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Jewish Journal

Women of the Wall and the Fire on the Mountain

by Aryeh Cohen

May 29, 2013 | 6:09 am

The Torah emphasizes repeatedly that one only approaches the Holy with great fear and trepidation. On the day that the Tabernacle was dedicated, Aaron’s children were killed by the same sacrificial machinery that consumed Israel’s offerings. The ritual choreography which eventually became the Yom Kippur service is preceded by the warning: “Speak to Aaron your brother, that he not come at all times into the sacred zone … lest he die.” God warns Israel as they gather round Mount Sinai that they not approach the mountain “lest they break through to the Lord to see and many of them perish.” The Sages applied to Torah the same paradigm. Comparing Torah to fire, the midrash warns that if one gets too close, one will be burnt, if one strays too far, one will freeze.

These are the thoughts with which I find myself as I try to bring some order to the reasons that I am uncomfortable with the movement for equal ritual access at the kotel, known as Women of the Wall. It is not that I fear the disruption of the customs of the place—customs which have only been in place for several decades, not longer, and have been stage managed by the Hareidi rabbis of the kotel, pretending that the force of the police is the same as the patina of authenticity. It is not egalitarian worship at the kotel that I fear. I strongly believe in egalitarian worship everywhere, rarely if ever praying in a quorum divided by sex. It is rather worship of the kotel that makes me anxious.

The Sefat Emet  (the first Rebbe of Gur) writes that the reason that Moses broke the tablets when he saw the Israelites dancing around the Golden Calf was that he feared that they would make the tablets into an idol. Rather than studying, and observing the Torah, Moses was afraid that the idolatrous actions of the Israelites showed that they would also turn the tablets that God had given them into an idol, and worship it.

For centuries the Wall, the large remnant of the western supporting wall of the Temple Plaza, upon which Herod’s Temple was built, was draped in myth and yearning. Yehudah  Halevi, the great medieval Spanish poet wrote “my hear is in the East / while I am in the far West” in his longing for the Land of Israel. The desire of his poetic yearning was transformed into the legend that he was killed by an Arab horseman as he was embracing the dirt near the Temple Mount. Legend has it that the Western Wall survived because it was built by donations from the poor. Popular song refers to it as “stones with the heart of a person.”

In the far right precincts of the messianic settler Zionist movement, the focus has moved from the kotel to the Temple Mount itself. Annually, the Temple Mount faithful make a pilgrimage to the Temple Mount to underscore their desire to build the Third Temple on the spot where the Herod’s Temple had been, and where the Dome of the Rock now stands.

The combination of Nationalist and Hareidi claims of ownership over the kotel and the Temple Mount seem to have alienated most of the Israeli public who have not been paying attention to the controversy over equal ritual access to the Wall. Instead, the monthly Rosh Hodesh gatherings have become a rallying point for North American tour groups, and North Americans temporarily living in Israel. The resistance and the violence that meets these groups is a major publicity problem for the Israeli government. A publicity problem and neither a political nor a moral issue. For this reason Prime Minister Netanyahu dispatched Natan Scharansky, the head of the World Zionist Organization to discuss the issue with the heads of two American Rabbinical Schools, Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary—both of which have supported the Women of the Wall. The goal of such a compromise will be to insure that the support of the State as a whole should not be diminished.

The reason this issue has escaped the enthusiasm of the Israeli public (both right and left, but most interesting, those Israelis actively concerned with human and civil rights) is that it is not framed as an issue within the context of other violations of civil rights. (Though after the recent Supreme Court decision almost half the country seems to support WoW. However, digging into those statistics reveals that the support is greatest by far amongst Olim from Europe and North America and their children.) The police brutality is not framed as one example of the brutality of the Israeli police. The issues are framed from the perspective of the North American Jewish community, as a lone civil rights issue—egalitarian ritual access at the kotel.

This is where the danger of the Holy hits. The picture that is painted and the rhetoric that is employed advocate for the Western Wall “as the the principal symbol of Jewish people-hood and sovereignty” (from the WoW website). However, the site of the kotel, the Old City of Jerusalem, the kotel plaza and the Temple Mount are not uncomplicated. The massive plaza in front of the Western Wall was a Palestinian neighborhood until the ‘67 war. Muslims and Jews share the Old City in a tense and tendentious fashion, and demanding equal ritual access without mention of this larger political context also strengthens the place of the Wall as the symbol of Jerusalem, the “eternal undivided capital of Israel.”

Reinforcing the kotel’s iconic political status makes moving forward on issues of peace and coexistence harder. Women of the Wall is a public relations problem specifically because it might harm the unconditioned support for this nationalist message. This is where it behooves us to break the tablets. If the issue is equal access then we should be taking on the Rabbinate. If the issue is civil rights and police brutality we should be shouting about that. If the issue is the Wall, we walk too close to the fire.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Aryeh Cohen the author of the book Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism is a professor, a social justice activist, a rabbi and a lecturer.

He...

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