(Blog by Rabbi Marc D. Angel)
The Shas party recently submitted a bill to the Knesset that would criminalize prayer at the Kotel if the prayer does not adhere to Orthodox/Hareidi standards. Thus, if an "egalitarian" minyan gathered to pray at the Kotel, participants could be arrested as criminals. If non-Orthodox/pluralist groups pray as a group, they would be deemed to be breaking the law and would be subject to punishment. Although this bill is highly outrageous in so many ways, there apparently is a real chance that it will pass.
Can we really envision a time when Jews will be arrested at the Kotel for praying? With all the problems the State of Israel faces, would the Knesset also want to alienate the overwhelming majority of Diaspora Jewry, as well as a considerable percentage of Israeli citizens?
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 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. Criminalizing non-Hareidi/non-Orthodox prayer at the Kotel would become a deep, festering breach in Jewish unity, and would further alienate many Jews from the State of Israel.
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.