The Kotel (Western Wall) is a keen reminder that in ancient times our people suffered the destruction of two holy Temples in Jerusalem and that Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel must not be taken for granted. Rather, the exercise of sovereignty must be grounded in a sense of mutual responsibility and accompanied by deep humility.
Over the years, the Kotel has become a symbol, representing the holiness that the Jewish people attach to Jerusalem and to all that Jerusalem represents in our value system. It has become a powerful symbol of Jewish connection to the Land of Israel and to God; a powerful symbol of Jewish spirituality, of Jewish continuity, and of Israel’s essential vitality and resilience. As such, the Kotel “belongs” to the entire Jewish people, and is not the exclusive purview of one stream of Judaism.
Interestingly, the Talmud (Gitin 55b) relates a story about two Jewish men, Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, who hated one another. As the story is told, Bar Kamtza was accidentally invited to a party organized by Kamtza. The mistake became evident after Bar Kamtza had already arrived, when the host, noticing his presence, demanded that he leave. Bar Kamtza, apparently wishing to avoid public embarrassment, offered to pay for his meal so that he could stay. The host refused. Bar Kamtza then offered to pay for half the cost of the entire party but was still rebuffed. Finally, he offered to pay for the cost of the entire party but this offer, too, was rejected. In the end, Bar Kamtza was physically removed from the party. The Talmudic story continues and ties this incident to the eventual destruction of Jerusalem, and of the Temple in Jerusalem.
In many of our Jewish sources, sadly, it is concluded that the second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed because of “sinat chinam” - senseless hatred among the Jewish people.
Ironically, today, the Kotel has turned into a site where “sinat chinam” is evidenced on a regular basis, as one group of people wants to eject another group from the very site that should be a strong reminder to us all that we should find ways to share time and space in Jerusalem equitably and respectfully lest we destroy ourselves through senseless hatred.
It is important to remember that the Kotel was not always treated as it is today, as an Orthodox synagogue. My own mother remembered visiting the Kotel when it was a place where women and men came to pray, standing side by side, as they would in any public area.
Years later, when I myself lived in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem and prayed regularly in the women’s section at the Western Wall, I recall that the mechitzah, the separation between the women’s section and the men’s section, was constructed in a way as to allow me to sit next it it and to easily see and to hear and to feel connected to the religious service that was being conducted simultaneously by the men on the other side of the mechitzah.
Over the years, the women’s section of the Kotel has been made smaller and smaller. The mechitzah has been made increasingly higher and so dense that it is no longer possible to see through to the men’s section - thus making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a woman to feel herself included in the full service (including Torah reading) that is now only allowed to take place on the men’s side of the Kotel.
You ask whether the administration of the Kotel in this regard should best be left to Israel’s internal political and legal channels. This is a very good question to which I would respond as follows:
The Women of the Wall, who define themselves as a group of Orthodox women, although other women are certainly a part of the group, have been coming to the Wall for over two decades to pray as is their custom, in an all-women’s prayer group, and have worked through the political and legal channels in Israel to maintain their right to pray with a Torah scroll, donning tallit (prayer shawls) and tefillin (phylacteries), and singing aloud.
Personally, I have long ago found that egalitarian prayer is the spiritual path that I choose for myself. Nevertheless, I believe the Women of the Wall have every right to pray as they choose at the Kotel. I also believe that imputing negative motives to their prayer is not helpful and can easily lead to the increase of “sinat chinam” among our people. Let’s remember that only God knows with certainty what is in the hearts of others. In the words of the prophet Jeremiah (17:9-10), “Most devious is the heart...who can fathom it? I, the Lord, probe the heart, search the mind….” Let’s also remember that the Torah is a Torah of peace, as we read in Proverbs (3:17): “Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths, peaceful.”
While I believe that there should be provision made for those who feel they require a mechitzah for prayer - Women of the Wall and others - to have that opportunity to pray at the Kotel, I also believe that there should be time and space allotted at the Kotel for other forms of Jewish prayer. There is, in fact, plenty of room at the Western Wall to allow for various forms of Jewish expression and prayer to take place respectfully, side by side.
Most recently, Israeli court rulings have upheld the right of Women of the Wall to pray as they are accustomed to praying, in the women’s section of the Kotel. And, I believe that this ruling upholds a basic human right of a person to pray in the manner that they find meaningful, at the Kotel.
But, should diaspora Jews voice an opinion in this manner?
This question raises the issue of the appropriate amount of discussion of Israel by those Jews who are not Israeli citizens.
The Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel includes the following paragraph:
“WE APPEAL to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel in the tasks of immigration and upbuilding and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream - the redemption of Israel.”
Israel is defines herself as both Jewish and democratic and presents herself to the world and to the Jewish community in the diaspora as the homeland of the Jews. As such, Israel turns to Jews in the diaspora for support and for love. And, we are indeed, partners with Israel, in the sense that we have a stake in her welfare and we share in helping Israel become all that she can be for the sake of Israel, for the sake of the Jewish people, and for the sake of the family of nations that make up our world.
As long as our discussion of Israel is one that is grounded in love and support for Israel and for her basic right to exist as one of the family of nations in the world; as long as we identify with the vision of Israel as a work in progress and see ourselves as partners with her, we can and should voice an opinion about matters that touch on our own connection with Israel.
It is precisely because Israel presents herself as being central to our identities, and precisely because Israel is a democratic and Jewish State, that we have a voice, a say, in what happens in Israel. Only citizens of Israel have a vote. But, we have a voice, especially, when it pertains to matters that go the heart of our self definition as Jews.
Thankfully, because Israel is a democracy, and a Jewish one at that, voices of support and love can be heard and respected when they critique, as well as when they applaud successes and contributions of Israel to the Jewish people everywhere and to the entire world. This is part of the strength, the inspiration, and the leadership of Israel in a world that so greatly struggles, still in our time, to find “darkhei noam” - ways of pleasantness and avenues of true peace and justice in which to walk.
May Israel continue to flourish and to inspire! May senseless hatred decrease,
and may the blessings of greater love and understanding permeate our lives and the lives of all those around us speedily and in our time!