If walls could talk: Why the Kotel’s significance is lost in Women of the Wall controversy

Close your eyes and imagine: you are being yelled at by a large group of people. Cups of coffee and lit cigarettes are thrown at you. All you were doing was trying to pray. Unpleasant, no? Now imagine having something you believe to be absolute truth and possibly even central to the way you live your life combatted by people whom you know to be unqualified to challenge your beliefs. Not necessarily physically unpleasant, but emotionally and spiritually almost equally so.

In the first image, you experienced what members of the Women of the Wall have experienced during one of their Rosh Chodesh services at the Kotel. And in the second, you felt what the Hassidim feel the beginning of every Jewish month when these women show up to pray at the Kotel out loud, donning talitot.

Now try and answer this question: why do these two groups, who very clearly hold the Kotel in a special place in their hearts, treat its plaza as a battlefield?

When analyzing the debate between the Women of the Wall and the Hassidim beyond the surface of the individual opinions, the two sides appear to be completely and utterly incompatible to argue against one another. Their cultural backgrounds and dogma of their individual beliefs are so incredibly distant from each other that they could not possibly begin to interact so closely with one another.

On the one hand, the Women of the Wall, the majority of whom journalist Jonathan Tobin claims to be American, are attempting what is essentially political change within Israel. Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. Americans, not Israelis, are trying to alter Israeli law. Israel doesn’t need America’s democratic influence when dealing with its domestic policy; it is currently the only stable democracy in the Middle East. Not only are the majority of the Women of the Wall Americans, they are mostly Conservative and Reform Jews. These sects of Judaism may be the most prevalent in the women’s native country of America, but they are tiny, almost insignificant, sects of Judaism in what the Women of the Wall claim as their homeland, Israel.

On the other hand, the group with which they hold their contention, the Hassidim, are Israeli, but could honestly care less about any legislation passed allowing the Women of the Wall to pray at the Kotel in their desired feminist fashion. There is a large group of Hassidim in Israel who do not view the Israeli government as a valid government for the Jewish state, and would still protest violently against the Women of the Wall, even once their actions were officially deemed legal. And realistically, the Hassidim do not view the Women of the Wall as a legitimate movement because they are feminists, and the feminist movement is a part of the same secular culture that current Hassidic practice ignores in attempt to preserve orthodox Jewish tradition.

When these facts are taken into account, it seems impossible that the Women of the Wall and the Hassidim would even be able to strike up a conversation, let alone a debate with each other.

Then it becomes almost obvious. In order to begin the controversy, the two groups had to come into contention with one another over the single, solitary thing that they have in common: their religion. As the joke quite accurately states, “Put ten Jews in a room, and there will be eleven opinions.” In order to strike controversy, the Women of the Wall and the Hassidim used religion as glue, as a leveling tool. Really, religion is merely a façade in this argument.

With religion as a façade, the holiness of the Kotel becomes like background noise, present, but ignored as ordinary. The Kotel can then be treated as any other retaining wall, useful to hold back dirt, but essentially serving no other purpose. Thus, its plaza is capable of being used as a battleground. Consequently, the controversy between the Women of the Wall and the Hassidim unfortunately becomes, as the Kotel Rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz phrases it (quoted by journalist Judy Maltz), “the greatest desecration of the name of God.”

So stop using the Kotel as a tool for arguments, and start using it for peaceful prayer. Stop using the holiest site in Jewish tradition as a place of hatred, but instead use it as a location for unity and acts of kindness between the Jewish people. The Kotel doesn’t deserve to be the backdrop of debate. It deserves to be focal point of prayers.

About the Author
Eliana is from Teaneck, NJ, and is a freshman at Columbia University.
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