I have never really spoken to people much about the fact that I have rarely felt spiritually moved while at the Kotel, the Western Wall (the only remnant of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem’s compound). I’ve found it hard to do so when so many of my fellow Jews talk about what a special, profound experience a visit to the Kotel has been for them. It would surprise people to know that on many occasions when I was in the Old City of Jerusalem, I hung back at the far end of the plaza in front of the Kotel, not venturing up to the wall to pray or press a folded up note to God into the cracks between its huge, ancient stones.
The Western Wall has always served for me as a reminder of the great, long sweep of Jewish history of which I am part. By standing back and gazing upon the kotel’s structure in its entirety, I am able to connect with it in this way. I can vividly recall my experiences and emotions as I paraded and stood in military formation on three different summer nights, one in each of 1983, 1984 and 1985, during the dramatic closing ceremonies of the Chetz VeKeshet programs I participated in. I was moved to tears each time, overcome by my pride at surviving the rigors of a six-week Gadna challenge, but more so because of my realization in those moments that I was truly part of something bigger than myself: The Jewish People.
And that is something I do not feel in the religious sense when I stand at the Kotel as a liberal Jew (I feel most closely aligned with the Conservative movement, but that is irrelevant here – what matters in this context is that I am not an adherent of fundamental Orthodox Judaism). As I stand there watching people whose heads, if they are not sporting a cardboard kippah (these are the generally non-religiously observant tourists), are covered with a black hat, shtreiml (Hassidic hat with fur trim), or sheitl (wig worn by some Orthodox women to cover their natural hair), I don’t see myself among them. And they, in turn, don’t see – and don’t have any interest in seeing – the kind of Jew that I am.
The real problem is that this lack of acceptance of liberal Jewish sensibilities and practices at the Kotel goes beyond simply how different kinds of Jews feel about each other. Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and other liberal Jews are barred by Orthodox authorities from gathering in minyanim and holding egalitarian and/or women’s-only prayer services in this most holy site. One could say that this is only a problem for residents of Jerusalem, or for groups like Women of the Wall – only it’s not. It is a problem, and a lamentable situation, for the entire Jewish people.
When women are taunted, harassed and physically attacked for forming a minyan or wearing tallitot (even discreetly hidden under closed coats), and when davening medical student Nofrat Frenkel is arrested (in November) and Israel Religious Action Center director and attorney Anat Hoffman is detained, interrogated and fingerprinted by the police (two days ago), it is not good for the Jews. What will eventually come to pass if what is considered perfectly acceptable to the majority of American Jews continues to be considered criminal activity by those who control religious life in the Jewish State? What will become of us as a global, if not unified, people if what is normative for one half of us is anathema to the other?
The reunification of Jerusalem following the Six Day War in 1967 turned the opportunity to pray at the kotel – to stand in the presence of God at the one and only surviving part of the Temple that was once, not only the spiritual, but also the physical center of Judaism – into the birthright of every living Jew. It is regrettable that each of us does not yet have the right to exercise that birthright in the way in which we see fit for ourselves. I, for one, will not feel as connected to the Kotel as I possibly could be, until it truly becomes the Wall for us all.
© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.
Tags: Anat Hoffman, Conservative Judaism, egalitarian Judaism, Fundamental religion, Holy Temple in Jerusalem, Israel, Israel Religious Action Center, Jerusalem, Jewish feminism, Jewish Religion, Jews, Judaism, Kotel, Liberal Judaism, Nofrat Frenkel, Orthodox Judaism, Reconstructionist Judaism, Reform Judaism, Six Day War, Western Wall, Women of the Wall