Digging Deeper at the Western Wall

Saturday and Sunday are the beginning of a new month on the Hebrew calendar. The coming of Rosh Chodesh means that Israeli and diaspora based Jewish media will be flooded with news of the, now monthly, standoff between ‘Women of the Wall’ and ‘Women for the Wall.’ Before the calendar turns to the next page and the excrement hits the fan, I’d like to explore what we are really fighting about, what underlies the political battle.

Our opinions on particular issues are dependent on our underlying, ingrained world-view. Both sides of the issue concerning style of worship at the Western Wall have taken up the language of legality, of ‘rights’ and ‘status-quo’ because this is the language which can most directly move policy in their favor. Unfortunately this language serves more often than not to hide the true issues which are not fundamentally legal, but rather philosophical and moral. I hope to look past the legalistic rhetoric and touch on one of the core issues driving this and many other conflicts in Israel. I would like to dig deep into the underlying cultural assumptions, usually unexamined, that lead us to our various positions on this issue, and hopefully to enrich the conversion by doing so.

One of the primary splits between religious traditionalists and progressives is our respective attitudes toward individual autonomy, that is, the importance of personal choice.

On the progressive side there is a desire to maximize individual autonomy as much as possible while minimizing our societal, not to speak of religious, obligations. Any obligation to society is seen as a necessary evil for the purpose of allowing as much personal autonomy as possible to as many people as possible. For instance, I want to be free to do what I like with my money. However, I allow the government to take some of my money to provide me and others with services necessary to maximize my personal autonomy, such as basic health-care, roads, defense, police, etc.

To the contrary, a traditional approach recognizes group responsibility as in some ways ideal; that is, responsibility of the individual to the needs of the group, and the responsibility of the group for the actions of its members. We see this as a positive part of building a good society. Autonomy, while remaining important, remains several rungs down the ladder of our societal priorities, being preceded by a quest for holiness and adherence to G-d’s laws together. Personal choice is seen not as an inherent good, but rather as an important tool in our service of the collective and ultimately of God. After all, if we have no ability to make choices, how can we be judged by our Creator? But if we apply no valence, no value judgments, to making one decision verses another, then what has our freedom achieved? What value does it have?

So, how do these abstract concepts apply to non-traditional prayer in the women’s section at the Western Wall? From the progressive perspective, where personal autonomy is sacrosanct, the ability of every individual to pray as they wish is paramount, and the many individuals who use the space need to all compromise their comfort a bit to accommodate the needs of others who wish to use the same space. From a traditional perspective, in which collective norms are an essential value, this argument requires more nuance. There is not a clear preference for the right of individuals to pray as they like over the preferences of the community which makes the most use of the site. The Jews who come to pray at the kotel in the traditional manner, and make up the vast majority of worshipers there most of the time, believe that they have certain communal rights, and that there is value to following communal rules; that having a united ‘kahal,’ a public, which follows certain norms, achieves more spiritually than a collection of individuals serving G-d ‘as they please.’

I could go on to the many particular arguments that follow. Should the traditionalists be allowed to claim the Western Wall plaza as ‘their place?’ Is the site a synagogue or a national monument? Does it ‘belong’ to all the citizens of the state for whom it is a national symbol or to those who make the most use of it? When was the ‘status-quo’ established; 500 years ago, in 1967, or over some indefinite period of time leading to the present? These are questions of fairness, of moral codes, of the role of religion and state in Israel, of ownership. These are all big questions which depend directly on our deepest moral instincts and opinions. However, I believe the question of personal autonomy underlies how we will interpret the facts around all those subsequent questions. I hope this helps us all to move the conversation away from legalisms and toward something more substantive.

About the Author
Rabbi Eitan Levy is a tour guide and organizer in Israel. He grew up in Denver, Colorado, got a BA in philosophy at Sarah Lawrence, and rabbinic ordination at a yeshiva in Jerusalem. He loves to share his love of the Torah, land and people of Israel in writing, lectures, and tours. He lives in Tekoa with his wife and three little gremlins.
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