The Western Wall should be a place of unity for all Jews - opinion

The implementation of the Ezrat Yisrael is symbolic of the potential of our relationship with all the disparate parts of our people, near and far.

 PRAYING AT Robinson’s Arch at the south end of  the Kotel, the section set aside for pluralistic prayer.  (photo credit: ROBERT SWIFT/FLASH90)
PRAYING AT Robinson’s Arch at the south end of the Kotel, the section set aside for pluralistic prayer.
(photo credit: ROBERT SWIFT/FLASH90)

The Torah relates a fascinating episode that when the People of Israel were encamped in the desert and the Mishkan (Sanctuary) was inaugurated, Moses thought that one single representative from the people should bring an offering. However, God replied that each tribe should have to make its own representation and provide separate offerings.

This, and many similar episodes, have enlivened the millennia-long debate between the Jewish People as ‘one nation’ or broken up into numerous ‘tribes.’

However, the two are not mutually exclusive.

The unity of the People of Israel is strengthened through our differences. Differences of opinion and outlook is the bedrock of our history, culture and faith. Our foundational texts, the Mishna and the Gemara proudly display argument, debate and disagreement.

As the late and sorely missed Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks wrote: “Diversity is a sign of strength not weakness.”

The egalitarian section of the Western Wall last week with new wooden floorboards. (credit: LIBA CENTER)The egalitarian section of the Western Wall last week with new wooden floorboards. (credit: LIBA CENTER)

This is why, with the necessary debate and reform of issues relating to religion and state in Israel, one of the issues left on the agenda which has the strongest capacity to divide, but can also have the greatest potential to unite, is the Western Wall (Kotel) Compromise.

The Western Wall compromise called for creating a state-recognized egalitarian prayer section at the southern end of the Western Wall called “Ezrat Yisrael” (Section for the People of Israel).

Unfortunately, while the Reform and Conservative movements made great compromises to arrive at the understanding, the Chief Rabbinate did not, and eventually did not even honor what had been previously agreed. The absurdity of those who rejected the Western Wall compromise is that none of them would ever pray in the area itself, their refusal was inexplicable and was seen as just an opportunity to deny other types of Jews the privilege that they have, to pray as they deem fit at the Kotel.

Nonetheless, by not implementing the compromise, we are saying to many of our brothers and sisters, especially in the Diaspora, that they have no place among us at one of the holiest and historically central points to the Jewish People on earth.

The implementation of the Ezrat Yisrael is symbolic of the potential of our relationship with all the disparate parts of our people, near and far.

The Western Wall should be a place of both unity and diversity.

The Compromise does not infringe on the rights of the ultra-Orthodox who maintain the rules and regulations of the more well-known sections of the Kotel. It leaves that area under the status quo.

It merely provides groups and individuals who would like to pray according to their understanding of Judaism a space to do so. As an Orthodox Jew, I am certainly more likely to pray in a minyan at the more well-known sections of the Kotel, but I believe in the right and obligation of the Jewish State to provide a place for every “tribe.”

Moreover, there is a current debate in Israel amongst some modern-Orthodox and Religious Zionist rabbis about how to return members of the community to the synagogues after the Coronavirus restrictions, because many enjoy the more loosely organized services outside where they can stand together or near their family while praying. Thus, I wouldn’t be surprised if more modern-Orthodox Jews choose to celebrate a bar mitzvah, the first putting on of tefillin or other celebratory events in the newer section that would not have a permanent physical separation, especially the size of the mechitza (partition) at the more well-known section, which provides little opportunity for a family to celebrate such moments together.

This coming together and shared space between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews will ensure that the name Ezrat Yisrael will truly be appropriate.

This is not a Jewish legal question because we know that while Jews have prayed at the Western Wall for over a thousand years, since around the late 10th Century, there was no permanent separation as there is now. Jews, men and women, at many different levels of observance, would gather together and separately to pray. In fact, according to research, the majority of those who prayed at the Kotel before the modern era were women.

Moreover, our great Jewish legalists dealt with the issue of the halachic position of an open area where people pray, and what should be the status therein.

The Rambam wrote in the Mishneh Torah that “buildings and courtyards where people gather to pray do not possess any measure of sanctity, because they were not designated for prayer alone.” Even current Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef wrote that while the current enclosed area of the Western Wall has the status of a synagogue, areas outside of it do not.

Here are just two of many opinions that should give solace to anyone who worries about the halachic status of the Ezrat Yisrael section and the need or not of a mechitza to separate the genders during prayer.

Change is difficult, especially in the world of the ultra-Orthodox when much that is new, is deemed with suspicion. However, almost everything we do now was new and an innovation at one point, and for many of our beloved traditions, in the not-too-distant past.

The secret to Jewish endurance in the Diaspora was to place the unity of the community over almost everything else. Judaism is not an individualistic creed, it thrives in community and unity, finding innovative ways to satisfy the requirements of the day.

The requirement of today is to keep the Jewish People whole and united. We face so many threats from others, whether the Iranian nuclear threat, the constant scourge of terrorism, rising antisemitism or the unceasing attempts to disconnect us through delegitimization and disenfranchisement.

Every single Jew who comes to pray at the Western Wall is making a strong Zionist statement that Zion is central to their identity, and they want to be at the place that is one of the most pregnant with Jewish tradition, history, heroism and sacrifice.

The symbolism that every Jew places on the Kotel should be returned in kind. The Kotel should become a symbol of unity and accord, where every Jew finds and has their space.

In the desert, God told Moses that he doesn’t want just one voice or offering to represent the whole nation, but multiple, representing each tribe. This should teach us that there is more than one way to speak to God and each should have its own time and space, and this should certainly find representation at the Kotel as soon as possible.

Thus, the Western Wall Compromise should be enacted and fulfilled, not as a favor for any one stream or movement in Judaism, but for the good and unity of all Jews.

The writer is Israel’s Intelligence Minister and a Member of Knesset for the Yesh Atid Party.