Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Kotel and Compromise

The Kotel (Israel Hayom)
This may surprise or even shock some people. But for me, the Kotel has never inspired me. (I may have mentioned this before.) 

Now it’s true that this wall is the outer retaining wall to the courtyard of what was once the holiest of structures, the Beis HaMikdash. And yet, every time I visit it, I feel like I am at a tourist attraction.

There is almost a circus like atmosphere surrounding it with all kinds of people with obvious mental issues hanging out there. There is an overabundance of people begging for charity (Knowledgeable people in Israel have told me that most of them are fraudulent and should not be given any money. Although that seems to have been cleaned up a bit the last few times I went there.)

There is little doubt that this is the one destination people ‘must visit’ on their first trip to Israel. And subsequent trips as well. Much like Masada is. People (men and women) come there in all manner of dress. Some of which I would say is inappropriate.

Because of all this whenever I go there, I just do not feel inspired. On the occasions I do go, I try to pray at that portion of the Kotel that has a Shul attached to it. Once you are in there, there is little resemblance to the famous image everyone has of the Kotel. It has the look and the feel of a regular Shul.  And yet it is as much a part of the Kotel as the big sprawling outside wall that is the widely known image of it.

Nevertheless the Kotel is what it is: the closest place to the Holy Temple that almost all Poskim agree we may tread upon. And many people do come there to pray. Men on their side of the Mechitza and women on theirs.

The funny thing is that I did not see the Kotel that way until I actually visited it. My images were those of the archival footage.  Having been born at the end of 1946, I never saw the Kotel in our possession prior to 1967 where upon a Mechtiza was installed shortly after we got it back. Based on that footage, I used to see it as the holy place that it is and not the tourist attraction it seems like now.

A few fervent Jews would to come and pray in solemnity free of the ‘circus’ like atmosphere I experience when I go there. Which causes me to be quite jaded by it.

Which brings me to the current strife taking place at the Kotel these days. The latest development is the desire by heterodox movements to create an egalitarian space by the Kotel that would allow men and women to pray there together. A compromise to that effect was reached by the Keneset in 2016 whereby the primary Kotel Plaza would be left intact and undisturbed in its current Orthodox orientation.  A  nearby section of the Kotel known as Robinson’s Arch would be expanded and made more accessible.

The Charedi parties did not oppose it because they saw it as a way of ending the controversy  and leaving the traditional Kotel as they would like it to be. I supported that move because I saw it as a peace making move. Israel could use a bit less controversy. This was a step in that direction.

But there seems to have been a change of heart.  The Chief Rabbinate is fighting that compromise and does not want to allow any portion of the Kotel to be used for egalitarian purposes.

Why the change? More on that later.

First I should make clear a fundamental Halacha about the requirement to separate the sexes for prayer. It only exists in a Shul. Outside of a Shul, women do not need to be separated from men by a Mechitza. One can see the application of this at any wedding hall where the men will gather to pray with an ad hoc Minyan after a Chupah ceremony. Women are clearly present and ambient around that Minyan. There is no Mechitza and people from all segments of Orthodox Jewry  will join them. Even members of the Agudah Moetzes . 

It should also be noted that in some of the archival footage of the Kotel I mentioned above, men and women are praying at the Kotel without separation. The reason they could do that is because the Kotel is not a Shul. Which is the only place that requires a Mechitza separating the sexes for prayer.

So why is there a Mechitza at the Kotel now? I’ve been told that when it was restored to Israel in 67, it was inundated with worshipers desiring to pray there. It became almost impossible to pray without men and women coming into physical contact with each other. From that moment forward there has always been a Mechitza separating men and women.  Until recently it was respected by all who visited. But now heterodox movements have been increasingly pressuring Israel to allow their people to pray in the egalitarian fashion they are used to. That obviously caused disruption. The above mentioned compromise would have ended it.

If there is no problem with men and women praying together at the Kotel, why hasn’t the compromise been implemented – and the strife ended? Wasn’t that the intent of the Charedi parties by not protesting it? Well, yes. But there is more to the story which is not being reported, making it seem like the entire issue is about a Halacha requiring the separation of the sexes at the Kotel. But as mentioned, that is a Halacha that does not exist.

(I should note that the current Kotel Plaza might now be considered a Shul. In which case Halacha dictates the separation of the sexes when praying there. But that is certainly not true for Robinson’s Arch. There has never been a designation of any kind of Shul there.)

What exactly is the Halachic issue then?

I have been told by a rabbi who was directly involved in the original negotiations resulting in that compromise (and wishes to remain anonymous) that the heterodox rabbis wanted more than just a space for egalitarian purposes. They insisted things that would have given them state recognition as a legitimate denomination. Something they were actually expected and were talking about with pride. (As in here and here.)

It is one thing to give heterodox rabbis permission to use a section of the Kotel for their own purposes. I supported doing that reluctantly in order to end the conflict. But I oppose legitimizing movements that I believe are not legitimate. I therefore support the Charedim, the Chief Rabbinate, and the Religious Zionists (as represented in the Kenesset by Naftai Bennett’s party, Bayit HaYehudi) opposition to it.

The best outcome here would be for heterodox rabbis to drop their insistence on official recognition, and the Charedim et al to give them their space at the Kotel. This way everybody gets something but nobody gets everything. Isn’t that what compromise is all about?