Rabbi Iris Richman: 10 Reasons the Kotel Matters

Rabbi Iris Richman is a rabbi currently living in New York. She is the founder of Jewish Voices Together, which created for organizing “Wake Up for Religious Tolerance” in NYC. This piece is a response to last week’s post, “Just Another Brick in the Wall,” in which Aron and Allen argued that liberal Jewish communities often overemphasize the religious significance of the Kotel.

Rabbi Iris: Here are ten reasons, briefly stated, why the Kotel matters, actions to exclude others from the Kotel matter, and why the actions at the Kotel affect even those Jews who don’t value the Kotel.

1. Not sure how God’s polling numbers are these days, but many Conservative Jews still believe in God, Who, at least at some point, invested the site with holiness.

2. For other Conservative Jews, Conservative Judaism is still the *historical* movement of Judaism. Even if only for the past 3000+ years, it was our ancestors’ holy place. How can that be irrelevant?

3. Though in general, Jews don’t worship things or places, the entire area that the Kotel surrounds is an exception. Symbols are important to religions, and Judaism is no exception.

4. For those more moved by historical connection, the Kotel is the last remaining shard of Jewish unity. Everyone worshipped together at the Temple 2000 years ago. It’s unlikely that we can ever recreate that without Divine intervention, but the actions that exclude others from a stake in the Kotel deny the critical importance of klal Yisrael/the community of the Jewish people.

5. Modern Israel is a miracle, an idea denied by most of the same people who make the rules at the Kotel. Their exclusive ownership of this symbolic and important site and forceful exclusion of most of world Jewry is deeply painful.

6. Those who control the Kotel site use it as a political and religious cudgel to deny the legitimacy of the majority of the world’s Jews, not just at the Kotel, but also around the world. They wield it as a “religious argument” to invalidate all non-Haredi worship. According to those who control the Kotel, the only valid form of worship at the Kotel is theirs and, according to them, that’s the case everywhere, which is how they “justify” excluding the 90% of Jews who disagree with them.

7. Exclusive domination of the Kotel by the most extreme 10% of Israel’s population delegitimizes Israel’s democracy. When Israel allows, encourages and supports its most extreme minority to have full control over the Kotel site, despite the majority’s disagreement with those practices (as reflected in polls of Israelis), it says: “Our ‘democracy’ isn’t real and we can retract it whenever and wherever we wish, even where it is most important.”

8. Any place where women are forced to be second class citizens (and at the Kotel, it’s more like non-citizens) needs to be addressed as rigorously and urgently as we would react to any other group being treated as second-class citizens.

9. 21st-century Judaism is pluralistic Judaism. If we’ve learned nothing about human beings from the struggles for equality of other groups, at least we’ve learned that the rights and humanity of others must always be respected, even when we don’t agree with others. The Haredi insistence at the Kotel and elsewhere on maintaining a 19th-century approach (i.e. “We disagree with the Reform movement, so we will act to destroy it”) very publicly diminishes Judaism in the eyes of all who respect those who differ from them.

The approach of discrediting and attacking Jews with whom one does not agree is not rooted in our tradition. As we are especially reminded now during the Three Weeks (the period between the breaching of Jerusalem’s wall by the Romans and Tisha b’Av, when both Temples were destroyed, among other calamities), the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat hinam, baseless hatred, between Jews. Put another way, if we can’t get along, we can’t have nice things. For Judaism to flourish we must always remember that Hillel and Shammai disagreed, but at the end of the day, their adherents ate at each other’s tables and married one another (B. Eduyot 4:8).

10. Finally, it’s legitimate to disagree about priorities. These reasons may resonate for some more than issues concerning the occupation, or vice versa. But the choice of priorities does not eliminate the compelling nature of the Kotel (see point 9).




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