In 1974, as a first-year rabbinic student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, I joined several of my classmates who were going to the Kotel for Simchat Torah. What an opportunity, I thought, to rejoice with the Torah in Judaism’s most sacred place!
As we walked to the Kotel plaza, my classmates turned to the men’s side and I to the side designated for women. They were immediately drawn into the dancing and singing. The Torah scrolls were passed from man to man, and the dancing was joyful and raucous. The women’s side was quiet. Some women prayed silently, their hands touching the stones of the Wall. Others stood on chairs lined up against the mechitzah, to peer over the divider and watch the men dance. At some point, a few American girls, probably students, began to dance in a circle. I hesitated to join in, thinking that they were just dancing with each other; the real dancing that evening was with the Torah. I felt marginalized and excluded from the essential, meaningful activity associated with the festival.
That and other experiences — watching the mechitzah grow, the women’s section shrink, and the restrictions increase — have made the Kotel feel to me more like a place of exclusion than one of sanctity. When I would go to Israel with congregational and rabbinic groups, tour guides would often suggest we visit the Kotel for Kabbalat Shabbat, “to watch the yeshiva boys come down for prayers.” But that seemed akin to watching tribal rites in New Guinea or watching animals come to an oasis on safari.
Since then, I have experienced lovely services on the Kotel’s southern steps, a particularly
meaningful Tisha B’Av at Robinson’s Arch, and various visits with tourists to offer private prayers and deliver notes into the crevices of the Wall. The only time I felt that I could pray at the Kotel was when I joined Women of the Wall, and even then we were bombarded by objects and epithets, and we had to read Torah in another location.
What some consider the most sacred place for Jewish worship has, in my opinion, been transformed into an idolatrous shrine. Instead of venerating a sacred site, a small segment of the Jewish people has fetishized it. This segment has more regard for the stones than for the people, especially if those people are not Orthodox men. The place itself has become the object of their worship, rather than a special location in which to worship God.
I am saddened to share this reflection. I recall the elation when the Israelis recaptured the Wall in 1967. In 1972, when I first visited, I was excited to take in the Wall’s history and the stories contained in its stones — to think about the amazing legacy of tears and blood and triumph and song. I wanted to draw strength and tenacity from those stones. But instead, the stones have been spoiled; the ultra-Orthodox Jews who mean to protect them have transformed the stones into idols.
Women of the Wall has begun to restore the sanctity of the place for me, and I strongly support the right of all Jews to pray aloud and read Torah at the Kotel. But I still feel ambivalent. Exclusion frames any experience there and drowns out the sense of kedusha (holiness) for me. Given the choice when in Jerusalem, unless it is Rosh Chodesh, I pray elsewhere.