Pluralism at the Western Wall

Religious pluralism and Liberal Judaism have made huge gains in Israel this week, but the fight against extreme religious policies is far from over. Up until now, the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, has been restricted to Orthodox praying that is separated based on gender.

On Jan. 31, the Israeli cabinet voted to create a mixed-gender, egalitarian space at the wall for both Reform and Conservative Jews to pray. The Religious Nationalists and the Haredi—ultra-Orthodox—leadership voted against the measure, but did not continue to fight it by threatening to leave the coalition government once it was passed. They likely chose not to fight the measure because relaxing the religious policy has been expected for some time now.

The space being used was formally designated for non-Orthodox prayer, but it had no infrastructure or religious items, like prayer books and shawls, that are needed for religious services.

Director-General of the Prime Minister’s Office Eli Groner said that this is “a practical compromise, not an ideological compromise.” The Israeli government is clearly limiting the authority of the Rabbinate, the religious governing body of Israel, and is giving legitimacy to the practices of more Liberal Jews by using government money to run non-Orthodox services.

Many believe that the move was made to pander to American Jews who are some of Israel’s most ardent supporters abroad, but who have been alienated by some of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies and the 2014 conflict with Gaza.

Protest groups like the Women of the Wall have been calling for changes like this for years and felt that the Western Wall was being run by male-dominated groups instead of uniting all Jews like it should be.

This is a landmark case in the broadening of what is accepted as Judaism in the Jewish state, and hopefully, will create some momentum for relaxing other religious laws in Israel.

Unfair religious laws in the country must be changed so that Israel is a place for world Jewry, not just for the very religious.

One of the worst of these religious laws is the way Israel keeps track of “bastards” and others who are restricted from marriage by Jewish tradition. I come from a mixed family—my mother is Irish Catholic and my father is Jewish—so I do not have marriage rights in Israel.  This seems absurd to me.

The Jewish state was founded so that Jews around the world could have a safe haven where their rights would not be restricted and their lives would not be threatened. Then why do only the most traditionally-religious individuals have a monopoly on some religious rights?

The ultra-Orthodox have these powers because they are needed by Netanyahu for his coalition government. This means that a new, more liberal government in Israel is needed to not only ease tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, but also to make Israel a state for all Jews, not just the very religious.

If a more liberal government was elected that did not need the religious right to keep power, many of these unpopular policies could be changed. A more liberal Israel would be a far healthier state. It would not have to deal with as much criticism from the West because of improved relations with the Palestinians. A new wind of support from American Jews could also result from a new, more liberal government.

I hope that this new space at the Western Wall heralds a new era of acceptance and pluralism in the State of Israel. I know that if one day, I visit Israel and make pilgrimage to the Western Wall, I will certainly be praying in this new, more accepting space.