The Kotel: No longer an icon for unity

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At sundown on July 15, we begin the commemoration of the destruction of the Temples. Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, is a day of mourning.

“The destruction of the Temple was by sinat chinam, the inability for our people to get along,” said Jerry Silverman, president and chief executive officer of the Jewish Federations of North America.


For centuries, and particularly after Israel reunited Jerusalem as one city in 1967, the Kotel (Western Wall) has served as the most significant site in the world for the Jewish people. It is the last remnant of the Temple and a place where Jews from around the world gather to pray, a living testimony to the strength and resilience of the Jewish nation.

But in recent months, the Kotel has served as an image of divisiveness. Monthly, we read of clashes at the Kotel — not between Palestinians and Jews, but between Jews and Jews. The Women of the Wall are calling for the right to pray out loud, dressed in tallitot and tefillin and to read from the Torah. The Orthodox establishment is pleading for status quo, to maintain a prayer environment that allows for Orthodox men and women to pray comfortably (on separate sides) at the Western Wall.

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In late May, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called upon Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, to intervene.

“He asked me if there was a way to bring down the tension,” Sharansky said in a phone call from Israel. “And so I tried to understand what is the most important thing about this fight.”


Sharansky said he spoke with the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites in Israel, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz. He talked with leaders of Women of the Wall and with the heads of Jewish communities from across the religious spectrum in America and Europe.

“I found that the real desire was to make [the Kotel] a place of connection and not division,” he said.

And so Sharansky proposed a plan.

The large plaza running up to the Kotel will be divided into two equal areas: one managed under ultra-Orthodox rules mandating separate prayer areas for men and women; and one in which egalitarian prayer of all denominations will be allowed. The reconfiguration of the site would be implemented in two phases. The first, which planners hope will be completed within a year, would include redirecting foot traffic to the Wall into one joint entry way, which will then be divided into the two sections. The egalitarian section will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The second phase, which requires complex permit procedures regarding archeological excavations and Muslim-controlled areas, will take another year. When the second phase is complete, the entire Kotel plaza will increase in size.

But the big elephant in the room is, will this plan work? Are people getting what they need, and can the Kotel once again be a place of unity and cohesion?

 

The history

To understand the importance of the Kotel, one has to understand from where it came.

In the year 37 B.C.E., Herod was appointed king in Jerusalem and he soon initiated a huge renovation project for the Temple. He hired many workers who toiled to make the Temple more magnificent and to widen the area of the Temple Mount by flattening the mountain peak and building four support walls around it. The Western Wall is the western support wall built during this widening of the Temple Mount Plaza.

This Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., yet all four Temple Mount support walls remained standing. The Western Wall (as opposed to the other three) is considered the most special because of its proximity to the Holy of Holies in the Temple. And since the Temple destruction, the Kotel was the closest remaining site to the Temple that was accessible to Jews.

Over the generations, the Kotel became a place of prayer and longing for the Jewish people.

“Every day, three times a day, we pray in the direction of the Beis Hamikdash [Temple],” said Rabbi Yaakov Menken who runs Torah.org. “The Kotel is the closest we can get to it now.”

In art and music, the image of Jerusalem was conveyed via the image of the Western Wall.

The Old City of Jerusalem, and the Western Wall within it, was not in Jewish hands from the War of Independence in 1948 when the Jewish Quarter of the Old City fell to the Jordanians until the Six Day War in 1967, when, led by paratrooper Motta Gur, the Israel Defense Forces penetrated the Old City through the Lion’s Gate and took it back.

“In 1967,” said Rabbi Menken, “everything changed.”

The Kotel — according to Laura Shaw Frank, a doctoral student in modern Jewish history at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a Jewish history teacher at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community High School — has become symbolic of Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel (a national symbol). Additionally, she said, it reminds us of a period in which the Jewish people were closest to God (a religious symbol).

“The Kotel does not just belong to Israeli citizens,” said Israeli author and journalist Yossi Klein Halevi. “It belongs to the Jewish people.”

 

Two Jews, three opinions

Because of the wall’s importance, Jews across the globe waited with bated breath for Sharansky to unveil his intentions. The two parties — two sides with the same ultimate goal of praying at the holiest site of the Jewish people — accepted the plan but still do not see eye to eye.

“It hurts,” said Rabinowitz on a call from his Jerusalem office last Sunday morning. “But I will not start a war over it.”

Leah Aharoni, co-founder of the grassroots movement Women For The Wall, a group whose self-proclaimed mission is to “preserve the sanctity and tradition of the Western Wall in the spirit of Jewish unity,” said in an essay (see Page 14) that liberal Jewish movements and Orthodoxy sometimes sound like both sides are talking to a brick wall; neither side can penetrate the thinking of the other. This lack of mutual understanding, she noted, is especially apparent in the discussion of women’s rights in Judaism.

“Orthodoxy views the Torah as a God-given document, which governs every aspect of Jewish life, while liberal movements, starting with the Pittsburgh Platform [a pivotal 19th-century document in the history of the American Reform Movement], either completely reject or call into question the divine authorship of the Torah,” Aharoni wrote. “The two schools are at odds, because they truly speak two different, mutually exclusive languages.”

She equated the parties to two people, each wearing a different pair of tinted eyeglasses — one blue, one red. She said they are staring at the same wall but can’t come to terms about its color.

Aharoni’s group claims Women of the Wall and groups like it are coming at the dialogue from a position of rights.

In contrast, she explained, Orthodox Judaism speaks in a language of responsibilities.

“Women of the Wall are hoping to incite a revolution among Orthodox women,” said Rabbi Menken.

He noted that they don’t want Orthodox women to be OK with being different but to “be more feminist, to demand change from their rabbis.”

He said Women of the Wall offend Orthodox women, because they are essentially telling them that they practice as they do not by choice, but because they don’t know any better.

“They are saying Orthodox women are too repressed, ignorant and stupid to know there is a better way,” Rabbi Menken said.

But head of Women of the Wall Anat Hoffman does not agree. She said she is not fighting a battle for Orthodox women — or even a battle for herself. She said she is fighting for the state of Israel.

While Hoffman noted that her group, which has been around for 24 years, is appreciative of steps that have been made in the past, such as the erecting and dedicating of Robinson’s Arch, adjacent to Jerusalem’s Western Wall worship area and available to egalitarian groups for worship, “separate is not equal.”

“It is not that I am Rosa Parks, but I don’t want to sit at the back of the bus,” she said. “Robinson’s Arch is the back of the bus. … Even if you make better upholstery in the back and add air conditioning, it is still the back of the bus. I want to be in front of the bus like everybody else.”

Hoffman said that it has taken years for Women of the Wall to get the media attention it needed to move its agenda forward. Israelis, she said, did not catch on. In Israel, most people are either Orthodox or secular.

“The media couldn’t understand how you could be a feminist and deeply religious,” she said.

But now that the Diaspora population has learned of her, she does not believe American leaders will accept anything less than the Sharansky plan — and she is confident it will go forward. Sharansky said the prime minister recently appointed a separate commission to ensure the plan’s feasibility and, pending positive findings, work on the Kotel plaza will commence.

Halevi said he does not think Sharansky’s plan is the best-case scenario. Rather, he would recommend a time share: a part of the day when the Kotel is set up like an Orthodox synagogue and another part when it is available for egalitarian prayer.

“That is simply impossible under the current reality,” said Halevi. “This is a respectable fall-back plan.”

Sharansky said he did examine other options — and the demands of other, niche groups (such as Orthodox women who want separate prayer but want to sing aloud and read from the Torah). But, he said, “You cannot give an answer to every group.”

“Those who want makhloket [dispute], even if we gave them a new Kotel, they will find makhloket,” said Rabbi Rabinowitz. “If they don’t want it, then this will serve as a solution.”

 

Ahavat Yisrael

As final plans are made, the Women of the Wall continue to make a scene at the Kotel each month. Halevi said he finds this offensive.

“It is time for the Women of the Wall to suspend their monthly prayer protests and to give the government time to prove its good faith,” he said.

Teacher-scholar Frank said she feels similarly. But she understands the women’s side, too. She also noted that she thinks Women of the Wall has gotten a bad rap by some, but she believes in their purity of intention.

“I think there are probably some Women of the Wall who are not going out of purity of intent,” she said. “But I don’t think we should throw them out or consider them irrelevant [in the Orthodox community]. … All people should be able to daven in the way they want to daven, in a way that is comfortable for them.”

At the same time, she cautioned the non-Orthodox community from judging the haredim who turn out to stop the women from praying. While Frank said she does not condone violence of any kind, “I think the whole world needs to understand that these [violent protestors] are a tiny minority.”

Halevi said as we come to Tisha B’Av the Jewish people should take a step back.

“One of the ironies, perhaps, is that in order to restore some sense of unity to the Wall, we need to pray separately. The Jewish people can’t pray together. This is a spiritual tragedy but an accurate reflection of where we are as a people,” said Halevi.

Halevi said the next step should be action — swift action by the government on the proposed plan.

But until the construction equipment is brought on site and the blueprints formally printed, the JFNA Rabbinic Cabinet, under the oversight of its president, Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, is calling on the people to take a step back and use these days before the Ninth of the Hebrew month of Av to bring about greater Jewish unity.

“We share more than what divides us,” said Rabbi Weinblatt in a statement. “We call upon all segments of our community to display ahavat Yisrael, love of the Jewish people in deeds and words. … We pray that the month of Av will bring the blessing of Jewish unity, harmony and peace to our people. … May the message of Tisha B’Av remind us that the antidote to the … destruction of the Temple is shalom bayit, peace in the (Jewish) home.”

Said Rabbi Rabinowitz: “Jewish unity does not come from me telling you, ‘you need to love me.’ It comes from me telling myself, ‘I need to love you.’ ”

Maayan Jaffe is managing editor of WJW’s sister publication, the Baltimore Jewish Times.

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