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Hack the Kotel

The Western Wall in Jerusalem. Credit: Kyle Taylor via Wikimedia Commons.
The Western Wall in Jerusalem. Credit: Kyle Taylor via Wikimedia Commons.

By Joshua Ladon/

The battle being fought over access to the Western Wall (Kotel), which accelerated this week with a strong reprimand of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by progressive movements for not acting on his public promises, expresses the exasperation of those groups over Israel’s claims to be the Jewish homeland, even as it is rejecting vibrant forms of Judaism both inside and outside the state.

The current fight for access to the Kotel by Women of the Wall and the Reform and Conservative movements is real and legitimate, yet at the same time is based upon a limited conception of the Kotel and Kotel Plaza as simply and only a place for prayer. As a people, we are locked in a paradigm that limits us to imagining the Kotel as a place of bitterness and dispute, where children spit, adults tear non-Orthodox prayer books, and many carry hate in their hearts when they lie down or walk on their way.

It may be that very narrow view of the Kotel which is limiting Israeli and Jewish creativity when it comes to thinking about this contested space. Reimagining the Kotel as a place of holiness and connection requires a radical shift to imagine new and other possibilities befitting the start-up nation.

Even some Orthodox thinkers are beginning to take a different view. R. Daniel Bouskila has said that viewing the Kotel solely as a synagogue is a uniquely Ashkenazi iteration: “The Kotel is not a synagogue, and it doesn’t belong to any denomination. There should be no minyanim, no bar mitzvahs…and no barriers separating people at the Kotel.” Similarly, R. Nathan Lopes Cardozo said that “items such as a tallit, tefillin or Sefer Torah do not belong at the Kotel, they belong in the synagogue.” He went so far as to suggest the Kotel be closed until the Jewish people get their act together.

As the Temple which once stood above the Kotel was itself more than a place for sacrifice, perhaps even traditionalists would support looking to that fabled structure’s multiple uses as a template for reimagining how to use the space today. The Temple was an administrative hub, a place for taking testimony, a center for commerce, and an event space. It was filled with song, food, deliberation, and even pyrotechnics.

What would happen if we were to shift our understanding of the Kotel problem from one of access, to one of modern design based on its original functions? It may be time for the Jewish people to use the modes and ethics of the computer world to rethink this problem. In other words, it may be time to hack the Kotel.

The hacker ethic, to paraphrase Jorge Luis Zapico of the Centre for Sustainable Communications, is founded upon the values of radical access to technology, freedom of information, decentralized power structures, and the use of computers to create beauty and ultimately to make the world a better place, all of which can be found in classical Jewish thought, as well.

This vision has entered the mainstream in profound ways. More and more, we live in a world where knowledge is at our fingertips, access to that knowledge is ever-increasing, the rubric for excellence is based on quality not pedigree, and where we join together to make the world better. When we hack the world, be it a computer or a cupcake, and put it online, ownership of knowledge is diffused, and new solutions are imagined and realized across boundaries and continents.

This vision of free information in service of knowledge creation has touch-points with a Jewish view of Revelation as ongoing and generative. As the Midrash teaches, the Torah was given in the desert, in the open, so that no one person could claim it. The radical move of the rabbis in response to the destruction of the Temple was to democratize Torah even further, turning to rituals completed in the home, on the streets, and by the individual.

What I am suggesting is not just gimmick; it is already happening at the highest levels of Christianity and Islam. Recently, an Italian Jesuit priest, Antonio Spadaro, published an article in La Civiltà Cattolica calling hacking an act which partners with God in creation. Earlier this year,  Muslim software designers, clerics, and community leaders in the United Arab Emirates joined together to develop programs that could fight the intellectual battle against Islamic State.

Out of this thinking, could we begin to see the Kotel, this grand symbol of Judaism, not as a synagogue, but as some other conduit for holiness? The Temple was the place of ecstasy and praise. How could the images of the Simchat Beit Hashoeva (the celebration during Sukkot’s intermediate days) or the Shir Shel Yom (song of the day) provide a new mode for Jewish performance?

As the Temple was a place for making judgment, as the Pesach seder combines the contrasting vision of the Temple service with the symposium, could the Kotel plaza be like Bialik’s oneg Shabbat, a place for public discourse about the most important issues facing the Jewish people? Imagine a series of TED Talks with the Kotel as the backdrop.

Taking it one or two steps farther, maybe the Kotel could become the site of a huge soup kitchen, drawing on our tradition of not forgetting the stranger? What about a silent space for deep meditation?

Ultimately, the work of hacking the Kotel needs to be developed by a broad range of people with varying talents and interests, willing to join together in service of something larger. It needs the creativity of the Israeli and Jewish high tech worlds, the wisdom of various clergy, and the know-how of community leadership. Is this not what it means to realize a Jewish sovereignty? Not just to imagine the world as it could be, but to take critical steps to bring it into reality.

Rabbi Joshua Ladon is the San Francisco Bay Area manager for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.

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