Sitting in his office 20 feet above the Western Wall Plaza, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz is unperturbed by the simmering tensions below.
For years, Israeli and American Jewish groups have agitated for greater religious freedom at the Wall, which currently allows for only Orthodox worship. Occasionally the outrage boils over.
In October, Israeli police arrested Anat Hoffman, the chairperson of Women of the Wall, a group that organizes monthly women's services at the holy site, for wearing a tallit, or prayer shawl.
As the chief rabbi of the Kotel, as the Western Wall is known in Hebrew, and chair of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the government funded non-profit that governs the wall, Rabinowitz has sole authority to accommodate liberal Jewish practices.
But as a haredi Orthodox rabbi, Rabinowitz refuses to abide any deviation from traditional Jewish law, which prohibits women from singing aloud, reading the Torah and wearing a tallit at the Kotel. Violations are punishable by up to six months in prison or a fine of about $125.
“The decisions are mine,” Rabinowitz said. “If everyone does their own custom, the house will explode.”
Rabinowitz is a political appointee, named to his post in 2000 by then-Minister of Religious Affairs Yossi Beilin. His authority stems from a 1981 law that gives the Kotel’s chief rabbi power to “give instructions and ensure the enforcement of restrictions.” The law also establishes that any prayer at the Kotel must be according to “local custom.”
Who determines local custom? Rabinowitz.
Rabinowitz further exercises authority through the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. Founded in 1988 to promote tourism and support the Kotel’s physical upkeep, the foundation is now a government subsidiary, given full authority over the Kotel's administration in 2004. Last year it received nearly $8.5 million in government funds, the bulk of its budget. The foundation's 15-member board includes no non-Orthodox representatives and steadfastly has resisted attempts to legalize non-Orthodox worship.
“The body which has been given the keys of the Kotel by the Israeli government is a non-democratic, non-elected body,” said Lesley Sachs, Women of the Wall’s director. “It’s not a body that gives any kind of representation to world Jewry or Israeli Jewry. They have turned [the Kotel] into a haredi synagogue.”
Critics charge that Rabinowitz has carte blanche to do what he likes, but the rabbi insists he doesn't “change things.” He merely applies millennia-old Jewish laws.
“This is the order that’s been there for 45 years,” he said, referring to the period since 1967, when Israel conquered the Kotel from Jordanian control.
Prior to Israeli control, things were different. Photos from the British Mandate period show worshipers praying at the wall without a mechitzah, the religious divider that slices the plaza into separate sections for men and women. But Rabinowitz says the photos are meaningless, since the wall wasn't under Jewish sovereignty at the time.
“They couldn’t read Torah or blow the shofar,” he said. “They could hardly pray there. The British did terrible things. You want to go back to that? The British didn’t establish local custom.”
Rabinowitz calls the Kotel “the biggest synagogue in the world,” and it's almost certainly the busiest, with 8 million visitors annually. The courtyard of 22,000 square feet that abuts the Kotel hosts constant, simultaneous prayer groups, in addition to rows of people resting their foreheads on the ancient stones, yelling their prayers or placing notes in the Kotel’s cracks. In the women's section, which is about a third the size of the men’s, group prayer is much rarer because women are not allowed to sing out loud or read Torah.
“Praying at the Kotel is a disaster area,” said Rabbi Jay Karzen, who has been officiating at Kotel bar mitzvahs since 1985. “You’re going to have 20 to 30 simultaneous bar mitzvahs and everyone is doing their own thing.”
Despite its apparent chaos, though, the Kotel is a tight ship. “Organizational” ushers, working in teams of 10, patrol the plaza around the clock, stacking chairs, pushing mops across a shiny floor of Jerusalem stone and returning used prayer books to surprisingly orderly shelves. Although visitors come and go constantly, few books are stolen.
Enforcing the Kotel’s religious restrictions falls to “informational” ushers who sit on the men’s side near a box of yarmulkes for visitors who arrive without one. While religious laws on prayer and modest dress can be complex, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation has boiled them down to seven rules posted on a placard near the entrance. Karzen says disciplinary action is rare.
“People come there to do their own thing,” Karzen said. “Mostly people cooperate.”
The biggest exception may be Women of the Wall, which has met at the back of the women’s section at the beginning of every new Jewish month since 1988. Over the years, the group has faced arrest by the police and occasional harassment. So far, though, no one has succeeded in changing the 1981 law, despite several attempts.
Israel’s Supreme Court repeatedly has rejected Women of the Wall’s petitions for a change in local custom, most recently in 2003. In that ruling, the court suggested that the group pray at Robinson’s Arch, an area adjacent to the Kotel that is open to non-Orthodox prayer. The group rejected the option.
Now the Israel Religious Action Center, an advocacy group affiliated with the American Union for Reform Judaism, plans to petition the Supreme Court to mandate a change in the makeup of the foundation's board. While Rabinowitz would still hold ultimate Jewish legal authority over the Kotel, it is hoped that the board can provide a check on his power.
“They’re the ones with the budget,” said Einat Hurwitz, who heads the center's legal department. “The Kotel gets money from this group. If it becomes more pluralist, it will affect the separation between men and women.”
It’s unclear whether the latest effort will gain traction. Nitzan Horowitz, a parliamentarian from the left-wing Meretz party and chair of the Knesset’s religion and state lobby, believes the courts are not the most effective forum for change on this issue.
“There are things the courts can do and the media can do and protests can do, but the deciding factor in the end is a political decision,” Horowitz said.
Or a religious one, made by Rabinowitz. Sitting high above the Kotel, protected by law from his ideological adversaries, he sees Women of the Wall as more of a nuisance than a threat.
“It’s a group of women that yell and want to make an event,” he said. “There’s order. You can’t just do what you want.”