A response to the ‘Chief Rabbi’ of the Kotel plaza

The Kotel is bigger than all of us. It’s true. I agree with how you begin your open letter to the Women of the Wall, published Thursday in the Jerusalem Post. No one can be the chief rabbi of the Kotel, it’s just too big: too big an idea, too big a symbol, too big of an inspiration, too big a place of holiness and prayer.

The Kotel is big, but you’ve made the plaza small. Small in vision. Small in welcome. Small in peace.

If you truly wanted the plaza to be a place of welcome, your letter would have been much different.

Here’s what’s missing, the things that would have shown that the sanctity of prayer is a core goal.

In your open letter you did not:

  • Call for an end to the use of whistles at the Kotel, blown by women on Rosh Chodesh morning explicitly to disturb prayer
  • Condemn Haredi women who hurl insults at the Women of the Wall during prayer, sometimes directly in their faces
  • Condemn Haredi men who hurl insults – and at times attempt physical intimidation – of the men praying in support of Women of the Wall
  • Call for an end to men and women who, in the past, have hurled objects – water bottles, chairs, eggs – at the women and men of WOW praying at the Kotel

These behaviors at the Kotel plaza – on Rosh Chodesh, no less – appear to be acceptable to you. Allowing them is simply inconsistent with tone of your letter.

If you want the plaza to be an inviting home for all of our people, you’d call for an end to these tactics.  In fact, you’d do more. These were also missing from your letter. You did not:

  • Pledge to uphold the ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court confirming the right of women to pray out loud with talit and tefillin at the Kotel
  • Pledge to uphold the ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court confirming the right of women to read from a sefer Torah at the Western Wall
  • Apologize for years of harassment, intimidation and arrest of women attempting to exercise their protected rights at a Jewish holy site
  • Apologize for the brutality of your ushers who roughed up men and created a melee the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh Iyyar

If you were protecting the sanctity of the Kotel plaza, there’d be no insults, shouts, intimidation, violence or arrests. But instead, on Rosh Chodesh Av, the day after your letter, there was jeering, yelling, name-calling and the shriek of whistles. Instead, there was another arrest, Rachel Cohen Yeshurun, for attempting to bring a Torah to the Kotel.

You call the Kotel a ‘synagogue,’ saying that “we must not let it happen that Jews avoid coming to the Western Wall because for them, it is a place where Jews fight each other…” Jews – Reform, Conservative and Orthodox – already avoid the Kotel, precisely because you’ve made the plaza into a Haredi shul.

The Kotel is not a synagogue. It’s a holy place, a national historic site, a place of prayer, beauty, mystery and wonder.

Here’s the unspoken truth: people are welcome to pray at the plaza so long as they adhere to your rules, so long as they accept your view of appropriate prayer, so long as they don’t challenge the status quo. One of the jeers hurled by an angry Haredi man on Friday – “don’t come here to our Kotel” – precisely sums up the mood you’ve created.

It’s your administration that makes and keeps the Kotel plaza a Haredi synagogue. Unmake it. Return the plaza to the people. That would make your actions and your words consistent. That would bring thousands of Jews back to the Kotel. That would be brave.

You’re correct. You’re not the Chief Rabbi of the Kotel. You’re the chief administrator of the Kotel plaza, a quasi-governmental official brazenly ignoring the law of the land, whose words of peace are meaningless in the face of your tolerance for hatred and intimidation.

The Kotel is bigger than all of us. You can’t change that. As for the plaza, well, it’s sad how you’ve made it into such a narrow, little place.

About the Author
Alden Solovy is a liturgist, poet, and educator. His teaching spans from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem to Limmud UK and synagogues throughout North America. He's the author of “This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day” and has written more than 750 pieces of new liturgy. His new book, "This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings," was published in 2019. He made aliyah in 2012. Read his work at www.ToBendLight.com.
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