Just Another Brick in the Wall

Aron: Let’s talk about the elephant in the Temple: the Kotel.

After years of activism on the part of Women of the Wall and protests from the Jewish Agency and a range of non-Orthodox American Jewish organizations, the Israeli government agreed in 2016 to a proposal that would have guaranteed an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. Just a few weeks ago, under heavy pressure from Israel’s ultra-Orthodox sector, the government reneged on the agreement.

Before getting into my questions, I’ll acknowledge that the stakes are lower for you and me: as men, we face far fewer restrictions on how we can daven at the kotel (if we wanted to) than women. While we couldn’t pray in the egalitarian minyanim that we prefer, we could still have a Torah service, put on t’fillin, and take advantage of the far larger space accorded to men than to women at the Western Wall Plaza.

All that said, liberal Judaism’s relationship with the Kotel confuses me. By and large, we don’t subscribe to the premises — the divine authorship of the Torah, the literal presence of God on the Temple Mount — that would lead one to value the Kotel as the preeminent center of Jewish spirituality. I don’t mean to suggest that non-Orthodox Jews’ claim to the Kotel is any less than that of ultra-Orthodox Jews’; I just don’t understand why this issue has mobilized American Jewish organizations in a way that seemingly more pressing and problematic things — the occupation, for one — haven’t. What’s your take?

Allen: There are two issues here. First is the place of egalitarian worship in Israeli public life. My ninety-three-year-old grandmother recently read from the Torah at her first bat mitzvah, and I view as beneath contempt any setup that would deny her that celebration. The status quo at the Kotel is a shameful abdication by successive administrations to the religious far right, and it deserves all the opprobrium heaped upon it by American Jewish institutions these past few weeks. You and I stand united in this, I assume.

The second issue is how liberal Jews ought to regard the Kotel, and that gets much more complicated. On one hand, it’s very clear why the debate over women’s worship at the Wall has assumed such prominence. The Kotel is arguably the central symbol of our parents’ Jewish life, so it’s only natural that our parents’ institutions want that symbol to reflect their values. I also suspect that Women of the Wall, with its talk of institutionalized segregation, brings to mind the rhetoric of the civil rights era, which we’re all invested in to some degree (I hope).

Yet I confess my heresy: I’m skeptical that the Kotel’s worth fighting for. For one thing, It reeks of idolatry; an alien who surveyed the scene would rapidly conclude that we were entreating a heap of stones. A tour guide once told me the story of a group of ten-year-old Jewish boys who went down fighting during the doomed 1948 defense of the Temple Mount. How many dead kids is a retaining wall — an architectural afterthought, for God’s sake– really worth? When we call Zion reishit tzemikhat geulatainu, “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption,” we echo the language of Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, whose apostles nearly succeeded in firebombing the Kotel and igniting a catastrophic regional war three decades ago. Must our prayers play into the ideology of zealots?

Of course, none of this can be separated from the problem of the other wall, the Palestinian wall. Our institutions rightly protest at the violation of women’s right to pray as they please, all the while silently acquiescing to the disenfranchisement of millions of non-Jews across the Green Line. Talk about a mechitzah. Certainly, there’s real disagreement over how to deal with that particular mess, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask groups like the Federation to condemn illegal outpost settlements (by which I primarily mean those prohibited by the Israeli Supreme Court itself) with the same verve they defend equal treatment of the sexes. Egalitarian reformers do have at least one potential option: rebuild Rabin’s shrewd alliance with Israeli Arab parties to offset the disproportionate influence of small ultra-Orthodox blocs on Israeli electoral politics. Given Netanyahu’s overt race-baiting during the last election cycle, however, such a compromise seems unlikely at the present time.

This stance most likely won’t endear me to my friends in the traditionalist camp; hopefully no one puts me in cherem. Am I being wildly unfair, or is the liberal American Jewish community taking its eye off the ball here?

Aron: As you noted, the set-up at the Kotel is ludicrous, and the violent aversion to allowing space for egalitarian prayer speaks to something dark about orthodoxy in Israel. I have two other thoughts:

First, I wonder whether the Kotel alludes to contradictions that may be inherent in secular Zionism. Is a national movement whose central images are messianic and religious — the ingathering of the exiles, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the reversal of Masada — destined to become mired in religious fundamentalism? (For more on this idea, check out Tomer Perisco’s “The End Point of Zionism.”)

Second, I think the current debate over the Kotel demonstrates the incoherence of the liberal Jewish mainstream. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told in liberal Jewish spaces that the Temple Mount (and, by extension, the Kotel) is the “holiest site in all of Judaism.” To be honest, I have absolutely no idea what my fellow liberal Jews mean when they say such a thing.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, we don’t believe that the Torah was literally written by God (if we did, one would expect that we’d live quite rigidly in accordance with its laws, since we’d believe that God had literally told us that we’d die otherwise). When it comes to this one particular dogma, though — the notion that God physically resides on the Temple Mount — we apparently do believe that the Tanakh is literally true, since that’s where that belief stems from. (As a side note, there are plenty of similarities to the cognitive dissonance here and that which is evinced with respect to the High Holidays.)

This isn’t really a knock on liberal Judaism; the alternative is to believe that the Tanakh is literally true, that God physically resided in the Temple, and that therefore we should reconstruct the Temple and resume sacrificing goats and birds.

Allen: Look, it would be heartless to deny that the Kotel retains real historical and national significance for liberal Jews of all ideologies. But a mere wall’s not worth its price in blood, nor does it deserve the inordinate attention it’s received relative to Israel’s more pressing political problems. The egalitarian crusade for the Western Wall is all the more tragic for being understandable.

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