The Sharansky plan

Natan Sharansky is to be applauded for his effort to make the Western Wall area known as Robinson’s Arch available for mixed minyanim, on a 24-hour basis.

Natan Sharansky 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Natan Sharansky 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Let me begin by making it clear that Natan Sharansky is to be applauded for his effort to make the Western Wall area known as Robinson’s Arch available for mixed minyanim, on a 24-hour basis. Furthermore, let me state unequivocally that the Masorti Movement has always supported the demands of the Women of the Wall that they be permitted to pray in the women’s section with tallit and tefillin and read from the Torah. Having said that, it is important that it be understood that these are two very different matters, and that even if WOW should decide that it is not interested in the expanded Western Wall, that area should be made available to all groups for nonsegregated prayer.
A bit of history: The use of Robinson’s Arch for prayer was offered to the Masorti Movement many years ago as a result of the fact that the mixed minyanim we had conducted at the plaza area for many years were being prohibited by the police because of haredi violence against them. After prolonged negotiations, we of the Masorti Movement accepted this offer with the proviso that it be understood that we did not thereby give up our legal rights to pray in mixed minyanim in the Kotel area.
Later WOW were also given an area to use at Robinson’s Arch, which they have used only under protest because they want – and rightly so – to pray in the Women’s Section according to their practice. The wearing of tefillin and tallitot is mentioned and permitted in rabbinic writings, even if not required or common practice.
Women's minyanim and Torah readings take place in Orthodox congregations in Israel and America such as Shira Hadasaha and have been endorsed by various Orthodox authorities.
IT IS bad enough that the Wall was turned into an Orthodox synagogue without also turning it into a haredi one! It should have remained a free and open area as it always was, with no permanent mechitza (partition), but that was not to be.
From the beginning, the use of Robinson’s Arch was problematic because of the time restrictions placed upon its use. For years we fought to expand the time available with very little success. Sharansky’s promise that it will now be made available constantly for mixed groups is a wonderful step forward and should be embraced by the government and implemented at once.
It must also be cautioned that the area is a magnificent archeological site and that whatever plan is adopted must respect that and must not take away from the experience of seeing the full height of the wall beginning at the street level, something that is not to be found at the current Kotel, as well as being able to see the stones from the top of the Wall that are now in a pile where they landed when the Romans toppled them in 70 CE. Some changes need to be made to accommodate worshipers, but the less the site is disturbed, the better.
It should also be emphasized that the Robinson’s Arch area is every bit as much a remnant of the so-called Western Wall as is the current Kotel.
In order to keep things in proportion, we should remember that the Wall is not a part of the Temple itself but the retaining wall that Herod erected in order to expand the area upon which he could erect his grandiose new Temple.
Nor it is the only area of that wall that remained after the destruction.
There is also the Southern Wall and areas of the Eastern Wall as well. All are of equal importance and equal antiquity.
The Western Wall that is referred to in rabbinic sources as remaining after the destruction was an actual wall of the Temple on the Temple Mount which the Romans left deliberately to demonstrate the size and importance of the structure they had been able to destroy. They later destroyed that as well and replaced it with a pagan temple.
The walls that now remain do not have the sanctity that is applied to the Temple itself. Their holiness lies in the fact that for centuries this was the only spot associated with the Temple where Jews could pray and it served and still serves as a connecting link with our tradition going back at least as far as David and, according to tradition, even to Abraham.
Superstitions associated with the Wall, however, should not be extended to the new area being made available.
For example A.M. Lunz, who wrote many books about Jerusalem at the beginning of the past century, stated, “Recently it has become the custom for people to write their names and requests on pieces of paper which they place in cracks between the stones. The Rabbis...should strictly forbid this superstitious custom and proclaim in all the synagogues the severity of the prohibition, for this is a serious sin against the holiness of the place.” Perhaps we can at least keep this practice from spreading further.
It is to be hoped that under Mr. Sharansky’s guidance an appropriate and respectful place will be found for all Jews to worship freely near the Temple Mount without interference from extremist elements, thus returning an important part of our heritage to the rightful use of the Jewish People.
The author is a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, and was one of those who negotiated the use of Robinson’s Arch with the government. The opinions expressed here are his own. He is the author of The Jerusalem Anthology (JPS).