Divine presence or photo-op
by Jonathan Rosenblum
February 5, 1999
Menahem Ussishkin recounts a visit to the Kotel on Erev Rosh Hashana of
1929, a month and a half after the Arab riots. After the riots, prayer at the Western Wall had nearly ceased, and Ussishkin describes his depression as he stood in the
nearly empty plaza thinking of times past, 2,000 years earlier.
'Suddenly,' the Zionist leader writes, 'I detected the sound of approaching footsteps. Out of a darkened side-street stepped an elderly Jew of stately appearance, attired in traditional festival garb. He approached the Kotel with bowed head and began to
kiss its stones with holy fervor. I recognized him - it was Rabbi Chaim Sonnenfeld [leader of the old Yishuv of Jerusalem]. I did not move or approach him, for I did not want to disturb his awesome reverence.
'A deep sigh escaped his lips. He raised his head, gave the stones a final embrace, and turned to leave. Then he noticed me and approached.
"How happy I am,' he said, 'that I have found here a brother who shares our anguish and pain.' He suddenly lifted his head, his eyes shining with fervor and hope and said, 'Do not be dejected. This will also pass.... Not through narrow alleyways and not
with bowed heads will we enter this holy place, but through boulevards and with proud bearing.'
'The words of this amazing sage,' Ussishkin concludes, 'left an impression upon me that I will never forget, and I returned home calmer and more serene than when I left.'
Nowadays, one can find Sonnenfeld's spiritual descendants wending their way from Mea She'arim and Geula late at night, every night of the year, to recite psalms on the women's side of the Kotel. Every morning, one can see men who have hardly
ever missed a sunrise minyan at the Kotel since its liberation in the Six Day War.
On Shavuot, 10,000 Jews jam the Kotel to pray. And thousands more make a point of attending the recitation of the priestly blessings by hundreds of kohanim on Hol Hamo'ed Pesach and Succot. They do so to be inspired by an image of what it must
have been like to witness Jerusalem flooded with pilgrims on the festivals, and what it will one day be like again.
They come to the Kotel out of the belief that the Divine Presence, which once dwelled in the Temple, has never departed. They come because Jews have always come when they thirsted for closeness to God or a prayer welled up in their hearts.
ONE wonders whether those Reform clergy who came to the Kotel this
Tuesday did so out of a thirst for closeness to God or because the Kotel provided the best photo-ops. Were those in whose temples the sound of prayer is not heard from one Sabbath to the next suddenly swept away by an intense spiritual longing
to pray in the middle of the week in Jerusalem?
Were those who do not even eat kosher food at their own conventions infused with a sudden desire to kiss the stones of the Kotel?
The picture of Reform Rabbi Richard Levy on the cover of the most recent issue of Reform Judaism, wearing a kippa and kissing the tzitzit on his tallit, caused people to 'freak out,' in the words of a Reform rabbi quoted in the Jewish Week, and to
feel 'betrayed by their own leaders.' If the sight of a male Reform rabbi donning a kippa and tallit shocks American Reform Jews, why is a woman rabbi putting on tallit and tefillin at the Kotel such a big mitzva?
The Kotel was chosen as a tool in a media campaign, not because it is the dwelling place of the Divine Presence. Even the more traditional Israeli branch of the Reform movement denies any special sanctity to the Kotel and looks with repugnance on
the divine service that once took place there.
The Council of Progressive Rabbis (Reform) in Israel recently declared: 'One should not consider the Western Wall as possessing any sanctity.... The approach of the Progressive Jew toward worship and prayer is opposed to any renewal of the
Temple, opposed to the restoration of sacrificial worship.... The Western Wall does not represent Jewish cleaving to God nor the experience of prayer nor Jewish thought for our times.'
Those who seek to connect to God do not generally alert the press of their intention to do so. The real purpose of the Reform clergy was to provoke and enrage, knowing that they could depend on the unwitting collaboration of dozens of haredim who
have not yet learned how to properly express their pain at seeing the millennia-old forms of prayer at the Kotel trampled underfoot. The outraged response helps the Reform to portray themselves as religious martyrs, though there are dozens of
places in Jerusalem, possessing equal sanctity in their eyes, where they could have prayed in any way they wanted without fear of disturbance.
Shortly after the 1929 Arab riots, Rabbi Sonnenfeld published an open plea to his Arab neighbors to desist from attacks on Jews and the Kotel. He movingly described how Jews have always directed their prayers towards the Temple and prayed at
'These outpourings of the heart were never restricted to a set time,' he writes. 'Day or night, the Jew could always be found at this sacred corner. God allowed me, too, to be among the visitors to this place. I, too, never had a set time for coming, and
many times I stood here during the late hours of the night alone with the one who rested His name on this abode.'
How many of these Reform clergy ever approached the Kotel to pour out their hearts in the middle of the night when there was no press in sight and no flash bulbs popping?
Related Topics: Pluralism
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free jewish media resources mailing list