Walls

It seems a Wall in Israel is rarely a simple subject. Never as simple as brick and mortar, it takes on grand scale and drama. The Separation Wall, for example, a matter of necessity to protect the citizens of Israel from terrorist attacks, is the scourge of international attention and general condemnation despite the security it provides. The world condemns Israel for the barrier, valuing views and easy access to farmland over common sense and the Talmudic dicta about the inestimable value of saving a single life. The Separation Wall has not been around, nor hopefully will it be, long enough to generate a history. The irony is that, as with many things, the whole is less than the sum of its parts: The Separation Wall is hardly a wall at all; it is overwhelmingly a fence.

There is another wall in Israel, known by many names: Kotel, Western Wall, Wailing Wall. It is the point on the compass to which Jews turn their prayers. Though built solely of stone upon stone with no mortar it is the force that binds generation to generation and Jew to Jew.

The Kotel has been imbued with an eternal sanctity by the tears and tefillot, the kvitlach and kvetches, that humanity has poured out in its presence. But as with many things, it is greater than the sum of its parts.

As predictable of late as the coming of the new moon is the conflict at the Kotel between the Women of the Wall (WoW) and normative Judaism. The Women of the Wall stage a monthly Rosh Chodesh performance at the Kotel, many coming in costume (wearing kippot, tallit and tefillin, which, though perhaps technically permissible under Jewish law in certain circumstances, are not traditionally observed nor accepted by Jewish women). It is in truth merely a theatrical “tempest in a teapot.” These staged events garner far more attention than the number of participants in attendance demand and it is easy to speculate why: The media loves it. They frame it as a classic battle: good versus evil; few versus many.

This is not the story of David versus Goliath, nor the story of good and evil. It is the story of the Jewish people, a family that could use some counseling.

Let me quickly discuss and dispense with any behavior that occurred which would constitute a chillul Hashem: It is unacceptable and to be denounced. This is not merely my view. It is the position of the Gedolim who encouraged seminary girls to attend Rosh Chodesh services at the Kotel on the condition that there would be absolutely no violence. The fact that a few “observant” Jews committed deplorable acts was a vulgar distraction to the holy and inspiring statement made by the thousands of seminary girls in attendance (the Neshot HaKotel, or Women for the Wall).

Those vulgar acts also provided ammunition for the media and those against traditional behavior at the Kotel.

Women of the Wall like Reform Judaism, despite claims to the contrary by Eric Yoffie, the former leader of the Union of Reform Judaism, and by Anat Hoffman, the Chairman of Women of the Wall and the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel. The Reform Movement is a diaspora transplant to Israel and like most transplants it did not take well in a foreign environment. Non-observant Israelis, despite certain complaints against the Orthodox establishment, like their Judaism authentic and would sooner be unaffiliated than affiliated with Reform Judaism.

Despite a blitz of advertising to rally support for the WoW service last month, the group could muster fewer than a hundred supporters. Contrast that with the thousands of observant seminary girls from across the national religious-charedi spectrum who came to pray at the Kotel because they were urged to do so by leading rabbis of the national religious world and Rabbanim and Roshei Yeshivah of the chareidi world, most notably Hagaon Harav Aharon Steinman, shlita. This response is kavod for a Torah scholar and, by extension, for the Torah itself. In a nutshell, despite being in existence for 24 years, Women of the Wall were outnumbered by seminary girls roughly 100:1. The numbers speak for themselves.

There is a growing resentment towards the WoW for a variety of reasons. Many women find the group’s prayers distracting and question WoW’s sincerity considering their rejection of the compromise location of a separate prayer space at Robinson’s Arch, which is part of the same stretch of wall as the Kotel, thus allowing the group to hold its prayers near the Temple Mount while maintaining the women’s prayer section at the Kotel as a place for traditional silent prayer. Additionally, many women resent that Anat Hoffman claims to represent them when she is neither their democratically elected leader nor someone who accurately gives voice to their views. When she was a democratically elected public servant, sitting for 14 years on the Jerusalem City Council, her self-stated objective was to “stand in opposition to the policies of the city’s right-wing and ultra-Orthodox administration.” She does have plans for the Kotel. She wants to turn it into a “national monument” and graciously offered to share it with the rest of the world “for six hours a day” to do with as their hearts desire. The only group to be excluded, according to Hoffman’s plan, during these visiting hours? “Orthodox men.”

The Kotel is one of the most celebrated visual themes in Jewish history. Paintings portray the Kotel in silent, soaring majesty; photos from the Ottoman period show it as a thin venue of despair while photos after 1967 show the Wall as a focal point of that historic, miraculous victory. The most powerful image I have ever seen of the Kotel is a majestic work of blown glass by arguably the world’s greatest glass blower, Venetian-born Maestro Gianni Toso. The piece, now in the private collection of one of the world’s leading Jewish philanthropists, shows young Jews on each side of the Kotel. On one side the Jews are obviously and flamboyantly secular in appearance; on the other are chareidim. On closer examination it is clear that the kids on either side of the wall are one and the same with the energy and sanctity of the Wall serving as the transformative catalyst to the evolution of Jewish neshamot to observance.

The Jewish people are all shareholders in the Torah, our inheritance. But like shareholders in a corporation, some exercise their rights as shareholders more than others and are more engaged in the running of the company.

Since the liberation of the Kotel from Arab hands, a group of Jewish women, very active shareholders in the Jewish corporation, have come daily to recite Tehillim in the merit of the Jewish people, every single night since 1967.  They do so unobtrusively, in quiet sincerity. I hope Anat Hoffman and the Women of the Wall, like the figures in Maestro Toso’s masterpiece, will be likewise transformed and share in creating a greater, more sincere, united nation of Jews.

Meir Solomon is a writer, analyst and commentator living in Alon Shvut, Israel with his wife and two children. He can be contacted at msolomon@Hamodia.com