A Kotel Victory For the Non-Orthodox? Hardly

Asked for a statement about the Kotel compromise by the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, I complied. The Journal is hardly the reading experience of choice in the Orthodox community; my response was necessarily restrained.

What I wrote was true, but I did not write everything that could have been said. What follows is what I didn’t say. It does not mitigate the tragedy of the balkanization of the one place on earth that had served as a symbol of a united Jewish identification with the past and aspiration for the future. It does, however, offer an alternative to seeing the compromise as the beginning of an Israeli embrace of the heterodox movements.

Two realities shape Israeli government policy towards American non-Orthodox denominations: they are important at the moment; they will become increasingly less so in the future. Bibi and others understand that – unlike in the State of Israel – American non-Orthodox repopulate at well below the replacement rate. And the children they do have marry out at the rate of 71%. There is no question that they are the majority today, and their contributions, politically and otherwise, are invaluable to the interests of the State. But they are an asset of diminishing value because they are shrinking.

When they get seriously exercised, as they were by the street theater of Women of the Wall, they cannot be ignored. Attempting to placate them drains the government of time and energy it should be committing to the various existential crises that never go away in the Jewish State. The government begged Natan Sharansky to broker a compromise a few years ago not to provide balance, justice, and a belated national recognition of the spiritual treasures of non-Orthodoxy. It did so to quiet a nuisance, so that it could get back to more important issues.

It was, if anything, a do-over of David Ben-Gurion’s thinking about the Orthodox in the early years of the State. Throw them a few scraps now, because they won’t be around much longer. In the meantime, it is unwise to incite them. Today’s government is doing the same with the non-Orthodox. The difference, of course, is that Ben-Gurion had nothing but ideology to predict the future demise of Orthodoxy, while demography has it that nothing but an unpredictable miracle (which can happen!) can reverse the decline and fall of American heterodoxy.

We, of course, should redouble our prayers for that miracle. As much as we reject their ideology, we mourn the disappearance of millions of Jews that this decline represents.

The Kotel compromise may be a defeat for us hashkafically, but it is no victory for the non-Orthodox. When a harried parent successfully offers a misbehaving child a bribe to do what the child should be doing as a matter of course, there is are no grounds for celebration. But it does keep the peace, and allows the parent the calm he/she needs to move on to other concerns.

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4 Responses

  1. Y. Ben-David says:

    Although I believe that it is unfortunate that things worked out the way they did in that it was found necessary to create a separate, new Kotel site, it is also unfortunate that you are presenting this as some kind of war with winners and losers.  The fact that you completely reject any kind of motivation other than a cynical, manipulative one on the part of those who pushed for the non-Orthodox site does not speak well for Orthodox ideologists who don’t seem to realize that there are people who sincerely think differently than them, even if objectively they are wrong. I am Orthodox and have no desire to visit the new site but I also am aware that many Jews don’t think like me and that it is not inherently obvious to them that Orthodox is the only “true” path, as indeed you do. Israel is facing many difficult challenges in the world with rising antisemitism and anti-Israel actions around the world, and it is imperative that we try to make peace among ourselves in order to face this, even if it means making compromises we are not comfortable with.
    This compromise is NOT the “thin edge of the wedge” and it does not mark an increased “onslaught” by the non-O movements in Israel, They have little presence on the ground, and I doubt there will be many regular visitors to the new site, which will primarily be for events like Bar-Mitzvah ceremonies or visitors from outside Israel.  I live a few meters from the one an only C congregation in my town which is a suburb of Tel Aviv and they only have tefillot on Shabbat, but there is no daily minyan. Although some 40 years ago the C’s ruled that women count in a minyan, obviously their women are not breaking down the doors of their congregation in order to lay tefillin and read from the Torah. Thus there is no reason to think this marks some new “assault” on the O hegemony in Israel and I don’t think there are grounds for viewing this compromise as some sort of defeat.

    Keeping the peace among Jews is an important value, and the Torah itself mandates that, and since the O Establishment has made its peace with the secular state in the past on things like business establishments opening on Shabbat (UNFORTUNATELY!) for the sake of peace, and this new arrangement at the Kotel can be viewed in the same light.

  2. Reb Yid says:

    Making a prediction is very tough, especially about the future.  It wasn’t just Ben-Gurion who predicted Orthodoxy’s demise–leading sociologists did as well, based on solid institutional and demographic data.  But the world does not stand still and some trends simply cannot be predicted.  In the 1870s it looked as if Reform Judaism was going to completely monopolize American Jewish life.   For much of American Jewish history, Zionism as a political rallying cry had very little traction, and prospects were especially bleak here in the Orthodox community.

  3. lacosta says:

    one could argue that ,at least from a pure haredi hashkafa perspective, any action that perforce recognizes other streams in judaism is a cause for tearing kriya.

    that said there is only one group that [as others in the jewish journal pointed out]  is a true lose-lose.  standard O had to recognize an alternative judaism,  but keeps the classic kotel clean.  non-O groups have a place to celebrate/worship , it will just be ‘kotel-adjacent’.  the true losers are the WoW and their ilk , the ones who want women’s minyans at the classic kotel . since they consider themselves O , they will not want to move , and one can assume that they will go to court , and beyond that , continue to make scenes at the kotel itself as if nothing changed…

  4. Is it possible that certain forms of behavior on the part of a section of the Haredi opposition, i.e., throwing chairs, tossing diapers with (supposed) fecal matter, extreme drown-out whistling, as well as physical-touching violencer, could have contributed to the ‘win’ of the egalitarians?

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