Controversies at the Kotel: A Suggestion
The Jerusalem Post and other media reported that a leader of "Women of the Wall" was arrested at the Kotel in Jerusalem for raising her voice in song and prayer. She, together with a group of hundreds of women, have been attempting to gain the right for women to pray at the Kotel, each according to her preferred style of prayer--with prayer shawls, chanting aloud, reading from the Torah etc.
The arrested woman was kept in prison overnight, and complained that she was treated as though she were a notorious and dangerous criminal.
The police authorities stated that they were upholding the law, which forbids women from praying at the Kotel in loud voices or while wearing a tallit or tefillin. The Jerusalem Post reported: Israeli law, upheld by the Supreme Court, stipulates that it is forbidden to conduct a religious ceremony “contrary to accepted practice” at a holy site, or one that may “hurt the feelings of other worshipers.”
Here are a few troubling questions we all need to ponder:
1. Should people--men or women--engage in confrontational behavior at the Kotel in order to press their religious viewpoints? Doesn't this undermine the rights of all others at the Kotel, who wish to pray without such distracting commotion?
2. Should women be imprisoned for singing the Shema and other prayers in a loud voice at the Kotel? Are men arrested for chanting the Shema and other prayers in loud voices?
3. If the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled that no one may pray at the Kotel in a way that may "hurt the feelings of other worshipers," does this also apply to Hasidim, Hareidim or others whose mode of worship may indeed hurt the feelings of non-Hareidi, non-Orthodox Jews?
The problem at the Kotel reflects deep divisions within the Jewish community in matters pertaining to religious observance. The Hareidi Orthodox--who have religious control of the Kotel--strive to limit women's role in the public sphere. The rest of the Jewish community--whether moderate Orthodox, non-Orthodox, non-observant--is compelled to adhere to Hareidi standards, as though only the Hareidim have a legitimate claim to the Kotel and other religious sites.
The status quo is unsatisfactory...and even disgraceful! I am not comfortable with activists creating public scenes at the Kotel, even though I can understand their frustration and anger. I am distressed that a woman can be arrested at the Kotel for singing the Shema in a loud voice. I am profoundly upset that conduct at the Kotel is governed by a Hareidi rabbinic establishment that gives little or no heed to the views and feelings of the non-Hareidi Jewish community. The Kotel, after all, is a shrine for all the Jewish people, not a private synagogue for one group or another.
There is no easy solution to the current unsatisfactory situation. Peoples' emotions run high. The Hareidim believe they alone represent God's will and that no one but their rabbinic sages can decide matters of halakha. The moderate Orthodox have not produced a viable alternative approach. The non-Orthodox would like to dismantle the Hareidi control of the Kotel altogether and allow non-Orthodox forms of worship at the Kotel. The Women of the Wall--which includes Orthodox and non-Orthodox members--wants to assure total equality for women who wish to conduct prayer services at the Kotel.
It is impossible to satisfy all these mutually exclusive positions. Public demonstrations, legal battles, calls for compromise--none of these approaches will likely create a genuine and respectful harmony at the Kotel.
I have suggested a number of times an altogether different approach. My suggestion has been roundly criticized by many, and I know it is not perfect. But I think it actually can dramatically improve religious life at the Kotel.
No public prayer services should be allowed at the Kotel. Not Orthodox, not Conservative, not Reform, not egalitarian...no public services of any kind! No one should wear a prayer shawl or tefillin at the Kotel.
The Kotel should be reserved only for individual, private prayer and meditation.
If people wish to have formal prayer services, they should pray in private synagogues run according to their own preference and minhag.
While this suggestion will be opposed by many who currently pray at services at the Kotel; and while this would be a blow to the "Bar Mitzvah at the Kotel" business--the overall benefits would be great. The Kotel would regain its proper religious status as a shrine of the entire Jewish people, where each person can enjoy spiritual freedom to pray and meditate privately. It will cease to be a battle ground for competing religious ideologies. It will cease to be the center of "turf battles" among segments of the Jewish people.
The Kotel is a vestige of the ancient Holy Temple. The Talmud suggests that the Temple was destroyed because of needless hatred and antagonism among the Jewish people.
We need to restore the Kotel as a place that is free of such hatred and antagonism, that allows each of us to pray to the Almighty humbly and privately, that helps us to recognize our spiritual connection to God--and to each other.