Prayer holds a special place in Jewish tradition. Maimonides counts the commandment to pray as the fifth among the 613 mitzvot. The Talmud traces our prayer service back to the patriarchs of Judaism – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – and to the required Temple service. Even those who disagree with Maimonides understand prayer as central to the Jewish religious life and experience. Rav Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook describes the ultimate prayer as an unceasing yearning for God that leaps forth from the depths of the human soul. Although the Talmud theoretically exempts women from mitzvoth, which depend on specific times, the rabbis declared that women must pray since prayer requests divine mercy.
The obligation of praying in a quorum of ten is less clear. Rabbi Yosef Karo codifies in his Shulchan Aruch that “a person should strive to pray with the community in a synagogue.” (ShA OC 90:9) Seemingly, while praying with a minyan or quorum is something to strive for, it is not entirely obligatory like prayer itself. Rav Moshe Feinstein suggests that prayer in a quorum is obligatory. The reason he gives is fascinating. In his responsa, OC 2:27, Rav Moshe argues that the goal of prayer is for God to hear our prayers. According to the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yochanan (Berachot 8a), God always attends to communal prayer. Therefore, since praying alone lacks the guarantee of being heard in heaven, one is ipso facto obligated to pray in a community.
While not everyone agrees with Rav Moshe, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik offered a powerful psychological explanation for the benefit of communal prayer. According to Rav Soloveitchik in The Lonely Man of Faith, the communal prayer act attempts to assuage humans’ existential loneliness as uniquely created and conscious beings. The relationship one has with God the Creator is unique; however, taking part in the covenantal community, including communal prayer, impacts our sense of self. Public, communal prayer, whether an obligation or a way of being, can unite individuals in the quest for nearness to the divine. This explains why so many, feeling obligated or not, choose to pray together in a community.
The role of communal prayer in Jewish life, which for many is a powerful spiritual experience, leads us to three controversial prayer spaces or events.
Most recently, secularists have disturbed traditional separate prayers in Tel Aviv. The most prominent disruption occurred to the mass service for Neilah in the center of the city on Dizengoff Street. The service was organized by the group Rosh Yehudi and apparently in violation of the orders of the Tel-Aviv municipality and a court order. Many were shocked and dismayed as protests became violent and spread to many other outdoor and indoor prayers.
Two separate places of worship at the Kotel have seen constant attacks over the years. Orthodox and non-Orthodox women have attempted to pray with a Torah at the Western Wall. In addition, the Israeli government reached a compromise with non-Orthodox movements to pray at the Robinson’s Arch section of the old city of Jerusalem. The issues and groups organizing and participating are complicated to unravel, given the use of similar names. However, over the years, the group at the Kotel has been violently attacked and spit upon, and prayer books have been destroyed. Those groups who have organized prayers at the southern excavation area still wait for the government to fulfill its promise of American non-Orthodox groups to renovate the area for prayer. Presently, a makeshift platform erected by then Education Minister and former Prime Minister Naftali Bennet stands instead of a permanent structure. On the one hand, Haredi Knesset members have promised to scuttle the compromise. At the same time, former Chief Rabbi of Israel Shlomo Amar has, from time to time disrupted the egalitarian section by setting up a mechitza barrier.
The holiest site of Judaism stands in the heart of Jerusalem. According to many Jewish thinkers, the divine presence or Shekhina resides to this day on the temple mount, which once housed both Temples. Rabbi Yehuda HaLevy called the spot the gate to heaven, and Maimonides codified that the holiness remains intact. According to many Jewish authorities, the ideal place to pray is on the Mountain. Yet courts have gone back and forth on allowing prayers on the holy spot, and police often prevent even the mouthing of prayer without a group. Some have suggested building a synagogue on the mount, but this idea is almost romantic. Rabbinic leaders debate the permissibility of Jews even walking on Har HaBayit; however, many rule that both going onto the site and praying there are praiseworthy.
All three of these cases, Dizengoff, the Kotel, and the Temple Mount, share many aspects in common. For the groups who want to pray in these public places in the manner they choose, the expressed desire for religious expression pushes them to attempt these prayers. All three cases are controversial, and some accuse the participants of perverting religion and forcing their will on the majority who are against it. Yet, each case is supported by a different religious group. Dizengoff prayers were instigated by conservative Religious Zionists and criticized by secularists. Women of the Wall and the southern wall area are promoted by non-Orthodox groups and attacked by Haredim and right-leaning religious Zionists. The prayers on the Temple Mount are supported by religious Zionists but protested by Haredim and non-Orthodox and secularist groups. All three are cases of demands for religious freedom where the court and police have been requested to intervene. In all three cases, the intent and desire of the participants have been called into question, and violence has ensued.
Freedom of religious expression appears to be one of the hallmarks of modern liberal democracy. If Israeli society supports the norms of Western communities, then the various groups supporting these prayer events and spaces have to support each other. If Israel is to remain a liberal democracy, then the rights of minorities to practice as they see fit need to be protected. Supporting one of these and fighting against the other creates a multi-tiered view of citizenship. Some are allowed self-expression in public spaces, and others are denied it. Some find praying with a barrier an anathema, whereas others see the other group as heretics. The common denominator of the various groups is suspicion of the motives of those they dislike and a desire to prevent those they disagree with the right to pray according to their custom.
For Israel to remain a healthy, vibrant society, we need to learn to live with our discomfort and respect others we disagree with. The other way leads not to coming closer to God, the goal of prayer, but rather defiling the divine name. It’s one for all or none for all. The choice is clear.