2016-07-27
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In America, a Jew like me-committed to Jewish tradition, active in my community and shaped by Jewish values-is considered a religious person, certainly by the broad mass of Americans and by most of my fellow Jews. But here in Israel, where I'm spending this year volunteering and studying, I am not, at least not by most standards, because I am not Orthodox.

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.

Like the main prayer areas, the alternate site will allow visitors to actually touch the Kotel and will have disability access. However, the Robinson's Arch area has limited access: if visitors don't coordinate their visits in advance, they have to pay the entry fee (about $6) to an archaeological garden to get to the arch. Nor can worshippers pray there on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath and holiest day of the week.

Still more changes that advance the Orthodox hold on the Kotel may be coming. Ha'aretz newspaper reported late last year that the government plans to transfer daily administration of the Kotel to a private, ultra-Orthodox foundation funded by supporters of Israel's political right-wing. Rabbi Gilad Kariv of the Israel Religious Action Center worries that privatization could lead to more stringent requirements for modest dress, Orthodox observance on Shabbat, or even a ban on the use of cameras near the Kotel. The Prime Minister's office did not respond to requests for comment on the plan.

Fundamentally, these disagreements over the Kotel go back to what it means to be "religious." The World Union of Progressive Judaism, the international arm of the Reform and Reconstructionist streams of Judaism, has tried to broaden the definition of Judaism, adopting the slogan "There is more than one way to be a Jew." The idea is obvious to those of us living in the diaspora, but it is odd, and even controversial, in the Jewish state.

Even the Hebrew language reinforces the destructive dichotomy. The Modern Hebrew word for secular (chilohnee) is built upon the same root as the biblical word for profane. This word, originally applied only to non-sanctified objects has been broadened in Modern Hebrew to encompass those Jews who do not observe Orthodox customs. The dichotomy in contemporary society is therefore tied to one of the oldest distinctions in Judaism.

To live in Israel is to live with many lines of demarcation. The Western Wall is one of the oldest. Built in Roman times as a retaining wall to support the large plaza built around the Temple, which stood on top of Mount Moriah, it separated Jerusalem's store-lined commercial district from the ritual center above. After the Muslim shrine of the Dome of the Rock and the sanctuary of the Al-Aqsa Mosque were finished in the first years of the 8th century, the Wall separated the Muslim Jerusalem from Jewish Jerusalem. To this day: the Wall is a major part of the line that divides the Old City's Jewish and Muslim quarters.

Today, the Wall has become a line of demarcation in another way. This time it divides Jews in prayer in the very place meant to unite them..

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