Bayit Yehudi party leader Minister Naftali Bennett is working to redefine the “local custom” regarding tefilos at the Kosel. Bennett is reacting to the recent Jerusalem District Court decision by Justice Moshe Sobel in which the court stated that the women of the Women of the Wall (WoW) organization was not in violation of the Supreme Court decision’s definition of the “local custom” vis-à-vis tefilos at the holy site when the women wear tallis, tefilin and read from a Sefer Torah. Sobel’s decision cleared the way for the WoW holding legal prayer services on Rosh Chodesh Sivan 5773 after they have attempted to do so every month for decades.
Bennett reportedly plans to instruct the Ministry of Religious Affairs to redefine “local custom” to exclude the women in tallis and tefilin, hoping to render Sobel’s verdict irrelevant.
Not willing to sit back as a silent observer, Justice Minister (The Movement) Tzipi Livni announced that Bennett lacks the authority for such a move, which must have her signature to achieve legal status.
In his response to Livni’s remarks, Bennett states he did not receive the letter from Livni in which she instructs him to refrain from making any changes to the Kosel status quo. Channel 2 reported Livni sent him the letter.
Bennett continues, calling the WoW efforts to hold their prayer service “an unnecessary provocation”. He admits it is a “Very charged situation” and makes reference to Jewish Agency for Israel Director Natan Sharansky’s planned introduction of a third tefilla area, for egalitarian services.
Bennett adds the Sharansky compromise is acceptable to everyone, but it will take a year to build the egalitarian area, located in the more southern area of the Kosel Plaza. Bennett feels that during the interim period the WoW women would refrain from wearing tallis and tefilin in the ezras noshim of the Kosel, but the Jerusalem District Court handed down the ruling that preempted the egalitarian solution.
Bennett adds that as the nation’s minister of religious services he has a number of options, including not responding. However, he feels this will lead to monthly conflict surrounding the WoW women. Alternatively, he can amend the regulations to prohibit their prayers and restore the status to prior to the district court’s decision. “However, I have will take a third option, an attempt towards compromise. I have held more than a few talks with the sides involved and I have a reason to believe I will succeed in reaching a compromise. I hope not to have to implement regulations. In the coming days, I hope a compromise will be reached.”
Bennett points out that this marks the first time a minister of religious affairs is speaking with the WoW women, and “then came Tzipi Livni and told the media that she will not permit me to make changes in the regulations. This of course undermines my efforts towards a compromise. The threat of amending the regulations regarding the definition of “local custom” was my leverage to compel the sides to reach an agreement”.
(It should be pointed out that Livni is correct and if her office does not approve new regulations, they will lack legal status. When Bennett speaks of “the sides” he refers to WoW and the state agency overseeing the nation’s holy sites, and Rav Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the state appointed rav of those holy sites).
Bennett told the media that Livni did not bother to contact him or speak with him, but just released her statement to the media.
Bennett shifts to the offensive, adding “Like an elephant in a china shop she damaged ongoing efforts towards compromise. As I said earlier, the so-called letter that she gave me I never received. She did it all for a newspaper headline. What a shame. This is not how the State of Israel should be run. I hope she manages negotiations with the PA (Palestinian Authority) in a more serious fashion with the spins.”
(YWN – Israel Desk, Jerusalem)