Once again the Western Wall has become an area of controversy and concern. There are many misconceptions about the Western Wall. For example, it is often referred to as the "Wailing Wall." This mistaken translation stems from the fact that often times Jews would cry when praying there. The term, however, is never used in Hebrew and certainly is inappropriate. Jews above all should be careful to use either the Hebrew Hakotel Hama'aravi or the correct English translation, the Western Wall.
Another mistake that often finds its way into articles and books is that this wall is from the Temple of Solomon. I would hope that anyone with any knowledge of our history would know that it was erected by Herod for a specific purpose: creating a great platform upon which to erect the Temple that he built to replace the building created at the time of Nehemiah when Jews returned from the Babylonian Exile. In truth, then, there were not two Temples, but three upon that site.
Then we hear people say that the Western Wall is all that remains of the Temple. Surely any visitor to the area can see that you have a magnificent Southern Wall with monumental steps and an Eastern Wall as well.
Finally we have the way in which the Wall is spoken of as "the holiest place in Judaism." The holiest place in Judaism is the site of the Holy of Holies. The Wall is no more than a retaining wall for that massive platform. As such, at the time when the Temple existed it had no particular sacredness at all. Why then has it acquired the sanctity and the importance it has today? One answer is that through the centuries a small part of the Western Wall was all that was uncovered or accessible to Jews from the Temple site and so they came to it to pray. It was this usage by generations of Jews that created the sanctity.
Furthermore, this was based upon the fact that there were many rabbinic sayings and midrashim that ascribed unusual importance and sanctity to a Western Wall. For example: Said Rabbi Aha, "The Presence of God will never depart from the Western Wall, as it is said, 'There He stands behind our wall'" (Song of Songs 2:9) (Midrash Psalms 11:3).
This midrash, however, and many others like it, was not referring to what we today call the Western Wall but to the actual western wall of the Holy of Holies, the central building on the mount of the actual Temple. When the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 CE, they left that wall as a remnant so that all could sense the grandeur of the place that they had succeeded in destroying. That ruined remnant became a place of visitation and pilgrimage until it too was finally demolished when a pagan temple was erected on the site.
It is referred to in one of the most beautiful and famous stories about Mount Zion, the Temple Mount: It is told that Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Akiva once went to Jerusalem. They rent their garments when they stood on Mount Scopus and saw the ruins of the city. Then they came to the Temple Mount itself and "saw a fox going out of the Holy of Holies." All of them wept except for Akiva, who laughed. When they were astonished by his laughter, Akiva explained that he saw in this the fulfillment of the prophecy that the Temple Mount would become ruins and a shine in the woods (Jeremiah 26:18,20).
But there was another prophecy that Jerusalem would be rebuilt and "there shall yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem" (Zechariah 8:4). "Before the first prophecy came true," Akiva said, "I was afraid that the second would not be realized. Now that the first has come true, I am certain that the second will come to pass." And the others said to him, "Akiva, you have comforted us; Akiva, you have comforted us" (Sifre Deuteronomy 43, Makkot 24b).
At a later date, then, when that original wall of the Temple no longer stood, all the sayings concerning it were applied to the western retaining wall now known as the Western Wall and thus its holiness was increased. Of course the events of the Six Day War, the emotion that was released at that time, the pent-up feelings that finally once again Jews could visit this place and that for the first time in 2,000 years Jewish sovereignty held sway over these ancient stones, all that has added even more significance to the Western Wall.
When we visit the Wall, however, we must always remember that it is important not for itself, but for what it stands for, the sacred Presence of God, and that, as the prophets taught us, no structure can substitute for observing God's laws of morality. Or, as the Psalmist put it, "Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord and who shall stand in His holy place? One who is clean of hands and pure of heart..." (Psalm 24).
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.