When headlines started pouring in about Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu rejecting the American Conservative and Reform communities by denying them a place to pray at the Kotel, I was upset. I didn’t quite understand the details in the compromise that was scrapped in the Knesset.
Years ago when the compromise was struck — a designated, egalitarian prayer section at the Kotel’s Southern Wall — I supported it. (Full disclosure: For me, this was a leap of openness. Others were and remain unhappy with this compromise. They felt that allegiance to centuries of traditional prayer was dishonored and that this was not a compromise but a capitulation.) At best, for anyone who clings to a path of strict Jewish tradition, the Southern Wall deal was a compromise.
The argument that Conservative and Reform Jews were unwelcome at the Kotel never resonated for me. Every Jew has always been welcome at the Kotel. No questions asked. No one monitors what someone’s observance or beliefs are, who they are praying to, nor for what.
In fact, many times I’ve been at the Kotel with people of other faiths, who were praying there peacefully. I stood in the women’s section, side by side with a nun in full regalia.
I understood that what didn’t resonate for me did not necessarily reflect other Jewish people’s experiences.
Still, in Temple times, there was a prescribed way to approach service of G-d. No one could approach the Temple on his or her own terms. There is an art to holiness. In a way, the Kotel represents that. Traditionally, Temple worship was never egalitarian. Only a subset of the tribe of Levi — the kohanim — were able to serve in ways most other Jews could not. And within the kohanim, only one person, and only once a year, was permitted to enter the one innermost sanctum of the Temple.
While the Kotel does not retain all of the Temple’s inherent holiness (it was the Temple’s outermost structure, and Jewish service of G-d always traveled in concentric circles of closeness, toward the center), services there approximate the Temple as much as possible.
So, while the egalitarian argument didn’t resonate for me personally, I felt for that for shalom bayit, you make compromises. Don’t human beings, fellow Jews, matter more than a wall, no matter how cherished? A Kotel of contentiousness becomes hollow, not hallowed.
But when I started reading more about this latest law that didn’t pass, I understood how misleading the headlines were.
No one is removing the Southern Wall egalitarian prayer section. The compromise remains in place. The place for egalitarian prayer at the Southern Wall is not changing (possibly, it’s being expanded). The status quo of Ezrat Yisrael remains. What was stymied was an effort to add autonomy in management, as well as to relocate its entrance.
Photos of a bygone time have been circulating of men and women standing at the Kotel, as if they prove past egalitarian prayer at the Kotel. However this wasn’t the case at all. Jews were under Ottoman and British rule in these photos. They did not enjoy religious freedom. They could hardly pray or worship as they liked without having their lives endangered. This was not egalitarianism by choice.
It makes me sad to see the Kotel, symbol of centuries of Jewish prayer, become a political pawn. Clearly this issue has yet again exposed the complexity of the Israel and Diaspora relationship. Which brings to mind Natan Alterman’s The New Pumpedita, a poem that speaks of the tension of having Judaism develop in different directions in different locales. The poem hints at the Reform Movement when it mentions Cincinnati, home to Hebrew Union College, and Reform luminary Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, who played an important role in the birth of the State of Israel.
There’s another photo that’s circulating — an old Reform siddur, or perhaps an item in the Pittsburgh Platform from the 1885, that reflected the Reform movement’s formal distancing from Israel, from the Temple and from Jerusalem. With respect to Israel and Jerusalem, much has change in the Reform community since the Pittsburgh Platform. I am very glad that the Reform movement has reconnected with our roots as a people, supports Israel with love and now even considers praying at the Kotel important and symbolic enough to lead to the current conundrum. But this photo reminds us that not everyone remained faithful guardians of Judaism’s tenets and holy sites, such as the Kotel, regardless of Western trends.
Meanwhile, the Ezrat Yisrael section at the Southern Wall mostly sits empty. That is more telling than anything. There is dissonance in petitioning for Ezrat Yisrael’s expansion when it is mostly empty.
The Israeli government’s political choices reflect Kotel realities.
If the Conservative and Reform communities want to see changes made at the Kotel, then tefillah needs to become a thrice daily commitment, organically flooding the Ezrat Yisrael daily with praying Jews.
That said, I admit that I have not been thrilled with some of the changes at the Kotel. It started when I was still living in Jerusalem. First the chain loops separating the Kotel from the plaza were replaced by an impenetrable wall. It felt like an unnecessary separation.
Then the separation of the women’s section was raised, requiring women to stand on chairs anytime there is a simcha, when they would like to see their child or relative or friend becoming Bar Mitzvah, for example. Slowly, the Kotel plaza took on a different character than what it had been for most of my life.
While change is inevitable, and thankfully, the Kotel still holds its holy transcendent pull, I wouldn’t mind seeing some leadership changes at the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.
Shavuot arrived a few days after the Old City was captured. On June 14, 1967, it seemed that almost every Jew had the same idea. Unplanned, a quarter of a million Jews walked the war-torn streets of Jerusalem to pray Shacharit services at daybreak at the Kotel.
The pull was magnetic. Intuitively, the meaning of the Kotel was understood. It was the place of centuries of prayer and pilgrimage and now it was ours. It was a place to lean on and feel close to G-d — again.
Time and again, Jerusalem was destroyed, but the Wall remained. The everlasting remnant, built in blood, sweat and tears, and because of this devotion, it is a Wall that, tradition has it, will never be destroyed. The Kotel: a Wall everlasting.
If there is a promise of the Kotel never being destroyed, then it is up to us not to destroy its essence as a place for all Jewish people.
Thank G-d the Kotel has become such a normal part of our modern Israeli life to the point of arguing. Yet, I sometimes wish we could all still approach the Kotel with the innocence and pure hearts as we did back on that Shavuot in ’67, when the Kotel was filthy and barely accessible, yet somehow fresh and majestic.
We were just one big Jewish family walking back to a point of contact so dear throughout our history, and just grateful to be home in it once again.
Copyright Intermountain Jewish News