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.
Rosh Chodesh Av 5772 – the first day of the new month of Av on July 20, 2012, and here I was, once again at the monthly worship of N’shot HaKotel, the Women of the Wall in Jerusalem. The group meets every Rosh Hodesh (new month) to pray at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, uplifting a beautiful chorus of women in this holy place. But more than that, their voices — out loud — are a form of social justice protest.
N’shot HaKotel have been meeting for a women’s prayer minyan every Rosh Hodesh for 24 years, to assert that this holy place belongs to all of the Jewish people, especially to women, who are otherwise forced to pray alone quietly in the women’s section.
In my previous experiences with N’shot HaKotel I have been struck by the intense police presence around the group. We’ve been told that we must wear our tallitot (prayer shawls) as “scarves” –not like a tallit, and we have enduring constant “shushing” from the police who try to keep the women quiet. There is a ubiquitous female police officer who videotapes every woman and every move of the group. Fortunately the surrounding police have almost entirely stopped the violence against the group that characterized the early years (from Haredi men and women.)N’shot HaKotel has also been a testing ground for legal actions to challenge the authority of the ruling rabbinical body over the public space of the Kotel, with increasing success in the rulings of the Israeli court.
Yet, on this particular Rosh Hodesh the mood was different. When our cab entered the gates of the Old City we encountered battalion after battalion of soldiers and police officers swarming near the Old City Police station and heading toward the Temple Mount on which the Muslim holy sites are found. Our cab driver told us why – it was not only our Rosh Hodesh, it was also the first day of the holy month of Ramadan for Muslims. There was concern about possible violence on the Temple Mount, at the Al Aksa Mosque or Dome of the Rock. Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, brings crowds of Muslim men to the holy sites, and this was an especially charged Friday. Thankfully, it was a quiet day and nothing happened. But the experience was noteworthy. Continue reading