The Art - and Challenge - of Compromise

In the wake of the historic decision of the Israeli cabinet to create an expansive egalitarian section at the Western Wall, a lot of soul-searching has ensued. Count me among those who celebrate this as a momentous event for Jewish pluralism in the State of Israel—even as I acknowledge the dismay of those who say too much has been compromised with the haredi authorities who rule the plaza.

Most Reform and Conservative leaders—and other advocates of equal rights for all the streams of Judaism in the Jewish State—consider this agreement to be a milestone after a quarter-century of advocacy by Women of the Wall and their supporters. Anat Hoffman, a tireless champion of human freedom who has so often been the face of this movement, considers it a “win.” 

And yet, there are some voices—especially advocates for Orthodox feminists who want the right to pray with Tallit, Tefillin, and Torah scrolls but not in mixed settings with men—who feel that they have lost too much in the deal. Some of their words are gut-wrenching, such as this critique from Vanessa Ochs.

So did we give away too much? In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 6b), Rabbi Shimon ben Menasya said, “There are times for compromise, and times for not compromising,” and every person who cares about Jewish pluralism in Israel will have to decide for herself or himself which sort of moment this was.

Compromise, by definition, always feels less-than-perfect. In a funny way, “compromise” is the exact opposite of “justice”—and we know the enormously high value that is given to justice in Jewish tradition. When you compromise, by definition you are sacrificing an important element of what is fair or what is deserved from your point of view. Whether or not the sacrifice is worth it is the question at the heart of the compromise’s value. 

Well known is the Jewish virtue of pursuing justice. But is compromise also a Jewish value?

The Talmud recognizes the tension. One Sage, Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yose Ha-G’lili, says that compromise (in matters of law) is forbidden; he cites Moses the lawgiver as his model for the administration of blind justice, in all its noble purity. Another Sage, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha, calls compromise a Mitzvah; his model is Moses’s brother Aaron, the consummate peacemaker.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha gets to the crux of the matter about why compromise lies at the heart of a civilized society—and why it’s sometimes so difficult:

It is a Mitzvah to compromise, as it is written:  Execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates (Zechariah 8:16). Anyplace where there is straight justice—there will be no peace; and anyplace where there is peace, there is no straight justice. So what is the justice that abides with peace?  We must say:  Compromise. (Sanhedrin 6b)

I, for one, can’t wait to see the implementation of the new egalitarian plaza at the Western Wall as it unfolds—and I can’t wait to stand side-by-side with any Jew who comes to pour out their heart in prayer. From my point of view, the prospect of egalitarian prayer-space at the Kotel—a space that is beautiful, spiritually exhilarating, and free from molestation or antagonism—is a win. And the compromise itself, although an element of it stings, is part of the grand challenge of Jews living side-by-side with one another in the world’s only Jewish State.