It’s not about the Wall

You know when you have an argument with a loved one about something and it turns into a really ugly fight and later you realize that this huge fight was not even about whatever you were fighting about?  It’s actually about something deeper in your relationship.  I think that’s what’s happening this week among the Jewish People with regard to the Kotel (the Western Wall).

What happened?

Prime Minister Netanyahu suspended the plan to expand the egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall.  The English language press in Israel went bananas and Jewish leaders in the US issued strongly worded statements of disappointment.  Op-eds were written that suggested Netanyahu snubbed the whole of Diaspora Jewry and is a liar, that this act will turn into a security threat because US Jewry will no longer support Israel and thus not push the US government to continue to support Israel, that US Jewry will pull their charitable giving, and on and on.

The Israeli press noted that the decision happened and moved on.

A little background

What is the Kotel actually?  It is an exposed remnant of the retaining wall that holds up the Temple Mount complex, where the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aksa now stand.  It is *not* a remnant of the Temple itself.


Screencap: Source

Why do Jews face Jerusalem to pray? Jews pray toward where the Temple once stood; they are not praying to a retaining wall.  People place prayers in the Wall, but the Spirit of the Lord does not actually reside there.  He just picks up His messages from time to time.

When did the Plaza become a synagogue? In 1967, when Jerusalem was reunified, the alleyway that was in front of the exposed section was expanded and became the Western Wall Plaza.  That small section of the retaining wall was conveniently located and it was turned into an open-air Orthodox synagogue (it was not a synagogue before).

How holy is it? Based on the logic of holiness bestowed upon the Western Wall, every part of the retaining wall should be considered equally holy: the southern wall (I’ve seen people praying there), the eastern section (on the Mount of Olives side), the Via Dolorosa (the first few Stations of the Cross starting at the Lion’s Gate), the route of the Tunnel tours, and even a little alley called “The Little Kotel,” which is apparently even closer to where the Temple stood.

So what’s the question? Why should anyone demand that an open-air Orthodox synagogue near an exposed section of a retaining wall accommodate Reform and Conservative practice? To my knowledge, no one has blasted into the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem and demanded that it be converted to accommodate Reform and Conservative practices.  There is a Conservative synagogue across the street and everyone seems to be fine with that.

Perhaps we should ask a different question? Why is there any kind of synagogue at all?  Why not just keep the practice of individual contemplation and personal prayer for all people of all denominations of all religions?

The bottom line

This kerfuffle is not really about access to the Kotel.  Just like the fight you had last week with your loved one wasn’t about who would put the dishes in the dishwasher and how you always do it wrong.

This is about acknowledgement and acceptance.

It could start with the rabbinical authority in Israel acknowledging that there are other visions of Judaism – they may need to negotiate about the different ideas of halakha (Jewish law) – but they should also try to square it a bit more closely with the Law of Return (anyone with a Jewish grandparent on either side is entitled to Israeli citizenship, which is not the halakhic definition of a Jew).

Jews living outside of Israel will also have to accept that Jews living in Israel have their own ideas about how to run the country and preserve holy sites and that donations to Israel and putting your name on buildings doesn’t actually bestow the right to dictate policy here.

Fiddler on the Roof starts with Tradition (video above) and by the end a few things get changed in line with the times.  But we keep our balance, like a fiddler on the roof!

My radical proposal

The question of acknowledgement and acceptance is real and I don’t want to minimize it.  It is symbolized in the questions of access to the Western Wall and that is indeed legitimate.

However, the bigger issue facing all of the Jewish people is that UNESCO continuously and repeatedly calls the Western Wall Plaza “The Al-Buraq Plaza” and calls the Temple Mount only by its Muslim name.  If we want to continue our internal family discussions about access to the Western Wall, we need to ensure that it remains a Jewish site.  And we must also remember that the Temple Mount – where Jews are forbidden to pray and are arrested for doing so – is the actual holy site.

Jewish rhythms of life

I didn’t go.  I admit it.

Fourteen years in Jerusalem and almost every year I witnessed the sunrise on Shavuot at the Kotel.  And this year, I didn’t go.  I just wasn’t feeling it.

Here is an amazing picture from 2008.  I can promise you it looks more or less like this every year.

Shavuot 2008 018

The first time I went to the Kotel on Shavuot to witness religious Jews sing sunrise prayers after a night of Torah study, I felt my heart expand with pride and a wave of joy washed over me hearing all the voices raised in song.  The singing was not coordinated among the groups and yet it wasn’t a cacophony.  It represented the full spectrum of diversity in the Jewish community – each group sang the same prayer, but in their own rhythm, in their own time.  It was beautiful!

Not every year was so awe-inspiring, but on the whole, I enjoyed either staying up all night or waking up at 4:30am to witness the morning prayers welcoming the new day.

But I didn’t do it this year and I feel okay about it (even if it sounds like the lady doth protest too much).

One of the things I appreciate about living in Israel is that I’ll always have Shavuot off.  This is a holiday I knew nothing about when I lived in the US.  I would have only known about it if I was religious in some way and connected to a synagogue.  It is possible in the US to connect to being Jewish without attending synagogue, but it is a lot harder.

Besides a lack of knowledge, if I wanted to recognize Shavuot in some way in the US, I would have to take a vacation day or a personal day from work.  When I was working at the University of Washington many years ago, I requested Yom Kippur off.  My boss asked if I was going to synagogue and fasting.  I said that I wasn’t planning to.  She was confused and questioned my taking a personal day for it.  In Israel, I never have to have that kind of conversation ever again.

Living in Israel, I know that Shavuot is the holiday that commemorates the Jewish people receiving the Torah on Sinai.  Since Passover, people have been counting up to this day – seven weeks (shavuot means weeks).

All dairy products are on sale because Jews traditionally don’t eat meat on this holiday.  No one is actually entirely clear about why this is, but there are a few explanations.

Shavuot is one of the three pilgrimage holidays.  In the olden days, Jews came to Jerusalem to make various kinds of offerings at the Temple on Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot.  Today, Jews go to what’s left of the Temple, the Kotel, and pray at sunrise on Shavuot.

I didn’t go to special classes to learn this stuff.  I still don’t go to synagogue.  I asked my friends, colleagues, and neighbors, and they told me.  Here in Israel it is common, cultural knowledge.

Living in a Jewish state, all the Jewish holidays are national holidays, so I get the day off.  I can or I may study all night or go to the Kotel at sunrise, but I am not obligated to.  I don’t have to answer to anyone about how I connect to being Jewish.  It’s an odd paradox, I suppose, but being Jewish to me is my culture, my heritage, my history, my people.  The mantle of religious Judaism doesn’t fit me comfortably.  In short, it’s easier for me to feel Jewish in Israel because I don’t have to be religious.

So, not going to the Kotel on Shavuot?  No big deal.  I ate cheesecake.  Isn’t that enough?

At the Kotel on Yom Kippur

It’s my tradition to go to the Western Wall (the Kotel) on Yom Kippur in the morning before it gets too hot and too crowded.  I use this special time to be grateful for all the blessings in my life and think about the upcoming year.  I try to limit my asking for requests for other people.

Here’s what I saw and experienced:

  • It’s always hot on Yom Kippur – no matter the weather the day before or after.
  • The streets were gorgeously quiet and empty.
Yom Kippur 8:45am

Yom Kippur 8:45am

Overlooking the valley outside the walls of the Old City 9am

Overlooking the valley outside the walls of the Old City 9am

  • When I arrived at the women’s section, I saw two female soldiers praying, in uniform and with their guns.  Later one of them went up to the wall and said a few prayers, with her gun.
  • At the wall, the woman to my left was praying in a romance language (Italian, Spanish?) quite loudly.  I heard her say “gracias a Dios,” which seemed fine, and then “benedictus Christos.”  Hmm.  Probably not Jewish.
  • The woman to my right was reading a bible in Chinese.  Status unknown.
  • When I sat down, I looked around more carefully.  More than half of the people there were drinking water and didn’t quite fit.
Bird's eye view 10am

Bird’s eye view 10am

  • When I left, there were large tourist groups – with their cameras – entering the Western Wall plaza.
  • I wondered if all these non-Jews thought that God was only answering calls at the Kotel on Yom Kippur; perhaps the connection wasn’t as good at other holy locations.
  • I didn’t see as many people in the Jewish quarter as I expected, but it might have been too early.
Not the Jewish quarter.  This is Jaffa Gate at 9am.

Not the Jewish quarter. This is Jaffa Gate at 9am.

  • There was a police presence.  At around 9am, it was calm and relaxed.  By 10am the Border Police were stationed with a much stronger presence.  (It hasn’t been calm, so they were expecting trouble.  In the end, it was a quiet day.)

I completed the fast and even though I didn’t spend the entire day in reflection, I did feel renewed and ready to start a new year.

I promised a post about my trip in Romania, but I had such a great time that I think the trip would be better served in several short entries (coming soon!).

Until then, Shabbat Shalom!  May we all have some peace and quiet, renewal and reflection.  And birthday cake.  We should all have some cake.