Many of us recall the classic story about Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s visit to Israel when Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir took him to the Western Wall. She explained that since it is the place most sacred for Jews, all prayers uttered there are answered. Things were going well and Golda was saying amen to Kissinger’s prayers until he started to express the wish that Israel would relinquish all the land it had acquired in the Six Day War. Golda turned to him and said, “Henry, don’t you realize you are just talking to a Wall?”
I have thought a great deal about that story these past few months, for this, after all, is no ordinary wall. It is the last remnant of the Temple which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. It is a place of religious and historic significance which symbolizes the loss of independence and autonomy of the Jewish nation. Jews were brought by Christians to the site to validate the claim that God had rejected them and negated his covenant with the Jewish people. After the aforementioned Six Day War returned the Wall to Israel, it became a focal point of religious aspiration and national symbol of rebirth.
Although there appears to be ample evidence that the area in front of the Wall did not function as a traditional Orthodox place of worship in previous centuries, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that the minhag hamakom, the custom of the place, would be in accordance with Orthodox practice, which is the predominant mode of worship in Israel.
Twenty five years ago, a group of women challenged that ruling by gathering to worship at the Wall, while wearing tallitot on Rosh Chodesh and have come there on a regular monthly basis ever since. Over the years, they have encountered resistance and on occasion have been subjected to violent attempts to intimidate them by haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) who feel what they are doing is an affront to their way of life. In recent months, the confrontations have escalated, and an issue that had not attracted much interest among the Israeli public has now been covered in the international media. A new group has recently been formed called Women of the Wall to counter the assumption that they or the Wall needs to be liberated.
Realizing it is not in Israel’s best interest to have images of women being detained for praying at this sacred site, nor that the Wall be a place of contention and controversy, Prime Minister Netanyahu has sought to defuse the issue. He is also motivated by a strong commitment to preserving the unity of the Jewish people. To reduce the tensions and polarity he turned to the head of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky, and asked him to come up with a plan that would meet the needs of the various contesting parties. Since Netanyahu felt that to be successful the plan must be supported by Jews in the Diaspora, he sent Sharansky to meet with leaders of the American Jewish movements to get their thoughts and support.
As chairman of the Rabbinic Cabinet of JFNA, I was privileged to chair these meetings where the proposal was presented and discussed and where input and feedback was offered by participants representing the full gamut of American religious life. The discussions were extraordinary. They were respectful, open and honest as each advocated for his or her constituency while seeking and stretching to understand the positions of others with whom they disagreed.
All realized the historic nature of what we were discussing. As one of the leaders in attendance told me privately later, “This makes all we do worthwhile.”
First and foremost, we were talking about a change to the configuration of the space at the Western Wall, one of the most well-known and widely recognized sites in the world. We were being asked our opinion about a proposal to modify a place of great historic and religious significance for the Jewish people. Beyond those obvious considerations, perhaps the most important aspect of the entire discussion was the recognition by the government of Israel, under Prime Minister Netanyahu, that this matter of religious import should be approached in a cooperative spirit, and that Diaspora Jewry needed to be consulted and a part of the process. That, in and of itself, was extremely important.
Add to it that for the first time, a mode of worship other than Orthodox would not only be tolerated, but presented as a viable option in the most public of public spaces, and you understand why the rabbis all recognized the historic dimension to the deliberations.
By now, the plan is well-known. There are several parts to it, but the central concept is to create a new space to the right of the existing worship area, what is currently referred to as Robinson’s Arch, which will be pluralistic, open to egalitarian minyanim, without a mechitza, and where there will be free and open access just as there currently is on the other side. Sharansky calls his plan “one Wall for one People.”
A number of potential obstacles stand in the way. As Sharansky mentioned, even if you just want to add a porch to your home, building permits are needed, so you can imagine what must be done to make changes on the scale he is proposing at the Western Wall. In addition to seeking to find a solution acceptable to the various Jewish groups, a challenge is presented by the archaeologists who do not wish the current area to be disturbed.
Nevertheless, despite all the hurdles that must be surmounted, he remains determined to implement his plan. One proposal is to at least begin to move forward and begin to implement on an interim basis what can be achieved. At our meeting, when rabbis introduced themselves and the organizations they represent, he identified himself with the title, “Natan Sharansky, chess player.”
While most felt they were not getting everything they hoped for, and all realized they were giving something up, in the end, there was a sense that the principles of shalom bayit (family harmony) and of Klal Yisrael (the Jewish people, collectively) should prevail and be the determining factors. It was seen as a positive step that is in the best interests of the Jewish people. I believe the plan is worthy of our wholehearted endorsement and am optimistic it will be implemented.
Stuart Weinblatt is rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tzedek. He also is former chairman and current president of the Rabbinic Cabinet of JFNA.