Confrontation: the whole point
by Jonathan Rosenblum
August 15, 1997
No photograph better captured the euphoria that gripped Israel after the Six Day War than David Rubinger's shot of the young paratrooper looking up at the Western Wall with awe and wonder. That young man was coming face to face with the nearly 3,000 years of Jewish history since King David laid the foundations for the First Temple.
The Western Wall is the most emotionally resonant site in Judaism because it is the last link with the Temple that once stood on the mount above.
Today, that sense of continuity is under attack as never before. Increasingly the Western Wall is being turned into a large bulletin board, where all and sundry can trumpet their more modern understandings of God's will.
The politicization of the Wall began nine years ago when the Women at the Wall staged their first minyan in conjunction with an international feminist conference in Jerusalem. Photographers and journalists, all carefully alerted in advance, were almost as numerous as those comprising the minyan.
If there was a religious statement being made by those present - many of whom were at their first Jewish prayer service in years - it was a negative one: To the extent that Judaism fails to treat men and women as identical, we declare Judaism invalid.
The ongoing confrontation over egalitarian minyanim at the Western Wall owes more to politics than to religion. As Hillel Halkin recently pointed out in the Forward, nothing in the tenets of Reform or Conservative Judaism requires women to wear tallitot at the Western Wall. Nor does either movement prohibit men from reading from the Torah. Until 20 years ago, no Conservative woman - or Reform man for that matter - donned a tallit to pray. If these are important religious principles, they are certainly not from Sinai.
Halkin rightly asked, 'Were they to come to the Wall without prayer shawls as a simple gesture of respect for the traditions of the place, against what sacred principles of their faith would they be sinning? Are there no other places to practice Jewish feminism in the world, in Israel, or even in Jerusalem that they must do it at the one site where it infuriates large numbers of other Jews?'
Unless, of course, confrontation is just the point.
A WOMAN I know was recently seated on a flight to Israel next to a young Ph.D. from Michigan. The younger woman told her that she was coming to study in a non- Orthodox 'yeshiva,' and that millions of dollars had been raised to sponsor students like herself.
Asked what else she would be doing, the young woman said she would be going to the Western Wall to put on a shmatte (old rag). Noticing her seatmate's puzzled look, she continued, 'You know one of those shmattes,' and tried to describe a prayer shawl worn around the neck.
This woman knew nothing about the Kotel other than it had once belonged to Jordan and now belongs to Israel, and she could not even recall the word for tallit. But she had been primed for the excitement of causing Orthodox Jews to gnash their teeth.
I experienced that same 'in your face' attitude this past Rosh Hodesh, when a group of about 10 Women at the Wall stood leaning over the chain behind the men's section singing at the top of their lungs words not even found in the morning prayers. They knew, of course, that they were disturbing every single man at the Kotel, but that was just the point: We will not be ignored. A feminist statement, not a religious one.
Those who have raised millions of dollars to import women to put on shmattes at the Western Wall are hardly unmindful that confrontation advances their cause. The more trouble they can stir up, the better able they are to portray themselves in the eyes of their American brethren as a poor, beleaguered minority.
And they are certainly good at provocation. Like the old-time Bundists who stood outside synagogues on Yom Kippur eating ham sandwiches, they have chosen their symbols with care. The issue is not the right of anyone to approach the Kotel and pour out his or her heart to God in any way he or she chooses. Rather it is our spiritual health as a people.
The most lapsed Italian Catholic still wants the Vatican to remain the Vatican. He would be outraged if a group of Protestant tourists were to come into St. Peter's Square and attempt to conduct a revival meeting. Yet today we Jews are opening up the door for everyone, including Jews for Jesus, to conduct their own public worship at our most sacred site.
The Wall arouses something very deep in the collective Jewish psyche.
Fourteen years ago, a young Yale student came to our house on Rosh Hashana still wearing the cardboard kippa he had been given at the Kotel. Today, he is the Orthodox rabbi of a thriving community.
Another friend, backpacking around the world, stood before the Kotel and requested God, 'If these stones mean anything, and if You exist, give me a sign.' At that moment, he was tapped on the back by a rabbi and asked if he would like to visit a yeshiva. He's still there 18 years later.
But if the Kotel becomes a Hyde Park corner for the proclamation of every Jew's politics or personalized religion, our last link with the Temple will be severed and our most enduring national symbol drained of its power.
Related Topics: Pluralism
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