Thoughts On the Sharansky Plan For The Kotel

Although I heard it forty-two years ago in a classroom at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I can remember it even now with perfect clarity.

Professor Moshe Greenberg, of blessed memory, was teaching his signature course in Bible– Mavo L’Emunat HaMikrah; An Introduction to Biblical Religion. If you were a student on the One Year Program at Hebrew U., as I was in 1971-72, it was one of those courses that you just had to take, because the expert in the field was teaching it. Greenberg, who had been a Bible professor at the University of Pennsylvania, made aliyah, and assumed a position as a full professor in Jerusalem, a post he had richly earned, and for which he was universally respected.

I was straight out of Yeshiva University, where Bible was only taught as Torah, not as literature, or as a source for the study of ancient religions. I knew nothing of critical scholarship. It was the first day of class, and Professor Greenberg was explaining how he would go about teaching the class. Though his reverence for the Bible as Torah was deep and authentic, he had no choice, he said, but to utilize the tools of critical scholarship, even though they challenged some of his own assumptions of sanctity about the text itself. What he said was as follows:

Ha’kli hazeh hu dei m’supak v’dai m’sukan, aval ein lanu kli elah hu. Roughly translated, this instrument (referring to Biblical Criticism) is not without it reasons for doubt, and is more than a little dangerous, but we have no other instrument to utilize.

Being the innocent that I was in his world of scholarship, it took me a while to catch on, but I did. With time, I came to understand what he was trying to say. Professor Greenberg wished that he had another way to plumb the depths of his subject without questioning the literary integrity of the Torah texts themselves, but he didn’t. He felt he had no recourse but to resort to critical methodologies, because that was the only instrument adequate to the academic challenge at hand.

Forty-two years later, I feel roughly the same way about Natan Sharansky’s grand plan for the Kotel and its plaza. Ha’kli hazeh hu dei m’supak v’dai m’sukan, aval ein lanu kli elah hu. Put very simply– it is far from perfect, not what anyone involved, in his/her heart of hearts, really wants, and it faces enormous obstacles from every direction. But– it is a quantum leap in the right direction, and the only real plan out there that actually addresses issues of religious pluralism in Israel in a serious and respectful way. It deserves support from all quarters, and a real chance to move forward.

I have enormous respect for the Women of the Wall, and I am fully of the belief that the only reason why the Sharansky plan was proposed was because of the pressure that they have brought to bear on the Netanyahu government. The negative publicity that Israel was getting in both the Jewish and international communities every time women were arrested and/or prevented from praying as they wished at the Kotel was, finally, getting the attention that it deserved– because those very brave women, and the men and women who supported them from near and far, simply refused to go home and be still. Change happens because people push for it. It rarely happens until the status quo becomes so uncomfortable as to virtually demand it. The Women of the Wall are not the “problem” in the Kotel story; they are the heroes.

But in full recognition of that fact, it is important to understand that the opportunity for equal access at the Kotel (which the Sharansky place still does not provide for the Orthodox women who seek to pray as a women’s prayer group in the women’s section of the “traditional Kotel”) is but one very small piece of the larger agenda as regards the pluralistic practice of Judaism and its relationship to the State of Israel.

I cannot speak for the Reform movement, though we share many of the same goals. But as President of the Rabbinical Assembly and as an outspoken advocate for Israel within my own congregation for more than thirty years, I can say with total certainty that what we seek is full equality under Israeli law. Equal funding of our synagogues, rabbis, schools and programs (as opposed to the shameful inequality that now exists); equal opportunity to function as rabbis for marriage, divorce and conversion (as opposed to the shameful status quo which continues to exacerbate the already powerful alienation of secular Israelis from religious tradition); and, of course, equal access to the spaces that are sacred to our tradition. No one religious group in Israel “owns” Judaism. No one group owns the Kotel, and no one group should have the power to say “I have THE WAY” and your way is unacceptable.”

Ha’kli hazeh hu dei m’supak v’dai m’sukan, aval ein lanu kli elah hu. From Moshe Greenberg z”l to Natan Sharansky, the principle is the same. The imperfection of an instrument that one must use to get to larger truths does not render the instrument unfit for use. Moshe Greenberg opened my eyes to a Jewish world that I never knew existed. Natan Sharansky’s plan– despite its imperfections and all of the obstacles that stand in the way to its implementation– is opening the eyes of Israelis to the reality of significant religious issues in Israel, not just at the Kotel, but in Israeli society as a whole, and in the governmental policies of the State of Israel.

Let’s give the plan a chance to work, and a very hearty “Yishar Koach!” to Natan Sharansky for once again putting himself on the line for the Jewish people.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.