“The world’s most contested religious site.”
So says the New York Times about the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, claimed as a sacred portal between heaven and earth by both Jews and Muslims. Jews say it is the site of the Temple where the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies to meet the Divine presence. Muslims say that here the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven to speak with God.
Currently the site is controlled by an Islamic charitable trust. Jews may visit, though few do. Rabbinic authorities worry visitors might accidentally trespass on the Holy of Holies. Non-Muslim visitors to the Mount are forbidden to pray there. Several activist Jewish groups contest the law. When tensions rise, as they did last week, violence and tragedy rise too.
About a year ago, amid earlier stories of tension, my husband Charles and I wondered: is the Temple Mount a place of historic resonance, strengthened by cultural stories? Or is it also a mystical place that calls people to deep connection?
We were Israel-bound, so we planned to visit.
Early on our chosen morning, we set out on foot for Jerusalem’s Old City, entering at Jaffa Gate. We paused by the information booth. The booth was not yet open but a map was posted. Unfortunately, the section that says, “You are here” was rubbed out.
We approached a police officer. “How do we get to the Kotel (Western Wall)?” we asked, knowing that the Temple Mount entrance was there. “It’s closed now,” he said. We knew he was joking—the wall is open 24/7—but we did not laugh.
At the Kotel Plaza, the normally overcrowded women’s section was empty. So, I asked Charles for five minutes. As I ran in, my right hand ripped a corner off a notebook page. My left hand fumbled for a pen. I scrawled a very short prayer to press between the stones: “?”
Just past the plaza, a long line of people stood by a weathered wooden bridge leading upwards and into a wall. “Announcement and warning! Entering the Temple Mount is a violation of Torah law,” proclaimed one sign. “No religious artifacts or symbols allowed,” proclaimed another. Conveniently, a locker with no lock stood waiting to hold anything deemed inappropriate by the guards.
At the metal detector, the security guard checked our American passports. “Yoush?” he asked. Perhaps he was making conversation; perhaps he was asking, “Are you Jewish?”
We had read about the site’s hours in advance: the Temple Mount is open to visitors four hours a day, ending at 10:00 am. At exactly 10:00 am, guards outside let the last visitors in. And exactly at 10:00 am, guards inside ask all visitors to leave.
That day, Charles and I were the last two people allowed to enter.
We crossed the wooden bridge, walked through a narrow indoor gate and WOW!
Everything opened onto a hidden expanse: a huge open-air park with two mosques, an olive grove, paved walkways, and broad steps. We glimpsed the splendor of the original Temple. We felt the holiness vibe; a funnel of light flowed down from heaven. We merged into the sky.
The magic lasted about 90 seconds.
A man waved his walkie-talkie at us. In heavily accented English, he said, “You have to leave.” He said it again and again, as if it were the only English phrase he knew. No one could argue with him; his only response was, “You have to leave.”
People paused by the gate. A few left, but most lingered. A feral cat hopped out of the wall.
We joined a Spanish-speaking tour group that seemed to have permission to stay. With them, we meandered respectfully along the courtyard’s back wall to another gate. No one wanted to leave. Everyone lingered.
“Exit!” said the guide, in Spanish. “It’s time!”
Through and just outside the gate’s narrow tunnel, the guide paused his group, describing Jewish-Muslim tensions on the Temple Mount. We walked through the circle of people; out to Via Dolorosa; then we took a right, a left, a right.
And found ourselves completely lost in the Old City streets. Sunlight did not reach these cobblestone alleys, but local shoppers did—seeking socks, phones, toasters, and conservative Muslim-style dresses, in bright colors with fashionable details. Deep in this maze, we were the only tourists.
Suddenly, we grasped the magic of the Temple Mount from below. Out of a crowded, dark web of city life, eleven hidden gates open onto the mountain’s light. The Temple Mount is a numinous place. One ascends through the fabric of every day life to a different consciousness, to the spacious possibility of divine-human encounter.
Back home, we prayed:
May Jerusalem’s factions find a way of multicultural co-existence. It could be one shared answer for all, or a compromise that makes space in different ways, and at different times, for different claims.
May this holy space not be seen as a symbol for all political tension. Rather, may it be known as a place charged with spiritual energy; one that calls out to seekers, and is big enough to welcome all who come in good faith.
Ask any Jew what Hanukkah is about and you are likely to get one of two possible explanations: Maccabees or Menorahs. The first approach emphasizes a story about national liberation from tyranny. In this account, based on the First Book Of Maccabees, Mattathias the priest and his sons stood up to the mighty Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV, waging a successful three year-long guerilla war that, against all odds, freed the Jews from oppression and returned them to self-rule. The second narrative centers on oil in the Jerusalem Temple. As recounted in the Babylonian Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat 21b (which omits the Maccabean revolt altogether), when the Jews tried to restore worship in the Temple, they could only find one small vial of sealed olive oil with which to light the eternal flame of the menorah in the Temple. Though the oil should only have lasted one day, it miraculously wound up lasting a full eight days, until a new supply of oil could be found.
It is quite fascinating to see how these two stories continue to resonate today. After World War II, and especially after Israel’s founding in 1948, the story of the Maccabees’ military prowess in defeating large, neighboring enemies became a popular new paradigm for thinking about Jewish toughness and masculinity. We no longer had to see ourselves as meek and bookish victims but could instead refashion ourselves as heroes, standing up to those who challenged our authority to express our Jewishness publicly. This notion of Jews being courageous and selfless, fighting for the preservation of Jewish civilization, continues to resonate today. On the other hand, many Jews focus more on the ceremonial candle-lighting aspect of Hanukkah, fashioning Hanukkah into a kind of “Christmas for Jews,” complete with candle lighting, festive eating, gift-giving, and caroling. We don’t have to feel left out of the pageantry and fun of Christmas because we have our own Jewish version, and for kids it is even better because we get presents for eight days while Christians only get gifts once! Continue reading
The recent reports of women being dragged from the Kotel — the Western Wall — while Torah scrolls were ripped from their hands and subjected to other tactics of intimidation and force by the Israeli police are unnerving, to say the least, to read and listen to. Israel is indeed a modern democracy with a state religion, Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. It is not the only contemporary democratic state with an official religion. Americans unaccustomed to overt state sanctioned religion may find it incomprehensible that instruments of the state would enforce the rules, practices and customs of a religious sect yet this is commonplace in many countries.
David Landau in a Haaretz opinion piece argued that non-Israeli Jewry protesting the enforcement of Israel’s state religion at the Kotel is nothing short of libelous by portraying Israel as a country mired in medieval-isms and religious obscurantism. He asked those who protest Israel’s actions at the Kotel to consider what the state response would be to someone performing non-Catholic worship at the Vatican or Catholic worship at the Diocese of Canterbury in England.
Landau’s argument though only extends to a certain point. Yes, the state would enforce the normative religious practice of the state religion in institutions or buildings that represent that state religion. However, the state would also simultaneously enforce the rights of the protesters acting out in civil disobedience at those sites. The harassment and physical violence inflicted upon the protesters would be prosecuted to at least the same extent as those doing the protesting would be held accountable. It is a basic right of modern democracy to protest and the modern democratic state has as much responsibility to protect the integrity of the legally recognized status quo as it does to protect the well-being of those who disobey it.
This, however, is not the entire point. If we seek to compare and contrast Israel’s treatment of the complex situation at the Kotel with that of other modern polities with a state religion and stop there we will have missed the full picture. Israel is not just a modern democratic state with an official religion, it is also a Jewish state and as such it bears a unique prism by which to view this issue.
Jewish civilization throughout history has not been known for its architecture nor its artwork. Indeed, a traditional Biblical injunction exists proscribing many forms of art. (Nonetheless, Jews throughout history and contemporary times have designed art not conforming to that injunction but a full discussion of that topic is beyond the scope of this post.) Jewish civilization is known for two primary contributions to the wealth of human development: a culture of ideas and a society of engagement with the Divine.
Our buildings do not define us. It is our books and our relationship with God that has been the hallmark defining characteristic of the Jewish story. We do not venerate places; we appreciate the potential that a place has for furthering our religious, spiritual and/or intellectual growth. This is true even when it comes to the greatest and most significant Jewish building project ever undertaken, not once but twice, the Temple in Jerusalem, of which the present-day Kotel is but a retaining outer wall of the Second Temple complex. It wasn’t the Temple building that made the Temple holy, it was the profundity of that space and the power of the rituals performed therein that infused it with holiness. When the Temple leadership become corrupt and when the Jewish people drifted far away from the principles and ideals that it represented it was destroyed.
Thus, perhaps the most critical problem that this Kotel quandary presents is that there is a Kotel quandary in the first place. To acknowledge that the Kotel presents the potential for holiness is absolutely clear. Yet, the politics of power and of control and the perspective that the Kotel itself is vested with a singular ability to intensify our prayers and meditations before God is bordering on idolatry. Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a seminal Orthodox Israeli public intellectual, declared shortly after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that brought the Temple Mount under Israeli control, that the Kotel should be transformed into a disco or as he called it a Diskotel because he astutely understood the grave possibility that Jews would begin to worship the Kotel instead of God.
So instead of battling for various religious outcomes for the Kotel: status quo, three partitions (men, women and mixed), no partitions, timeshare model, etc., let us throw our hands up in the air and dance. Let us go back to the business of being Jewish: wrestling with ideas and with God and let us stop wrestling over a wall.
In June 1975, I was getting ready to leave Israel after a year of study. I bumped into a friend and told her I was leaving early the next morning and that I would visit the Kotel one last time. She asked me: “Have you felt it?” “You mean you haven’t felt it either?” I replied, relieved that I was not the only person who had no spiritual experience at the Kotel.
It was always fun to go, meet friends there, occasionally dance Friday evenings with the Yeshivat HaKotel guys, but it never carried for me any religious meaning. Now when I visit Israel, I rarely go the Kotel.
In the wake of the latest incident with Women of the Wall and the awful treatment of the police of Anat Hoffman, Facebook and the like are filled with anger, petitions, pre-State pictures of the Kotel where men and women are together, and videos of flash prayer mobs and the like. What has become a sacred moment for some has turned into a political football. How do I react to all this as an Orthodox rabbi?
The Kotel has become a sacred space and it is not just a tourist site. It is now an Orthodox shul. While it is legitimate to have security there, the passing of state laws defining proper religious behavior results in acts that do not preserve the sanctity, but defile it. Halacha can make room for women wearing a tallit and carrying a Torah on the women’s side of the Kotel. There is nothing inherently wrong with these practices except that they are new in practice. Forcing women to wear a tallit as a scarf is degrading not only to the women, but to the tallit itself. Forcibly removing a Torah from a woman by the police is a desecration. A rabbi of the Kotel should be asking how the Kotel can be a place that embraces Jews and does not reject them. How can halacha be maintained without shutting out others.
There are halachic issues with Women’s Torah readings, and while some might make a case for their permissibility, the communal/public nature makes it far more controversial. Doing them at the Kotel Plaza would not be an act that embraces Jews, but causes needless strife. Robinson’s Arch is a fair compromise here for this to occur and my sense is all agree to this. We should find a way that acknowledges we cannot pray together, but can stand together at least some of the time.
There is a wall that needs to be torn down here. It is not the Kotel, but a wall that has been built by the state defining religious practice and giving political power to religious authorities who seek to disenfranchise Jews. It is time that wall was torn down and new models replace it.
Is it kosher to listen to Neshama Carlebach in concert? Go to an opera where women are singing solos? Enjoy the latest production of “Fiddler on the Roof“?
Based on traditional rabbinic law, the prohibition known as kol isha (literally, “a woman’s voice”) is based on a verse from the Song of Songs 2:14: “For your voice is sweet (arev) – and your appearance pleasant (naveh).” It has had the Orthodox world in yet another gender-driven debate.
Turning that verse inside out in order to protect the men from the allure of a female voice and the transgression of the laws of ervah (“nakedness”), a man was prohibited from praying or studying Torah in the presence of a singing woman.
The essence behind hearing a woman’s voice is not solely its intrinsic sensuality, as many halachic authorities have indicated, but the functional concern that it might distract a man from his concentration on prayer or study.
Although liberal Jewish communities around the world do not adhere to the strict interpretations of kol isha, in Israel it has become an issue of religious rights for men and women on both sides of the debate.
Last September nine religious soldiers, in obedience to the Kol Isha prohibition, walked out of a mandatory Israel Defense Forces (IDF) training course because it included women’s singing.
An IDF committee was formed to study the issue and make a recommendation about how to handle this military insubordination in light of this religious law. The decision? The army required all soldiers to remain at these mandatory training sessions regardless of the kol isha prohibition.
The religious authorities who have jurisdiction over the Kotel have framed their opposition to women publicly praying at the Western Wall around the kol isha prohibition. Since 1967, women’s collective voices at the Kotel have been silenced. In December 1988, Women of the Wall was founded to secure women’s rights to hold and read the Torah in public in the women’s section of the Western Wall. Each month on rosh hodesh, the group meets and prays at Robinson’s Arch, the place designated by the authorities in 2003 for women’s public prayer.
The Psalmist encouarges us to “lift our voices” (Pslam 147) and to “open our mouths” (Psalm 144) to declare God’s glory. Our voices are our instruments towards religious freedoms. Let us find the path together as we sing God’s praises, male and female in one united voice.