The Western Wall and I have a long-standing relationship.
I can still
recall the mystery of my first caress of its stones back in 1970. I hadn’t yet
discovered Abraham Joshua Heschel, but when I did a year later, I found in his
eloquent ode, Israel: An Echo of Eternity, an articulation of the transcendental
moment I had experienced.
Heschel had landed in post-Six Day War Israel
with a problem. Judaism was a religion of time, not space, he had long taught.
In the Shabbat, he observed that the biblical record of creation depicts the
physical world as being “good,” while it is the seventh day, which Heschel
referred to as “a palace of time,” that is sanctified with
What, then, of the enormous limestone blocks of the Kotel?
Unable to ignore their powerful physicality, he reconciled their tangible import
with his underlying philosophy by suggesting that it is not the stones
themselves that are innately important, but rather their facility to move us to
recall hallowed moments. Problem solved.
Fast forward to Tishrei 1991. A
late Friday afternoon.
I take my children to experience the Shechina
(God’s presence) descending upon the Western Wall. They are full of
anticipation. But my daughters, then eight and 11, though garbed in their
Shabbat dresses, shoulders covered, are halted by a squadron of women who turn
them back gruffly because their prepubescent arms are bare. Clutching the slips
of paper on which they had inscribed their prayers they retreat, tears streaming
down their cheeks and dreams dissolving in tight, sweaty fists. “Abba,” said the
older, “when I first saw the Wall I felt so proud.
But then those women
made me feel terrible, like I was in another country and it didn’t belong to me.
I don’t ever want to come back here.”
It would be several more years
until we did.
Tisha Be’av, 1997. Among the throngs of Jerusalem’s
mourners we are sitting solemnly on the stones off to the side of the Kotel
plaza, listening to the recitation of Lamentations with dozens of other Masorti
worshipers. Oblivious to the lesson of the day regarding the caustic power of
baseless hatred that brought about the destruction of the Temple we are grieving
over, ultra-Orthodox bystanders begin their heckling. Suddenly, the police move
in, dispersing us with excessive force.
We had come neither to protest
nor provoke, merely to feel at one with our people, yet once again we found
It would take another few years and many more such
incidents until a solution to the problem was proposed that we could accept. An
area was cleared for us under Robinson’s Arch at the southern end of the Western
Wall that has since come to be known as the Kotel Masorti.
There we have
been praying undisturbed since August 2004 and, truth be told, I find the
atmosphere far more inspiring than that of the main plaza. The massive ruins
scattered about, lying where they fell almost 2,000 years ago, serve as an
inescapable reminder of why we are here in the first place. And I find the
relative isolation of the site, and the accompanying tranquility, far more
conducive to prayer and introspection than the perpetual commotion 100 meters
Still, I understand those who have rejected this compromise either
because of the more “primitive” conditions under which we have had to pray, the
limited access we have had to the site due to its doubling as an archeological
park, or a sense of being excluded from the “real” Wall and the implicit
delegitimization of non-Orthodox practice that suggests.
have been a staunch (though silent) supporter of the Women of the Wall over the
years. The Jewish state I want to live in is one that recognizes the right of
any Jew to pray in accordance with his or her beliefs, especially in a public
space of such momentous significance developed and maintained with public
I have also been an advocate of Women of the Wall’s mission “to
achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer
shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western
Wall.” Accordingly, I am discomforted by the possibility that from this point on
our paths may diverge.
On Wednesday evening, I took up Religious
Services, Jerusalem and the Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennett’s invitation to
visit the area alongside the Western Wall that has recently been developed at
the initiative of Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky as an area for prayer
conducted outside the parameters of traditional Orthodox norms. I was impressed.
Though still only an interim solution, the expanse has been aesthetically
constructed. It is easily accessible 24 hours a day. The setting is exquisite,
incorporating evocative remnants of the Second Temple period. It allows for
direct (albeit limited) contact with the stones of the Wall itself. It has the
capacity to accommodate far more than the numbers that can reasonably be
expected to make use of it. And, given that it was developed with taxpayers’
money and has the blessings of the government of Israel and the Jewish Agency, a
dynamic partnership of Jews from around the world, it provides the “social and
legal recognition” that Women of the Wall has been seeking.
doesn’t do is allow the Women of the Wall, or anyone else who might wish to pray
contrary to accepted Orthodox custom, to impose their practice upon others. That
raises a tough question for those who would continue the struggle to exercise
their court-sanctioned right to pray alongside the established Kotel in a manner
that offends their co-religionists – if indeed the fight until now really has
been about access, legitimacy and freedom of religious expression.
steadfast proponent of religious pluralism in this country, I feel compelled to
demand for others that which I demand for myself – the right to pray as one
chooses, without being bothered.
Against this background, then, I offer
my unsolicited advice for the Women of the Wall. Celebrate your victory. Accept
the thanks of those such as myself for your steadfast dedication that has
resulted in the wonderful new area where my children and I can pray as we
please. Join forces with others in the struggle for religious freedom in the
many spheres that could so benefit from your energies and passion. And call upon
your supporters in the Diaspora, for whom you have become a cause célèbre, to
join this collective effort to transform Israeli society.
Urge them to
support Sharansky as he continues to actualize his plan for the site, and to
explore the possibilities inherent in Bennett’s Rosh Hashana call to Jews around
the world “to open a new page in the Israeli-Diaspora relationship” and “join me
as we work to settle our differences… and move forward as a single and unified
people.” His observations that “the majority of the Jewish people in the
Diaspora are not Orthodox,” and that “the Western Wall belongs to all the Jews
in the world, not to one denomination” are not to be taken for granted, nor his
stated determination to ensure that all of them will feel comfortable here.
Several months ago, I would not have believed that Minister Bennett’s “Jewish
home” could ever become one that I would be prepared to step foot in. Today,
while I know we will continue to disagree vehemently over the perimeters of the
plot on which that home is to be built, I nevertheless appreciate the overtures
he is making to open its doors.
Eternal optimist that I am, I choose to
keep dreaming that we currently have an unprecedented opportunity to
substantively change the Jewish tenor of this country, both because of the
constellation of the governing coalition and the number of open-minded ministers
and MKs for whom Judaism is a fundamental tenet of both their self-identity and
their public agenda. But it won’t happen without ongoing and broad-based public
Women of the Wall: You have done wonders to ensure that all of
us have a path on which we can make our way up against the Wall. Now free it to
do what Heschel knew it could. Let’s not waste any more time idling there, when
there is so much yet to do elsewhere. ■
The writer is vice chairman of the World
Zionist Organization, a member of the Jewish Agency executive, and a past
chairman of the Masorti Movement in Israel. The opinions expressed herein are
A collection of his articles can be found at