Masortim oppose Arch prayer fee – And so should We

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It became a ritual, part of Shavuos morning in the Holy City. After learning all night, tens of thousands descended upon the Western Wall of the Holy Temple. The entire plaza was packed — Chassidim, Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Charedim, Datiim, all praying according to their own custom.

And then, into this sea of traditional Jewry dove a mixed group from the Masorti (Conservative) movement, mixing men and women in prayer in a manner foreign to Jewish tradition — indisputably for the last 2000 years, and, according to us, even before that. While the vast majority of the assembled ignored them, a small fraction would protest and jeer. A few, disgracefully, even threw pebbles to harrass the group, leading to comparisons with the aim-to-kill rock throwers of the Palestinian Intifada, and an annual PR blitz claiming that Conservative Judaism has no freedom of worship in the Holy Land.

As the Masortim eventually admitted, it was provocation more than prayer. When mixed tour groups pray each Friday night on the plaza, no one has a hostile word, because they are not there to send a message. The Conservatives were trying to say “this, too, is Jewish tradition,” and left it to the 30,000 others to figure out how to say “no, it’s not” in a reasonable way — knowing full well that some would fail.

Eventually, someone proposed a compromise: Robinson’s Arch, a site further down the Western Wall — I believe it is even closer to the Holy of Holies than the main plaza. It was never set up as a site for traditional, separate prayer under the supervision of Orthodox Rabbinic authorities, and therefore was an ideal location for “alternate forms of religious expression.”

Admirably, the Masortim agreed. They put prayer over politics, and established their goal as their own opportunity to pray by the Wall, rather than the imposition of their form of worship upon the traditionalists. They sacrificed the PR opportunities and political posturing in favor of prayer. Note, in this context, that the self-described “Women of the Wall” have steadfastly refused any alternative to the plaza itself.

It is in everyone’s best interests that efforts to pray at Robinson’s Arch be facilitated, not obstructed, in a country that values freedom of religion. So I am troubled to learn, from the Jerusalem Post, that a fee has been imposed upon anyone coming to pray at Robinson’s Arch since September 2004, unless they arrive between seven and eight AM.

The government’s position is that the majority of those visiting the Arch are coming to tour the archaeological digs, and perhaps they are right. When Rabbi Jonathan [corrected:] Andrew Sacks claims that there are as many as seven or eight minyanim there each day, the cynic within me points out that in Biblical history it is not Yonason, but Yosef, who is remembered as the dreamer of dreams. Even so, he has a point. It doesn’t matter if two people are affected — that is two too many.

The average tourist will not appear at the gates and falsely claim that s/he intends to pray — both honesty and lack of awareness of the prayer service work in that direction. An alternative might be “minyan cards” for regular attendees, issued by the movement and respected by the guards.

The JPost has it wrong when it claims that this compromise was achieved because “haredi worshippers attacked the Masorti group.” Given the state sanction of the plaza as a site for traditional worship, the Masortim were violating halacha, standards of conduct at any Holy place (would you wear shoes into a mosque, simply because Jewish prayer allows you to do so?), and Israeli civil law. The reminder from the Masortim that this is merely a “temporary” compromise is troubling as well. But it is the very access to Robinson’s Arch, refurbished at the cost of some $1 million to meet their needs, which helps ensure that the traditional services at the main plaza remain undisturbed.

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10 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    Nachum said,
    “I think we all make a big mistake, both practically (as in Bob Miller’s comment) and hashkafically, by treating the Kotel as a shul. (And forgetting that the actual holy location is well overhead.) It wasn’t, really, until 1967. Robinson’s Arch certainly isn’t, and never was. Bob, the only way Orthodox authorities would have a say would be if they could keep a Conservative synagogue from opening anywhere. They can’t.”

    Rabbi Menken said,
    “Bob, I do not expect Jerusalem’s leading Rabbis to intervene in a dispute between Conservatives and the government.’

    These quotes reflect a misunderstanding, so I’ll try to clarify my idea as follows:

    Jews (the “we” in my earlier post) should seek the recommendations of the Orthodox rabbinic authorities on the scene in Yerushalayim before advocating a government course of action that affects Yerushalayim.

  2. Yaakov Menken says:

    My apologies for using the name of the Chief Rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sacks. The Conservative Rabbi is indeed Andrew Sacks as commented.

    But the line was funny anyway. :)

    Bob, I do not expect Jerusalem’s leading Rabbis to intervene in a dispute between Conservatives and the government.

  3. Nachum says:

    It’s Rabbi Andrew Sacks, not Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

    I think we all make a big mistake, both practically (as in Bob Miller’s comment) and hashkafically, by treating the Kotel as a shul. (And forgetting that the actual holy location is well overhead.) It wasn’t, really, until 1967. Robinson’s Arch certainly isn’t, and never was. Bob, the only way Orthodox authorities would have a say would be if they could keep a Conservative synagogue from opening anywhere. They can’t.

  4. mb says:

    R.Menken

    The spokesperson for Masorti is R.Andrew( Andy) Sacks. Not Jonathan

  5. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Pirkey Avot says that a divison that is for the sake of heavens will endure, whereas one that isn’t won’t (5:16)

    ה,טז [יז] כל מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמיים, סופה להתקיים; ושאינה לשם שמיים, אין סופה להתקיים. איזו היא מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמיים, זו מחלוקת הלל ושמאי; ושאינה לשם שמיים, זו מחלוקת קורח ועדתו

    How long does a division need to exist before we should consider the other side as doing it for the sake of heaven (meaning they are well meaning, even if wrong)?

  6. Nachum says:

    Also, we shouldn’t let a mention of Robinson’s Arch pass without mentioning the pasuk that we will read in the Haftorah tomorrow that a Jew carved on the wall there about 1500 years ago: “U’Reisem V’Sas Libchem, V’Atzmoseichem KaDesheh Tifrachna…”

  7. Nachum says:

    As it happens, Robinson’s Arch is much further from the site of the Kodesh HaKadashim than the Kotel is. And, of course, the Kotel itself isn’t all that close.

  8. Bob Miller says:

    So, if I understand this correctly, the Masortim/Conservatives found it expedient for the time being to retreat to a new prayer location by the Western Wall, but have had to pay admission there because it is an archeological site. And we’re supposed to want them to win free admission there so they won’t resume their interruptions of our own prayers at the original location.

    Before we attempt to influence policy, let’s find out what the leading Orthodox rabbis in Yerushalayim recommend. As regards halachic authority we talk the talk; now let’s walk the walk.

  9. David Gerstman says:

    Robinson’s Arch is to the right or south. The place that’s said to be opposite the Kodesh Hakadashim is to the north.

  1. February 26, 2007

    […] Most of the article, thankfully, is far more acceptable. It was written primarily to tell us that the Government of Israel and the Masorti (Conservative) movement are no longer at odds. The Masortim had been given a space to pray at the Robinson’s Arch area, so as not to disturb the traditional, separate-gender services in the main plaza. Yet because the Arch is also an archaeological garden, Israel’s bureaucrats, in their great wisdom, imposed a substantial fee upon anyone appearing after 8 a.m. regardless if they were coming to pray or look at the site. [Telling the mispallelim that “you can only look up, not down” wasn’t an option.] This was incredibly unfair, especially as the Masortim had, as Rubin writes, “agreed to give up legal challenges of the right to pray as they saw fit in the Western Wall plaza’s main section.” Astute readers might remember that I chimed in on the side of the Conservatives on this one. “With the new pact, Conservative Jews can enter daily sans fee until 10:30 a.m., and on Shabbat evening and on holidays to daven.” […]