Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Secular Jews and the Kotel

Typical scene of mostly Orthodox Jews at the Kotel on Chol HaMoed 
How much does the average non observant Jew really care about getting an egalitarian space at the Kotel?  One has to wonder whether the common secular Jew cares at all about praying at the Kotel. What does it look like at  Robinson’s Arch? How many people have visited that part of the Kotel for religious purposes?

The answer to these questions can, I think, be found in 2 separate articles written by 2 different people in two different publications.

The first was in Arutz Sheva which featured a video of what seems to be a Dati Leumi (modern Orthodox ) fellow that earlier today, on the fast of the 17th of Taamuz, walks through the beautiful plaza at Robinson’s Arch. No one was there. Not a soul. Not a Reform Jew. Not a Conservative Jew. Not even one of their rabbis.  

The fast of the 17th of Tamuz commemorates the day that the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Roman armies. It was the beginning of the end of the second temple era which was finalized when the Romans burned the 2nd temple to the ground on the 9th of Av. Which will be commemorated 3 weeks from now. 

The Kotel which is the outer retaining wall of the courtyard surrounding the Temple was the only thing left standing. If one goes to the traditional Kotel one will find many people praying on both the men’s and the women’s side of the Mechitza. Robinson’s Arch - zero. Why is that?

The answer to that question can perhaps be found in an oped featured in Ha’aretz. I do not normally excerpt almost an entire article as I am about to do here. But any attempt to paraphrase Ha’aretz contributor, Irit Linur a secular Jew in Israel - will not do justice to her words. So I will let her speak for herself:

Like many secular Jews, I am not particularly interested in the Kotel…

(Upon a ‘surprise visit’ to the both the Kotel and Robinson’s Arch she noticed that there…) was (a) difference in the number of visitors to the two plazas. There were thousands of people in the Western Wall plaza on a regular weekday. There was just a cat in the mixed section. In light of the outcry that arose around the nixing of the Kotel agreement one would have expected to see thousands of Women of the Wall, imbued with religious spirit, alongside bar mitzva ceremonies in which grandma need not stand on a chair to get a peek at the men’s section. However, the mixed section was practically abandoned.

A few meters away, the Western Wall is teeming with Jewish life, despite the long – and gender-segregated – security inspection line. It is full of life because for hundreds of years its natural guardians – the Orthodox – preserved its holiness. They engage in it, with texts that are hundreds or thousands of years old, and a rabbinic hierarchy, and tradition and strict rules that if they change at all, change s-l-o-w-l-y. And they are engaged in the daily observance of commandments and prohibitions that not everyone can rationally explain, and some of them are unacceptable. 

And even those that are acceptable can be deceiving: Orthodox Jews’ strict observance of Shabbat does not stem from an adherence to socialism or primordial support for workers of the world but rather a godly commandment. Orthodox Jews avoid schnitzel with butter even though they know chickens do not produce milk. And the Kotel is most definitely holy because anyone who keeps chicken and milk separate is exactly the type to find holiness in stones.

The obsession with holiness is sometimes annoying, perhaps even arrogant, so particularly witty secular Jews can mockingly call God “an imaginary friend” or compare him to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But when faith in an imaginary friend begets the Bible, a people and a 2,000-year-old culture as well as a moral system that ignited Western culture, you can drop the smugness with which people brag about their atheist purity. And let’s admit the truth: Not keeping commandments is much easier than keeping them.

Some will say that even without commandments secular Jews are no less Jewish than religious ones, so they should be equal partners is determining the character of the Kotel. It is correct in principle, but there is meaning to keeping your religious traditions, or at least recognizing them, before pretending to make religious rulings.

I, for example, am a typical product of state secular education. I was surprised to discover in my first year of university that the Rambam was a world-famous philosopher and not just another baba from the graves of righteous Jews. Thus, I still don’t feel ready to write a prayer equal to the Aleinu, or to prove that God is totally cool with driving on Shabbat and with a female rabbi. You have to wait 500 or 600, or even 2,000 years for that.

And if we insist on secularism as a value, it’s hard for me to understand the accompanying insistence on sitting on the tribunal, free of religion’s bonds, and shouting out directives to a Jew who fasted not only on Yom Kippur but also on… nu, remind me … oh, right, Gedalya…

We are arguing with these people about Judaism, and what is the right Judaism, and how Judaism should be, while we are armed with ignorance that we acquired through state secular education, a very partial study of the Bible…

You don’t have to be religious to recognize the religious contribution to turning the Kotel into much more than an archaeological site. Religious Jews made the Kotel holy long before we extended Israeli sovereignty over it, including periods in which praying there was dangerous.

Excuse me, but I don’t believe a sudden outburst of holy lust has overcome us. It looks to me like the disappointment of those who fully believed you could have a Jewish state without Judaism, and perhaps an overreaction by those whose enlightened sensitivities are repulsed by any level of religious feeling.

The fight over the Kotel isn’t really about Reform Jews. They are a marginal group in Israel. They may be a – not especially effective – barrier against mass assimilation. However, Israel is the only place in the world in which you can be a Jew and, without fearing for the Judaism of your grandchildren, cast off the burden of commandments and still feel as Jewish as Moses. None of this could exist without religious Jews. As a secular person, I believe that if we run the Kotel according to secular standards, it will look less like a holy site and more like a parking lot. Fortunately, the Orthodox will keep praying there even then.

H/T Jerry Gottheil & RYS