Kotel Controversy

Here in Israel, the recent Cabinet decision to segregate the Kotel (the Western Wall of the Temple Mount) into traditional/Orthodox and non-Orthodox, Western-influenced modes of worship have ignited passions on all five sides of the issue. From one perspective, the decision merely enshrined into law what had become a de facto non-Orthodox place of worship for several years already. From another perspective, the decision enshrines into law not only a violation of the status quo that had been in effect for more than fifty years, but also authorizes an especially vulgar violation of the sanctity of the holiest site in Jewish life. It’s not a mixed blessing but a mixed curse.
We start with the positive aspects of the decision. Permission to the non-Orthodox to hold sway over part of the Kotel defuses a major source of tension between Israel and part of American Jewry, and counteracts the incessant pressure and threats they make against Israel when they feel disrespected. Threats by Jewish secular politicians and the Jewish “religious” politicians to reduce their support for Israel if their demands were not met bore fruit, even if those threats were idle. (Remove the “Israel factor” from non-Orthodox life, and the substance of their Jewish commitment largely reads like the Bernie Sanders platform.) But reduction of acrimony is always a good thing.
Secondly, the decision has effectively banished the Women of the Wall and their provocations away from the main Kotel plaza and into the non-traditional section. This most certainly must stick in their craw, but does accurately define how the Torah world perceives them. Thirdly, as the location is not visible from the main plaza and need not be seen by traditional worshipers at the Kotel, the Kotel will no longer be a constant flashpoint for media stunts and public relations ploys. Rather, each Jew can choose his/her place of worship and not be affronted by the presence of the “other.” As such, it fulfills a pluralist vision, for those who worship in that temple. It purports to express a “live and let live” philosophy.
Sounds great? Here are the problems and they are serious. The decision, purporting to be accommodating, is one of the most divisive acts in Jewish life in decades, and perhaps not since the Reform movement’s patrilineal descent ruling in 1983. One of the greatest expressions of Jewish unity – that all Jews could gather at this sacred space, the remnant of the Holy Temple, and worship precisely as our fathers and mothers did for centuries – has now been shattered. The fraying bonds of Jewish unity will be further torn, hanging by a bare thread.
Secondly, and this irony should not be lost on any thinking person, the laws of Mechitza are derived (Masechet Succa 51b) from what took place on the Temple Mount. The fact that Jewish law requires a separation between men and women during prayer is derived from the very practice that took place on the Temple Mount that stands directly above the place where descendants of those very Jews are now brazenly flouting that very provision. So, why exactly are they there?
Some, to their discredit, have pointed out that there was no Mechitza in place at the Kotel until 1967, and generations of Jews prayed there in mixed or at least separate fashion. The ears that hear such a statement should tremble: for 19 centuries, the Kotel was controlled by non-Jews: Romans, Byzantines, and then for centuries, Muslims, followed briefly by the British. Should we act today in the sovereign State of Israel exactly as our enemies treated us – and the Kotel – during the years of our dispersion and persecution? To answer in the affirmative is to acquiesce in a breathtaking lack of Jewish pride, sense of Jewish nationhood and awareness of the historical moment. There was no Mechitza for centuries because our enemies, occupiers of Yerushalayim, did not allow it. And sovereign Israel should do the same?!
Additionally, even if we ignore for a movement that the Reform movement for generations rejected the concept of the Return to Zion, it still renounces the traditional Jewish dream and objective of rebuilding the Temple. Do they recite the thrice-daily prayer that the Temple should be restored speedily and in our days and the order of worship therein be restored? I think not. So, why exactly do they want to be there?
And the only way we identify the place in question as the Temple Mount is through the Mesora, the unbroken transmission of Jewish law and lore, that is rejected by the non-Orthodox movements. Indeed, the official position of the Palestine Authority is that there was no Temple Mount, fanciful and spiteful to be sure, but a clear denial of our tradition. (Not to belabor the incongruity, but the “Palestinians” are the group that lacks any tradition of living in the land of Israel for any appreciable amount of time.) In essence, Jewish groups that deny the Mesora are claiming their “right” to worship as they see fit in a place that is ours due to our Mesora and preserved by those faithful to that Mesora.
Furthermore, the non-Orthodox must surely concede that the way they wish to worship – mixed pews – is itself a violation of that very Mesora. And, although the decision currently prohibits the use of musical instruments or flagrant desecrations of Shabbat in the non-Orthodox zone, give that time. The will of the G-d of Israel, to them, must always defer to the gods of pluralism and religious freedom. Religious freedom is the freedom to construct your own religion. That is a Western value that animates too many Jews; but is it a Jewish value that should find expression in the holiest place in the holiest city in the holiest land on G-d’s earth? No.
It is inconceivable that the Vatican would open a Protestant church in its jurisdiction, or that Shiite sites might allow Sunnis to worship as they wish. (Given the world scene, free people can differ as to which scenario today is more unlikely!) Thus, allowing “all Jews” to worship as they wish in the name of pluralism engenders a variety of interesting possibilities? Jews for Jesus? Joint and commingled prayers among all religions? Should the new Kotel area become a venue for the performance of intermarriages? After all, one good Churban deserves another… On some matters “live and let live” shows a religious relativism that undermines what is sacred.
The decision, which I believe is well-meaning, harms the unity of the Jewish people, the sanctity of the place, and the integrity of Halacha, and those are in no particular order. It turns the Kotel into a shrine, in the worst sense of the term: the sanctification of a wall, of stones, with little consciousness of the G-d whose presence sanctifies the place, the G-d whose law we are enjoined to obey, and of the generations of Jews whose faithfulness and fidelity to Halacha kept alive the prophetic vision of Jewish national life that is now being realized.
There is something to be said for the notion that the Israeli-Jewish public is composed of a variety of tribes that has to find some way to co-exist, not just in order to deal with the real and pressing threats of our foreign enemies but simply because that is the way it has always been. In the ancient past, each tribe had its own character and interests, even if all were committed to Halacha. Our modern tribes differ in that commitment, and so historic compromises were made to foster co-existence. Control of Jewish status issues – marriage, divorce and conversion – were given to the Rabbinate. Public observance of Shabbat and Kashrut were guaranteed. Both commitments ensured the unity of the Jewish people. What is today characterized as “caving in to the ultra-Orthodox” was the simple recognition that the guardians of the Jewish faith and way of life – Torah-observant Jews, and not only the “ultra-Orthodox,” which the elitists use as a slur against a segment of the population that the average Jew is supposed to dislike – were best positioned to maintain the traditions, the unity and the faith of Israel. Here’s the open secret: we still are. That fact alone should promote a measure of deference to changes in the religious status quo.
It is unconscionable that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinate of Yerushalayim were not consulted on this matter, and that the Rabbi of Kotel was consulted and basically ignored. The Minister of Religious Affairs was similarly not consulted. A neutral observer would likely conclude that matters of religious practice at the Kotel fall under the jurisdiction of any one of the aforementioned agencies. It is interesting that just two weeks ago Israelis were expelled from a building they had lawfully purchased in the holy city of Hevron because they allegedly did not have the appropriate authority from the Defense Minister under whose jurisdiction such purchases come. I suppose the difference between encroachments on the jurisdiction of the Defense Minister (who then unabashedly reverses the actions that were taken) and encroachments on the jurisdiction of the rabbinical authorities (which are ignored) is that the former has men with guns at his disposal and the latter do not.
What is well-meaning in the decision is not just the desire to reduce tensions in the Jewish world but also the attempt to keep the non-Orthodox in the fold, to limit the alienation they feel from Israeli life and Jewish destiny by placating them. The problem with this legitimization is that it almost closes the door to a complete return to true Jewish observance, and that is ultimately unfair to them and to their children. The reality is that the non-Orthodox movements exist – but the undeniable and tragic reality also is that their rate of assimilation, intermarriage and attrition from Jewishness is horrifying and catastrophic. We are losing souls, and the process of accommodation that the current decision implies has proven to be a failure.
The proof will soon be apparent. Some perspective is necessary and perhaps this too played a role in the decision. The fact is that the Kotel location will be available 24/7 but will be rarely used. Don’t expect a vatikin minyan or a midnight Maariv. Daily public prayer has not been a focus of the non-Orthodox for many decades, and the new space will be as unpopulated on a daily basis as are the non-Orthodox temples on a daily basis, notwithstanding that there might be a few exceptions. Their Kotel area, born in rebellion against G-d, will be a place for special events – and those who demanded it will still not be satisfied and will make further demands and threats.
I do recognize that there is even a difference between the informal use of the Robinson’s Arch area and official approval that ratifies a new situation. But can it be stopped? In this regard, there have been many unfortunate Israeli initiatives in the past that have been thwarted by the Arabs. As if on cue, the Wakf, the PA and the Jordanians have expressed their vehement objection to the plan. Expect the resurrection of the deceitful Arab claim that Israel is trying “to undermine Al Aksa.” Indeed, the location here is closer to Al Aksa than all the other times this lie was uttered; this too is a lie but Arab lies often affect Israeli policy. The plan may have to be abandoned in order to forestall Arab rioting.
Additionally, the Jerusalem Post reported last week that 60% of Israeli Cabinet decisions are never implemented. Many are announced to great fanfare and receive significant media attention – and then, nothing. One example: a Cabinet decision around ten years ago to move all (or most) government ministries to Yerushalayim. The politicians were lauded, the hypocritical world was outraged, the West denounced it, and since then, nothing. One reason suggested was the lack of money to implement many decisions, notwithstanding the great enthusiasm generated when they are announced. A better reason might be the frequent change of governments and ministers, each with their own priorities, which sees these pronouncements place on the back burner.
Who knows what the future of this decision, scheduled for next year, really will be? What is more pressing than accommodating all types of worship at the Kotel is the disastrous loss of souls to the Jewish people. To my mind, this will hasten that process, not delay it. Worse, the place on earth that was most suitable to unite all Jews will no longer exist in that form and serve that purpose.

I once heard Nechama Leibowitz z”l quote her brother as suggesting, after the Six Day War, that Israel should return the Kotel to Jordan. Otherwise, the day won’t be far off when Jews will turn the Kotel into a “Discotel.”   Those who are rejoicing should take notice, and focus more on substance than on symbols.

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5 responses to “Kotel Controversy

  1. I have been trying to think of an intelligent comment to make to add to the wisdom of this piece. I give up. Brilliant, simply brilliant. Tightly reasoned, well argued and well written. .

  2. The new area, if implemented, will just be like so many empty parking spaces mandated under the Americans with Disabilities Act: Prime real estate that, rather than being enjoyed by almost everybody, will now become used by almost nobody.

  3. I don’t think funding the new section will be a problem. American and Canadian philanthropists and institutions will provide it.

    If Arab lies and rioting stand in the way of the liberal Anglos having their own prayer section, well, that can have positive unintended consequences beyond the kotel.

  4. Maybe we should pray to G_d that all people who are not-Orthodox-Jews should stay far away from the kotel and far away from Jerusalem.

    Alternatively, we could pray to G_d that all trouble-makers should stay far away from the kotel and far away from Jerusalem, regardless of their beliefs.
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  5. This is not the first time such has occurred. King Achaz had placed an idol in the Sanctuary of the First Temple. Sadly, this is a reversion to that era.

    Usher