Rabbi Shalom Cohen, President of the Council of Torah Sages (known as the “Moetzet”) which guides the Shas party, issued a stern warning Thursday to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu over recent concessions to the Reform Jewish movement.
“I will instruct my representatives to leave the government if an arrangement is not reached with regard to the Western Wall,” he proclaimed, according to the Kikar Hashabat haredi news website.
In what were described as “closed door conversations” held Thursday morning in his home in the Old City of Jerusalem, the rabbi strongly condemned the way the government has been handling the controversy over Reform Jews’ demands at the Western Wall.
The Reform Jews “are destroying the Jewish religion and harming all that we hold sacred,” he said. His confidants said that the rabbi “expressed shock and deep pain over what has been happening in recent days, and the ongoing controversy about recognition of the Reform movement.”
Unnamed sources in Shas were quoted as saying that “it appears that for the first time since the government was established about a year ago, there is a tangible threat to the Netanyahu government, which comes from the lips of the President of the Moetzet in a clear way, and threatens the wholeness of the Coalition.”
A developing crisis
The government voted in late January in favor of enlarging the non-Orthodox prayer area near Robinson’s arch and removing it from the control of the Chief Rabbinate.
Haredi ministers voted against the plan, but the parties initially did not torpedo the proposal outright nor create a coalition crisis over the issue, as even sources in the haredi parties agreed that this plan was the least of all evils. However, the haredi parties have come to regret the decision to allow the vote to succeed, apparently after receiving backlash from their voters, and the matter has turned into a crisis.
Another possible reason for the toughening of the haredi parties’ stance is that the Women of the Wall made clear immediately after the vote that they will continue to harass the Orthodox worshipers with their tefillin, tallit and Torah-reading antics, since they aim to force a change of the policy on public Torah readings in the women's section at the Western Wall Plaza.
Another bone of contention is the High Court decision to allow Reform conversion ceremonies to be held in public mikvaot (ritual baths).
Netanyahu is also being pressured by the Reform leaders, who warned last month against rescinding the decision to enlarge the Reform prayer space at the Western Wall. They indicated, however, that they were willing to compromise on the decision to allow Reform conversions at mikvaot.
According to their compromise, Reform converts would not use official mikvaot operated by the local religious councils.