On November 16, 2017, in response to the Israeli government’s failure to live up to its promise to open an egalitarian section at the Western Wall, a group of internationally distinguished leaders from the Reform movement, led by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, carried Torah scrolls to the Kotel to hold a service. As expected, they were confronted by security guards as they approached the Wall plaza and were temporarily prevented from entering. There was a great deal of pushing, yelling and anger. In the end, no one was seriously hurt but a lot of news was generated. Non-Orthodox Judaism is not welcome at Judaism’s most sacred site: The Western Wall.
This is a complicated story. The Wall, as it is called for short, is a remnant of the Second Temple and specifically a late addition to the Second Temple, by Herod the Great, in the last part of “BCE” on the calendar. Rome was in its glory and the local “Jewish” ruler was eager to demonstrate his capacity to imitate the empire’s lofty ideals of architectural majesty. So, he built, and he built, and he built. Compared to the original First Temple of the 10th century BCE (destroyed in 586 BBCE), it was indeed a majestic building. But by the end of the year 70 CE, with the Jewish rebellion against Rome crushed, Herod’s Temple was in ruins and, among other remaining structures, its outer western wall still stood. In time, it became the only prominent architectural part of the old Temple available to Jews in the city of Jerusalem. The Wall or the Kotel, became a symbol of the Jewish longing to return to their land and to rebuild their nation and their faith. Non-Jews, misinterpreting the style of Jewish prayers offered at the Wall’s base, renamed it the Wailing Wall.
With the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 and the creation of a great, open plaza in front of the Kotel, it quickly was re-identified as The Western Wall and became a symbol of Israeli sovereignty and the reunification of Jerusalem. But a problem arose. The Wall was instantly taken over by the Orthodox who venerated the Wall as a symbol of hope for the building of a Third Temple. In essence, the Wall never really was a secular, national symbol of Israeli statehood but a giant religious monument to the political power of the religious parties in the Jewish State. For better or worse, and as a reflection of the dynamics of Israeli political culture, secular Israelis never demanded control of the Wall for national purposes. Instead, it became a giant shul, a great shtiebel, a monument to Orthodoxy in its many expressions, in the State of Israel and beyond.
Beginning with the organizing of the Women of the Wall about 20 years ago, a growing fight has been mounted to open the Wall up for non-Orthodox religious services including men and women praying together and women praying together as they see fit. Recently, it seemed that a compromise had been worked out to allow for a new egalitarian area of the Western Wall plaza, separate from the main area, to be developed by the government. In recent months, that compromise has been negated and, at present, there seems to be little hope of a new, open section in front of the Wall. The struggle on November 16th was meant to dramatize how deeply progressive goals have been thwarted. Perhaps it is time for us, sadly, to again start referring to the Kotel as the Wailing Wall, the place were disenfranchised streams of Judaism protest the injustice done to them and to us by Israel’s government.
Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.