Opinion: the Kotel is not an Orthodox synagogue

The Western Wall at night. (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Though I live within walking distance to the Western Wall, I never go to pray there – for religious reasons. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great 20th-century Jewish thinker, taught us that Judaism doesn’t have holy places, only holy events. We celebrate time, not space.

After infrequent visits to attend bar/bat mitzvah celebrations at the Kotel, I’ve come away troubled by how an event marking the religious coming of age and membership in a community has been turned into a sacrament. Even the noun has become a verb: “I was bar mitzvahed.”

When I served congregations, I’d plead with members to celebrate in their home synagogue and go on trips to Israel before or afterwards. I incurred the wrath of some travel agents who had made a business of the sacrament. And several of my Israeli colleagues weren’t pleased because they made money by officiating these.

Yet, despite my views about the Kotel, I attended a demonstration outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence at the beginning of the month to express dismay at the latest decisions his government has made.


One of the decisions was to renege on an earlier undertaking to make the Kotel equally accessible to all streams of Judaism. The earlier decision had been rescinded to placate the ultra-Orthodox members of his coalition.

Together with many Jews across denominational divides, I came out to affirm that the Kotel is a national monument, not an Orthodox synagogue. (Who can forget the photograph of the paratroopers landing there in 1967?) If Jews want to gather there for prayer, so be it, but don’t impose the rules of one religious stream on them all.

An even more important reason to demonstrate was the decision to enact a law that would put all conversions to Judaism in the hands of the haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate of Israel. This isn’t just an issue between traditionalists and liberals. The rabbinate also seeks to disqualify Orthodox authorities in the Diaspora. Thus, despite the pious rhetoric about the bonds between Israel and world Jewry, the move will disrupt the unity of the Jewish People and their commitment to the Jewish state.

The proposed conversion decision renders all other ways of being Jewish, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, illegitimate. Conversions under the auspices of Orthodox rabbis outside Israel would become as unacceptable to the Orthodox establishment in Israel as conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbinic authorities everywhere. The blacklist is interdenominational.

Some half-a-million Israelis are now not allowed to marry because of their allegedly questionable status as Jews. And some 25 per cent of Israeli couples are said to refuse to be married under the auspices of the Orthodox rabbinate. They either seek out non-authorized officiants in Israel, go abroad to register their marriages, or live as common-law couples.

If the ultra-Orthodox succeed in getting the present government to do their bidding, they’ll no doubt find more ways of inhibiting life in Israel, such as closing down the food stores and restaurants that are open on Shabbat, prohibiting all forms of public transportation on the Sabbath and during Jewish holidays, and tightening the already strict and often inconsistent rules about kashrut. The Jewish state may become Haredistan.

Mercifully, the reaction both in Israel and abroad has been forceful and consistent. Even bodies that normally do the bidding of the government of Israel, such as the Jewish Agency and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, have come out strongly against these latest signs of Orthodox hegemony. Jewish solidarity is being forged through opposition to Netanyahu and his coalition.

There are signs that he’s taking note. We now hear statements to the effect that the prime minister will find a way of keeping all parties reasonably satisfied. As a first step, the proposed legislation dealing with conversions has been postponed until the end of this year. The assumption is that some compromise will be found. Whether or not that will be enough remains to be seen.