Whose Wall is it?

The fact that for centuries Jews prayed at the Kotel has given it an emotional relevance that cannot be denied. The fact that it was separated from Jewish Jerusalem after 1948 until 1967 only added to its meaning in our collective consciousness.

Western Wall (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Western Wall
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Again our newspapers are filled with reports about controversies concerning the Western Wall. Again there are demonstrations and protests pro and con about who can pray where along the stretch of retaining wall called the Kotel. Pronouncements are being made by rabbinical authorities about the sacredness of the place and the violation of its sanctity by this or that group that wants to pray in a way that is different from what the rabbi of the Kotel thinks is permitted, or in violation of what he calls “minhag hamakom” – “the customary usage of the place.” Of course what is really at stake and what is really the cause of all the fuss is simply a struggle for power and control. It is the attempt of the official rabbinate to control religious life in Israel and to declare illegitimate all other groups that claim to represent Judaism as well. The answer to “Whose Wall is it?” must be “…this Wall belongs to you and me.”
I am astonished at the exaggerated statements concerning the sacredness of the Wall. Judaism has very few places that are considered sacred. Looked at objectively, the Kotel, after all, is not a wall of the Temple at all. It is a retaining wall created in order to enlarge the top of the mountain and provide a large platform for the glorified Temple that Herod wanted to create. That makes it extremely important logistically, but does not make it holy, and therefore we should be wary of what philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz called “Kotelatry.”
When early rabbinic writings spoke about the sacredness of the Western Wall, they were referring to the Western Wall of the Holy of Holies, part of which remained standing after the Romans had destroyed the Temple. That was sacred. Rabbis, including Rabbi Akiva, were known to visit that ruin. Only much later did the current Kotel become a place of pilgrimage and prayer when the Temple Mount was no longer accessible to Jews. Therefore it has become symbolic of Jewish independence and sovereignty and having free access to it is the right of every Jew.
The current Kotel may not have any sacredness attached to it, but it has historical importance since it is a monumental remnant of the Temple complex. However, it is certainly no more important intrinsically than the Robinson’s Arch area or than the Southern Wall with its great archways that were actually entrances to the Temple complex. The fact that for centuries Jews prayed at the Kotel has given it an emotional relevance that cannot be denied. The fact that it was separated from Jewish Jerusalem after 1948 until 1967 only added to its meaning in our collective consciousness.
I will admit that when I went there first in February 1968, I was deeply moved. In addition to everything else, it seemed to represent the fact that Israel had survived a war that threatened its very existence. Today, in view of all that has happened since and the way it has been turned into a haredi synagogue for all intents and purposes, I am not inclined to go there, but I do feel a resonance to the Robinson’s Arch area where the Masorti Movement has had services for many years without protest until now. The quiet and solemnity there are moving. This is especially so because of the huge pile of stones at ground level that were thrown there from the top of the wall by the Romans at the very time of the destruction. Looking at them one feels a true witness to the tragedy of that time and a participant in the redemption that has taken place 2,000 years later. I hope that whatever changes are made – if any – in that area for greater use by non-Orthodox movements will not impinge on that moving site.
Speaking of the Temple, it is particularly disturbing that we now have organizations that are devoted to the rebuilding of the Temple and to the restoration of ancient sacrificial rites. I have no sympathy for that. In the first place I think that sacrifices were an ancient way of worship whose time has passed. I agree with Maimonides, who saw them as a concession to the ancient Israelites on the part of God, since they could not imagine worship without them. We can.
A well-known Orthodox Israeli rabbi (whom I shall not name since it could cause him harm) expressed it this way, “When prayer replaced sacrifice, a different spiritual world was created. In place of the active, physical worship of the Temple came the inwardness of prayer. The consciousness of the person who stands before God is no longer that of someone in the time the Temple stood. A man or woman now worships God through inner intent and destruction.”
Similarly, Rabbi Haim Hirschensohn, a great leader of Orthodox Zionism, wrote that culture cannot go backwards and that it was therefore unimaginable that we could return to sacrifices.
As for the Temple itself, since rebuilding it now would require demolishing the Dome of the Rock and would spark a terrible war, even to contemplate it is unthinkable and the height of irresponsibility.
The Temple must be a place of peace. Even David could not build it because his hands were bloody. When I recite the words “rebuild the Temple” found in our liturgy, I keep in mind Isaiah’s vision of the end of days when “The Mount of the Lord’s House shall stand firm above the mountains and tower above the hills; and all the nations shall gaze on it with joy. And the many peoples shall go and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the Mount of the Lord, to the House of the God of Jacob; that He may instruct us in His ways….’ And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not take up sword against nation; They shall never again know war” (Isaiah 2:2-4). That is a vision of a messianic time of peace and human unity that I can hope will come to pass some day, but it is not a call to rebuilding the Temple under present conditions.
The battles now waging concerning the Kotel are important because they are part of the struggle for religious pluralism and religious freedom for Jews in the State of Israel. They have nothing to do with the holiness of the place and everything to do with doing away with a monopoly on Judaism that is a stain on Israeli democracy.
The writer is a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and a well know author of such books as The Jerusalem Anthology (JPS) and, most recently, Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy (JPS).