Considering the recent ruling in Israel to include a multidenominational area of prayer as part of the Kotel complex, I felt it is in place to review something which I wrote some time ago when this controversy first broke.
Dear Rabbi Fried,
Regardless of what I may think about the colloquy itself, I’m glad to see you take on a direct challenge in your column, rather than avoid this one in favor of less controversial topics.
The questions raised by the question and answer are many. Is there any way to change the status quo, given that the location is very much a public one? Or does the mere fact of incumbency mean that there is never a justification for change?
If the civil law governing public displays at the Kotel Plaza provided for non-halachic religious displays, would/should halacha trump the civil law such that only Orthodox practice is to be permitted? Is it forbidden under the civil law for Jews to film from the plaza on Shabbat/holy days? I doubt anyone’s been arrested for doing so.
These are hard questions, and I’m just not sure that falling back on “this is the way it’s been done in the past” is a sufficiently convincing rationale. Also, keeping peace doesn’t answer the question, either. On the one hand, you can say that in order to preserve peace when the branches of Judaism mingle, you must always cater to the most observant practice — but that doesn’t seem like a satisfying answer. It’s like saying that the squeaky wheel should always get the grease.
From a different perspective, it could be argued that it’s just as “nonpeaceful” to prohibit a woman from expressing herself by holding a Sefer Torah at Judaism’s most holy site as it is “nonpeaceful” for her to do so in the presence of Orthodox Jews who oppose the practice. So you fall back on argument No. 1 — incumbency/the way it’s been done in the past.
I’m also less than convinced by the Mishna’s applicability. Treating the Kotel area as merely one locale within the Jewish world is too slick. The Kotel is the central locale for the Jewish world. Once you define the Kotel as one locale, you kind of limit the debate, again by falling back on how things were in the past — you pretty much cede control to the Orthodox, and hence, any other practice is that of an outsider intruding.
I think more convincing reasons and reasoning need to be explored to arrive at a satisfactory solution and reason than the ones you have given.
— Richard R.
I think that there is a crucial, central point that I think is not being taken into consideration. I fully agree that the Kotel is the central locale for the Jewish world, which is precisely why there’s so much noise about what transpires there. The question is what is it about that place that has made it so universally accepted as that central location?
The obvious answer is that it is the last remaining vestige of the Holy Temple, a protective wall which partially surrounded the “Har Habayis,” the area around the Temple.
Preservation of Wall
In Jewish tradition, as outlined in the Midrash, God promised to forever preserve the Western Wall, as His Presence was most greatly revealed in the western section of the Holy Temple. Consequently this wall represents to us all the holiness contained in that great Temple of yore: its sanctity, the piety of the priests (Kohanim) who led the worship, the devotion of the Jews who brought their offerings there, and the Godliness which rested there with the presence of the Shechina as a result of that worship. All the worship in that place was performed exactly as prescribed by the Torah and the Talmudic sages.
Hence, entire orders of Mishna and Talmud exist which precisely prescribe and detail every large and small detail of that worship.
As a final, timeless remembrance of that Temple worship, we continue our prayer service at the Wall. The Western Wall Plaza is not an arbitrarily chosen locale which world Jewry unanimously decided upon to be, as you expressed it, the central locale for the Jewish world. (A little experience with world Jewry would already proscribe that unanimity.)
It is the place that the Torah commands all of Jewry to descend upon to participate in its service, while the Temple stood, three times a year during the Jewish holidays.
Continuity of Temple service
Even the most liberal of thinkers wouldn’t claim that the service of the Temple, as described by the Talmud, was anything but Orthodox! The Wall truly is “one locale,” the most unique of locales. The authors of the Talmud, the same authors who outlined the service performed in that place, also established the laws of prayer today referred to as “Orthodox.”
They established the prayer service to be in place of the offerings brought in the Temple, as the Talmud itself says. The service, as it is observed there, is not a mere status quo: It epitomizes the continuity of the Temple service. To perform other forms of public worship is to sever the place from its history and what it represents. If one doesn’t accept the holiness of the place for what it is and stands for, why pray there at all?
That is why, besides the usual concept of the Mishna with which you took issue (and which I feel is still appropriate), that concept applies more powerfully here than in the case of any other custom. May we merit to have the final, third Temple built speedily in our days!
Postscript: On a personal note, I feel that one of the great tragedies of this recent vote is that, until now, despite their differences, Jews of all backgrounds and affiliations have gathered together at the wall as one, as Klal Yisrael.
Sadly, as many will now decamp to the newly designated area, this showing of togetherness, of Klal Yisrael, will be no longer. For me, this brings tears of sadness to my eyes.