The Yamim Noraim (High Holydays) provide a momentary respite from the political and religious wars of the Jews. We turn inwardly and emphasize our commonality and shared bonds with all of Israel. Rest assured, the battles will resume on the day after, but one feud – the struggle over the “Kotel compromise” – deserves attention now because the holidays shed light on one overlooked aspect of the dispute.
The government has been under legal and political pressure for years to set aside part of the Kotel complex for egalitarian prayer. Such has been supported by many non-Orthodox Jews and opposed by many Orthodox Jews.
Let us stipulate the sincerity of all sides. Proponents genuinely believe that egalitarianism and pluralism are values, Western values to be sure. Some see the alienation of Diaspora Jews from Israel as linked to the continuation of the status quo. That is based almost entirely on anecdotal evidence and the reports of those driven by their personal agendas and overlooks more obvious reasons. Certainly, there is a “live and let live” element to the demand. Anyone offended need not join a worship service that does not suit their religious sensibilities and thus all sides should be happy with a partition of the Kotel.
Yet, the proposal has touched a raw nerve with much, if not most, of the Orthodox community. Partisans on the left perceive it in facile terms of maintaining “Orthodox hegemony,” but the passions aroused are based on substantive and profound considerations. It is even more than underscoring the hypocrisy of allowing mixed prayer in the shadow of the very place – the site of the destroyed Temples – from which the Talmud derived the necessity of separate prayer. The objections go to the heart of a conception of Jewish nationhood and mutual responsibility that threatens to be torn asunder.
Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, in his classic address “Kol Dodi Dofek” (the Voice of My Beloved Knocks), pointed out that the covenant we enacted with God when we first entered the land of Israel as a nation made all Jews guarantors for each other. We have a shared fate and a shared destiny. Consequently, one Jew can discharge the obligations of other Jews in performing a mitzvah even if the former has already fulfilled that obligation. Similarly, and most importantly, the covenant also means that we are responsible for the sins of our fellow Jews if it is within our power to rebuke them. We are also bound to share the beauty of Torah and Mitzvot with all Jews, and we must all learn from each other.
However strong is the sentiment for egalitarian prayer, even advocates can at least acknowledge that it was a deviation from historic Jewish practice from Temple times until today. When it was introduced in the late 18th century, it was introduced in full knowledge that it was reforming traditional Jewish practice, and intentionally so. Jews have since then built their houses of worship in according with their personal or communal preferences, even if not always according to the Torah. “These and those are the words of the living God” has never been applied to this dispute.
Not everything every Jew says or does becomes “Jewish” by definition. No Jew or group of Jews is authorized to excise parts of the Torah or the halakhah.
On an individual or communal level, propriety and the norms of modern life require that we tolerate each other’s predilections. I can’t walk into a Conservative temple and demand the erection of a mechitzah. But the Kotel is a national sacred space, remnant of the Second Temple and the focal point of traditional Jewish prayer from time immemorial. It is not merely a historic site of general interest for tourists.
Can’t there be one place on earth where the strivings of all Jews toward God reflect their ideal form, as the Psalmist wrote, “the young men and also (but not with) the maidens, the old men with the young men” (Tehillim 148:12)?
Can’t there be one place in Israel where all Jews can concede that, whatever form their Judaism takes today, this was the tradition of Jews that kept us praying together as a nation?
I have often witnessed Bar Mitzvah celebrations at the Kotel involving non-Orthodox Jews, with families gathered on either side of the Mechitza listening to the boy recite his blessings or read his Torah portion. There is nothing more beautiful. Is it wrong for parents to explain to their child, “at home we do what we do for our reasons, but this is how Jews have always prayed until modern times, and many still do”?
The alternative, which sounds so pleasing on the surface, is to declare – have the Israeli government, indeed, declare – that we are not responsible to uplift or protect each other spiritually, it is unnecessary and even improper for Jews to ever pray together, and those most faithful to tradition have no right to propagate the truths of Torah or be aggrieved when its cherished norms are breached at the holiest places.
It is tantamount to proclaiming that kiruv is passé and even offensive, and that the Israeli government is dedicated to richuk, to distancing Jews from Torah observance by mainstreaming violations of Jewish law. There would be nothing more divisive to the Jewish people than to partition the Kotel and announce to all, and not so subtly, that “Jews cannot even pray together anywhere because we are not one nation and lack a shared heritage.”
A band of musical philosophers once sang, “You can’t always get what you want.” That is true for me, you and everyone. Perhaps, then, it is best not to want it. Yom Kippur, just like the Kotel, should unite all Jews and reflect our highest religious aspirations rather than the religious inferences of our own making. In so doing, we will inspire each other and strengthen the bonds of arevut¸ shared responsibility, with all Israel, even after the holidays.