Tradition Today: Is the Kotel in danger?

Let’s put things in proportion.

Children in costumes visit the Western Wall last Purim (photo credit: REUTERS)
Children in costumes visit the Western Wall last Purim
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Approaching Purim – a time when it is difficult to take anything seriously – a time when Purim Torah abounds so that it is difficult to differentiate truth from fiction or fact from fantasy – I was not quite certain what to make of the many posters and signs plastered all around Jerusalem shouting that our beloved Kotel was in danger. Headlines in newspapers quoted highly placed rabbis at length about the terrible desecration that this most sacred place was about to undergo. The chief rabbi of Jerusalem – a post that blessedly had been vacant for many years and should have remained so – was quoted to that effect and various government ministers were threatening to give up their jobs and quit the government (obviously Purim Torah!) if the prime minister did not recant his blasphemous act regarding the new plan of a “wall for all.” We were similarly treated to a compendium of statements denouncing various movements in Judaism in terms that I would not care to repeat and accusing them of causing Holocaust-like consequences for the Jewish People.
The Kotel in danger? Really? I could not help but be reminded of the many warnings by various Arab sources about Al-Aksa being in danger by what the Jews were doing and calling for drastic actions to save their holy place.
Only here it was Jews against Jews desecrating a holy place.
And there was just as much truth to these accusations and there was to those.
Let’s put things in proportion. The action that these spiritual leaders are protesting has nothing to do with the Western Wall that has been under the control of the Orthodox rabbinate ever since 1967. On the contrary. The new regulations actually give them more control over that than they have ever had. This new agreement for the first time guarantees that the rabbi of the Kotel has the absolute final say over what goes on there. The women who pray in the women’s section will no longer have the protection of the Supreme Court. If they want to do their thing – which is perfectly halachic no matter what the rabbi of the Kotel says – they will have to move elsewhere. The new arrangements for mixed minyanim and prayers conducted by the Masorti Movement, the Reform Movement and others, all pertain to a section of the Kotel that has never been under Orthodox control. It has been under the control of the Archeological authority which is also up in arms about the new arrangement. Furthermore, what is all the fuss about? Mixed minyanim have been conducted in that section for decades under control of the Masorti Movement according to an agreement with the Government. What is new is allowing such prayers freely at any time and building new entrances and facilities. But all of this concerns the section where such prayers have been going on for decades and has nothing to do with the Kotel they are shouting about. So all the “gevalts!” are a little exaggerated, appropriate only for Purim.
Obviously what is really bothering these protesters in the fact that more recognition is being given to other Jewish groups so that they feel that their exclusive rights to being the only true rabbinical authorities are in danger. I would like to reassure them on that score. Unfortunately, from my point of view, the exclusive rights of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate have in no way been harmed. Nothing – absolutely nothing – has been changed in regard to the things that count: marriage, divorce, kashrut, conversion, recognition of rabbis, financing of synagogues, rabbinic salaries and so on, remain exactly as they were. Nor is there any indication that this government is in the least interested in changing any of that. They can all sleep well. Everything precious to them remains in their control.
Yes, the rest of us will have our own Kotel, but it remains in their hands and all religious control over the lives of Jews in Israel remains in their hands. Would that it were not so. If there is anyone who should be up in arms it is the vast majority of Israelis who are suffering because of the current status of exclusive control of Judaism by a Chief Rabbinate that, by its actions and its lack of actions where needed, has shown itself to be unworthy of the power it has been given. That is truly a desecration – not of the Kotel but of Judaism itself.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).