JERUSALEM — From time to time, my Jewish friends explain something to me with the expression, “two Jews, three synagogues.” In matters both sacred and secular, they have no shortage of opinions, and they are usually vigorously expressed. It’s a half-joke, meaning it’s also half-serious. Today, many Israelis feel that while there are many Jews, there are too few synagogues.
The norms that regulate prayer and deportment at the Western Wall are set by its chief rabbi. The rabbinate of the Western Wall is controlled by the ultra-Orthodox and, over the past years, the regulations have become increasingly reflective of ultra-Orthodox practice. For the large majority of Jews, both in Israel and globally, who are not ultra-Orthodox, how they are permitted to pray at the Western Wall has become a priority both practical and symbolic.
On Monday, I was praying at the Western Wall while a group called Women of the Wall held a prayer service, as they do on the first day of each (lunar) month. They object to the ultra-Orthodox strictures imposed upon them there, including the space allocated to them and the prohibitions, both of which they violate, on praying aloud and wearing prayer shawls. On Monday, as in previous months, some women were arrested by Jerusalem police.
It was front-page news here, and the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has asked the chairman of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky, to recommend a solution. That a man of the stature of Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident, political prisoner and human rights champion, would be called upon is indicative of the issue’s importance.
The dispute at the Western Wall touches a deeper issue in Israeli society, highlighted by the results of the recent election. To what extent should Judaism in Israel be defined by the ultra-Orthodox? Israel desires to be a Jewish state, but for which kinds of Jews? There are many streams of Judaism, critics observe, but there is only one official synagogue, and it belongs to the minority ultra-Orthodox.
The dispute at the Western Wall is cast by the women and their supporters as one of basic religious freedom. It strikes them as madness that Jews could be arrested at the Western Wall for praying as they do at their synagogue in London or Los Angeles.
“Can it be that the only place in the Western world that Jews do not have religious freedom is at the Western Wall?” asks the star of the recent election, Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, winner of 19 seats in the Knesset.
Part of Lapid’s success in the campaign, in which the former television host made a major breakthrough leading a new party, was due to his tough line on the role of the ultra-
Orthodox in Israeli society. Most ultra-Orthodox, who make up 10% of the population but are growing rapidly due to their large families and the relative lack of secular Israeli births, take advantage of religious exemptions to avoid mandatory military service. Devoted instead to full-time Torah study, ultra-Orthodox men also do not participate in the labour force in large numbers, and are therefore supported by state subsidies and welfare. Lapid and many others want to end both the military exemption and the subsidies, thereby forcing the ultra-Orthodox to participate more fully in mainstream Israeli society.
The election changed the balance of power in the Knesset, where for the first time modern religious Jews outnumber the ultra-Orthodox members. The new Knesset will not only take up the military service question, but will influence the choice of Israel’s new chief rabbi. The chief rabbinate of the state of Israel regulates recognition of rabbis, conversions, marriage and divorce, and many secular and modern Orthodox Israelis resent that the chief rabbinate operates according to ultra-Orthodox principles. Tzohar, an association of rabbis that offers marriage services more open to secular Israelis than the chief rabbinate would permit, is proposing their chairman, Rabbi David Stav, as a candidate for chief rabbi. If he is chosen, it could be more consequential than the Knesset election itself.
Whether at the Western Wall, in the military or in the chief rabbinate, the question of how many synagogues there will be in Israel is front and centre. It is not for outsiders to advise on that question, but for those who care both for religious orthodoxy and religious pluralism, it bears close attention.