You may remember reading last month or so about a woman - Anat Hoffman - who was arrested for putting on a tallit at the Kotel (the Western Wall) in Jerusalem. It raised an outcry in the non-Orthodox Jewish community with calls for letter writing and other advocacy to promote equal access for women at the Kotel. Here is an exchange I had with the Embassy of Israel. The letter I wrote was suggested by the Rabbinical Assembly.
Dr. Michael B. Oren, Ambassador of Israel to the United States
Embassy of Israel
3514 International Dr. N.W.
Washington DC 20008
Dear Ambassador Oren:
We write as friends of Israel, but we write in sorrow.
Recent events in Israel, most notably those dealing with women at the Kotel, have dramatically highlighted the fact that in many ways non-Orthodox streams of Jewish life have less freedom and are less well treated in Israel than anywhere else in the free world.
As important as it is, and we most strongly support Women of the Wall in their efforts, the Kotel is not the ultimate issue. Across the board, our dedicated Masorti rabbis and lay leaders in Israel deal on a daily basis with State actions that are inimical to the free expression of religious beliefs.
The United States Government estimates that the Government of Israel spends upwards of $450 million a year in support of Jewish religious programs. We know that well less than 1% of that amount goes to Masorti and Reform combined. The Government of Israel pays the salaries of over 3,000 rabbis, all Orthodox. Fully halakhic weddings performed by Masorti rabbis in Israel are not recognized as legal by your government. We know that Masorti rabbis, converts and even brides on their wedding day have been blocked from using publicly funded mikvaot.
Unfortunately, the list could go on and on.
By permitting ultra-Orthodox extremists to control public life and block other caring and devoted Jews from fully realizing their spiritual quest, intentionally or not you send a message that Israel is not committed to democratic principles. This is a distortion of Jewish values and is destructive of the fabric of world Jewry. It has its greatest negative impact on our young people.
You and your government must deal with this before the problem escalates. It cannot be ignored, and you must understand that as staunchly as we support Israel, we will not let these matters pass.
Rabbi Jonah Layman - President, Washington Board of Rabbis
Thank you for writing to the Embassy of Israel.
The State of Israel affirms its commitment to upholding its democratic and pluralistic values and to ensuring freedom of religion on a daily basis. In this spirit, Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled on April 6, 2003, that space adjacent to the Western Wall should be specifically designated for the conduct of religious services that do not conform to long-established practice at the area known as the Kotel. In light of this ruling, the site or Robinson’s Arch, which adjoins the Western Wall and is along the same retaining wall of the Temple Mount above, was designated to host egalitarian services that encourage both men and women to wear tallit and read from the Torah.
While this arrangement does not fully satisfy each and every person’s demands, the profound sensitivity of the matter has made compromise an imperative. The current situation provides all Jews with an outlet for religious expression next to Judaism’s most sacred site.
It is vitally important to Israel that the status of the Western Wall be preserved as an iconic symbol of the Jewish people. As in any law-abiding country, violating the stipulations of the Court’s ruling constitutes an offence that is subject to law enforcement. In full accordance with the instruction of the High Court, we will continue to guarantee that all Jews are afforded the opportunity to assemble and pray in its vicinity.
Office of Public Affairs
Embassy of Israel
Is this satisfactory? You decide.