New government open to egalitarian worship at Wall

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For the first time last week, the government officially recognized the right of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism to pray at a section of the wall known as Robinson's Arch that is near but separate from the main prayer plaza.

Reform and Conservative leaders, who had been pessimistic that any progress would be made on pluralism after the fervently religious Shas Party was included in the government, are now more upbeat.

"We are encouraged by the serious and warm attitude of senior government officials," said Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Conservative movement in Israel.

The new momentum started on the eve of Tisha B'Av, marking the destruction of the Temples.

In recent years, small egalitarian services on Tisha B'Av at the Western Wall — held far from the main prayer plaza — had sparked violent protests by fervently religious Jews.

Two days before Tisha B'Av this year, the possibility of violence worried Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel's new public security minister.

Ben-Ami called Conservative and Reform leaders, asking them to hold their services at the Robinson's Arch area. The area, where archaeological digs have been carried out, is only about 100 feet away from the main prayer plaza, but Orthodox Jewish worshipers cannot see it.

Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement's religious action center in Israel, agreed immediately.

"It has been my view for quite some time now that Robinson's Arch is an acceptable compromise to allow our people to hold services at the wall and avoid confrontation," he said, adding that he considered it to be a "sign of good will" from the new government.

"But let's not forget that this is not the most acute example of violations of personal liberties and freedoms in Israel," Regev said.

In contrast, the Conservative movement rejected the solution, saying it would not forgo the right to pray at the main plaza.

"The issue is not whether the stones are sacred," Bandel said. "It is the fact that generations of Jews stood at that place and wept tears of prayer."

Conservative leaders also pressed Ben-Ami because the government's offer was not initially a concession; they were able to pray at Robinson's Arch before even without government permission.

Yitzhak Herzog, Israel's new Cabinet secretary, then made two offers. First, he promised that the government would provide for the needs of egalitarian worshipers at Robinson's Arch. Second, Herzog said the government would seriously consider setting up an interministerial committee to resolve a host of outstanding pluralism issues.

The first offer was backed up with a letter from Oded Weiner, a Religious Affairs Ministry official responsible for holy sites. In the past, Weiner — who is Orthodox — objected to allowing the groups to pray at the arch. Now, his letter contained a promise to provide "requisite assistance" to the liberal groups if they chose to pray there.

Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly of Israel, said the letter amounted to an "unprecedented promise" under which, according to his interpretation, the government would provide for the needs of the egalitarian groups — Torah scrolls, prayer podiums, tables and chairs.

The Conservative movement responded with a "one-time gesture" and asked its members not to visit the main plaza on Tisha B'Av.

Weiner, however, refused to say exactly what his somewhat vague letter meant, insisting that issues would be discussed in a follow-up meeting this week with Herzog and Conservative leaders.

Shimon Malka, spokesman for the Shas-controlled Religious Affairs Ministry, denied that the Orthodox officials have changed their position and rejected the suggestion that Shas or the ministry had softened its line toward Reform or Conservative Jews.

"We have no problem with them praying at Robinson's Arch," he said. "But this was a one-time offer — for Tisha B'Av — and all we offered to provide was chairs."

Bandel, however, said Herzog guaranteed that the offer would not expire after Tisha B'Av and that the ministry would provide the same services it gives worshipers at the main plaza.

Herzog's second offer — to launch a broader discussion of pluralism issues through a new committee — was of even greater significance. Reform and Conservative leaders believe that Herzog is positioning himself to take a leading role on pluralism issues.

Herzog is the grandson of former Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog and is well acquainted with Conservative and Reform Judaism. He also once served on a public committee that examined the structure and functioning of religious councils.

"We saw this as a kind of hour of good will for all parts of Israeli society and the diaspora to try and find amicable solutions to problems that loom over our ability to live together," Herzog said. "We wanted to set an example here, on the eve of Tisha B'Av, which marked perhaps the greatest disaster that ever happened to the Jewish people."

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