Hundreds of members of the Reform and Conservative movements from Israel and the United States arrived on Friday morning at the Kotel plaza for the Rosh Chodesh Adar B prayer. They were met with enormous resistance from mostly Haredi Jews, including an estimated ten thousand seminary women who followed the instructions of two leaders of the Haredi Lithuanian public, Rabbis Chaim Kanievsky and Gershon Edelstein, to protest the Reform and Conservative presence. Large police forces separated the two parties of obviously God-loving Jews.
There are life-and-death issues that Israel and its leaders are contending with today, and this isn’t one of them. But in the long term, the unity or lack thereof of the Jewish people will have effects on them no less serious than the threat of the Iranian bomb or the invasion of Ukraine.
Most accounts of the controversy in the media are misleading, because they are incomplete or lack context. Reading them, one gets the idea that mixed-gender groups of “reformim” are invading the segregated prayer areas of the Western Wall. That isn’t the case.
One important player is the Rabbi of the Kotel [Wall], Shmuel Rabinowitz. He is a government employee, appointed in 1995 by then-Prime Minister (Yitzhak Rabin) and the Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis of Israel. There is no defined term for this position, and Rabinowitz is the fourth person to hold it. The first occupant of the office, Rabbi Yitzchak Avigdor Orenstein, was appointed by the British in 1930, and served until he was killed when the Jordanians shelled the Old City in May, 1948.
Rabinowitz, supported by a large portion of the Orthodox community, takes the position that the Kotel is an Orthodox synagogue, and therefore what happens there must follow Orthodox custom. In particular, the prayer area next to the Kotel is divided into men’s and women’s sections, and women are not permitted to pray with a sefer Torah [Torah scroll], even in their section.
The Nashot Hakotel [Women of the Wall], wish to be allowed to pray out loud in the women’s section, wearing a Tallit [prayer shawl] in the women’s section, with a sefer Torah. Officials of the Kotel, on the instructions of Rabbi Rabinowitz, attempt to prevent them from bringing a sefer Torah into the Kotel area; and their monthly services are often disrupted, sometimes quite violently, by large groups of Haredi [“ultra-Orthodox”] men and women.
At the same time, the American Reform Movement and its Israeli offshoot, along with the Israeli Masorti [Conservative] Movement demanded a section of the Kotel where they could be allowed to pray in mixed groups of men and women, as their custom.
It is controversial whether the prohibitions in question are a matter of halacha [Jewish law], or are only local customs which have lesser (but not negligible) force. The Nashot Hakotel, which includes Orthodox women, argue that a woman reading the Torah out loud in an all-woman group is entirely acceptable according to halacha. Those that oppose it generally argue that it should be prohibited because it offends others to hear a woman sing in public, and to see her wearing a tallit.
In 2017 a compromise was reached between the Reform and Masorti groups and the government (including representatives of the Haredi parties) to set aside an area to the south of the men’s and women’s sections of the Kotel where mixed prayer would be allowed. The Nashot Hakotel joined them, because they wanted the support of the Reform Movement. Led by Anat Hoffman, who was both the head of the Nashot Hakotel and the American Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, they agreed to hold their women-only services in the to-be-created egalitarian area. This created a split in the organization, with those who felt it was important to pray in the main women’s section forming a group called the “Original Women of the Wall.”
In any case, due to pressure from the Haredi public, the compromise was never fully implemented. Although a location was set aside, it had an entrance separate from the main Kotel plaza, was hard to find, and was smaller and less developed than needed. Most important, the compromise provided for a council that would govern the practices in the new area that would include Reform and Masorti representatives. Haredi opposition was especially strong to this, and it didn’t come about.
The question has been tied up in legal and political wrangling, and still hasn’t been settled. At this time, the area is available for egalitarian prayer, but there are often disputes between the liberal groups and Orthodox worshipers, who appear at the space and provocatively set up a partition between men and women. The Nashot Hakotel still worship in the women’s section of the main part of the Kotel, still resort to subterfuge to bring in a sefer Torah, and still are greeted with violent opposition from Haredim.
I believe that both the Israeli Masorti Movement and the Nashot Hakotel are shooting themselves in the foot by associating themselves with the Reform Movement, both its American mothership and its satellite in Israel. The Masorti Movement in Israel is doctrinally closer to Orthodox Judaism than it is to Reform Judaism. There is a commitment to binding halacha, and most of its members are observant of Shabbat and Kashrut (though admittedly its rabbis’ rulings are often more lenient than those of Orthodox rabbis).
Reform Judaism, on the other hand, makes Shabbat and Kashrut optional. It replaces the mitzvot [commandments] of the Torah as codified into halacha with a collection of platitudes that many observers note are identical to liberal – lately, “progressive” – American (or left-wing Israeli) politics.
The observance of mitzvot because they are mitzvot and not because of their social utility is the essence of Judaism, more important than any set of beliefs. This is entirely absent from Reform Judaism, and I think this in itself is enough to support the position that Reform Judaism is a different religion from Orthodox or even Masorti Judaism.
The Reform Movement in America, from its beginning, was anti-Zionist. After the founding of the state, and more so after Israel’s victory in the 1967 war, it became more pro-Israel; but in recent years – because of its close association with the Left both in America and Israel, it has moved farther and farther in the other direction. The American movement’s “Reform Zionism” consists of an arrogant and somewhat ignorant attempt to change Israeli politics and society to fit an American conception of virtuousness.
The ordinary Israeli sees Reform Judaism for what it is, which is a politically left-leaning, spiritually vacuous, non-Jewish religion. But it is the 800-pound gorilla of the non-Orthodox world, with money, clout, and people that it uses to project its influence here in Israel, where in my opinion it does not belong. Both the women and the Masortim thought they could help their cause by hitching a ride with them.
But they were wrong. It has not helped the Nashot Hakotel, who wish to be able to pray according to halacha, to be associated with a group that does not believe in halacha. And it does not help the Masorti movement, which wants to be accepted as a fully legitimate branch of Judaism, to be associated with a group that does not practice Judaism.