Middle Israel: Whose Wall is it?

The plan calls for the new portion of the Wall to be managed by a board including non-Orthodox Jews, but should also include representatives from the Diaspora.

Reform Jews pray at new Western Wall egalitarian section (photo credit: Y.R)
Reform Jews pray at new Western Wall egalitarian section
(photo credit: Y.R)
"The Wall,” a daydreaming Israel hummed in June ’67, “moss and sorrow.”
“The Wall,” Israel sang and the Diaspora wept, “lead and blood.”
“There are people with a heart of stone,” went on poet Yossi Gamzu’s lines, penned immediately after Jerusalem’s liberation, “there are stones with human heart.”
We have come a long way since the heady morning when 200,000 people thronged to the Wall the day it was first opened to the public, forming a spontaneous jamboree, the first Jewish pilgrimage to the Temple Mount since antiquity.
Once in their shadows, the stones with human hearts stared at us as if asking ‘What took you so long?’ And having now been told by my father that a Jew says a chapter of Psalms upon arrival at the Wall, I said what I knew by heart, Chapter 126, about God’s restoration of Zion to its returnees; a return that made the returning feel they were in a dream, their mouths filled with laughter and their tongues with song, like those who sow in tears and reap in joy.
The tears, the laughter and the joy were all around us, and to this day, nearly half-a-century on, still make me tremble as I recall the multitude by the Wall – a euphoric mixture of men, women, religious, secular, local and foreign – oblivious of their differences of conviction, tribe, and sex.
Times, alas, have changed.
Now the men with hearts of stone are back at the Wall, harboring the same ill spirits that made our forebears kill each other at the foothills of that very wall, even while the Romans who would soon level Jerusalem were parking their horses outside its gates.
“THEY,” wrote this week the state-paid Rabbi of the Wall Shmuel Rabinowitz, “are out to tear the Wall and the people of Israel into sects and slivers while claiming: ‘It is all mine.’” He was referring to the Women of the Wall, the group that has struggled for decades to allow women’s prayers at the Wall, and which now – foolishly – rejects the government’s groundbreaking resolution to dedicate a portion of the Wall to non-Orthodox worship.
The government’s compromise reserves the Wall’s southern end, under the Robinson Arch, for Reform, Conservative, and egalitarian prayers, following the future establishment here of a new plaza and archeological park.
Welcomed by the non-Orthodox denominations, the arrangement is derided by the Women of the Wall for keeping them out of the rest of the Wall.
While commendable from feminism’s viewpoint, this attitude emulates the ultra-Orthodox revulsion with the very concept of religious compromise.
Yet the Women of the Wall are not the issue here. They are in no position to derail the deal, and are but a pretext for an ultra-Orthodox effort to undo a political work of art crafted by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, a hero of Jewish survival and fraternity, and Attorney- General Avichai Mandelblit, an observant Jew.
The two’s pluralistic formula became official policy after the government heeded the ultra-Orthodox parties’ demand that its resolution would not be about the blueprint’s “adoption” but abut its “implementation,” lest it imply a formal acceptance of non-Orthodoxy.
That, too, was inventive and practical, in the spirit of the tolerance this compromise both deployed and inspired, and in line with what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rightly hailed that day as “a proper and creative solution.”
That was before ultra-Orthodox zealots learned about it and decided to treat the compromise the way they treat any interpretation of Judaism that challenges theirs: as a strategic threat.
NOT CARING a fig for the government’s quest to fashion the Wall as an engine of intra-Jewish toleration and solidarity, the Chief Rabbinate is now struggling to undo the Sharansky-Mandelblit compromise.
Calling “sects” all forms of Judaism that differ from theirs and deriding them all as heretics out “to uproot Judaism’s foundations,” ultra-Orthodox rabbis can’t stand the idea of Jews seeking God without their instruction, approval, mediation, and control.
That is why they now fielded a bill that, if it becomes law, will make it illegal to use 757 tax-funded ritual baths in ways that are disagreeable to ultra-Orthodoxy.
Judaism requires women to dip in a ritual bath after menstruating.
Otherwise they can’t have sex. Dipping is also required as part of the process of converting to Judaism.
When the laws of the ritual bath were formulated thousands of years ago, no one thought of premarital sex.
Today, however, some observant single women do have sex, and thus reach the ritual bath’s threshold, only to encounter a state-paid, suspecting warden who asks them if they are married, and bars their entry if they say they are not. The same exclusion happens with non-Orthodox converts, who of course also did not exist in antiquity.
Some married Orthodox women now want the warden gone; not because of premarital sex, but because of modesty.
They don’t want a stranger staring at them dipping nude in the ritual bath, both because it violates their privacy and because it intrudes on what they believe should be a moment of feminine intimacy with God.
This somewhat esoteric struggle is a microcosm of a religious possessiveness whose bigger, and by no means esoteric manifestation is in the ultra-Orthodox refusal to share the Wall with the rest of the Jewish nation.
Premarital sex among observant women may be rare (it may also be common), but non-Orthodoxy numbers millions of Jews. If the Jewish state will now backtrack and surrender the Wall to ultra-Orthodoxy’s tutelage it would be a tragedy for the ages, the terrible inversion of the spirit of fraternity with which Zion’s returnees arrived at the Wall half-a-century ago.
The Sharansky-Mandelblit plan calls for the new, pluralistic portion of the Wall to be managed by a board that will include representatives of non-Orthodoxy. That is of course wise, but will be even more effective if it includes, by definition, several Diaspora Jews. This way we will make it plain that the Wall belongs to every Jew with a human heart.