Friday, April 19, 2013

The Wall

For outsiders looking in, it must be difficult to imagine why the latest attempt to resolve the whole brouhaha regarding women’s rights at the Kotel matters so much to so many people or, for that matter, why the issue itself is important in the first place.  I can see that easily when I attempt to imagine what readers, say, of the New York Times, must see when they read the recent series of articles and updates regarding Natan Sharansky’s efforts, so far not unsuccessful, to broker a deal between the opposing parties in the conflict:  Jews arguing about who stands where on a shadeless plaza in front of an old wall that was not even part of the ancient Temple, just a support wall built into the ground to buttress its foundation so that the hill upon which it stood would not collapse under its unimaginable weight.  When viewed from that vantage point, it does seem—even to me—to be a peculiar setting for a war. And a war—albeit of the cultural variety rather than the military one—has been exactly what has been going on there for a very long time now, one that has included arrests, injuries, insults, violence and the threat of violence, and a level of incivility that is shocking even by the usual standards of in-house Jewish fractiousness.

The short version is that there is no short version. The Western Wall—once called the Wailing Wall because of the emotional laments over our destroyed Temple once sung there by people overcome with emotion and tears—has always been there.  The rights of Jews to gather and worship there were a hugely contentious issue under British rule and eventually became one of the defining issues of the conflict between the Jews of British Palestine and their English overlords. From 1948 through 1967, during the years Jerusalem was divided and the Old City was under the Jordanian occupation, the issue didn’t exist: Israelis couldn’t enter Jordan and there weren’t enough Jews from other countries willing to come as tourists to a country at war with Israel not to be accommodated in that narrow lane. Nor was there anything like an organized rabbinate looking over Jewish affairs in Jordanian Jerusalem. And then Jerusalem was united by the IDF in 1967 and the issue, dormant for decades, came quickly back to life.

The plaza in front of the Wall was added after the Six Day War to accommodate the huge number of visitors and worshipers who could not squeeze into the narrow lane that previously had been adjacent to the Wall. Other than when the Old City was under Jordanian rule, there had always been worshipers there. But the Wall was some sort of combination of shrine and tourist site, nothing at all like a “regular” synagogue where people gather for organized, scheduled worship services. Indeed, all the many photographs of the space from the first half of the twentieth century show men and women worshiping together, side by side, in a way that most of them would have found uncomfortable and unfamiliar in any other setting.  After the Six Day War, the situation changed dramatically. The Wall—the sole remaining vestige of the Temple, although as explained above not strictly speaking part of it—became a symbol of Jewish Jerusalem and of Israel’s intention never again to lose control over the ancient part of its capital city. The space before the Wall—about 1,300 square feet before 1967—grew incrementally until it reached its current size of about 26,000 square feet. All of these developments were salutary, but somewhere along the way the sense that the Wall should be a national symbol of unity and resolve was replaced with the feeling that what the Wall “really” is, is a synagogue. And an Orthodox one at that.

It’s easy to see how that came to pass. The Chief Rabbinate, always in the hands of the Orthodox, had become a bastion of extreme right-wing types whose views regularly shock even Israelis who nominally self-identify as Orthodox. The sense that the Wall should therefore be governed by the same rules that govern worship in Orthodox synagogues—and particular in the kind of synagogues in which the people now in charge prefer to worship—gained traction. Most Israelis didn’t seem to care one way or the other. The issue was resolved by not being resolved.  But then came along the Women of the Wall.

That’s not entirely correct. There were many people—Jews outside Israel and Israelis alike—who found the situation unpalatable. But it was the Women of the Wall who brought the matter finally to a head.
Founded in 1988, the organization is only twenty-five years old.  But it has been in the forefront of the fight to make of the Kotel a place of worship, as the prophet said, for all people…including women who want to lead themselves in prayer.  It’s been a long struggle. In 2002, the Supreme Court of Israel ruled that the Women of the Wall had a legal right to conduct prayer service at the Wall. A few days later, extremist parties in the Knesset introduced a bill making it a criminal offense for women to worship at the Wall in what the bill referenced as “non-traditional ways.” The bill did not pass, but then, in the spring of 2003, the Supreme Court, reconsidering its earlier decision, determined that the government’s earlier ban on women reading Torah at the Wall or worshiping there under their own auspices was indeed legal because doing so would constitute a “threat to public safety.”  The Court did, however, instruct the government to create a space for non-Orthodox prayer in the vicinity, and specifically at Robinson’s Arch, an archeological site adjacent to the Wall plaza. (Named after British archeologist Edward Robinson who discovered its remains in 1838, Robinson’s Arch was once a huge footbridge built by King Herod at the extreme southwestern corner of the Temple Mount. The Arch itself was destroyed during the Revolt of 70 CE when the entire Temple complex was demolished, but the site remains and some remnants of the stonework are still visible.)  This actually happened, and the site—the scene of countless Masorti/Conservative bar- and bat-mitzvahs that some readers may have attended—was inaugurated in 2004.

But, as all Americans knows, separate is never really equal. And there have been persistent efforts to worship at the Wall itself, at the actual Kotel Plaza. In 2009, Women of the Wall member Nofrat Frankel was arrested for wearing a tallit at the Kotel. (I wrote about that incident to you then, which letter those of you reading electronically can access by clicking here.)  In the summer of 2010, Anat Hoffman, the group’s leader, was arrested and charged with the bizarre crime of holding a Torah scroll, then fined 5000 shekels.  Last October, Hoffman was arrested again, this time charged with singing too loudly and, in so doing, disturbing the peace.  This February, more women, including two American rabbis, were detained by police for having conducted an illegal prayer service at the Wall.

Really, you couldn’t make this stuff up. In a world that seems ever less devoted to spiritual enterprise, women are being prosecuted for wishing to devote time to public prayer. In a world that accepts pluralism as one of the foundation stones of democracy, we seem unable simply to agree to disagree.  And in a world that understands gender-equity to be a norm from which society should only deviate when the deviation under consideration can be justified rationally and reasonably, we seem unwilling simply to allow women simply to pursue their spiritual journey unmolested by men who see things otherwise.

Or rather that was how things were until just recently. Last December, Prime Minister Netanyahu asked Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency, to find a just solution, one that all concerned parties could live with. It can’t have been easy. And what he has proposed is guaranteed not to satisfy everybody. Still, it sounds reasonable to me.  The Robinson’s Arch area is going to be expanded until it is roughly the same size as the Kotel plaza itself. Prayer services, which are currently only allowed at certain times of day and after an entry fee is paid, will be ongoing and free.  The access corridors leading to the larger site will also be redone so that visitors can find their way easily to both areas. And governance of the new area will specifically not be placed in the hands of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation that currently oversees activities at the Wall.
It’s still separate, but it’s more equal. It’s not perfect, therefore. But it is a sign that Israel is moving in the right direction towards recognizing the legitimacy of different schools of Jewish thought and practice, or, more exactly, towards realizing that the government has no business controlling the spiritual lives of the citizenry in a way that prevents them from living Jewishly as they wish. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi who oversees the Kotel, has indicated that he can live with this compromise solution. That’s huge.  (It can’t have been easy, even for a Natan Sharansky, to bring a very traditional rabbi like Rabbi Rabinowitz on board.)  But the bottom line is that he says he can live with it. I myself also can live with it. And I think that the women of the Jewish world, so long marginalized and their spiritual aspirations denigrated, should learn to live with it too. As I said, it isn’t ideal. But it’s a huge step forward. And huge steps forward are good things for people who want to set forth on long journeys to take.

As many of my readers know, the Temple—both in its historical guise as an actual building complex and in its ghostly guise as the epicenter of God’s enduring presence on earth outside of historical time—is at the shrine at which I personally worship daily. When I face Jerusalem to say my prayers, it is towards a Temple that exists outside of both space and time that I turn to face a God who also exists without reference to time past or forward, or to physical space. I haven’t ever passed up an opportunity to worship at the Kotel, nor will I. But I think I can live with davening at Robinson’s Arch, especially in its future, expanded version. It wasn’t part of the Temple. But, then again, neither was the Western Wall. Not really!

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