Western Wall: To pray and to protest

Last week, we carried Torah scrolls to the Western Wall (Kotel) and prayed there. We went both to pray and to protest. One of the components of prayer is justice and we went to achieve justice with ourselves, with our democratic state and also with those who disagree with us. We tried to do so with holiness, asserting that our Torah also has a place at the Wall, and perhaps even saying that we understand that other readings of the Torah at the Kotel have their place but we also wanted to bring our reading of the Torah to have its place at this sanctified spot.

One month ago, I led prayers at the Ezrat Israel section of the Western Wall. We spoke about the rabbinic story of Rabbi Akiva who laughed at the shameful state of the Temple Mount. When asked why he laughed, he said that this desolation demonstrates that redemption will arrive and that the streets of Jerusalem will be filled with elderly men and elderly women along with boys and girls. I hope that the present shameful state of the Kotel also demonstrates that redemption will arrive – that we will witness egalitarian prayers at the remnant of our Temple alongside those praying with women and men separated. People will pray side by side in different liturgies — Iraqi, Yemenite, Ashkenazic, Ethiopian, Sephardic, Moroccan and Persian.

The Kotel is a remnant of our holy Temple. It commemorates our past as a people; it signifies imminence to holiness and to the Holy of Holies. Although it encompasses sanctity, today it is not our place of prayer. I find it difficult to pray to God in a place, such as the Kotel, that discriminates and excludes women. Indeed, I am duty-bound to demand that my worldview be represented at the Kotel. For me, worshiping God includes the obligation to do everything possible to make this world a better place. In the context of the Kotel, it means facilitating different ways of prayer based upon the Torah and Jewish tradition.

There were many difficult moments on Wednesday. The most serious one was the humiliation of the Torah, but not less serious were the disgraceful acts of (the ultra-Orthodox) people, such as the curse unhesitatingly enunciated by both old and young wishing that those who do not agree with them would die.

Herein lies my difficulty. I do not wish to eliminate the voices of those who disagree with me. Even if I had authority over the Kotel I would still want there to be three sections — men, women, and a mixed section. This would establish a spiritual foundation for a Temple that would be a house of prayer for all people. I also do not want to disturb those women who wish to pray in a separate women’s section. I also want all those who come to the Kotel to act modestly and with humility. Our prayer and protest disturbed and upset others praying but unfortunately there appears to be no other way to raise our voice. Agreements concerning prayer at the Kotel, achieved with much dedication and sacrifice, dissipated as if they never were.

A further difficulty is the tension that we are creating with the Jewish people who are living in the Diaspora. It is unclear what will happen, but I hope that these acts will bring them closer to Israel and not distance them from our country.

The prayer service that we held this past Wednesday embodied the Torah transmitted from generation to generation to us so that we may claim our share in it — and may we soon achieve this wish.

About the Author
Rabbi Avi-Novis Deutsch is Dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem, which trains Masorti/Conservative spiritual leadership for Israel and the world.
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