בס”דWhen the shnorrer approached me, I was in between laying my arm tefillin and my head tefillin. I was standing just below one of the large caper bushes that lives in the upper reaches of the Kotel. His hand flopped in front of my face, levered straight down from the elbow. He didn’t look at me. His eyes were cast at something about 45 degrees away from my head. He said, “tzedakah.” Not a question; a factual statement. He was manifestly bored.
I started to respond. I think I reached for my wallet. I spoke, and then cut my words short. The Ashekanzi halakha teaches that the time between the tefillin shel yad (arm tefillin) and the tefillin shel rosh (head tefillin) demands silence. Otherwise, the tefillin must be put on from scratch, and the first blessing is in vain.
One knows when one is seen as an object and not a subject. What I knew in that moment was that, to this man, my holiness was not holiness. That I was laying tefillin mattered not at all. That man severed the last of my illusions about the spiritual beneficence of the Kotel.
The Kotel is full of God’s power, but remarkably absent of God’s peace. It has been the prize possession of believers for millennia, but never, never has it been the place of holy reconciliation and love. The Kotel is pure gevurah. It has no patience for hesed. It is a fundamentally agenda-ed place.
Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Cohen taught me most of my Torah (though certainly not most of his). He argues in this month’s Sh’ma that because of the current agendas of the Kotel – to buttress Israeli nationalism (by one constituency) and Ultra-Orthodoxy (by quite another) – he cannot stand “with or behind Women of the Wall.” He says, “I am fearful of strengthening the nationalistic narratives that result from an unexamined attachment to the Wall, and of the damage to Judaism from the privileging of this place and this property above the concern for justice and peace.” Because of these concerns, I have heard other people advocate abandoning the wall as a place of privileged prayer. Some just refuse to pray there at all.
I don’t know what kind of student of Torah I would be if I agreed with my teacher,* but I am sorely tempted in this case. When I look at the Wall now, I see the cracks in its grandeur. It was built to be beautiful, and retains much of its majesty. That majesty, however, is now a tattered nobility. When I look at the Wall, I see its weeds.
Ultimately, though, I do think we have to privilege the Kotel over our other spiritual places, though not for any palliative effect on our souls (in our time, there is none to be had). The Wall is an accurate representation of our spiritual state; its holiness lies in being our religious reflection. The Western Wall is the most contested, most contentious religious place in the world. That contentiousness speaks a great deal of truth about our religious and political state of affairs. The social dynamics of the Kotel are the truth – just not one of which we’d ever be proud.
My instinct, when confronted by the kinds of things that go on at the Wall, is to disavow my connection with any of the people involved (with the exception of the Women of the Wall). To me, the forces at play around the Kotel (Ultra-Orthodoxy, hardcore Zionist nationalism, radical Islam) represent that from which I want to be most distant. I hate being near the world’s ugliness, especially when my family is enthusiastically contributing to it.
However, I know that my disavowal matters not a whit. To the contrary, my abdication of the Wall is small victory for the ids of our respective religions and denominations. When the dominant forces of a place see my viewpoint as illegitimate, they desire my absence. My claim to legitimacy necessitates my presence.
The Talmud in Brakhot** teaches in the name of R. Yitzhak bar Shmuel that God roars over the wall three times a night, saying “woe to Me that I destroyed My house, and burnt My palace, and exiled My children among the idolators.” If God remains angry over the Kotel, then I think we should as well. And we should not abandon it.
* Masekhet Shabbat 30b