Heterodox Protest Cancellation of Western Wall Compromise Plan: Inappropriate and Insolent

(This article originally appeared on Arutz Sheva.)

I, like so many other Orthodox Jews , have a number of non-Orthodox relatives. When attending simchas (festive occasions) of my family, including those which involve synagogue attendance, my non-Orthodox relatives know that they are guests at an Orthodox event, and they comport themselves with the proper respect. Not once has any of these relatives ever insisted upon sitting together with his wife in our synagogue or being served non-kosher food at our sons’ bar mitzvah meals. It was simply unthinkable.

All of us are familiar with the sight of non-Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall, as they cover their heads, separate off to the men’s and women’s prayer sections, and realize that they must be heedful of the heightened and intense level of sanctity of that most special locus. In all of my times praying at the Wall, I not once recall a non-Orthodox Jew refuse to cover his head or demand that his wife pray together with him. It was simply unthinkable.

All of us are familiar with the sight of non-Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall, as they cover their heads, separate off to the men’s and women’s prayer sections, and realize that they must be heedful of the heightened and intense level of sanctity of that most special locus.

These are the sentiments that come to mind as I read of the condemnation and fury on the part of the heterodox denominations at the Israeli government’s decision not to move forward with the Western Wall Compromise Plan, with the support of the Chief Rabbinate and most of the religious members of the coalition backing (driving) the government’s decision. The very expectation that a strictly Orthodox prayer area since time immemorial should compromise its standards and enable on-site desecration of Halakha (Jewish law) in deference to the demands of those who do not respect Halakha is exceedingly hard to swallow. Looking at the matter after taking a step back makes one wonder how the Western Wall Compromise Plan got off the ground in the first place.

Unfortunately, the heterodox movements are not taking the matter sitting down.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who serves as president of Union for Reform Judaism, condemned the Israeli’s government’s “shameful decision”, as his group canceled a meeting (on an unrelated matter) with Prime Minister Netanyahu in protest. Jacobs declared:

The decision cannot be seen as anything other than a betrayal, and I see no point to a meeting at this time.  

International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF), a left-wing American group whose leadership is very closely affiliated with Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat (both Open Orthodox), condemned the government’s decision as well as its support for the Conversion Bill (legislation that only recognizes conversions in Israel performed by the Chief Rabbinate). IRF expressed its “deep disappointment” and its continued support for the Western Wall Compromise Plan:

The plan, which like any compromise, can be improved upon (e.g. creating a space for Orthodox women’s groups that do not want to engage in full egalitarian prayer but do want to read from the Torah) is a positive step forward to making the Kotel a public place where all Jews can experience the presence of the Divine according to the dictates of their conscience.

IRF also invoked the words of Open Orthodox Rabbi Benny Lau:

The Western Wall is not a sectarian property. We must give everyone a sense that it is their home. It is the heart of the Jewish people.

(For a refreshing and objective view on the Conversion Bill, Rabbi Berel Wein’s commentary is an absolute must-read. “Objective” is the key word here that seems to elude this bill’s detractors.)

Eric E. Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, likewise condemned cancellation of the Western Wall Compromise Plan, writing that the decision will “destroy the fundamental principle that Israel, our Jewish homeland, is a place where all Jews can and must feel at home.”

And David Harris, chief executive of American Jewish Congress, proclaimed:

The Kotel belongs to all Jews worldwide, not to a self-appointed segment.

Stepping back from the inflammatory context and the rhetoric, Goldstein and Harris (and even Rabbi Benny Lau) have tried to turn the tables upside down. Rather than Jews feeling as humbled guests at the Western Wall, whose protocol follows Halakha, Goldstein and Harris demand that they and their constituents should be able to dictate the rules there, as if the holy site were their private home. To quote Rabbi Benny Lau, “We must give everyone a sense that it is their home.”   (And did we not recently read in the Torah of a person who refused to heed the dictates of Moshe’s Torah leadership, arguing instead to decide Halakha in an egalitarian manner according to the will of the masses, and the rebellion and calamity that ensued?)

The backdrop of this story – a fact glaringly omitted from the heterodox groups’ protests and condemnations – is that in August of 2013, the Israeli government already established a multi-level egalitarian prayer area, the “Ezrat Yisrael Plaza”, at the Robinson’s Arch region of the Western Wall compound. (See photo here.) This large and beautifully renovated area failed to attract throngs of non-Orthodox Jews, who preferred instead to join Orthodox services at the Wall. The fact that opportunity for heterodox prayer was accommodated at Robinson’s Arch, but was largely declined by non-Orthodox worshippers, is curiously omitted from heterodox leadership’s harsh new discourse.

To demand the introduction of that which is a violation of Halakha into the most sacred traditional Jewish prayer site manifests great irreverence and sheer chutzpa. For thousands of years, Halakha was respected at this holy locus by Jews of all stripes, who deferentially conformed there to the requirements of Tradition.

Would the Reform and other heterodox denominations demand that their adherents who visit mosques be authorized to conduct themselves therein in a manner that offends the religious norms of traditional Islam? Why is the Western Wall any different?!

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47 Responses

  1. met says:

    Maybe if the women’s section wasn’t so small there would be more satisfaction with the way things are conducted at the Kotel. Have you seen how small it is in comparison to the men’s section? It’s barely half the size. Women can rarely get a chance to touch the Kotel if the weather is nice and a lot of people are there; the men’s section always has space and room to breathe. Considering that women are supposed to be treated better than this, are you really surprised when they’re not satisfied with the crumbs they’re thrown?

    • Rafael Quinoaface says:

      Sorry, but what does the size of the ezras nashim at the Kosel have to do with Wow trying to introduce krias hatorah, tefillin and tallisos for women at the Kosel and the heterodox wanting mixed gender prayers? You think if the size of the ezras nashim was much larger, these wouldn’t be issues? Please explain the connection, because I don’t get it.

      • met says:

        I think if women were treated better with respect to their tefilot, they wouldn’t try so hard to capitalize on “men’s roles in tefila”. But if you claim to respect women and their tefilot in the way women are supposed to daven, don’t be a hypocrite. That means giving them a larger space to daven at the Kotel, equal to what the men have, and respect ezrot nashim everywhere by not trespassing. 

      • Rafael Quinoaface says:

        I disagree. The WoW would push to allow krias haTorah in public and their other practices regardless of the size of the ezras nashim. These women don’t want to be confined to the roles and obligations women have in tefilloh according to tradition. They want bigger, expanded roles, driven by their acceptance of egalitarianism as a central piller of their worldview. This has no correlation with what happens at the Kosel on a daily basis. Further, the complaint is not coming from from WoW, or at least the “Original Wow” group. Rather, it is Reform and Conservative and their supporters in Ch”ul and in EY, who don’t accept separation of the sexes during davenin’ in any form, are doing the protesting.

      • met says:

        No. This issue is about the lack of respect given to women’s prayer spaces. To dictate what women can and can’t do during davening, you first have to ensure that you have provided them respect and sanctity in their spaces. Thus far, there is neither, so how can anyone complain when women pray as they want to? 

      • Rafael Quinoaface says:

        For met at 1:52 P.M.: Again, what happened when Netanyahu pulled the plug on this new space, the fallout from the decision, and the protests have absolutely nothing to do with WoW and the ezras nashim.

    • DF says:

      Your allegation is simply false, and I have been to the Kotel way too many times to count. The women have plenty of room. On those occasions when it is crowded for the women, it is crowded for the men too. And that the men’s section is larger is a fact of every single orthodox synagogue I am aware of, and obviously, rightfully so. 

      • Sarah Elias says:

        Are you a man?  I thought so.

        Take a look at any picture of the Kotel and you’ll see that the women’s section is at most 2/3 the size of the men’s section, and I think that’s a generous estimate.

        Take a look at the Kotel through the Kotelcam and you’ll see that at almost any time of day, there are many more women there than men.

        The reason that the men’ section of shuls is larger than the women’s doesn’t really apply to the Kotel, which is a place to which people come at any time of day or night and not only for scheduled tefillos.  Women are much more likely to come down mid-morning or mid-afternoon to say a few tefillos or some pirkei Tehillim than men, which is quite obvious to anyone watching.

      • met says:

        The size of the women’s section is actually barely 1/3 the size of the men’s section, and while the men’s section has a nice large shelter under the arch, there is no such space to shelter from the elements on the women’s section except for a tiny room up a set of stairs that is certainly not wheelchair accessible or spacious for the women who want to get out of the rain. It’s pretty apparent that the current setup is very disadvantageous to women, as it is a much smaller size, has no sufficient shelter, and is further from the holy site of the Temple. The concentration of women davening at the wall is always higher, night and day. A woman who tries to daven right at the wall is repeatedly jostled and pushed; a man who davens right at the wall has enough space to put both his arms out and still not touch his neighbor. Women do not have plenty of room. And Sarah is correct in saying the the Kotel is not like any synagogue, for women daven there around the clock, and in higher numbers than the men.

      • DF says:

        I’m sorry, your comments (Sara Elias and met)  fly in the face of reality. “Women daven there around the clock, in higher numbers than men??” Women are more likely to come down mid morning or mid afternoon than men???” Come on. These are simply not true. And have you ever really properly studied what was happening on the men’s side, while you were simultaneously busy praying on the womens’?

        The Kotel is a shul. As in every orthodox shul in the world, it is used more by men – who require a minyan, who go to maariv – than women. That’s why in every orthodox shul in the world, the men’s section is bigger. [I presume there are some Conservative/OO minyanim that have separate seating of equal size.] Google images of the Kotel, or, if you wish, just look at the picture above. In any picture showing a crowd, it is crowded for both the men and the women. In off peak times, there is room on both sides. This is not a reality-based complaint, it is simply another feminist power play.

  2. dr. bill says:

    you omit mention of the most important new modern orthodox group in israel – beit hillel. yes some of their members are identified with OO movements.  but some/many/most are hopefully well above reproach by even those who comment on this website.

    though said more broadly than wrt the latest event the following statement by beit hillel is one that i believe to be accurate:”Recent events have presented our Holy Torah to the Israeli public in an inappropriately narrow-minded, exclusionary light. We, who are engaged daily in teaching and studying the Torah, believe that this has misrepresented Judaism, and that only the authentic, enlightened, inclusive Judaism – whose ways are pleasant and peaceful – has a true message for Israel today.”

    but most egregious in my mind is what i read as your attempt to view this as a clear halakhic slam-dunk.


  3. Eli Blum says:

    Please excuse my being ignorant, but what extra Kedusha does the Western Wall Plaza have over any other area within the walls of Jerusalem ex. Churva Synagogue or Robinson’s Arch? Is it considered to be part of the Har HaBayis?


    • dr. bill says:

      you are asking a complex halakhic sheailah. Since Herod greatly expanded the Har haBayit, how that larger area and its retaining wall are to be treated is disputed.  many/most poskim forbid jews from entering any part of the larger area. (currently we have reasonable certainty about what part of the har habayit was original and what was added.  as one famous bible scholar noted we can unquestionably identify parts of har habayit that DEFINITELY were added. what if any halakhic implications that knowledge should have is again disputed.) otoh only a very few poskim view  the western wall as having enough sanctity that leaning against (or perhaps even touching) it is forbidden.  the plaza has the same sanctity as the rest of the city of jerusalem during ancient times.

      • Eli Blum says:

        So why do we care more about non-Orthodox prayer at the western wall plaza more than any other area in the Old City or any other section of the western wall?

      • dr. bill says:

        you are conflating a halakhic and a religious question.  jews (and even non-jews) have a meaningful sentimental attachment that can become a deeply religious experience.  there are many examples.

      • Mark says:

        Because the Western Wall plaza is an Orthodox Beis HaKnesses. The holiest one in the world, as it happens.

      • Eli Blum says:

        Mark – You have not explained why it is more holy than the Churvah Synagogue, or even Robinson’s Arch, if they both have the Din of an Orthodox Beis HaKnesses.

        Besides, how can you expect the plaza to be treated as an Orthodox Beis HaKnesses when it has been made into a symbol of the Israeli/Zionist State?

        Dr. Bill – Not sure what you mean. I thought the point of the OP was regarding a Halachic issue, not a “sentimental attachment” type issue.

      • dr. bill says:

        no one is converting a shul; they are creating a place in the city of jerusalem that has strong sentimental/religious value for use by jews who practice differently.  pushing such jews away yet further does not sit well with me.

  4. Steve Brizel says:

    I guess we should follow the dictatescof the modern day disciples of Yerevan Ben Nevat in the spirit of pluralism and inclusiveness when as R Gordimer stresses the issue is when in Rome one should do as the Romans do.

  5. Mark says:

    If you support the heterodox on this, you would support Jews for Baal Pe’or in the azarah as well.

    • dr. bill says:

      impressive logical implication but dumb me cannot follow.  please clarify.

      • Mark says:

        Why would the azarah “belong” to the non-idolaters any more than the kosel plaza “belongs” to the Orthodox?

      • dr. bill says:

        still cannot follow.

      • Mark says:

        I find that hard to believe. But just in case please explain why one would think that the Orthodox have no right to stop a Reform service at the Kosel, but maintain the right to stop a Baal Peor service  in the azarah?

      • mycroft says:

        Reform does not equal avodazara

        Azara does not equal Kotel plaza

      • Mark says:

        That doesn’t answer the question: Why would the Orthodox have the right to stop a “Jews for Baal Peor” service in the Azarah?

      • dr. bill says:

        mycroft, precisely. i have nothing to say to individuals who insist on the reasonableness of conflating reform with avodah zarah or (even) the Kotel plaza with the azarah.

  6. Bob Miller says:

    Religions other than Judaism have been trying to replace or impersonate us for the longest time.   Some of these have been promoted as Judaism and others not.  In their parallel universe, the fake must be revered and the real mocked and distorted.

    As for behavior at the Kotel, it’s not just that standard practice there is customary and traditional; it’s that it’s right.  If the standard practice anywhere in our zone of influence deviated from what the Torah dictates, it would be our job to correct it.

    “Exclusion” has now become a cuss word among those for whom anything goes.  We make valid distinctions and should be proud to do so.


  7. JR Gold says:

    There is a major fallacy in your comparison to non-orthodox attending an orthodox simcha.  In that case, the simcha “belongs” to the orthodox hosts, and proper behavior is for guests to adhere to the standards that the hosts have set.  The Orthodox may be by far the strongest regular presence at the Western Wall, but that does not provide them or any other group “ownership” or the right to set standards for others.  Standards must be set that are sensitive to the needs multiple groups, and that by definition requires compromise by all parties involved and the need to make peace with whatever inherent discomfort one may feel

    • Yoni2 says:

      I couldn’t agree more. The entire article is predicated on the assumption that the Kotel is “owned” by the Orthodox and therefore our standards of what is appropriate for a “the heightened and intense level of sanctity of that most special locus” are the standards that should be accepted by all.

      This is an argument doomed to polarise. The whole point of non-orthodoxy is that it isn’t orthodox! So expressions like “since time immemorial” are not exactly going to convince (irregardless of their accuracy).

      To be clear, I do think that the status quo should be upheld. I simply think that making arguments for it that simply don’t translate across the paradigm gap is a pointless exercise. The far better argument comes later where AG points out that the alternative spaces provided are simply not used. This shows that the very attraction of the Kotel is tied to it’s authenticity (or ambience). Something that only orthodoxy can provide.

    • Rafael Quinoaface says:

      How can we sensitive to the heretodox when their entire way of praying publicly involves a violation of halacha (mixed, no distinctions between sexes during prayers)? This is not “mere discomfort” if allowing this mixed sex prayer area will prevent those who adhere to halachoh from davening at the Kosel. Further, the analogy may be off, but I would proffer a better one: a federation dinner where kosher food is served and birkas hamzon is recited. This is a public event that includes Orthodox attendees, or even if no frum Yidden are in attendance, kosher food is served to show that even non-frum communities recognize that at public events, a nod to halachah and Jewish tradition is given.

      • mycroft says:

        Kosher food is served because Orthodox is part of Jewish community -it is a toleration of non predominant Jewish actions that cause Kosher food to be served.

  8. David Wilk says:

    Rabbi Gordimer writes:  “The very expectation that a strictly Orthodox prayer area since time immemorial should compromise its standards and enable on-site desecration of Halakha (Jewish law) in deference to the demands of those who do not respect Halakha is exceedingly hard to swallow.” While I agree that men and women should not pray together at the Kotel, please note that at one time they did. The following picture of men and women praying together at the Kotel was taken in 1910, not exactly, “time immemorial”:


    • Aaron Emet says:

      David Wilk, photos do not post in the comments section, but even without seeing it I can tell you that it lacks context. Ottoman and British colonial law didn’t allow changes in status quo. When Jews brought a mechitza to the kotel in the 1920s there were riots. Furthermore, these sort of photographs were almost always staged by the photographer for artistic purposes. 

      • Yoni2 says:

        “Ottoman and British colonial law didn’t allow changes in status quo”

        So was the status quo to have mixed prayer? If so that seems to bolster David’s point.

        Either way, as I note above, proving what was or wasn’t the case traditionally is hardly going to be a convincing argument to the self-professed non-orthodox camp.

      • Rafael Quinoaface says:

        They weren’t davening with a minyan. There was no tefillah b’tzibbur since there was no mechitzah, so its irrelevant whether there was a mechitzah. Now that multiple minyanim, tefillah b’tzibbur and devarim shebekedusah occur there, a mechitzah is required. This is very simple explanation as to why Jews of the Yishuv Yoshon and Sefaradim were praying without a mechitzah.

      • David Wilk says:

        I thank all those commented on my remarks. Similar to what Rafael pointed out, I am indebted to my son, Rabbi Israel Wilk of Jerusalem, who assured me that had there been public prayer in those days, the women would have simply left the area to allow the men  to perform the service in accordance with  Jewish tradition.

  9. Raymond says:

    Usually, the issues on this website provoke my interest in a kind of mild, pleasant sort of way, enabling me to write my reactions in a relatively calm and measured manner.  I have to say, though, that on this issue, I am finding it difficult to control what I suppose is a feeling of righteous indignation on my part.  See, it is one thing for Leftist Jews to go about their business spouting their nonsense elsewhere, but to try to impose their utter ignorance right at the holiest spot in the whole world for us Jews, is nothing short of outrageous and, yes, heretical.  Is there no place sacred enough to leave politics behind?  Can’t there be even one place on this Earth where the Torah way of life is allowed to prevail?  It is bad enough that the Temple Mount itself is essentially controlled by our islamoNazi enemies, but what an adding of insult to injury it is to have Leftist Jews try to interfere with the sanctity of the Western Wall and all that surrounds it.  If we traditional Jews control neither the Temple Mount nor the Western Wall, then I seriously question whether we Jews really have Israel back in our hands, or if it is all just an illusion.  I am particularly disappointed that a couple of Rabbis whom I admire, namely Rabbi Nathan Cardozo and Rabbi Marc Angel, has come out in favor of the Leftist position on this most aggravating issue.

    • dr. bill says:

      i suggest you read kol dodi dofek; you will gain insight about why one must be very thankful for Israel even before the events of 1967.

      • Mycroft says:

        Of course even after 1967 the Rav was clear that he would give up the Kotel to save one life.

  10. Alex says:

    One has to wonder why non-Orthodox movements still insist on reading from kosher sifrei Torah written by qualified scribes on klaf. (Have to assume there are are not enough non-Orthodox scribes out there to satisfy the demand). Seems it would be much less expensive (and PC animal-friendly!) to just use a xerox copy.

    Just as they implicitly recognize what is an authentic sefer Torah, they should also recognize what is authentic Jewish practice at the holiest spot for the Jewish people.

    • Rafael Quinoaface says:

      They have no issue with women writing Sifrei Torah and other sifrei kodesh so they may be, in all likelihood, reading from non-kosher Sifrei Torah, while providing these women with a livelihood. 🙂

    • Bob Miller says:

      Their consumer fraud needs to look a bit like the real thing in order to con the public.

  11. Mark says:

    You have not explained why it is more holy than the Churvah Synagogue, or even Robinson’s Arch, if they both have the Din of an Orthodox Beis HaKnesses.

    It doesn’t need to be holier – it is as if the Reform would enter any Orthodox shul and insist on conducting their own service. It happens to be that it is holier, because the Shechinah has never moved from there.

  12. Mark says:

    mycroft, precisely. i have nothing to say to individuals who insist on the reasonableness of conflating reform with avodah zarah or (even) the Kotel plaza with the azarah.

    In other words, you have no reasonable answer. The Orthodox get to intolerantly stake out “their” territory whenever some line of outrage gets crossed, and Dr. Bill gets exclusive rights to decide what it is. But if people get outraged over Reform (=worse than Avodah Zarah) conducting services in the holiest shul in the world, and wield their political clout to do something about it, they’re just being unreasonably intolerant.

    Words like “blatant inconsistency” come to mind, but they neither do the matter justice, nor get to the core of the issue, which is this: Those Orthodox who support the heterodox obviously think it’s not so bad to be Reform. Likely, it’s because these “Orthodox” (yes, its time for the quotation marks) groups realize that, if they aren’t yet Reform themselves, the day is not far off when they will be.

  13. mavin says:

    Reform judaism is not Judaism.  Their rabbis are not rabbis.  They are cultists and most importantly, they have an agenda which is part of the global one to deJudaize Israel.  This is all part of a bigger agenda which goes even  beyond just this (i.e. with these new phony ‘orthodox’ ridiculous movements, etc.) threatening to disassociate themselves from Israel.  Just proves that their souls are not Jewish because they have already disassociated themselves from every aspect of Torah.  So all this rhetoric and the  many  ignorant comments about women  not having enough space, etc. is all garbage.  According to Halacha, the men are the ones  who have the responsibility of mitzvot of praying  three times daily, etc.  The women who are  observant and sincere and come to pray when they need to have been and are satisfied with the area given them.  That’s because they are knowledgable  of Torah.   We are Jews because  of our Torah and as Jews, we are one with G-D, Torah and the Land of Israel.   If we  separate ourselves  even from one of the  above, then we no longer have any understanding of what being a Jew is.  It is only these political hacks and their followers who have brought these false claims,  etc. but yet do not pray nor know how,  nor do they believe in  G-D, Torah or know anything  about Judaism.  These false claims are  a farce and they are fooling only themselves and, unfortunately,  other ignorant Jews worldwide.  They will, of course,  fail!

  14. MARC HESS says:

    So, per R. Gordimer, the Kotel is equivalent to a Lakewood wedding hall that he rents for a simcha and those Jews who don’t believe as he does must be content with merely shuffling along with their heads down and perhaps getting a few leftover pieces of herring?  No one can accuse him of low self-esteem.

    Since he introduced the subject I’d be curious to know how he behaves when invited by his non-Orthodox relatives to attend their simchas … let us say a bat mitzvah at a Conservative or Reform synagogue.   Does he dictate stringent conditions for the happy family to be allowed to experience the privilege of his own attendance or do they already know that he would never lower himself to share their joy with them?

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