The Kotel Controversy – Whose Definition of Chillul HaShem?

If each of us were asked to envision an example of Chillul Hashem, it would be telling to examine what each of us would come up with. How many of us would provide an example of a sin that is “bein adam lamakom,” between man and God, and how many would provide an example of a sin that is “bein adam lachavero,” between man and man? In last week’s parsha, Moshe is punished after he is told to speak to the rock because “lo kidashtem oti” – because he didn’t perform a Kiddush Hashem. The commentaries are split as to the nature of the lack of Kiddush Hashem. Rashi believes that the lack of Kiddush Hashem occurred when Moshe veered from God’s command by hitting the rock instead of speaking to the rock, committing a “bein adam lamakom” failure. Rambam, on the other hand, believes that the lack of Kiddush Hashem was in getting angry at the people, a “bein adam lachavero” failure.

Recently in Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to freeze plans for a mixed gender pavilion at the Kotel complex dedicated for non-orthodox prayer has brought a similar question front and center. Many are disappointed and frustrated at this most recent decision, but each of us must ask, wherein lies the greatest tragedy? For some, the lack of peace and unity amongst Jews at one of our holiest sites is a tragedy borne of the Prime Minister’s decision, and a terrible Chillul Hashem. Others will say that were it not for Netanyahu’s recent change in plans, the real Chillul Hashem would have occurred when the kotel was made the site of non-halakhically sanctioned worship.

As for me, I am torn. I try to live by the motto, “Can’t we all get along?” and want the kotel to be a site of unity and mutual respect for all Jews who wish to worship there. At the same time, I believe that God’s Torah does not allow for mixed prayer services. As such, I am pained when I see these services at the Kotel just as I am pained when I see a Jew violating the Shabbat. I believe that traditional Judaism does not support a laissez-faire or pluralistic attitude when it comes to religion – I believe that there are parameters of halakha that ultimately cannot be bent. Nonetheless, I want every Jew to feel connected to God when he or she visits one of our holiest sites and I am pained at the thought of any Jew feeling like a “second-class” Jew when he or she is not able to practice as he or she wishes. I recognize that both positions in this debate are fraught with risk. By taking a stand for traditional prayer, what may be seen as “bein adam lamakom,” we risk suffering a tragic loss “bein adam lachavero.” The stakes are high, and no answers are simple. We must tread carefully.

The truth is that for more than fifteen years, the Conservative and Reform movements had been holding egalitarian prayer services in a temporary prayer facility, next to Robinson’s Arch, in a well-maintained archaeological park by the southern part of the Kotel. This area has been left undisturbed for fifteen years by religious Jews. Weren’t these prayer services a Chillul Hashem? Why were these prayer services left unprotested? Because even the Charedi parties understood that this was a compromise worth making. They were willing to sacrifice a certain amount of what they deemed a Chillul Hashem, for the sake of peace and harmony among Jews.

For me, solving the Kotel controversy involves a practical question whose answer may be beyond my paygrade. On the one hand, providing greater opportunity for all Jews to pray at the Kotel, in a way that is meaningful to them, may go a long way toward maintaining much needed support from across the broad range of members of the Jewish community. At the same time, giving non-orthodox Rabbis a foothold in determining religious policy in some fashion in Israel could open the door to greater controversy in the future. The stakes here are high, and coming down too strongly on either side bears significant risks. It is my hope that by addressing this latest question with equal sensitivity toward our fellow Jews and fidelity to halakha, we may navigate this controversy and others like it in a way that creates only Kiddush Hashem.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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