What image comes to mind when I say “Judaism”? During a recent meeting with a group of American college students on a Birthright Israel trip, “the Western Wall” was their instantaneous response. More often than not, Israelis, both secular and religiously observant, give the same answer.
The power of the Kotel to unite Jews is so strong that it trumps even the splintering of Israeli society and the interdenominational disputes of the Diaspora. “The Divine Presence never leaves the Western Wall.” (Shmot Raba 22) This Divine presence hinges on a metaphysical concept, knesset Yisrael (the assembly of Israel), which views the entire Jewish people as one spiritual entity, manifest in separate people. (Kedushat Halevi)
For the past 1,700 years, Jews have chosen various spots along the Western Wall as the sites of prayer closest to the remains of the Holy Temple. The tradition of prayer here has always been what would be called Orthodox, since none other had existed in Israel until recent decades. The contention that the Kotel had never been an Orthodox synagogue, because it never had a mechitzah (divider) doesn’t take into account the Ottoman and later British ban on constructing a mechitzah or bringing Jewish symbols to the Kotel. In fact, when the otherwise secular prestate Zionist resistance movements wanted to affirm Jewish sovereignty at the Kotel, they did so by putting up a mechitzah.
However, this universal Jewish reverence for the Kotel is not shared by the leadership of the liberal movements. The Council of Progressive Rabbis in Israel (Reform) ruled in 1999 that the Kotel has no intrinsic sanctity. Likewise, Reform Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser, wrote, “[T]he Western Wall is as holy as the heart you bring to it, just like every other place.”1 Even Josh Margo, missions and events director at the World Council of Conservative Synagogues, who came out to support Women of the Wall during a recent Rosh Chodesh event, commented that the Kotel is “just a wall.”2
It is this gap between the feelings of the followers and the ideology of the leadership that enables Women of the Wall to manipulate the Kotel for a political agenda. WoW’s chairwoman, Anat Hoffman, has suggested that among the group’s objectives is to obtain Israeli government recognition for the liberal movements.3 When asked by an Israeli reporter a few weeks ago about her feelings for the Kotel, Hoffman called the site an “opportunity.”4
Though I may not agree with WoW’s political agenda, in a liberal democracy like Israel, any group is free to push for changes in government policy through the courts and the Knesset. However, exploiting a place held sacred by millions of Jews around the world and playing into these feelings without sharing them is simply unethical.
The Kotel is one of the few places of consensus in an otherwise splintered Israeli
society. It bolsters the Jewish identity of swaths of Diaspora Jews who have little or no Jewish knowledge and affiliation. Turning this site into a battlefield transforms the Wall from a powerful magnet into a place of contention.
The Kotel is a spiritual home and a place of worship to hundreds of thousands of Jewish women who come to pray near its stones every day of the year, the vast majority of whom revere the ancient traditions of the place. It would behoove a “women’s rights” group such as WoW, with less than 300 regular worshippers, to consider the desires and needs of the women who are regular denizens of the Wall. Yet, rather than respecting the traditions of these women, WoW presumes to “model to all Jewish women … that women can take control over their own religious lives].”5
Understanding the need for dialogue, in the past months our group has made attempts to initiate discussions with WoW, both directly and via third parties. WoW rejected our attempts at conversation, including one mediated by Gesher, an organization that aims to promote cooperation between Israel’s religious and non-religious streams.6
The Israeli Supreme Court put forth a compromise to allow WoW to pray undisturbed at Robinson’s Arch, a different section of the Western Wall. The fate of that plan — as well as the compromise brokered by Natan Sharansky — remains unclear.7
The Robinson’s Arch section of the Kotel is used by the groups interested in praying at the Kotel in non-traditional ways. Though the site needs some technical improvements, it is a worthy alternative, one that enables the women of Women of the Wall to pray as they wish without
upsetting the existing traditions of the Kotel or disturbing the overwhelming majority of worshippers. Considering the tiny size of WoW’s prayer group and the investments made for its sake until now, the Israeli government has been quite accommodating.
Women of the Wall and its leaders are passionate about their cause. But as the group works toward religious recognition, it is my fervent prayer that these women do not turn the Wall into another pile of stones for all of us.
1 See Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser’s blog of January 24, 2013 on reformjudaism.org.
2 See YouTube interview with Josh Margo, “Women at the Wall Rosh Chodesh Tammuz 5773.”
3 See YouTube interview with Anat Hoffman on BBC, published on Feb 12, 2013.
4 http://womenofthewall.org.il/2013/07/talking-to-the-wall/ paragraph 14
5 See Times of Israel, http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/why-wow-should-pray-together-with-haredi-women/
6 The organization Gesher approached me and Ronit Peskin, the other cofounder, with the request.
7 See “Rabbis-offer-plan-for-non-Orthodox- prayer-at-Wall” in JPost.com Dec 27, 2012.email print