by Leah Aharoni
What image comes to mind when I say “Judaism”? During a recent meeting with a group of American college students on a Birthright Israel trip, “the Western Wall” was their instantaneous response. More often than not, Israelis, both secular and religiously observant, give the same answer.
The power of the Kotel to unite Jews is so strong that it trumps even the splintering of Israeli society and the interdenominational disputes of the Diaspora. “The Divine Presence never leaves the Western Wall.” (Shmot Raba 22) This Divine presence hinges on a metaphysical concept, knesset Yisrael (the assembly of Israel), which views the entire Jewish people as one spiritual entity, manifest in separate people. (Kedushat Halevi)
For the past 1,700 years, Jews have chosen various spots along the Western Wall as the sites of prayer closest to the remains of the Holy Temple. The tradition of prayer here has always been what would be called Orthodox, since none other had existed in Israel until recent decades. The contention that the Kotel had never been an Orthodox synagogue, because it never had a mechitzah (divider) doesn’t take into account the Ottoman and later British ban on constructing a mechitzah or bringing Jewish symbols to the Kotel. In fact, when the otherwise secular prestate Zionist resistance movements wanted to affirm Jewish sovereignty at the Kotel, they did so by putting up a mechitzah.
However, this universal Jewish reverence for the Kotel is not shared by the leadership of the liberal movements. The Council of Progressive Rabbis in Israel (Reform) ruled in 1999 that the Kotel has no intrinsic sanctity. Likewise, Reform Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser, wrote, “[T]he Western Wall is as holy as the heart you bring to it, just like every other place.”1 Even Josh Margo, missions and events director at the World Council of Conservative Synagogues, who came out to support Women of the Wall during a recent Rosh Chodesh event, commented that the Kotel is “just a wall.”2
It is this gap between the feelings of the followers and the ideology of the leadership that enables Women of the Wall to manipulate the Kotel for a political agenda. WoW’s chairwoman, Anat Hoffman, has suggested that among the group’s objectives is to obtain Israeli government recognition for the liberal movements.3 When asked by an Israeli reporter a few weeks ago about her feelings for the Kotel, Hoffman called the site an “opportunity.”4
Though I may not agree with WoW’s political agenda, in a liberal democracy like Israel, any group is free to push for changes in government policy through the courts and the Knesset. However, exploiting a place held sacred by millions of Jews around the world and playing into these feelings without sharing them is simply unethical.