The Western Wall: Do Objects Contain Holiness?

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz
October 25, 2013
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I have always felt something exceptional at the Kotel (western wall), but I have generally had to work to achieve that feeling and it remains unpredictable. There is something holy that I cannot yet fully grasp about that place in the heart of Jerusalem. It may seem counterintuitive to think that our religion (consumed with the heart, mind, and soul) could find holiness in objects or places, but Jewish law is unequivocal in the proposition that there are, in fact, holy objects and places.

My profound teacher Rabbi Natan Lopes Cardozo explains a Jewish approach to defining the holy:

Like love and beauty, we can only really tell what it is when we experience it. While the Torah itself fails to give us a definition, we could perhaps make the following suggestion:  Holiness is that which a person experiences when he or she lets G-d into their thoughts, feelings, and actions. The experience is ineffable but highly recognizable for those who undergo it. A powerful encounter with the Creator.  It leads to an internal transformation that brings with it both elation and elevation.

What is holy about the Kotel, to me, is that millions of people for thousands of years have poured their spiritual energy upon those rocks. Millions of people for thousands of years have worshipped, prayed, thought, cried, sung, celebrated, commemorated, mourned, dreamed, placed notes of prayer, made pilgrimage, and emptied their souls and spiritual energy upon the Kotel. That energy can be accessed today. All spiritual energy is Divine and so it’s really a collective multi-generational human energy that has morphed into a transformational Divine energy.

We do not worship the stones themselves, for that would be idolatry. But we may embrace (from a panentheistic perspective) that there is Divinity within the rocks themselves. Our human nature craves a connection to the physical world and religion cannot ignore that craving. Spirituality can be most powerful when our connection to the spiritual world is channeled through physicality. One might even suggest that the soul is accessed through the brain.

We can access some of the most powerful collective aspirations, dreams, prayers, and hopes at places where people have cried from their heart to move the “heart of G-d.” Holiness is about connecting above but also below. The great philosopher Emmanuel Levinas took the vertical theology (looking up) and made it horizontal (where embracing the Other includes, in its deepest sense, embracing the other). Levinas writes: “Holiness represents the moment at which, in the human…the concern for the other breaches concern for the self.”

The Kotel has survived the Roman Empire and many succeeding dynasties that sought to degrade it, in a profound misunderstanding of what the holy is. Professor Moshe Halbertal has argued that the holy is that which cannot be instrumentalized (i.e., used for political gain), rather the holy is good for its own sake. The Kotel cannot be used for political gain either by the ultra-Orthodox or by the activists-feminists. When both see that it is not only G-d that we honor but the dignity of the other, we will reach agreement. People access spirituality very differently, and gender has a major role in spiritual energy. We should honor those different human needs to achieve something synergistic and more powerful than what we started with.

We may see a model for this potential outcome in philosophy. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel argued that thought can progress in a three-stage process: From thesis to antithesis and then, out of conflict, we create synthesis. One of his classic examples was that one may contemplate “being” and then “nothing” and ultimately can come to a place of “becoming.”  Karl Marx went further, suggesting that each stage of society creates the very forces that also destroy it. A new status quo emerges from clash and destruction.

So too, a new paradigm shift will come from all of the spiritual energy being poured upon the rocks of the Kotel. But the Wall will only remain holy if we honor the spark of Divinity in each person standing there with us and we honor the spark of Divinity in the place itself, while acknowledging the spiritual energy of all those who preceded us and all those who will surely follow us.

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Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek, and the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Insitute. Rav Shmuly completed his Masters at Yeshiva University in Jewish Philosophy, a Masters at Harvard in Moral Psychology and a Doctorate at Columbia in Epistemology and Moral Development. Rav Shmuly is the author of Jewish Ethics and Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century and his second book was Epistemic Development in Talmud Study.

1 Comment

  1. “Professor Moshe Halbertal has argued that the holy is that which cannot be instrumentalized”

    Did he really mean that it is forbidden to instrumentalize holy things? I can’t find a reference to confirm or deny my suspicions, but looking at that statement, the obvious interpretation would be that was is holy is good for its own sake rather than being good as a result of its function, not that what is holy cannot be used for any purpose. Am I forbidden then as well from deriving any benefit from the energy I start the new week with following my holy Shabbat rest? Are we forbidden from drawing inspiration from the holy Torah to help us with our everyday lives? Both of those examples involve instrumentalizing holy things, but it seems unlikely that the author would suggest that we forbid such uses.

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