Jews: People or Religion?

There are a bewildering number and variety of cases concerning the Western Wall currently before the Supreme Court of Israel. The case of activists, myself included, in the group Original Women of the Wall is one of them.

We are represented by the Center for Women’s Justice, led by attorney Susan Weiss.

Dr. Weiss is particularly concerned with ongoing rabbinic encroachment beyond the areas of marriage and divorce which, by law, are under the authority of the Chief Rabbinate. One example of such encroachment: mamzer lists, that is, compilations of people whose birth the rabbinate deems illegitimate according to Jewish law, who are ineligible to marry anyone but other mamzerim.

But, do fetuses or infants apply to marry, or divorce? By what legal authority does the rabbinate compile lists about individuals who have not sought its services, lists which threaten, and wreak havoc with, people’s lives? If tolerated, such encroachments become part of the “status quo” which rabbinic authorities then fight to preserve – except when they themselves change the status quo. One example of such change is the proposed conversion law, which would make haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Chief Rabbinate conversions the only valid kind for purposes of attaining citizenship. If this proposal becomes law, it will extend rabbinate control from the religious sphere into the very essence of the civil sphere.

Another example of rabbinic encroachment is seen in the reshaping of the physical contours of the Western Wall plaza, where a new, stone wall has been erected which envelopes the rear of the prayer sections, into which wall bronze-framed, glass-enclosed bookcases for prayer books have been built. This wall is topped with a mehitza, a gender- separation barrier; anyone who has been to an ultra-Orthodox synagogue will immediately recognize it as such. The rear of the once-open Western Wall plaza is now enclosed by stone walls, behind which a stone ramp to the men’s section has been built.

To see into the women’s section from the plaza one must now peer and peep, on tiptoe or chairs.

Obviously, these alterations are intended to be quite permanent.

When were the plans for these changes submitted to public notice and discussion? Who approved them? Who, what budget, paid for them? The lawyer for the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the entity which administers the Western Wall, along with its rabbinic administrator, claimed before the justices of the Supreme Court last year that his client could not be made to include any non-haredi members or, of course, women, on its board – because it does not have a board. Yet vast sums flow to the Western Wall administration.

What accounting is there for them, or for anything done there? What could be the meaning of the structural changes there, other than a de facto refashioning of the Western Wall, the “national holy site” of the Jewish People – into an ultra-Orthodox synagogue? In 2010, the rabbinic administrator of the Wall issued a “nohal,” a directive, which barred anyone from bringing in a Torah scroll to the Wall, another example of rabbinic encroachment. So is his barring of women lighting Hanukka lights there, restricting this to men and the men’s section.

There is no “rabbi of the Western Wall,” only a publicly paid rabbinic administrator, appointed to facilitate, not limit, access to the site. The Supreme Court suit of activists in Original Women of the Wall challenges the legality of this directive. Since this administrator does not allow women access to any of the dozens of Torah scrolls kept for men only, in the men’s section, obviously the intent of the directive is blatantly discriminatory. But we all need to understand that if the rabbinic administrator’s action is allowed to stand, he establishes authority based in no law, and the next encroachment is only a matter of time.

It is this broad and profound threat to individual rights and freedom of conscience which deeply troubles our group, and which should trouble everyone who cares about freedom of conscience in Israel. This is what is at stake in our suit, along with, of course, the utter contempt for and assumed male hegemony over Jewish women which the defendants have displayed, and which cannot be allowed to become enshrined in civil law or social practice.

This is why I hope people cease dismissing all this because “it’s just the ultra-Orthodox establishment, doing what it does,” or because “we don’t care about the Western Wall,” or because “it’s about marginal Jews and Diaspora Judaism.” If Israelis don’t want the rabbinate invading our personal lives and our public spaces and institutions – which is what the Western Wall is, and sidewalks, and bus and airline seats, and public ceremonies, and professional conferences, and universities, and the army, are – we need to understand what is at stake in our case before the court. Because if we win, public space as such wins. And if we lose, God forbid, that is what will be lost. Not just for us, and not just at the Wall.

Our Supreme Court case is based on these concerns. The other cases seek to define Jewish national space as one kind of synagogue or other. Their argument is the legal equivalent of defining Jews as a religion, rather than as a people, with a win-lose showdown between denominations for recognition and control of Jewish sacred space. For all their differences, all the parties, from haredi to Reform, do this.

By contrast, our case frames the issues before the court as freedom of conscience, the rule of law, and the preservation of civil space, in which all can live, according to her or his convictions, without coercion, discrimination, or intimidation. For those of us who are religious, ultimately, only in a society where these values are secure are our religious convictions and practices also secure.