Unorthodox prayers draw Orthodox anger at Wailing Wall

CNN, February 1, 1999

Ultra-Orthodox Jews scream insults at male and female Reform rabbis gathered in prayer near the Western Wall
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Under a torrent of insults labeling them "Nazis" and "Haters of Israel," a group of male and female Reform rabbis challenged Orthodox tradition Monday by praying together at Judaism's holiest site.

The small congregation, primarily composed of liberal U.S. rabbis visiting Israel to meet officials and candidates ahead of the May 17 general election, held a 45-minute prayer service outside Jerusalem's Western Wall. Also called the Wailing Wall, it is the last remnant of the ancient Second Temple of Jerusalem.

According to Orthodox Jewish law, men and women are usually segregated and assigned separate sections when they pray before the Wall. For their service, the Reform Jews were placed in a special lot surrounded by metal barriers and Israeli police some distance from the shrine.

Orthodox hecklers waved their arms and jeered the Reform rabbis from behind police cordons.

"It's inconceivable that this small group, this cult, will come here and stir a riot in Israel," said Orthodox lawmaker Avraham Lazerson.

The Reform rabbis were primarily from the U.S.

Israel's Orthodox establishment refuses to recognize the rabbis of the Reform and Conservative movements, even though 90 percent of affiliated Jews in the United States -- home to the world's largest Jewish community -- belong to the two movements.

The two liberal groups do not have a large following in Israel, where the Orthodox maintain a tight hold over official religious institutions.

The religious differences between Reform and Orthodox Jews stem from their interpretation of the role of the Torah, the Jewish holy book. Orthodoxy regards it as derived from God and, therefore, literal, while Reform Jews see it as binding only in its ethical content.

Many ultra-Orthodox Jews regard Reform Jews as heretics.

Both Orthodox and Reform Jews see the latest flare-up as part of a larger struggle for the character of the state of the Jews

"The Reform movement is responsible for the loss of as many Jews to assimilation with non-Jews as were lost to the Jewish people through the Nazi holocaust," said Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, one of Israel's top rabbis. "I'm not making a comparison with the Nazis but in terms of numbers it's true."

The Reform rabbis expressed anger at the Orthodox reaction to their prayer service.

"The Western Wall is... not an ultra-Orthodox synagogue and we won't allow the ultra-Orthodox to take away from the Jewish people national shrines," said Ammiel Hirsch, a leading Reform rabbi who heads the delegation to Israel.

"I can't imagine being fearful of my life in Jerusalem," said Reform rabbi Janet Liss. "As a Jew in a place that is supposed to be open to everybody in the world -- everybody is welcome here except for Reform Jews."

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