Whose Kotel is it Anyway?

JTA and Haaretz are reporting that as of last Thursday, Israeli citizenship ceremonies for new immigrants will no longer be held at the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem. This is in keeping with a demand from the rabbi of the Wall that mixed-gender ceremonies may not be held in the vicinity of the site.

The Kotel is considered an open-air synagogue. But it is not, by definition, a synagogue. It is, by definition, a wall. The outer retaining wall and last remaining fragment (or so we thought until recently) of the ancient Temple complex. Throughout the centuries, it has been a place for Jews to come and weep for the loss of Jerusalem (hence the now-outdated name “Wailing Wall.”) Only since 1967 has the rabbinate formalized the Kotel’s status as an official synagogue that follows Orthodox customs such as gender separation and requiring head coverings for men.

But at the same time, the Wall retains important national significance. It is a symbol of Jerusalem’s reunification; a symbol of the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in Israel. It is the site of important national ceremonies – most notably the annual IDF Memorial Day ceremony. And because of its extraordinary religious, national, and historical significance, it has also been the place where new olim were presented with their Israeli identity cards.

That is about to change.

“This is a purely administrative question about the character of the Western Wall. The Wall is not a banquet hall,” [Rabbi] Rabinovitch [of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation] told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. (JTA, October 13, 2009)

First of all, the Wall may not be a banquet hall, but it is a civic site. In Israel, Judaism is civic. Ask the average Israeli how they observe Judaism and they won’t talk about tefillin and synagogue; they will describe their Jewish identity in terms of living in Israel, speaking Hebrew, and serving in the army. In the Jewish state, religion is civic and civics are religious. The Memorial Day commemoration at the Kotel is the perfect example.

Second, the Kotel is not solely a religious place – it is a Jewish place. It is the most recognizable, most emotion-soaked, most special place in the Jewish world. Its significance is – yes – due largely to the fact that it was once a site of worship and sacrifice, but its significance transcends religion. (Try to tell Naomi Shemer, the secular composer of “Jerusalem of Gold,” that the Kotel is only a religious site. Tell it to Yitzhak Rabin, the general who oversaw the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967.)

The Western Wall is, and has always been, a place of Jewish hope and tears, laughter and prayers – a place of Judaism and Jewishness. The fact that in the last 40 years it has been given over to become a narrow, restrictive, discriminatory synagogue with separate men’s and women’s entrances to the outer plaza is a travesty. The fact that women can be arrested or harassed for wearing a tallit there is shameful. The fact that liberal Jews often opt to pray at the Southern Wall (a recent excavation) or at Robinson’s Arch, or on the rooftop of the Hebrew Union College overlooking the Old City, because they cannot fully express themselves at Judaism’s oldest holy place is a infuriating. The fact that secular Jews think of it as a makom dati – a place for the Orthodox – is tragic.

The Kotel no longer belongs to the secular Jews or the liberal Jews. Now it will no longer belong to new
olim. Yet for many, the act of making aliyah is a religious act – an expression of deepest Jewish identity and faith. In that sense, there is no more appropriate place for these ceremonies than the Jewish world’s holiest religious site. Just because the ceremony does not involve a siddur and tallit, just because it allows men and women to stand together, does not remove it from the realm of religion.

As long as we continue to define “religious” in the narrow terms of ultra-Orthodoxy, the Jewish state cannot truly flourish Jewishly. This Kotel incident is a step backwards in a country that is begging to move forwards. In recent years, studies show that for the first time, more Israeli Jews identify with Reform Judaism than with any other religious sect. (This doesn’t mean they necessarily affiliate, of course.) More and more Israelis are coming into contact with liberal Judaism and discovering that it speaks to them, it expresses a religious truth with which they identify, and it helps them break down the artificial wall between “religious” and “secular.”

There are dozens of congregations working to bring liberal Judaism to the Jewish state. (Check out the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism and the Masorti Movement.) They are fighting a fight for the soul of the Jewish state. Israel needs Reform and Conservative Judaism – and Orthodoxy and secular Judaism – if it is to be the a Jewish state. And we liberal Jews need Israel – for its culture, language, music, history, vitality, and holiness.

L’shanah Haba-ah Biy’rushalayim – Next Year in Jerusalem… at the Kotel.

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