Last week, the Netanyahu cabinet voted to officially create a third section at the Kotel (Western Wall) in addition to the existing men’s and women’s sections. This new section is designated for egalitarian prayer with the option of creating temporary mechitzot for occasional Orthodox prayer, such of that of Women of the Wall.
In actuality, there is already a section of the Kotel that is designated for such prayer. It is called Ezrat Yisrael (The Israel section) where the Western Wall meets the Southern Wall. It has a separate entrance from the other sections but it is open and available for prayer 24 hours a day, seven days a week. However, it is not equal in size and facilities to the other sections. According to the new plan, there will be access to the egalitarian section through the official entrance to the Kotel so that those who come to the Kotel will see automatically that there are three sections from which to choose, the egalitarian Kotel will be a size comparable to the Orthodox sections including access to the wall itself, and it will be administered by a council consisting of representatives of the Reform and Conservative Movements, Women of the Wall, and perhaps others.
One could write a doctorate about the course of events that brought us to this historic decision. This decision entails the unexpected cooperation between unlikely partners, Reform Jews and Ultra-Orthodox Jews, and the use of interesting strategies by all of the sides. What began as the demand of a group of Orthodox women 25 years ago to conduct a women’s prayer service once a month in the women’s section of the Kotel became the cause célèbre of the Reform and Conservative Movements in North America. However it started, this end result is a sweeping recognition of Reform and Conservative Judaism as legitimate interpreters of Jewish tradition and partners in the Jewish public space in Israel. For me, this is the most important news and a great advancement for the movement in whose principles I strongly believe. I echo the aspirations of our leaders that this recognition is part of the groundswell of the embracing of Reform and Conservative Judaism throughout Israel and acts as a cornerstone to preserving the Jewish, democratic and pluralistic State of Israel.
But we came to talk about the Kotel, right?
(By the way – over the years, I have come to understand that most Israelis are not really interested in the Kotel aside from a very rare visit in Jerusalem perhaps for a bar mitzvah or in the framework of a school trip.)
Let’s think for a moment about the Western Wall and put it all into perspective. It is one of the retaining walls of the First and Second Temple complex. Since the destruction of the Second Temple, the closest one could get to the Temple was a small section on a narrow street edged in by houses. I have a photograph from the 19th century which shows Jews in this place, no mechitza, men and women engaged in prayer. In 1967, when Israel claimed sovereignty in the entire Old City and we “returned” to the Kotel after a disengagement of almost 20 years, the State of Israel tore down those houses and created a giant plaza in order to turn the area into a central place – in addition to enabling prayer, to also hold official State ceremonies. At this time – as had been going on since the 19th Century – the archaeological work continued in the southern part of the Western Wall area (known as “Robinson’s Arch”) and of the Southern retaining Wall of the Temple. There was discovered there the original Herodian Street from the time of the Second Temple, hundreds of mikvaot (ritual baths) that served the multitudes of pilgrims’ and also the remains of the original stairs and gates that led into the Temple complex itself.
I have written before about my “relationship” with the Kotel. I will add here that, for me, it is a place where I connect with my history – I caress the stones polished by the caress of hundreds of thousands of hands over the generations. I connect with my people and their faith throughout the ages. I feel a buzz in this place, a special energy that I believe comes not from the rocks but from the intentions of the people around me that are praying and from the prayers that are being directed to where I am standing from all around the world.
I am moved by the historical statement that we were witnesses to this week. I salute the ranks of our Reform Movement and the leaders of many Jewish organizations and our political leaders in Israel who dedicated themselves to arriving to a solution through negotiations and dialogue — participating in countless meetings, spending hours poring over wording and nuance, finding the inner strength to demand and also to yield for the good of the peace of the Jewish people.
I have always seen my place in this dialogue as being the advocate for egalitarian/family gatherings at the Kotel and taking part in them myself. I have officiated at over 150 ceremonies (mainly bar/bat mitzvahs, but not only) at the section of the Kotel which is currently designated for egalitarian prayer. I am part of the landscape of passersby – including our movement’s leadership — that shows a thriving, vibrant egalitarian prayer at the Kotel.
Certainly as far back as my rabbinic ordination nine years ago, there was the possibility to conduct ceremonies on the Herodian Street beneath Robinson’s Arch and on a small platform that was adjacent to about ten meters of the Kotel. It was possible to reserve a Torah through the Conservative Movement which has about 3-5 Torah scrolls and to enter the site for free until 9:00 a.m., at which everyone must pay entrance to the Davidson Archaeological Park. The Davidson Center also, over the years, received a Torah that is encased in a beautiful wood box in the Sephardic style that is possible to reserve. The only way to hold a ceremony was by making a reservation. In October 2014, a platform was built in this area that was set back from the Kotel, including the small platform next to the wall, and a separate entrance was created that is accessed from the place where people stand in line to go up to the Temple Mount. It was named Ezrat Yisrael (the Israel section) with its own security guard open twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week for egalitarian prayer. It has tables, sun umbrellas, and benches. The guards are careful to make sure that tour guides are not simply entering and conducting tours there but that it is indeed used for prayer and contemplation purposes. You can still make a reservation to borrow a Torah from the Conservative Movement and it helps to do so even if you don’t manage to get one of their Torah scrolls, in order to get an idea of how crowded it’s going to be during the busy season. But you don’t have to – you can show up whenever you want and you can bring your own Torah and table. (Anyone who wants more details about how it works is welcome to contact me)
I have also conducted tefilin ceremonies for my congregation’s bar mitzvah course and private Israeli ceremonies. I have participated in prayers organized by the Conservative Movement namely in the wee morning hours of Shavuot and the late evening of Tisha B’Av. I have seen school groups hold ceremonies there and I have been a guest at the tefilin ceremony of “Modern Orthodox” Israeli families that want to hold a “family minyan” that everyone stands where it is comfortable for him or her as a completely Orthodox ceremony is conducted. This past High Holiday season, I visited the Kotel after midnight for selichot. I went only to Ezrat Yisrael – I was joined by mainly Orthodox people there – including an Ultra-Orthodox couple, a man and a woman, each one holding a prayerbook and praying quietly sitting side-by-side.
I don’t believe that the Kotel has any cosmic powers in and of itself I believe that the Kotel has tremendous symbolism for Jews and for all peoples. The Kotel offers us an opportunity to infuse our celebrations with additional meaning. It is a place that designated for prayer. But even if prayer is not your thing, it can be a place of meditation and introspection. A moment of communing with the generations. There is no part of the retaining wall of the Temple Mount – the western southern, eastern, or northern — that is “holier” than other parts in their physical manifestation. I almost don’t want to share my little secret – I feel more holiness on the side of Ezrat Yisrael. It is a place of peace and quiet. There is no pushing and shoving. No one is judging me or coercing me. There is mutual respect and acceptance. People talk to each other and ask if they can come into a space or if they would like to share space, we decide together. When I see the actually places where my ancient ancestors visited, it comes alive for me.
Our job — all of us — is to contribute to the kavod, the dignity, of the Kotel. The existence of Ezrat Yisrael gives people access to the experience of this place — there is no modesty police, no judgment, and no coercion. It is a place for all, as it says in Isaiah (56:7), “For My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” This includes all streams of Judaism, this includes all traditions and ethnic groups.
Throughout the years, I have been witness also to disrespect for the place. While the authorities forbid the use of musical instruments during prayer services at the men and women’s section as well as at Ezrat Yisrael, the shofar blasts, clarinets, drum beats by paid players fill the entire area and disturb that peace and tranquility that I wrote about above. A life size blow-up toy of a stereotypical shtetl rabbi greets visitors in the entrance. Men who visit the men’s section are harassed by Chabadniks who press tefilin in their face even if they are told “not interested.” Women act as “modesty patrol” and chase after other women with outrageous demands. (I write all this from personal experience)
I can imagine this upgraded egalitarian section. Do you want to lay tefilin? We can help you with that. Do you want some quiet time alone? We know how to do that too. Do you want to sing? We want to sing with you. Here, the State can conduct army ceremonies and the women soldiers can speak and be honored for the great responsibility they take on side-by-side with their male counterparts. Here, the Jewish Agency can conduct welcome ceremonies for new immigrants just off the plane with both men and women’s voices as we know that both men and women will contribute equally together to the prosperity of our nation. The egalitarian section is not the exclusive property of card-carrying “Reform” or “Conservative” Jews. It will serve the entire Israeli society, the Jewish people who visit from around the world, and pilgrims of all nations. You can count on that.
Now, more than ever, it is important that you come and visit in Ezrat Yisrael – to see where it is and what it is. We have to organize more ceremonies and events there, to let everyone know that this place exists and it is a place for them. I call on the leaders of the Reform and Conservative Movements in Israel and abroad, and our partners in the Jewish Federations, to organize as many of these events as possible – when conferences are in Jerusalem, organize a group prayer. Every congregational group should pray there once – during the week or on Shabbat. When hundreds of rabbis visit Jerusalem this summer for study, when youth groups fill the streams of Israel, let us all gather together and make this achievement a reality.
In conclusion, perhaps the true celebration is the act of cooperation and compromise. These are the spiritual tools for bringing about Peace. And Peace is the highest value in Judaism. Netanyahu’s government arrived at its decision through the merit of the ability of the different parties involved to look each other in the eye, to recognize the humanity of each other, to understand the other at least a little bit better, to overcome fear of the other and to demonstrate acceptance. This act proved the power of the unity of the Jewish people – Ultra-Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Israeli, American, men, women that succeeded in speaking with one another – demanding and conceding. They reached a solution. Halleluya! Come, let’s all do it — let’s meet, let’s get to know one another, let’s argue and let’s learn together. And that’s how we will realize the prayer which I hope is shared by us all:
עוֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם בִּמְרוֹמָיו הוּא יַעֲשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל וְעַל כָּל יוֹשְׁבֵי תֵּבֵל וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן:
May the One who makes peace in the high places make peace on us, and on all of Israel, and on the inhabitants of the world. And let us say: Amen.