L.A. rabbis urge calm at Kotel

Rabbi Laura Geller, a spiritual leader at the Reform Temple Emanuel Beverly Hills, knows firsthand about the restrictions on non-Orthodox Jewish women’s prayer at the Western Wall.

In December 2012, as she was entering the women’s section, a security guard confiscated her tallit (prayer shawl), telling her the Orthodox rabbi with authority over the Wall and its plaza had prohibited women from wearing such garments there. 

Women of the Wall has been praying at the holy site for decades; last month, the group’s members — who, thanks to a court order, were allowed to wear prayer shawls and teffilin (phylacteries) and had police protection — were met by thousands of Charedi Israelis who attempted to halt their service, at times violently.

[Related: Respect, inclusion and tolerance at the Wall: An open letter from Los Angeles rabbis]

The Jewish calendar month of Tammuz begins this weekend, and the group Geller was with in December, Women of the Wall, is set to hold its monthly prayer service on Sunday, June 9. 

But Geller, who in December wrote in the Huffington Post that “the only approach left [for the women] is to battle,” this time sent a very different message. Together with 10 local rabbis — including four Orthodox spiritual leaders — Geller signed a letter urging “gentleness” from both sides.

Keep the peace at the Western Wall, the diverse group of rabbis wrote in an open letter published on June 6, and support Natan Sharansky’s proposed compromise for the holy site’s future.

The rabbinic group, the Task Force on Jewish Unity, includes local rabbis from across the denominational spectrum. David Siegel, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, established the group last year, in the wake of the much-publicized arrest of Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of Women of the Wall. The hope, Siegel said, was that the group could model for leaders in Israel and in other American cities how religious leaders could engage civilly with one another, even on issues where they fundamentally disagree.

Many of those rabbis participated in a meeting with Sharansky in Los Angeles last week. The former refusenik is now chairman of the Jewish Agency, and he has proposed a compromise that would convert a less well-trafficked section of the wall into a new area for non-Orthodox prayer. In their letter, the L.A. rabbis convened by Siegel came out strongly in support of Sharansky’s effort, despite its not being fully fleshed out. 

But the primary message contained in the 828-word letter was for everyone to stay calm.

“The eyes of the world are on Israel,” said Rabbi David Wolpe of the Conservative Sinai Temple, who was among the rabbis who signed the letter. “And so it matters how different branches of Judaism are able to hear one another.”

“We know the Temple was destroyed close to 2,000 years ago because of division and hatred,” said Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue in Beverly Hills, who also signed. “If anything the Kotel [the Western Wall] should remind us that we need to come together with respect for each other.”

“We want peace, we want people to act appropriately,” Young Israel of Century City’s Rabbi Elazar Muskin said. “That’s the real purpose of this statement. We want people to act appropriately, on both sides of this argument.”

But beyond the broad blanket statements about Jewish unity, the divisions between the rabbis who signed the letter remain as perceptible as ever.

Asked whether Women of the Wall’s plan to read from the Torah at the kotel on Sunday would constitute “appropriate” behavior, Muskin, who is also Orthodox, called it a provocation.

“You should allow for the compromise to occur,” he said, “that would be my recommendation to them. If you want a compromise, then you work with the compromise. If you don't want a compromise, then you provoke.”

And Geller, for her part, said she is looking forward to going back to the Kotel — this time with a tallit. “There’s absolutely no halachic reason why a woman can’t be wearing a tallit at the Kotel, or anywhere.” 

Of course, the ability of these Southern California rabbis to disagree civilly is kind of the point of the whole effort. 

Among Jews, “there are profound theological differences many of which are irreconcilable,” said Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, a Chabad rabbi in Orange County who did not sign the letter. “At the same time, we share a common destiny and we need to respect the spiritual quest of every single individual.”

It’s not clear that either side in the dispute is entirely on board with the compromise proposed by Sharansky. Still, the Israeli government is clearly devoting significant resources and energy to pushing it through.

“We have been as proactive as we can on this issue because we believe that it’s very important, both politically and morally, for us to do this,” Siegel said. “Our foreign ministry and the government of Israel are taking this very seriously from the prime minister down.” 

About the compromise itself, Siegel sounded hopeful.

“Maybe not everyone gets everything they wanted,” he said. “But there’s enough there for Charedim, for Orthodox, for Reform, for Conservative, and even for Women of the Wall.”

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