satisfied at the southern wall.

"It is the Western Wall which has been the symbol of the Temple's destruction and our longing for Jerusalem over the past 2,000 years," he said.