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The Kotel Controversy: Like Hillel and Shammai, All Voices Must be Heard

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The events of the past week have left me speechless.  I am reminded of the ascension of Hananya ben Hizkiahu ben Garon 2000 years ago. In his day, there were a series of disagreements between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel that went unresolved, until one day Beit Shammai prevailed in many of them. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, Shammai prevailed by using of swords and spears [without proper protocol allowing minority opinions to be heard]. Once Shammai had assured a majority, he passed 18 laws that were particularly controversial. It is written in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 17a) that on this day: “They thrust a sword into the Beit Midrash… Whoever entered entered, and those who wished to leave could not leave. On that same day Hillel was stooped—sitting before Shammai as if he was one of his students. It was as disastrous a day for the Jewish people as the day the golden calf was made.”

Why, according to the Talmud, was that day a disaster? Was it because of the decisions that were made and the laws that were passed?  Probably not. The truth is that most of these rulings still hold today. The day was disastrous because of the overturning of legal process, because of a refusal to allow all opinions to be heard, because of the use of power and secrecy in order to decide on rulings.

I mention this story because one of most fascinating and frightening things about the Kotel decision this past Sunday is that it isn’t really clear what happened in the Government meeting.  We know that the topics of the Kotel and conversion were not on the day’s schedule. We know Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman voted to maintain the compromise. We know that Naftali Bennett, Minster of Diaspora Affairs, wasn’t present, and apparently, neither were many other ministers.

The Kotel and conversion laws deal with intense controversies that divide the Jewish people. Surveys, including one conducted by the Schechter Institute last month, say that most Jews in Israel are in favor of enabling everyone – women, men, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform – to pray equally in the Western Wall, without separation and without barriers. Thus, even if there are different stances within the government, they must debate these issues in the light of day and not in secret.  They must debate this issue not only when the dominant Haredi ultra-Orthodox voices are present, but also when those opposing Kotel restrictions are present.

The Kotel agreement that was canceled on Sunday was already a compromise.  The Reform and Conservative Movements had already ceded the right to pray in our egalitarian tradition at the main Western Wall plaza, the holiest site of the Jewish people. We agreed that if we were to pray there we would respect the separation between men and women, which is not our custom. We agreed because we understood that we are not alone in our desire to pray there.  In exchange, we received a site (Robinson’s Arch) that is also a remnant of the Temple Mount remains, where we can pray according to our beliefs.  It was promised that the site would be renovated, marked and made accessible so that anyone who prays at the Kotel would be able to choose where he or she wanted to pray- understanding that some people might choose both.

What was important in this compromise was its regard for all voices and opinions, and it tried to find a solution that worked for most of them.  It honored every man and woman connected to this issue.  It gave voice to the minority and made sure there was no exploitation. It sought, in accord with the commands of the Genesis, to achieve unity and respect for all Israel.

My hope is that the Prime Minister and the Minister of Diaspora Affairs will convene an orderly discussion on the matter in which every Minister’s voice will be heard, where the Ministers will listen to the chair of the Jewish Agency and the various representatives of each side. My hope is that what was agreed to after years of negotiations will not be summarily dismissed. Democracy is the rule of the majority but it also must give rights to the minority. An essential right of everyone is to have their voice heard, to be seen, accepted and recognized with the basic dignity that every person merits.  The way in which the government made the decision on Sunday is alienating and undignified. It is incumbent upon the government to make amends.

Perhaps we can learn from Shammai and Hillel who, in spite of their continual disagreements, still managed to compromise, as is written in Mishnah Yevamot: “Even though one would allow what the other would forbid and one would forbid what the other would allow, followers of Hillel would still marry followers of Shammai and vice versa.” That is to say, that even though the disagreements between Hillel and Shammai had implications for personal status, Shammai and Hillel still founds ways to build lives with one another.

A moment after we have marked 50 years of Jerusalem unification, it strikes me as important that we remember that there is no unified opinion among us. We have serious disagreements, and in spite of this, or perhaps because of it, we should still treat each other with dignity and respect.


Rabbi Avi Novis Deutsch is the Dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary.

Avi Novis-Deutsch is presently the Dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary. Ordained as a Masorti rabbi by the SRS in 2003, Rabbi  Novis-Deutsch also has an MA in Jewish Studies from JTS. He served for nine years as a pulpit rabbi at two Masorti congregations in Israel, most recently, at Haminyan Hamishpachti Masorti Kfar Veradim. Rabbi Novis-Deutsch also worked for two years as a Jewish educator in Berkeley and in the Bay Area, California.  He is married to Dr. Nurit Novis-Deutsch. They and their three children live on Kibbutz Hanaton.

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