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.