Israel has the largest concentration of Orthodox Jews in the world, and they are the keepers of the faith. Judaism in Israel is defined by the Chief Rabbinate, a governmental office always occupied by two Orthodox rabbis: one Ashkenazic (of the European Jewish tradition) and one Sephardic (of the Mediterranean tradition)--and adjudicated by the Orthodox Rabbinic courts, also incorporated into the government. These official bodies don't recognize alternative visions, like the Reform and Conservative Judaism we have in the United States.
Most people in the street don't either. Even adamantly secular Israelis look to Orthodoxy for lifecycle events like weddings and funerals. More than 40 percent of those who call themselves "non-religious" keep kosher. For most, Orthodoxy and Judaism are synonymous, and the idea of other Jewish traditions and communities is unfamiliar if not entirely baffling. As a consequence, the word "religious" is a loaded term. To be religious is to adhere to the strictures of Orthodoxy and its understanding of the 613 commandments in the Torah-and, usually, to right-of-center political views. I don't adhere to either. I don't follow the dietary laws of kashrut, or structure my day around the three daily prayer services. I attend services on Friday nights with my wife, observe Shabbat each week (though not as formally as many others do), and attempt to live my life and make decisions in accordance with the values that I have learned from Jewish tradition.
So when asked-as I am constantly since moving here last summer--"Are you religious?" I never know how to answer. To say simply, "Yes" would misrepresent my faith, my politics and my daily life. To answer in the negative would sell short Judaism's role in my life, and perpetuate the false dichotomy of religious and secular that pervades Israeli society.
Ironically, this dichotomy has now shown itself in a debate over the very symbol that is common to all Jews--the Kotel, known more widely as the Western Wall and often called Judaism's holiest place.
The plaza in front of the wall is a true public square-a meeting place and a thoroughfare, where tourists and Israelis, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, soldiers and civilians, men, women and children all mingle. But since Israel gained control of Jerusalem's Old City in 1967, the Kotel has been governed as a religious site. The Kotel has its own Chief Rabbi (Orthodox, of course), and men and women have separate prayer areas, as in an Orthodox synagogue.
In recent years, the Kotel's chief rabbi has pressured the government office that administers the Kotel to be more stringent about the Orthodox ritual rules a visitor must follow--even barring male and female members of the Israeli Defense Forces from singing together at induction ceremonies held in the plaza. At the chief rabbi's behest, the government recently extended the prayer area into the plaza behind it by an additional 6500 square feet, expanding the area where men and women are kept separate.
As the prayer area eats into the public plaza space, the Chief Rabbi's rigid rules spread with it. You don't need to be Jewish to pray at the wall-indeed, every-day tourists from many countries and religious traditions visit the Kotel-but you must meet Orthodox requirements for dress, and members of the opposite sex must pray separately. Even some Orthodox are disallowed from following their own prayer practices. Women of the Wall are a group of modern and innovative women who want to pray together in ritual garments. They consider their desires to be in keeping with Orthodox law; the Chief Rabbinate, along with many of the ultra-Orthodox who pray regularly at the Kotel disagree. Consequently, the Women of the Wall have faced epithets and hurled objects when they have met to pray in the women's prayer area at the Kotel.
Non-Orthodox Jews--the mostly foreign Reform and Conservative groups--and even some homegrown Orthodox ones say the Wall should "belong to us all." When a member of a contingent of American Conservative rabbis held up a banner at the wall saying so recently, Israeli police descended on him and tore the banner up. Twice since 2000, Conservative Jews have sued to prevent the extension of the prayer area. Now, however, the construction is nearly finished and appears to be a fait accompli.
Petitions from Women of the Wall and other groups, including the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism, have prompted the Israeli Supreme Court to order the construction of a small prayer area (less than 400 square feet) below Robinson's Arch as a compromise. This alternate prayer area-on the far side of a large earthen ramp from the main Kotel plaza, with no clear sightline to the plaza or the main area of the Kotel-will accommodate those who want to pray in non-Orthodox ways.