The “Idolatry” of the Western Wall

(Above — standing in the midst of a sculpture — Jerusalem at the center of the world.)

A well known story imagines a conversation between a Hasidic master and a doubting rationalist. The rationalist notices the Hasid going outside to pray and says, “What are you doing running around outside to pray? Don’t you know that God is the same everywhere?” To which the Hasid replies, “God may be the same everywhere, but I am not.”

I have been reminded of this story many times in recent weeks as I have observed digital conversations between colleagues of mine, coming to consensus that the kotel (the “wailing wall” in Jerusalem) is no more holy than any other place in the world, and that in fact the pious crowds who care so deeply about it are engaged in a mild form of idolatry.

The conversation is happening now because of a historic decision by the Israeli government to recognize non-Orthodox authority over a small piece of very contested real estate on the Temple Mount. Most people are calling this an important victory for Women of the Wall and the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel. Some are not happy because there have been compromises along the way, because they doubt that it will ever happen, etc. etc. One thread of the conversation has to do with whether or not we should care so much about this place at all anyway…

I am in Jerusalem right now, very near to that wall which many have been calling the “heart” of the Jewish world. Perhaps I too am an idolater for deciding I wanted to come back to this place to spend my precious sabbatical, rather than blissing out on some peaceful island that has no significance in the history of my people (and far fewer stabbings and home demolitions). Perhaps I am an idolater for letting myself sob out loud when I looked down on the plaza after 9 years, for feeling I was coming home, for pushing slips of paper with names and words into the cracks, for walking backwards when I leave, as is the custom, reluctant to turn away from that place.

The Kotel. Jerusalem. Perhaps these places are no more ‘objectively’ holy than any other. In the desert, after all, the Holy of Holies moved from place to place. Ezekiel tells us that when the first Temple was destroyed, the Shekhinah rode off in her chariot to Babylon to be with the exiles. I can tell you for sure that one can find God on the coast of Northern California and in the Colorado mountains.

But I beg you, please, my dear rabbinic friends, don’t take away the significance of the holiest Jewish place on earth. Don’t ridicule those who imbue it with power and meaning.

So maybe it’s not the proper wall, or maybe it’s a different wall than the one Jews went to 700 ago. Maybe Isaac was never bound on that mountain top. Maybe the Universe wasn’t born there. Maybe all of those prayers for all of those generations directed to this place from every corner of the globe have left no physical trace in our world. Maybe God can hear us just as well from our remote exilic streets. BUT…

Where is your spiritual imagination?!? Since when does the holiness of a place derive its power from the rational facts of its material history?

When I have wailed at that wall over the years, it has not been because I have been imagining that the stones were God’s ears.

Arrival. Homecoming. Return. Pilgrimage.

These gestures have spiritual significance and also physical forms. The two are entangled. We live in a hopelessly physical universe. We also live constantly within networks of illusion and symbolism. We get confused.

Sometimes the symbolism in our hearts propels us to ignore the real flesh and blood human beings before our very eyes. The power of our stories, our holy places, our wounds, drive some of us to violence in the very name of that which is holy.

This is wrong. It is a tragic mistake. But the solution is not to diminish the spiritual significance of those places and ideas that spark such passion. To do so is to cut ourselves and our people off from our own spiritual roots.

I confess I am getting sick of how the “enlightened” progressive world concedes whole dimensions of human life and Jewish tradition to right wing interpretation and claim. Religion. God. The Kotel. These are not just dispensable peripheral aspects of who we are as humans and Jews.* We may understand them in vastly different ways. We may notice that in the hands of the zealous, wielded without humility, they become powerful weapons for injustice, even evil. So — let us take them back. Let us direct that power for the good. These are our inheritance too, for better or for worse.

The work is harder when it engages the power of symbols and myths without casting them aside. It’s harder to let that holy place be holy and then to live with the heartbreak of seeing how it is still not perfect. But I’d rather have a broken heart than to pretend I can live without any heart at all.

Left photo is Robinson’s Arch on the Temple Mount complex site where there is a proposal to grant non-Orthodox control and build a new plaza for egalitarian prayer.  Right is from a recent gathering of Women of the Wall in the existing women’s section of the kotel reading Torah amid disruptive protest.

*While I do not consider faith, religiosity or spirituality to be prerequisites of a serious Jewish life or morality, I do believe that authentic engagement with Judaism must include grappling with the meaning of God and spiritual practice in Jewish tradition and one’s personal life.


Jerusalem Parliament


Many mornings, my husband, Raj, and I have taken to dropping off the kids and then going to a nearby coffee shop for an hour or so before his class begins. We have even taken to sitting at a particular table, near an outlet, where I can linger and write and plug in if needed. It’s a big table, more than we need, but usually when we arrive there are lots of open spaces.

One morning a while ago now, we sat at the table, discussed the nature of revelation and religion with great passion, and then, Raj went to school. I stayed and began a very long call to the credit card company about car insurance and this is what happened…

Between transfers to various call center workers, out of the corner of my eye, I see an old man in a wheel chair lingering near the other end of my table. And then another old man comes and they talk a bit to themselves. And then a few minutes later, the second one sits at the table. No eye contact, no words, nothing.

I disregard it as I am not using the whole table and I am distracted by the call. Then a third old man comes and sits at the head of the table and tries to talk to me while I am on the phone. I hear him say something about how they have been coming here for years and he motions to another table nearby. I say briefly that I am sitting here and that I am on the phone.

When I end the call, another old man has come, and he tries to explain again.

“We are here for our Parliament,” he says. “They didn’t have big tables before like this but we have been coming here so long that they got them just for us.” He gestures to an open table nearby, expecting me to move.

“And what have you decided in this ‘Parliament’?” I ask.

“Decided?! Oh no decisions, just discussions, arguments – politics, books, religion.  We love to argue…”

“So I have a question for you and your Parliament. Will there be peace?”

“No. Definitely not. Never.”

It seems there is consensus on this one.

“Why not?”

“I’ll tell you, if you have time to listen,” says the one to my right. And over the next hour or more he says this many times, as I ask him his perspective on peace and the future of the Jewish State and the question of justice and so on.

The table fills with old men. I become the most interesting thing that has happened in the Parliament for weeks. They become one of my favorite memories so far on this trip.  Eventually, when Raj joins us, they explain that they have extended me an honorary membership.

They tell me of their children in Miami and Los Angeles. I show them pictures of my children. I do not reveal to them that I am a rabbi.  I do not tell them what I think of Netanyahu.  I ask  few questions, open my heart, feel a genuine fondness.

They are all Jerusalem-born. Only one of them is willing to give the Old City to international control for the sake of peace. They repeat cliches I have heard a thousand times before — “Give them a finger and they take a hand!” “The Torah says, ‘If they come at you with a knife, kill them first.'” “We want peace but there is no one to talk to on their side.”  “They want to drive us into the sea.”

The man next to me is named Yaakov. And next to him are three more Yaakovs, a Yitzhak, a Moris, and a Shalom.

Morris tosses out a phrase in Arabic, says he works with Arabs all the time. He claims that the Arabs have nothing to complain about, that they have all they need. He tells a story of some Arab guy showing up to buy something with a big sack of cash.  He says the current situation is acceptable because if they stab us with knives and we kill them, then we will only be wounded and they will all be dead.

The Yaakov closest to me tries to quiet him and seems a little embarrassed that his delicate new American friend should hear this harsh Israeli sentiment. He may not have hope for peace, but he knows that such things are ugly to say. He tells me that my point of view is shaped by an American, Western mentality. One that is accustomed to equality and rights and not feeling constantly under threat.

Even so, before long, he tries, as so many Israelis have tried, to convince me of the many reasons I should move to Israel. He has great faith in the future of the Jewish state — its strength, its technological prowess.

As a final selling point, he explains that Israel is more friendly than America.

I don’t think he means exactly ‘friendly.’

After years of living here off and on, I am still trying to find the words for what he meant. It is real, this quality, but not friendly. It’s some combination of passionate, open, vulnerable, tough, ready to fight, ready to be convinced by a good strong argument, quick to care, tribal loyalty. Once they decide I am part of them, it opens up. This fast, fierce love.