Symbolic Judaism

The Wall is being manipulated as a symbol for respect.

The Western Wall in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The Western Wall in Jerusalem
The current Western Wall controversy is not at its core a religious dispute. It is a symbolic battle using a key religious symbol and religious jargon to camouflage the main issue. On the American side, the battle is being fought by the professional and lay leaders of large Jewish organizations whose responsibility it is to guard the interests of their respective constituencies. The latter, we are told, comprise the majority of America’s Jews.
Yet, how much of this majority is little more than names on a mailing list? How many are even aware of the current controversy? How many of them care? Non-Orthodox Judaism is enormously beholden to symbols. Symbols are useful tools when commitment is limited and time is minimal. Across America, non-Orthodox synagogue attendance is known to be sporadic and sparse.
Daily communal prayer and regular text study is not a feature of Reform and, with few exceptions, Conservative Jewish life; certainly not among the rank and file. In these precincts, the symbols of Judaism often pass for content. By way of example, great importance is given to the style and colors of a tallit, more than to understand the laws surrounding its unique design.
In some non-Orthodox congregations, a Torah scroll is removed from the Holy Ark and passed among family members. It functions as a symbol, not a readable book. Most Orthodox Jewish homes include a Hebrew library whose volumes are regularly removed from the shelves for study and reference. In contrast, non-Orthodox American Jewish families see no use for arcane and irrelevant Jewish texts. To express their Jewish identity they display Jewish symbols: a Star of David, a hanukkia, a Passover Seder plate, a Chagall print. They surround themselves with symbols.
The Western Wall is another symbol.
Non-Orthodox American Jews who come to Israel presume the right to express their Jewish identity with this symbol and practice “their Judaism” as they do at home. But the Western Wall does not belong to them. This may be a point of contention for many but since June 1967 the Wall belongs to the sovereign State of Israel and is administered according to the rules and regulations determined by her government. It does not “belong to the Jewish People.” I identify with the menorah that sits on my neighbor’s mantle, but though I am a Jew this menorah does not belong to me. If I am to use it, I must abide by the conditions my neighbor establishes for its use. The rules presently governing the form and nature of religious services at the Western Wall are the outcome of a political process. Only a political process can change them.
The current dispute is not about the right to hold non-Orthodox prayer services at the Wall. The real issue is respect. The Wall is being manipulated as a symbol for respect. American non-Orthodox Jews feel that, especially after raising billions of dollars and lobbying for support of Israel since its founding, they are entitled to respect.
But in the political arena, for better or for worse, respect is garnered through voting power. Until such time that non-Orthodox American Jews living and voting in Israel, along with other Israelis who agree with them, are able to wield the needed political influence, it unfortunately appears likely that the Western Wall, rather than serving as a symbol of Jewish unity, will symbolize the wall that separates Israel from many of the Jews of the Diaspora.
The author is the founder and director of