I am saddened and dismayed by recent events at the Western Wall. These events are a tragedy — a blow to the State of Israel and to the unity of the Jewish people.
Love of Israel unites Jews everywhere. Love of Jerusalem unites Jews everywhere. For many of these Jews, the single most important symbol of both Israel and Jerusalem is the Western Wall.
Why turn that symbol into a source of division? Why should the Wall be an ultra-Orthodox synagogue rather than a place that belongs to us all — a place where all Jews can find space to pray, to gather, and to celebrate the Jewish homeland and the Jewish people?
Twenty years ago I proposed a solution to the problem of access to the Wall, and it remains the best answer. There is ample room to divide the Wall into three areas: one for men to pray according to Orthodox custom; one for women to pray according to Orthodox custom; and one for non-Orthodox prayer and secular and civil ceremonies of various kinds.
However, instead of moving in the direction of equal access for all to one of Judaism’s most important religious and national sites, exactly the opposite has happened.
When a small group of women — traditional in observance and modestly dressed — has tried to organize occasional prayer services, which involve only those practices clearly permitted by halachah (traditional Jewish law), the women are spat upon, cursed and hustled away by the police, who generally do little or nothing to protect them from the harassers.
Ceremonies of national significance — tributes to fallen soldiers, the welcoming of new immigrants — were long held in the public areas behind the prayer section of the Wall, but they have now been curtailed or stopped altogether. The reason? Religious authorities who control the Wall have demanded that ultra-Orthodox standards be applied to such gatherings — meaning, for example, that the sexes must be segregated and that singing by women is prohibited.
Non-Orthodox religious youth groups that used to gather regularly in the same plaza area away from the Wall to enthusiastically pray and sing during their visits know that such services are no longer permitted.
When challenged, the religious authorities at the Wall talk of the “Robinson Arch” solution, which is an insult and no solution at all. Non-Orthodox Jews are permitted to pray at Robinson’s Arch, an archaeological site at a distance from the Wall that is not seen by most Jews as being part of the Wall at all.
The argument that permitting Reform and Conservative Jews to pray in the area of the Wall will lead to chanting by Catholics or Buddhists is absurd. Reasonable accommodations regarding non-Jewish religious ritual have been made at every other religious site in Israel. If anyone has been unreasonable, it has been the Jewish authorities at the Wall, who attempted to prevent Pope Benedict XVI from
wearing his crucifix during his visit to the Kotel. The Pope rightly ignored them.
It may be that for now the law is on the side of those who impose these restrictions, and that others who wish to challenge them may have to accept the penalty for doing so. But it seems to me that recent events were more an attempt to intimidate and harass religious women than to enforce the law.
What is most important here, however, is that our goal in these troubled times is make Jews everywhere feel closer to Jerusalem and to the Jewish State. Driving Jews away from the Wall is self-defeating and foolish. To put it simply, the more Jews who visit the Wall — for religious, civic or national purposes — the better off we are.
And since there is not a single, universally accepted religious standard that governs Jewish religious life, we should make no attempt to impose one at the Kotel. What we need, rather, is to be respectful of each other’s choices and customs.
Throughout the generations, the Kotel has been a source of inspiration to Jews everywhere. It is a concrete symbol of our love for Jerusalem and our common Jewish destiny. The Wall belongs to the entire Jewish people; it must be a place that unifies our people, where all Jews are welcomed and all are respected.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform Jewish Movement in North America.