The Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem has always been a place of “questionable” sacredness for me. The allure of our biblical narrative and journey has drawn me there time and again….taking many groups and individuals to experience a piece of US that still remains. Upon approach, its positioning is majestic – a reminder of a powerful symbol of inspiration for so many. Yet, even as I stand in awe of its physical greatness, place notes of prayer and healing in the wall, and recite words of Tehillim (Psalms), I, myself, struggle with its sacredness.
Perhaps it’s because of my own inner struggles with its attachment to a sacrificial time that is not in practice today. Perhaps, moreover, in today’s world, the Kotel has become a politicized arena between Haredim and other – religious nationalists, IDF soldiers, progressive Jewish men and women (from Israel and broad), and non-Jews (many who are not even aware of the challenges).
Today, the physical greatness I speak of is tempered by the smallness in its current form of welcome to anyone outside of the accepted fold. I offer you two incidents that happened to my family and I while here on my sabbatical:
In this picture, you will see a women, standing near a table. These tables, new in the past few months, are placed in strategic locations, adjacent to each security entrance to the Plaza of the Kotel. They are manned by Shomrot HaSniut (guards/overseers of modesty). For as long as I could remember, women would lap the women’s section of the Wall to remind newcomers to cover their bare arms and legs. Yet, as time progresses, the overseer’s reach has expanded greatly – through the entirety of the Plaza.
Our first incident occurred when we were taking a family picture on the plaza (far removed from the Kotel men’s and women’s sections). Two women approached my wife (who was wearing a sleeveless shirt) to ask her to cover. After a firm retort (in Hebrew) from both of us, they sheepishly retreated. Their goal: do not allow any woman they deem immodest to enter into their expanded holy space.
The second occurred as we entered with a friend visiting from the states. On this day, we had no desire to approach the wall. Rather, we were making our way to a tour of the Western Wall tunnels (a must do on your next trip to Israel)! A young Haredi woman (not more than 25 y/o) approached our friend (in a tank top and skirt), and asked her to cover up). In my take of sniut (modesty), there was nothing immodest about her dress. Regardless, she was aware of the customs of the area and brought a shawl to place over her bare shoulders. As I tried to interact with the “modesty guard”, she kept focusing on our friend, making it clear she was speaking to her directly. I asked the woman if she was a “ba’ala hakotel” – the owner of the kotel? She wouldn’t answer. I asked her several more times. She finally noted that her role was to oversee modesty in this sacred place. As she threw some insults my way over my own rabbinate, our interaction continued to get heated over the next few minutes, as we were not giving in to her demand. The chief rabbi of the Kotel recently noted that the entirety of the plaza is now to be treated as a synagogue, hence their new and far more aggressive directive.
As we moved away from her, the shomeret hasniut followed us into the entrance of the tunnels, continuing to harass us by telling the male guard that our friend should not be allowed anywhere near the walls in the tunnels until she “covers up”. Appearing as he now experiences this on a daily basis, he “yes’d” her and told her to leave.
While the above experiences were not detrimental in any way for us as a family, my children (for the first time) experienced internal bias Jew to Jew. It brought up lots of questions for them, and furthered the wrestling they, and we, are continuing to do throughout this incredible summer in Israel.
Some final thoughts about the current administrators of the Kotel and holy sites:
1. The Kotel is NOT a synagogue. Rather, it is a national historic site, a place for prayer, for wonder, for holiness for ALL PEOPLES.
2. It appears as though people are welcome to pray at the plaza so long as they adhere to the rules and don’t challenge the status quo.
The leadership of the Kotel has the potential, the capacity to bring thousands of Jews and others back to the Kotel. In an open letter to the Women of the Wall the other day, the chief administrator of the Kotel said: “The Kotel is bigger than all of us.” I believe that wholeheartedly. So make the welcome match the grandeur of this site, without minimizing one’s own practice and identity.
Until my next post….