In the famous story of the two women who come to King Solomon, each claiming to be the mother of a baby they are fighting over, the wisest of all men offers to cut the child in half with his sword and give each of the women an equal portion.
When one of the women protests bitterly, even offering that the other woman be given the child so that it may live, the king says, “This is the true mother.”
Clearly, he saw that her compassion and maternal love trumped her desire to raise the child herself.
The classic tale of deep wisdom and selflessness comes to mind as Natan Sharansky, the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, is set to propose to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an ambitious, historic compromise for dealing with women praying at the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism. His solution is not to divide the area for prayer but rather to double it, renovating the southwest side of the Wall so that in the end it will be the same size as the current traditional prayer area — one area will remain for traditional prayer, the other for egalitarian prayer. (See story on page 1.)
As Sharansky noted in an exclusive interview with The Jewish Week, the key to his solution is “one Western Wall for one Jewish people,” with full and open access to all.
Virtually everyone with an interest in the outcome of this difficult controversy — trying to square human and religious rights in a political framework — can find some aspect of the Sharansky plan that disappoints them. The Orthodox hope to maintain strict rules of observance at the Wall; liberal streams seek to allow women as well as men to worship as full participants in the service.
But if there is authenticity in the phrase Clal Yisrael, or Jewish unity, the religious streams and other groups and individuals will have to sacrifice the ideal for the good. That’s what compromise is all about. And judging from several high-level meetings and consultations Sharansky had here this week, discussing his proposal with Jewish communal and religious leaders from across the spectrum, there are signs that is happening. As the Union for Reform Judaism’s president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, told us, the proposal is not all the movement had hoped for but it “represents a dramatic step towards a State of Israel that respects and protects the rights of non-Orthodox Jews.” Noting that there are many important details to be worked out, he said he is hopeful that “we are moving towards a solution that would affirm the unity of the Jewish people and the many authentic ways to practice Judiasm.”
It is still a long way to go from a drawing-board rendition of the proposed plan to fruition, with political, economic and ideological challenges awaiting. But the proposal itself indicates the seriousness with which Israeli leaders are approaching this issue, recognizing that the future support of diaspora Jewry, particularly among the young, cannot be taken for granted. When the majority of American Jews see themselves as less than fully accepted religiously because of Orthodox control of personal freedoms in Israel — marriage, divorce, conversion, prayer and burial — that is a deep and serious concern. Establishing a place at the Western Wall for all Jews to pray as they wish would be a major step forward.
Credit should go to Netanyahu for appreciating the need to prevent the alienation of many American Jews and taking this issue on. And gratitude to Sharansky for pursuing a dignified compromise with a combination of doggedness, empathy and respect. Our hope is that leaders in both the diaspora and Israel can hold fast to the notion of One People in finding the path toward equal prayer for all at Judaism’s holiest site.