Jews of the Wall

Posted on Jun 26, 2013

When I met with Natan Sharansky in May to discuss the compromise solution he was proposing for prayer at the Western Wall, I thought the plan he laid before me was ingenious and well worth supporting. I told him that his plan had significance beyond the conflict between Haredim and Women of the Wall. It offered a chance not only to defuse antagonism, head off violence, and alter the landscape of Jerusalem, but also to change the entire configurations of Jewish religious practice in Israel. Sharansky’s plan was so momentous, I remember saying, it was probably too good to be true; certainly the enemies of Jewish religious pluralism would make sure that his compromise never moved from proposal to reality.

Now, less than two months later, pundits and activists on all sides of the debate are wishing or pronouncing the Sharansky plan dead—killed by a set of forces more diverse and complex than any of us could have imagined at the time. Archaeologists don’t like the digging that the plan would entail. Muslim officials of the Waqf fear it will undermine the foundations of the Temple Mount. Advocates of giving part of Jerusalem back to Palestinians in return for peace fear that development of the Western Wall Plaza will preclude such arrangements when the time comes. Most important, a district court judge has given women the right to pray as they see fit on the women’s side of the Kotel. The police have turned from arresting women wearing prayer shawls at the Wall to protecting them from Haredi taunts and stones. “Suddenly there is almost no pressure to enforce the expensive and ambitious compromise proposed by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky,” wrote Yair Ettinger in Ha’aretz. It’s difficult to argue with that conclusion.

That’s too bad, I think. The Sharansky plan should not be abandoned, for a number of reasons.

First, while I am not a prophet or the son of a prophet, as the saying goes, merely a Jew who hangs on every bit of news that comes out of Israel, every sign of greater unity and tolerance among Jews and every promise of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, it’s difficult for me to believe that, court order or no court order, the police are going to expend significant resources of funds and personnel month after month protecting women at the Wall when they seek to pray as they like on Rosh Hodesh. (And why only on those days, and not 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, when women might well want to stand before God at Judaism’s holiest site? And why, some will ask, only women, and not mixed groups of women and men who might want to offer prayers? Shouldn’t there be a time-share of the Kotel? Should any mehitzah be permitted? And why should there be only one?) I think we have not seen the end of the controversy. The plan that seems irrelevant today may well seem, in only a matter of months, to be the best option available to Women of the Wall and others who wish to worship in ways not approved by Haredi authorities.

But there are other reasons to support the Sharansky plan, which performs the great service of displacing focus from one section of the Western Wall to another, and thereby serves to move our attention from the issue of who gets to pray where in Jerusalem, to who enjoys freedom of religious expression—and government recognition and support of that expression—in the State of Israel as a whole.

The plan proposes that the huge plaza facing the Wall will no longer belong to a foundation under effective control by Haredi religious authorities, but will rather be administered by an entity shared between the government of Israel and the Jewish Agency. This is as it should be. The State of Israel belongs to all of its citizens and to the Jewish people. The most sacred site in the Jewish world should likewise not belong to any one portion of the population but to all. Visitors to the site currently move onto “Haredi territory” as a condition of coming nearer to their history, their ancestors, and their God at the Kotel. The Sharansky plan would have them arrive at a plaza—one more aesthetically pleasing than the current scene—that gives them the choice of going to pray at the part of the Kotel that will remain an Orthodox synagogue, or going to the far larger portion of the Wall that will feature a plurality of worship services and observances. The choice confronting the visitor would be major, visible, and—to me—most welcome.

What is more, the fact that the Wall and adjacent plaza will be far more than a synagogue will proclaim loud and clear that Judaism is more than a religion. One is Jewish not only by virtue of prayer. One acts Jewishly, comes together with Jews, on other occasions as well. Imagine if the Israel Defense Forces’ ceremonies, at one time held at the Wall but moved because the army could not comply with Haredi demands, once again took place at the Wall—on the non-Haredi side. Soldiers pledging fealty to their country would do so at the most holy site of the Jewish people. Imagine if throngs of Israelis renewed the habit of visiting Jerusalem in the age-old combination of pilgrimage and tourism, instead of staying away because the city seems off-putting, “religious” territory. Diaspora Jews too, for their part, would find when they came to the heart of their Spiritual Center, Israel, not only the sort of synagogue that most of them do not worship in and the kind of Jews that most of them have elected not to be, but the sort of worship they do engage in and the kind of Jews they are.

If this were to happen, the holiness of the site would not be restricted to its use as a prayer space. The paratroopers who liberated the Wall in 1967 celebrated a miracle that transcended the divide between religious and secular—and the entire history of modern Israel does the same. I recite Hallel for Israel’s existence with a full heart on Yom Ha’atzma’ut. Yehuda Amichai’s poetry and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s prose both beautifully captured the belief that the very presence of the Jewish people in Jerusalem is cause for “radical amazement.” One does not need to enter a synagogue to feel God’s presence. One does not need to make the Wall a synagogue to know that standing in its presence raises Jewish spirits, stirs Jewish hearts, and brings Jews from the four corners of the earth into encounter with one another and with the sacred.

That is the final contribution of the proposal in my view: the role the Wall will play in serving as focal point for gatherings of the Jewish people as a people, thereby reinforcing the rightful place of every form of Jewish observance, regardless of denomination, in our common spiritual center. Just as multiple sorts of gatherings will take place in the Western Wall plaza, multiple sorts of services will take place at the enlarged Western Wall. And just as the government of Israel supports both of these, at the Wall and its adjacent plaza, so too it should assist Jewish citizens of the State, regardless of religious denomination, as they seek to practice and develop Judaism in all its varieties. The government should, at minimum, not discriminate against forms of Judaism that do not meet with the approval of Israel’s rabbinical authorities—and ideally should lend active support to Israelis who help Israel become the arena where competing definitions of Judaism—“religious” or “secular” or those that reject the dichotomy between religious and secular—vie peacefully for the allegiance of Jews in Israel and the world over.

This is important not only for Jews, wherever they live, but for Judaism. How will the Torah come to shape the public sphere and not only the private sphere, as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook said it must, if debate and study on such matters is squelched or limited to one set of (male) voices? How will Jews come to understand and observe God’s commandments in the areas of health care and environmental policy, treatment of minorities and protection of consumers, if only one sort of Judaism gets government recognition and funding—and all others must rely on their own resources?

This is a time of great promise where Jewish pluralism in Israel is concerned. There is widespread public support, including among some Haredim, for getting the Haredi community to bear its fair share of the civic burden, and widespread interest in bridging this and other cultural gaps through mutual learning and respect. Israelis of all sorts are flocking to new types of Jewish study, worship, and observance. The office of Chief Rabbi of Israel may pass to a rabbi bent on reform of that office. The Knesset right now includes no fewer than 44 out of 120 members who are serving for the first time. The government does not, for the moment, include Haredi parties. This is the moment that Natan Sharansky sought to seize with a plan that won approval from all the parties in the government and many sectors of Diaspora Jewry, including Conservative leaders. I wish Women of the Wall success in altering the status quo when it comes to religious observance at the Kotel. But what a shame it would be to lose the chance to expand greater Israeli consciousness where Judaism is concerned—and secure State recognition and funding for non-Orthodox forms of Judaism.