An Alternative to the Alternative Kotel

— by Richard Lederman

If you haven’t heard by now, there’s a new plan for Jewish worship at the Western Wall — the Kotel — in old Jerusalem. Since Jewish access was restored to the Old City in June 1967 after 19 years of Jordanian control, Orthodox rabbinic authorities have held sole sway over the Kotel, enforcing their understanding of Halakha — Jewish law — pertaining to the forms of worship that could take place there. Most explicit is the strict separation of men and women and the prohibition against certain forms of worship in the women’s section. For instance, women may not wear traditional religious garb — Tallit and Tefillin — and may not read from a Torah scroll. For years, these restrictions have been challenged by The Women of the Wall who have bravely endured humiliation, threats, physical abuse and arrest as they overtly defy these restrictions in acts of civil disobedience.

In the meantime, a new section of the wall has gradually become a venue for egalitarian worship. Underneath a feature of the wall known as Robinson’s Arch, located south of the main plaza, men and women worship and lead the services as equals. In recent months, Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky has concluded a nearly three-year negotiated compromise with the rabbinic authorities and the government affording official status to this section of the Kotel. The execution of this compromise is in the offing, whereby the area in front Robinson’s Arch will be transformed into a plaza not unlike the original plaza created in 1967, with equal 24/7 access for all worshipers. In other words, now you will have two mostly equal choices when you visit the Kotel: the original plaza and this new egalitarian section.

Naturally, as with all compromises, no one is particularly happy, and the announcement of the new arrangement has been met with a slew of articles and opinion pieces in the Jewish press. Even some of the supporters of egalitarian prayer at the Kotel feel let down. Writing in The Forward, Gabriela Geselowitz, a young “Birthrighter,” bemoans the fact that she still can’t wear her Tallit and Tefillin at the part of the Kotel that is from “the postcards, the documentaries, the images of Jewish Jerusalem that the world knows.” To Geselowitz, Robinson’s Arch is not the “real” Kotel, the “authentic” Kotel. “I can’t help thinking,” she concludes, “that we’ve agreed to the idea that being shunted out of the way, to something ‘technically’ part of a holy experience, is enough. It’s not.”

Meanwhile, according to Forward, “Religious Services Minister David Azoulay is refusing to sign the new regulations,” while The Times of Israel is reporting that “Israel’s chief rabbinate is set to draft an alternative plan… one that does not include recognition of the non-Orthodox denominations.”

Temple Mount ShematicI’d like to suggest a new and perhaps somewhat radical solution to this conundrum. Let’s begin by being realistic about what this sacred site really is. No, the Kotel is not the remains of the Temple. According to the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus, Herod King of Judea undertook to rebuild the Temple in the year 19 BCE. He wanted to demonstrate his own glory and the glory of his people by enlarging the Temple. In order to do so, he had to expand the area of the Temple Mount by constructing a huge retaining wall. That’s the Kotel. It is actually only a very small section of a much larger retaining wall that surrounds the entire Temple Mount. In fact, only the lower courses of that retaining wall are Herodian. The rest were added by the Muslim Mamluks in the Middle Ages and the Ottoman Turks after them. Besides, let’s not forget that Herod was a brutal tyrant who killed his own wife Mariamme, a descendant of the Hasmonean heroes of Hanukkah, over a dispute regarding the appointment of a priest.

According to the Encyclopedia Judaica in its article on the Western Wall, there is little evidence that the Kotel per se was understood as a holy site in ancient and Medieval Jewry. “It is only from the 16th century that Jews began praying at the present location and this is clear from the available sources.” The Kotel is not the remains of the Temple and it has not been a focus of Jewish worship for 2,000 years.

What prayer once looks like at the Kotel. Photo courtesy of Daniel Bouskila.

What prayer once looks like at the Kotel. Photo courtesy of Daniel Bouskila.

In a rather scathing article published in the Jewish Journal, Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, Director of the Sephardic Education Center in Los Angeles, condemns the whole notion of trying to turn the Kotel into a synagogue, characterized, as he puts it, by “a Eurocentric denominational system that has largely failed in the United States, and to which the majority of the residents of Israel have no relationship.” In pre-state days, “the Kotel had no barrier separating the sexes. It was an open place of prayer, spirituality and meditation for all Jews…”

“Somehow,” Bouskila declares, “this ancient, sacred space was transformed into a shtetl-style ultra-Orthodox synagogue, a commercialized bar mitzvah factory and a focal point of tension, violence and divisiveness among Jews of various modern-day denominations.”

I am further intrigued by words used by Forward Editor Jane Eisner in describing the Kotel compromise: “For those pluralistic Jews who don’t fetishize a certain group of ancient stones,” she writes (emphasis added), “who wish to pray in a modern setting with creativity and acceptance, the new plan offers that space.” That’s the question. Do we “fetishize” this “group of ancient stones,” most of which are not even ancient, laid by a tyrannical king as a retaining wall to impress his people, but more likely, to impress his oppressive Roman patrons? More importantly, do we allow this “fetish,” which is meant to be a nexus between the human and the divine, morph into an increasingly violent flash point, not only between Jews and Muslims, but among Jews?”

On my blog, I have encouraged a boycott of the Kotel, and having been there recently, I can only reiterate that feeling. Given all the anger, hostility and violence that has transpired there and with regard to the Temple Mount itself, it hardly strikes me as sacred space. Perhaps I would visit the Kotel when it once again assumes the role described by Rabbi Bouskila. In the meantime, I will seek a genuine encounter with the divine using as my guide the words from Exodus 20:20: “In every place where I cause my name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you.”

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