The Western Wall, the only remnant of the holy sanctuary on the Temple Mount, cannot be permitted to become a symbol of Jewish divisiveness, President Reuven Rivlin declared on Monday.
Rivlin addressed an audience of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and secular Jews at the President’s Residence who set aside their differences in search for common values at the third annual Tisha Be’av study session, held in conjunction with the Jewish People Policy Institute.
However, on the eve of the commemoration of the siege of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple and the forced centuries-long exile of the Jewish people – given the lessons of history – it seems in latter-day Israel, unconditional love is not as prevalent as might be hoped.
Most of larger events at the President’s Residence are overcrowded with hundreds of people and extra chairs have to be brought in to accommodate the overflow. This time, far fewer chairs were arranged and not all of them were filled. This would indicate a lack of interest on the part of some of the invitees.
Rivlin first spoke about the destruction of the First and Second Temples and how the Romans plowed the ground, as if to obliterate any vestige of anything Jewish. He then talked of how the Western Wall had for centuries been known as the Wailing Wall, and with the reunification of Jerusalem 50 years ago evolved from a religious to a national symbol.
That national spirit of unification is more important today than ever, Rivlin said. The violence taking place on and around the Temple Mount and the attempts to erase Jewish history and the connection of the Jews to the Temple Mount makes unity more imperative than ever, he said. “We cannot allow this sole remnant of the Temple to become a source of dispute amongst ourselves.”
At the same time, he wondered aloud how the generation that witnessed the freedom of Israel and the liberation of Jerusalem, could identify with the destruction of the Temple and all that it signified.
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Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky recalled the first time he saw the Western Wall. It was on a picture postcard sent to Moscow at a time when the Wall was still referred to as the Wailing Wall. Like all things Jewish and Israeli that found their way behind the Iron Curtain, the postcard was passed around to people who became very excited and emotional without knowing exactly why. Their contact with their heritage had been minimal, if any at all. And yet, there was a sense of identification – a bond with ancestral history, a place in an ever-widening circle.
It was only when he was living in Israel and trying to find solutions to some of the difficulties involved in Jewish identity that Sharansky came to understand why the Wall had been called the Wailing Wall. There were many questions which remain unanswered even today, he said.
“Is Judaism a religion or a nationality?” asked Sharansky. “Is the Bible a history book or a code of Jewish law?” Whatever the answers might be, he said, he was certain “the Western Wall must not again become the Wailing Wall, but the Wall of Joy.”
JPPI president Avinoam Bar-Yosef, in referring to the section of Torah that congregations began reading last Shabbat, said the Book of Deuteronomy contains the basic principles for the manner in which humans beings should act toward each other. He then quoted Talmudic variations on “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” saying it was an intrinsic part of Jewish tradition that must be disseminated within Israel and to Jews in the Diaspora.
“If we loved our neighbors as ourselves, we wouldn’t have a Western Wall crisis,” he said.”
Four speakers affiliated with different streams within Judaism spoke on the lesson of Tisha Be’av: Rabbi Yoav Ende, executive director of the Hannaton Educational Center; Dr. Shlomo Vaknin, director of the BINA Secular Yeshiva; Rabbi Naama Kelman, dean of the Hebrew Union College; and Rabbanit Esti Rosenberg, head of the Migdal Oz Beit Midrash for Women.
Ende queried how a generation – which in Temple times was known for its learning and its charity – could at the same time be filled with such baseless hatred. It was because they were removed from reality and forgot the world outside, which is one of the reasons Torah is not studied on Tisha Be’Av, he explained.
Vaknin emphasized the importance of listening to different voices in order to learn not only Jewish but universal lessons, and to be open to new ideas.
Kelman, whose father, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, was a prominent leader of Conservative Judaism in America, said she was delighted to be sharing a platform with Esti Rosenberg, whose grandfather Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was a close friend of her father’s. In America, Kelman said, Rabbis from different streams of Judaism find it much easier than their Israeli counterparts to focus on their commonalities rather than their differences.
“Unity, empathy and mutual respect are vital to our future existence,” she said. And while she advocated the importance of listening to the other, she admitted finding it difficult to speak to people with racist and xenophobic attitudes.
Rosenberg had hoped to get away from the traditional Kamsa and Bar Kamsa story of the hard-hearted and humiliating episode to which many attribute the destruction of the Temple. But she found it difficult to do so, especially in the face of certain similarities in today’s society.
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