(January 5, 2017 / JNS) By Leah Aharoni/JNS.org
My dad is coming from the U.S. to visit us in Israel this week. As always, we will devote one morning to praying at the Western Wall (Kotel). As always, he will stop by the hugest worn-off stone—his regular spot—pull out a brown wallet and take out a pack of Post-it notes covered in Russian scribbles. As always, he will read the prayers and requests on those yellow squares and then will stuff them into a crevice between the stones. And then, he’ll cry for a few minutes before walking away.
For generations, whenever a Jew announced his plans to visit the Holy Land, his friends and neighbors would equip him with notes so that he would remember to pray for them. (Hence the practice of placing notes into the wall). My dad is just another link in the tradition. Each time he comes to Israel, his friends flood him with Facebook messages and phone calls asking to say a prayer for their woes. A troubled marriage, a childless couple, a sick parent, a wayward child. The kinds of human tragedies that Jews have been pouring out on these stones for the past two millennia.
But some would like to see that changed. At a High Court of Justice hearing last week, Dr. Susan Weiss, representing Original Women of the Wall, revealed that her endgame is to dismantle the synagogue at the Western Wall and turn it into a public square. “Send the worshippers to their own synagogues,” Weiss told the court. All this to accommodate her client, comprising at best 20 women.
What strikes at first as the height of hubris is in reality a well-planned political agenda—the vision of getting rid of the Kotel synagogue. Yet there comes a time when even the most ludicrous claims get over the top. The only reason the Western Wall has any kind of significance is because Jews have been praying next to it for so many years. There are three other walls of the Temple Mount, yet none of them stir the emotions aroused by the Kotel.
The Western Wall is not a site of some amorphous “national heritage.” It is a holy place. And like all other holy places in the world, it is governed by a tradition. And it is precisely this tradition that the liberal groups are trying tear down. For as Anat Hoffman of Women of the Wall had said in the past, when you put the tradition into question at the holiest Jewish site, you can put it into question everywhere else.
This is why the small group of several dozen women has been so insistent on praying specifically at the Kotel, disturbing thousands of regular worshippers. This is why among Women of the Wall’s many demands for an alternative prayer site at the Robinson’s Arch section of the Kotel, equal size, funding and similar entry have played so prominently. The alternative site would enable the liberal movements to fashion their own version of the Kotel.
The activists of Women of the Wall are not out to get a place to pray for themselves. They are trying to create a footbridge for the Reform movement (Hoffman’s full-time employer) in Israeli society and to reshape Israelis’ view of religion. Mixed-gender prayer is the hallmark of Reform and Conservative practice. So making mixed-gender prayer acceptable at the Kotel would pave the way for the liberal movements to influence the prevalent concept of religion.
But it will not work. It will not work because aside from the approximately 30 percent of American Jews who attend a Reform or a Conservative temple, throughout the world, whether observant or not, Jews see a traditional synagogue as a place of religion. It is because when my otherwise unaffiliated dad decides to go to a synagogue on a Shabbat or a holiday, he gets into his car and drives over to the nearest Chabad center, not to the Reform temple down the block. A mixed-gender sanctuary and liberal prayers do not jive with his notions of a holy place.
Turning the Kotel into a public square is tantamount to erasing its sanctity. Without the tradition, it will become just another tourist site, where people touch a wall, smile, take a picture and leave. It will not have the emotional pull it has today. It will stop being a place of prayer.
On our upcoming visit, I’ll offer a prayer that the Kotel should retain its tradition, because this is how hundreds of thousands of worshippers want to see it. This is what a spiritual home looks like to them, no matter where they identify on the observance spectrum.
As to the liberal women, their cries of “wolf” over religious rights are unfounded. There is no shortage of venues they could use to pray any way they wish in the holy city of Jerusalem. And if they can’t find a place, they are invited into my living room. I’d be happy to accommodate them once a month.
I’d do anything to let my dad carry on the tradition of the Post-it notes, to have those moments at the Kotel, and for his friends’ prayers to make their way into the crevice between the stone.
It’s a precious tradition, after all.
Leah Aharoni is the co-founder of Women For the Wall, a grassroots organization devoted to preserving the sanctity of the Western Wall in the spirit of Jewish unity.
***Clarifications: This story initially stated in the fourth paragraph that Anat Hoffman of Women of the Wall “has been voicing the same goal” as Susan Weiss for years, referring to Weiss’s comment in the third paragraph, “Send the worshippers to their own synagogues.” Women of the Wall notes that in the story hyperlinked above on the words “has been voicing the same goal,” Hoffman expresses support for a 30-million-shekel negotiated with the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency that would have sanctified a larger area of the Western Wall. The comparison between Weiss’s and Hoffman’s comments has now been removed from this article. Additionally, Hoffman disputes saying “when you put the tradition into question at the holiest Jewish site, you can put it into question everywhere else,” as the author paraphrases her as saying in the fifth paragraph.